In our column Poetry Rx, readers write in with a specific emotion, and our resident poets—Sarah Kay, Kaveh Akbar, and Claire Schwartz—take turns prescribing the perfect poems to match. This week, Sarah Kay is on the line.
People say you can’t know a certain kind of love until you have a child. I hated when people said this before I had a child, but now I know it is true. My love for my daughter sometimes feels terrible and desperate and weighty with responsibility. But also sweet and tender and silly. I’m frequently irritated, sometimes infuriated, but nothing she could ever do or say would stop me loving her. I keenly feel the reality that she will leave me one day. Hopefully she’ll be happy, she’ll call home at least weekly, but that’s the best case scenario. It’s also possible, even likely, that—at least at some point—she’ll be distant and not return my calls and will discuss in therapy all the ways I’ve hurt her. And even that’s not close to worst case scenario. I just LOVE her. Even when she screams with all the vehemence her wild four-year-old self can muster that she doesn’t love me … even when she wakes me up at three in the morning … even when she writhes and wails for forty minutes because I didn’t have a quarter for the gumball machine … This love is exhausting. It’s so ordinary yet extraordinary. Is there a poem for a mother’s love?
There are so many great poems of mothers loving and being baffled by their babies! Some of the better-known ones are “Morning Song,” by Sylvia Plath, or “Looking at Them Asleep,” by Sharon Olds, but today I want to recommend you a poem by Marianne Murphy Zarzana called “Saying Our Names,” which begins,
Notice how just one syllable—
say Jack—can expand and become
the world, round and whole,
when it is a child’s name
being formed by a mother’s mouth.
I’ve overheard women in stores and airports,
restaurants and trains, sprinkling their talk
with the name of a brand new baby or
a grown child, say Morgen or Nora,
Michael or Kyle, Joseph or Ava-Rose,
singing each vowel and consonant
so they stand out, resonate
a pure bell whether the tone struck
be proud and strong, a major key,
or a diminished minor note.
I love the way Zarzana shows how something incredibly ordinary—saying a person’s name—can become extraordinary when it is infused with a mother’s love. The way a mother can transform language into a conjuring or a celebration, the way her voice can be a major key or diminished minor note depending on whether her daughter is calling on a weekly basis or wailing over the gumball machine. Your letter was full of awe—at the way a mother’s love is normal yet remarkable, universal yet still specific. You have gotten to the heart of it: this is something that is common and earthbound, while still feeling holy. The final line of Zarzana’s poem suggests it might be both: “Is this how God says our names? Is this why sometimes when I hear the wind rustling through the trees, I turn and listen?”
I love my mother so completely my heart could overflow with it. I think this love is strange: we do not communicate and we do not force that communication. I’ve dreamed of reaching out to her though and telling her what I feel. She’s the world’s most wonderful listener, even in silence.
I know I am not the best daughter. But I want her to know I’m trying to do my best. Even if the place where my life leads isn’t good, and that’s all she ends up seeing, it is not her fault. I still love her with all my heart. In times when I’m unsure of myself, that is the one thing I am never hesitant about. Do you know the right poem I might be able to share with her, to communicate this?
With a little piece of my heart she has overtaken,
I want to share a poem with you called “The Lanyard,” by Billy Collins. It is a fairly well-known poem, in which Collins remembers being a child at summer camp, where he learned to make a plastic lanyard as an Arts and Crafts project—a gift for his mother. The poem ends like this:
She gave me life and milk from her breasts,
and I gave her a lanyard
She nursed me in many a sick room,
lifted teaspoons of medicine to my lips,
set cold facecloths on my forehead
then led me out into the airy light
and taught me to walk and swim and I in turn presented her with a lanyard.
“Here are thousands of meals” she said,
“and here is clothing and a good education.”
“And here is your lanyard,” I replied,
“which I made with a little help from a counselor.”
“Here is a breathing body and a beating heart,
strong legs, bones and teeth and two clear eyes to read the world,” she whispered.
“And here,” I said, “is the lanyard I made at camp.’
“And here,” I wish to say to her now,
“is a smaller gift. Not the archaic truth,
that you can never repay your mother,
but the rueful admission that when she took the two-toned lanyard from my hands,
I was as sure as a boy could be
that this useless worthless thing I wove out of boredom
would be enough to make us even.”
I wanted to share this poem with you because it honors many of the sentiments I think I recognize in your letter: gratitude for all your mother has given you, an inability to fully express that gratitude, and maybe even a little bit of shame at falling short (or in Collins’s case, an embarrassment at even thinking he could ever balance the scales). I think it is common to feel all of these things. When it comes to gratitude, I recommend trying to take small bites, instead of tackling it all at once. Instead of trying to find words to thank my mother for everything she’s ever done for me, I try to take opportunities to thank her for specific things. I manage to get my taxes done on time, and call her to thank her for teaching me to do my taxes. I write a poem and read it to her and thank her for listening. She comes to a show and I thank her for making time to come see me, for having encouraged me when I was younger and falling in love with poetry, for never discouraging me from following this unorthodox life path. Creating a practice out of gratitude is something she taught me. And it requires effort. I’ll never manage to cover everything, but instead of trying to find the words and time to give her an all-encompassing speech about all she’s done for me, I reach out just to say a small and specific thanks, sometimes just for a minute or two. Because of this, we speak often. And our communication feels honest and unburdened. Which is another thing for me to be thankful for.
My mother passed away from cancer eight years ago, when I was thirteen. Everything has changed since then, except for the sadness I still feel every day that my mother is no longer with us. I’m starting to forget how she looked, her eyes, her smile, her smell, the warmth of her hugs. I forget what it feels like to have a mother. I forget what a mother’s love feels like and nothing breaks my heart more than this. Is there any poem for what I feel right now?
The Grieving Daughter
Dear Grieving Daughter,
I am so sorry for your loss. Losing a mother at any age is world-shattering, and thirteen is an especially vulnerable moment to lose her. I am thinking about the words of two of my dearest friends, Cristin O’Keefe Aptowicz and Hanif Abdurraqib. Cristin writes about what she calls the “Dark Luck” of knowing other people who lost their mothers before she did, which allowed her to find what Hanif would call “siblings in a very specific grief.” I think the only way to hold something as impossible as losing your mother is to lean on the dark luck of knowing others (friends, or strangers/writers) who have also lost their mothers, who have found words you might hold on to. “I became more comfortable when I stopped talking about grief like it goes away,” Hanif has said. “It’s kind of an endless room with endless windows, and the view outside is just better out of some windows than it is out of others.” If grief does not go away, then maybe in reading poems we can find a window with just a slightly better view. I want to share Hanif’s poem with you, “While Watching the Music Video for ‘Only One’ at Midnight, Kanye West Walks into the Fog Holding His Daughter in His Arms and I Can See the Clouds outside of My Window Parting into Two Wings.” The poem is separated into three parts, but the final section goes like this:
Umi / it turns out that I am more than those who I have seen buried / isn’t that a miracle / it is midnight again / and all of my brothers / are not my brothers / not by anything rushing beneath our skin / or our skin itself / or the way our mouths curled up / in the darkest cavern of some bar / where everyone knows us / by the drinks we consume / but will never know us by our names / I call everyone I love my family / and no one has left me yet / isn’t that a miracle / on the walk home / I stole a handful of roses / fresh from the ground / and pushed them into my palms / until the thorn bit the soft edge of my finger / this is how I know you survive / to remind me / of things that should be taken / and things that should be left / I have your smile and nothing else / I am most you when I am wrecked with joy / isn’t that a miracle / I let the grass grow over your grave / until it ate your name / until the year of your dying was swallowed / until there was nothing left but the year you were made possible / which is the year I, too, was made possible / and isn’t that a miracle / even if you did not walk through a door / even if I waited for my phone to flash your name / to tremble loud on a table / with the arrival of your voice / this is how I remember you / as grass / as flowers / as anything pushing out of the earth / in the name of its own survival / I throw a handful of dirt into the wind / it blows back into my eyes / and, there / I feel it kiss my forehead.
It is not too late to write things down. What you do remember is still worth putting into words. It is not too late to look at photographs when you need to, or videos, if you have them. Tell stories of what you do remember. Let other people tell you what they remember. But also, it is okay to let her live in something besides memory. In your smile, when you look in the mirror, or in your laughter when you are wrecked with joy, in the grass, in the flowers, in the things she loved, in the things she gave you, in the lessons she taught you that return to you when you reach for things. You do not need to punish yourself for what you cannot remember, you do not need to punish yourself for the way time forces us forward. She is not gone and will never be gone, because she does not exist only in your memory. She lives in so many places in you and around you. Hanif’s poem offers this message back: “son, you do not have to be afraid anymore. there is no city that is not my arms. I am everyone who loves you. when we leave we do not leave. we are not gone until we are gone. son, do not fear death. I am still here, waiting as you best remember me. tucked into the corners of your loudest laugh. the stain of light that pulls you back to the place where I looked upon you and loved you first. come back, son. I have made room for you. for only you, always.”
Sarah Kay is a poet and educator from New York City. She is the codirector and founder of Project VOICE and the author of four books of poetry: B, No Matter the Wreckage, The Type, and All Our Wild Wonder.