I started taking poetry seriously when my daughters were six and ten. I saw through them. They were my lens. I couldn’t get around these exuberant, tear-stained, chattering, ever-present obstacles so I wrote through, wrote into, claimed them, claimed them as they had claimed my attention, my breath, my broken dreams. I wrote our lives. I became motherpoet. One word. It was not going to be sentimental. I exposed things: laundry, my necessary baths, missed curfews, slammed doors, my husband missing in action, bad meals, sweet moments. I wrote it out of necessity. Solace. Survival. I found my sisters: Sharon Olds, Louise Glück, Rita Dove, Ellen Bryant Voigt, Ruth Stone, Adrienne Rich. I needed company. To be told I was not crazy. I could not do it alone.
I needed tension in order to write. I still do. Tension was subject and impetus. I felt trapped with small children. I felt I was exactly where I belonged. I hated these hungry, wakeful beings. I adored their every brilliant sentence.
Ruth Stone’s poem, “The Mother’s Eyes,” buoyed me. Trapped in a snowbound house with daughters who scratch “exquisite crystals” from the frosted windows, she writes,
And in a miracle, even their voices,
the frail knives of their words on the bitter air,
cut little holes that the mother can see through.
What did I know of being a mother? What did I know of being a poet? I figured it out on the page. I rebelled and wrestled. I doubted every line the way I doubted dozens of my mother moves. My daughters were watching. They had their own hidden journals. I closed my door and wrote. They got to see a woman finding her passion in poetry. I got to stay sane. I named my first book Sting and Nest.
Sharon Olds understood, in her poem, “Station,”
. . . you examined me,
the wife who runs out on the dock to write
as soon as one child is in bed,
leaving the other to you . . . .
We spent a long moment
in the truth of our situation, the poems
heavy as poached game hanging from my hands.
Now the daughters have fled to their own faraway lives but their shadows hover. They fall onto the page like old friends, like familiar demons. They carry different weight. They inhabit and pack up quickly. Their lives force a raw edge to my work. One daughter’s urban travails inspire me to write,
wants her marrow to shine.
Once, scab-kneed and miraculous, she
flew her Schwinn downhill, looping potholes—
barrel racer of the cul-de-sac. Optimism
in neon leggings. Headstand and cartwheel,
witch and pirate. Till the bill of goods arrived.
She ripped its wrapping.
Then and there her insteps snapped,
hips slimmed to no womanly good.
She stilettos the runway, breastless,
famished. My urban blood and bone
is out till dawn, done up and done in
by two boys who compare her: fuck you.
She writes a poem on the train,
Desire is a vintage gown cut on the bias.
Every flaw riots a girl’s good nature,
twists a waif’s waist till it’s knotted laundry
dragged down the alley of ice she slips on.
She is that beautiful,
thread of snivel coating her lips,
all her filthy stuff rumpling her like storm.
She counts stars, flat on her back in the wish-I-might.
My daughters advise, make me laugh, piss me off and hang up. Where once I was full-time, now I am drop-in, on-call, in-case-of. But I don’t always pick up. Empty beds and a clean page that has no stains, no strains of their music.
So the new poems come closer to my bone, my heart, my place in the world. I am untethered and the poems float a new tone, new subjects. Mother with fled young is a different voice than mother with whining and carpool and two-hour talks on the edge of the bed past midnight. As I release children into the world, I am released to new context; I am in the Big Picture. As I have no control over how my daughters’ lives unfurl, so I have no control over how my work is received. I am up against my death, my god, my frailty and permeability, my place in an embattled world, my place in nature’s abundance and demise and I write this,
Elegy For Myself
I have given up on being
beautiful, on debt, and detriment
to the ones I never loved enough.
The food was only fair most days,
the weather lacking, and the sex
not what I anticipated. Goodbye
climate of contempt, culture of claws.
I was not meant to live this long,
never memorized the code or
mastered the inflection. My thumbs not
fast enough. Goodbye tremble
and blush, spoiled pears, raw fish,
keys and petrol, paint samples and
drawers. Toss my crumpled pages.
Ink bleeds; there’s no hereafter. Finito.
Adieu, fury, thorns, books, half-eaten orange.
Good-bye my anthills, gold ring, socks.
If there’s another go around,
re-constitute me bold,
less lonely. Sift me
into the lake I love.
The mother becomes woman who meets herself in her writing journey. She comes clean of caring for others and cares for herself. Something radical enters the work. She is not beholden to. She is at risk of revealing a great deal. She is on a precipice. She doesn’t care what the male editors like. She surrounds herself with cheering, brave, tentative, terrified women.
Still my email remains motherpoet. Still I insist the subject is essential. Family. Marriage. Mothering. I am ever interwoven and grateful. Being a mother while becoming a poet is my For Better or Worse, my Happily Ever After, my You Don’t Always Get What You Want, You Get What You Need!
It is Mother’s Day. My friend asks, “And what about motherhood at your age?” I want to say, I am done, that now I am mothering myself, hovering over my poems, essays, fragments of lyric memoir, wanting to make sense of pieces that need good homes, lively places where they can stretch and speak. But I have learned that they are like daughters: I can make too much of them, worry them, breathe down their restless necks when what they beg is backing off.
Today, I turn to my students, women mostly, who have things to say, stories to relate, and a need for courage to believe in their value. Maternal and fierce, I can nurture gifts in others, unearth language they didn’t know was buried.
At the shelter, I gather homeless women—who are victims of domestic violence—in a circle. It is my job to listen, to offer a journal, a pen, and time. Time to introduce the women poets, those old friends who saved me, to new listeners. To allow voices that have found their rhythms, hit upon images that explode histories, to inspire new poems.
My daughters, 27 and 31, penlessly write their latest chapters. They are not poets or memoirists but they have some tales to tell, some revelations to piece together. I am happy when they call. I wish they weren’t thousands of miles away: west coast, third coast, while I am high-desert land-locked.
Though I have learned, mostly, to keep my mouth shut, I wish I could stop offering advice. Love and listen. Have I hovered too much? Been too obsessed with accomplishment and appearance? I am sorry we didn’t spend more time in the mountains, beside rivers. Sorry we didn’t help others more, didn’t discuss God and gratitude on a regular basis. Sorry we did not call on “the village” more to raise two daughters, two confused parents.
But this mother business is not over. And this writing business? It threads through. There is time. Time to be 60-something, hands poised to the page. Time to shush voices that insist, not good enough: not my body, not the writing, my work ethic or exercise routine. I can turn to what I have done with two girls and continue to do with two anxious, excited, funny, ambitious young women: love and listen; be patient; affirm and respect; encourage risk and be kind in success and failure; allow exhaustion and rest.
The circle of mothering and daughtering spirals and twists, snags and confounds, comes round. These women I have called mine become their own. Become my teachers, champions and friends. On a bright May morning, a day tagged Mother’s, my husband hugs me and asks, “How does it feel to be a mother?” The dozen roses he bought early, which I arranged in a glass vase, spread an uncanny perfection. The house is quiet. My daughters’ closets still hold what they cannot part with. Their cards arrived on time and hold messages that make me weep. A poem I wrote years ago and recently revised returns,
Every shoot and blade saying,
Now, notice me now—yellow tulips
open so wide it seems their petalled arms
will break behind while arriving plums
flaunt their best-of-show pose—my daughter,
at three, counts blossom trees, as we drive,
numbers beyond what she knows but
wanting to name delicate explosions.
How she loves the plosive word.
Blowing her lips and popping
tongue to teeth, Blossom, she cries,
blossom, her whole mouth becoming
the thing she loves.
“It is the best thing I am,” I tell him, as I turn toward my office, to piles of poems, files of unfinished manuscripts, shelves of the unread and soon to be re-read books, ideas jotted for classes, work in progress in an unnamed genre that ignites, eludes and seduces me: all whispering, love and listen. We are like those wily, rambunctious, never-to-be understood daughters. Meet us halfway, motherpoet, and we will startle you with strange music, lyrics that will disrobe and thrill you, subjects that will unsettle you.
The wind picks up. The lilacs quake their specific scent. Aspens shiver awake after a night of near freeze. The foothills release a haze of snowmelt.
The title of my new collection: to cleave: splinter, cling fast to.