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The Mother of All Poems

It is a hallmark holiday. It is a complicated holiday. It is a holiday where many brunch, or go to the spa, or the cemetery.

When I was in Colombia the shaman taught me that they call the ocean, mother. All water was mother. And every morning from the hundred or so steps I slept by that ocean, I heard her roar and bang and lull. I stepped into that ocean and she suctioned my feet as if she might pull me down.

I have no living grandmothers. My father’s mother died when she was younger than I am now. I only have a picture of her face. I have been told I have her lips. My mother’s mother passed when I was eleven. She had a limp and lived in an antique store and she died on vacation which was fitting for a woman who loved to travel the world.

My mother is so many things.  Alive. Adventurous. Child-like at times. And so am I. I must have gotten that from her.

I choose these poems below as they are not your run of the mill pink tulip variety of poem. They insist on pushing us past the pink and frills of this greeting card day and welcome us into the human, complex, tender, gorgeous, and oh so unexpected places our mothering lives make space for.

Sit back. Breathe. And receive this collection from my own mothering heart.


The Raincoat by Ada Limón

When the doctor suggested surgery and a brace for all my youngest years, my parents scrambled to take me to massage therapy, deep tissue work, osteopathy, and soon my crooked spine unspooled a bit, I could breathe again, and move more in a body unclouded by pain. My mom would tell me to sing songs to her the whole forty-five minute drive to Middle Two Rock Road and forty-five minutes back from physical therapy. She’d say that even my voice sounded unfettered by my spine afterward. So I sang and sang, because I thought she liked it. I never asked her what she gave up to drive me, or how her day was before this chore. Today, at her age, I was driving myself home from yet another spine appointment, singing along to some maudlin but solid song on the radio, and I saw a mom take her raincoat off and give it to her young daughter when a storm took over the afternoon. My god, I thought, my whole life I’ve been under her raincoat thinking it was somehow a marvel that I never got wet.


Invisible Work by Allison Lutterman

Because no one could ever praise me enough, because I don’t mean these poems only but the unseen unbelievable effort it takes to live the life that goes on between them, I think all the time about invisible work.

About the young mother on Welfare I interviewed years ago,who said, “It’s hard. You bring him to the park, run rings around yourself keeping him safe, cut hot dogs into bite-sized pieces fro dinner, and there’s no one to say what a good job you’re doing, how you were patient and loving for the thousandth time even though you had a headache.”

And I, who am used to feeling sorry for myself because I am lonely, when all the while, as the Chippewa poem says, I am being carried by great winds across the sky, thought of the invisible work that stitches up the world day and night, the slow, unglamorous work of healing, the way worms in the garden tunnel ceaselessly so the earth can breathe and bees ransack this world into being, while owls and poets stalk shadows, our loneliest labors under the moon. There are mothers for everything, and the sea is a mother too, whispering and whispering to us long after we have stopped listening. I stopped and let myself lean a moment, against the blue shoulder of the air. The work of my heart is the work of the world’s heart. There is no other art.


The Lanyard by Billy Collins

The other day as I was ricocheting slowly off the blue walls of this room bouncing from typewriter to piano from bookshelf to an envelope lying on the floor, I found myself in the ‘L’ section of the dictionary where my eyes fell upon the word, Lanyard. No cookie nibbled by a French novelist could send one more suddenly into the past. A past where I sat at a workbench at a camp by a deep Adirondack lake learning how to braid thin plastic strips into a lanyard. A gift for my mother. I had never seen anyone use a lanyard. Or wear one, if that’s what you did with them. But that did not keep me from crossing strand over strand again and again until I had made a boxy, red and white lanyard for my mother. 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.


What I Learned From My Mother by Julia Kasdorf

I learned from my mother how to love the living, to have plenty of vases on hand in case you have to rush to the hospital with peonies cut from the lawn, black ants still stuck to the buds. I learned to save jars large enough to hold fruit salad for a whole grieving household, to cube home-canned pears and peaches, to slice through maroon grape skins and flick out the sexual seeds with a knife point. I learned to attend viewings even if I didn’t know the deceased, to press the moist hands of the living, to look in their eyes and offer sympathy, as though I understood loss even then. I learned that whatever we say means nothing, what anyone will remember is that we came. I learned to believe I had the power to ease awful pains materially like an angel. Like a doctor, I learned to create from another’s suffering my own usefulness, and once you know how to do this, you can never refuse.To every house you enter, you must offer healing: a chocolate cake you baked yourself, the blessing of your voice, your chaste touch.


Hurry by Marie Howe

We stop at the dry cleaners and the grocery store and the gas station and the green market and Hurry up honey, I say, hurry, as she runs along two or three steps behind me her blue jacket unzipped and her socks rolled down. Where do I want her to hurry to? To her grave? To mine? Where one day she might stand all grown? Today, when all the errands are finally done, I say to her, Honey I’m sorry I keep saying Hurry— you walk ahead of me. You be the mother. And, Hurry up, she says, over her shoulder, looking back at me, laughing. Hurry up now darling, she says, hurry, hurry, taking the house keys from my hands.


Your Clothes By Judith Kroll

Of course they are empty shells, without hope of animation. Of course they are artifacts. Even if my sister and I should wear some, or if we give others away,they will always be your clothes without you, as we will always be your daughters without you.

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