This poem has been a favorite of mine for many years… but this is the first time I’ve returned to it since losing my own mother. This is not the story of my relationship to my mother, but I can feel it.
My mother’s body
BY MARGE PIERCY
The dark socket of the year
the pit, the cave where the sun lies down
and threatens never to rise,
when despair descends softly as the snow
covering all paths and choking roads:
then hawkfaced pain seized you
threw you so you fell with a sharp
cry, a knife tearing a bolt of silk.
My father heard the crash but paid
no mind, napping after lunch
yet fifteen hundred miles north
I heard and dropped a dish.
Your pain sunk talons in my skull
and crouched there cawing, heavy
as a great vessel filled with water,
oil or blood, till suddenly next day
the weight lifted and I knew your mind
had guttered out like the Chanukah
candles that burn so fast, weeping
veils of wax down the chanukiya.
Those candles were laid out,
friends invited, ingredients bought
for latkes and apple pancakes,
that holiday for liberation
and the winter solstice
when tops turn like little planets.
Shall you have all or nothing
take half or pass by untouched?
Nothing you got, Nun said the dreydl
as the room stopped spinning.
The angel folded you up like laundry
your body thin as an empty dress.
Your clothes were curtains
hanging on the window of what had
been your flesh and now was glass.
Outside in Florida shopping plazas
loudspeakers blared Christmas carols
and palm trees were decked with blinking
lights. Except by the tourist
hotels, the beaches were empty.
Pelicans with pregnant pouches
flapped overhead like pterodactyls.
In my mind I felt you die.
First the pain lifted and then
you flickered and went out.
I walk through the rooms of memory.
Sometimes everything is shrouded in dropcloths,
every chair ghostly and muted.
Other times memory lights up from within
bustling scenes acted just the other side
of a scrim through which surely I could reach
my fingers tearing at the flimsy curtain
of time which is and isn’t and will be
the stuff of which we’re made and unmade.
In sleep the other night I met you, seventeen
your first nasty marriage just annulled,
thin from your abortion, clutching a book
against your cheek and trying to look
older, trying to look middle class,
trying for a job at Wanamaker’s,
dressing for parties in cast off
stage costumes of your sisters. Your eyes
were hazy with dreams. You did not
notice me waving as you wandered
past and I saw your slip was showing.
You stood still while I fixed your clothes,
as if I were your mother. Remember me
combing your springy black hair, ringlets
that seemed metallic, glittering;
remember me dressing you, my seventy year
old mother who was my last dollbaby,
giving you too late what your youth had wanted.
What is this mask of skin we wear,
what is this dress of flesh,
this coat of few colors and little hair?
This voluptuous seething heap of desires
and fears, squeaking mice turned up
in a steaming haystack with their babies?
This coat has been handed down, an heirloom
this coat of black hair and ample flesh,
this coat of pale slightly ruddy skin.
This set of hips and thighs, these buttocks
they provided cushioning for my grandmother
Hannah, for my mother Bert and for me
and we all sat on them in turn, those major
muscles on which we walk and walk and walk
over the earth in search of peace and plenty.
My mother is my mirror and I am hers.
What do we see? Our face grown young again,
our breasts grown firm, legs lean and elegant.
Our arms quivering with fat, eyes
set in the bark of wrinkles, hands puffy,
our belly seamed with childbearing,
Give me your dress that I might try it on.
Oh it will not fit you mother, you are too fat.
I will not fit you mother.
I will not be the bride you can dress,
the obedient dutiful daughter you would chew,
a dog’s leather bone to sharpen your teeth.
You strike me sometimes just to hear the sound.
Loneliness turns your fingers into hooks
barbed and drawing blood with their caress.
My twin, my sister, my lost love,
I carry you in me like an embryo
as once you carried me.
What is it we turn from, what is it we fear?
Did I truly think you could put me back inside?
Did I think I would fall into you as into a molten
furnace and be recast, that I would become you?
What did you fear in me, the child who wore
your hair, the woman who let that black hair
grow long as a banner of darkness, when you
a proper flapper wore yours cropped?
You pushed and you pulled on my rubbery
flesh, you kneaded me like a ball of dough.
Rise, rise, and then you pounded me flat.
Secretly the bones formed in the bread.
I became willful, private as a cat.
You never knew what alleys I had wandered.
You called me bad and I posed like a gutter
queen in a dress sewn of knives.
All I feared was being stuck in a box
with a lid. A good woman appeared to me
indistinguishable from a dead one
except that she worked all the time.
Your payday never came. Your dreams ran
with bright colors like Mexican cottons
that bled onto the drab sheets of the day
and would not bleach with scrubbing.
My dear, what you said was one thing
but what you sang was another, sweetly
subversive and dark as blackberries
and I became the daughter of your dream.
This body is your body, ashes now
and roses, but alive in my eyes, my breasts,
my throat, my thighs. You run in me
a tang of salt in the creek waters of my blood,
you sing in my mind like wine. What you
did not dare in your life you dare in mine.