American poet Hilda Doolittle wrote that the mother is the child's "first love" and "first deity." If that is true, why do we honor mothers each May with 150 million greeting cards containing such dreadful poetry?
The mother-child relationship is the core relationship in our lives. The experience of becoming a mother -- giving birth, nurturing a child -- is one that changes women profoundly and extends their own lives.
If that is true, why have poets, from antiquity forward, hesitated to probe this relationship with sharp insights and pointed words?
"There is a lot of really bad stuff out there," says Diane Scharper, author, poet and writing teacher at Towson University. "The sentimentality of the topic may have scared writers away.
"And it is a very complicated relationship," she adds. "It is such a big relationship. When you write about it, you are almost writing about yourself, and poets don't like to do that."
So most poets wrote instead about Mother Nature and Mother Earth, about goddesses or muses or about Eve or the Virgin Mary. They wrote all around the subject, as if trying not to notice the elephant in the room.
Only in the last few decades have poets begun to speak as mothers and about mothers. Sylvia Plath was one of the first: "I am a riddle in nine syllables."
"Until fairly recently, most of the poets were men," Scharper said. "Now that women are writing, there is a lot more of it out there."
Scharper's mother died in November 1996, and she has written about no one else since. She writes about looking for her mother, as if the poetry were a way to conjure her.
"The first time I wrote about my mother was when she started to come apart," said Scharper. "The poetry was about pain."
More than poetry has emerged from that pain. For the Mother's Day weekend after her mother's death, Scharper brought together some of most talented poets from the mid-Atlantic region to read their work, then published a slim volume collecting those poems.
A tradition was born and, again this year, at 7 p.m. Saturday, poets from Maryland and Virginia will read their work at Bibelot in Cross Keys.
And with a grant from the mayor's office, the poetry has again been collected and published in a book Scharper edited: "Thy Mother's Glass: More Poems for Mothers and Daughters."
The title comes from Shakespeare's sonnet No. 3: "Thou art thy mother's glass, and she in thee calls back the lovely April of her prime."
A 'favorite topic'
Linda Clary's children were born 10 years apart, and she spent 25 years at home in Bel Air raising them. When she tried to return to the work world, she was told her college diploma was "too old." So she enrolled in graduate school at 46 in creative writing. She's since graduated from Towson University and will teach at Harford Community College.
"My mother is my favorite topic. I was so close to her. Even the memoir assignment was about her. She was a passionate person, and I try to put that into my writing. It sounds kind of trite, but it is true," she says. "The poem is about this very small slice of time. The day my mother died. I was elsewhere, and I knew she was dying. It is about the trip home."
The phone call comes
that says you are
close to leaving.
I start down Briscoe Road,
alone, to see you for the last time.
Wet, colored leaves pull away
from the Monet painting
on either side of me
and cling to the windshield.
The murkey canopy stirs above --
the Master cleans his brush.
Then the fleshy, grey sky splits wide open,
and a luminescence bleeds from the gash.
When I arrive, the door opens
and the faces of my siblings
say you are gone.
I tell them I already know --
I saw you go
through an incision in the sky.
"Crazy," I say.
"No," my sister Kate replies,
"I saw the opening seal over."
A mother's daughter
Her mother's decline and death brought a flood of poetry from Ellen Kirvin Dudis, who lives in Pocomoke City where she and her husband, a college math professor, also run a nursery.
"There was so much sadness and resentfulness in it. So much urgency and guilt," says Dudis.
But none of those poems were selected by Scharper for this year's reading. She chose instead one Dudis wrote about her daughter, and the mood of it is much different.
"In writing about my children, my daughter and my son, what comes out is my vast delight in them as human beings and my great good fortune to be related to them."
When You Call in Tears and Want to Come Home
The moment we hear your voice our hearts are torn
from their moorings. We lie awake in our bed,
who begot you, and under the cold stillborn
moon our innermost beings quietly spread
their sails. Like a prayer, the fabric of them
is the image of their arrival, ahead
of what might happen otherwise. But their hems
tremble. How will you, will we, be comforted
at this distance -- even childhood left behind?
Our hearts become prophets of reassurance,
rising as waves on sandbars do, to remind
the sea and the shore they are not much further
apart. Alone with that uncanny spark of yours,
make a mermaid of your longing, make it hers.
Not warm and fuzzy
"Poetry is my mother," says Linda Joy Burke, a poet and performance artist from Columbia. "I don't have a great relationship with my mother. I don't write those warm, fuzzy poems about mommy pulling me into her lap. In my poetry, I have found some way to be OK with the fact that I don't fit into that mold."
Burke is president of the board of the Baltimore Writers' Alliance and poet-in-residence at the Howard County Center of African-American Culture. Her poetry is political. This selection from "Thy Mother's Glass" is about the persecution of women in India who bear girl children.
A Prayer for the Mothers
We want the mothers
to be able to rejoice again,
in the holy act
of birthing and nurturing
the fruits of their
tender and tedious labor.
We do not want
their earth shaking poverty
to steal away memories
of when the brash blush of
fruit bursting after the drop
signaled a bountiful harvest --
and the crystal glow
in the dew lit mornings
brought the kind of peace
that startled the heart open
and caught the breath
low and steady in the belly.
We want them to praise
wide-eyed girl children,
feed them love unconditionally,
shelter them with hope unwavering,
wash them with the kind of wisdom
that grows them into invaluable
no longer expendable as kindling.
We want them to find the strength
to guide their boy children back
to communion with the living,
in a compassionate world
with room for both boys and girls.
We want the mothers
to be able to rejoice again,
in the bounty of their offspring
and we want them to find safety
in their homes.
Marta Knobloch's mother has been dead 10 years, and she uses poetry as a way to reconnect with her, just as in a visit to the cemetery.
"I think my mother would have liked my poetry," Knobloch says from her home in Galena on the Sassafras River. "I think it would have reminded her of experiences she had with me." Like this picnic for the dead?
My mother lies in a cemetery
segregated as her town was.
She's wedged between a nickel-slick lawyer
and a local pol whose grin
grows wider by the worm
She'd be amused, this woman
who swore her epitaph would be
La commedia e finita. It isn't.
It's the requisite 'Rest in peace,'
but a funeral cortege of ants,
deserting the wilting peonies,
winds across the granite desert of her stone
to the long cool grass of the Cheyenne graves,
as her steps did each Memorial Day. ...
We'd count the owl feathers on the prayer sticks
trace the wind-blasted inscriptions,
Hunting Wolf, Standing Woman, Buffalo Calf,
and watch the ants in black columns
forage in the food left for the dead.
Once we slipped behind the screen of willow wands
when Minnie Lame Bull came with a pie tin
of fry bread and beef jerky to feed her son's soul.
"Hey Minnie," Doc Barnes yelled across the gully,
"When's your boy coming up to eat that?"
She stared at the wreath on the wife's tomb.
"When your woman comes back to smell those flowers."
Poets often schedule their writing, like a daily workout. They write even when they have nothing much to say, just for the practice. Carrie Cerri of Pikesville schedules hers. Ten minutes a day. Any longer and she might tumble down the well of her emotions.
"I have to be very careful because it tends to fluctuate with moods and things like that," she says. "There are places I don't want to go."
Cerri's daughters are young, but it is OK with her if they read this poem. "It is a very accessible poem. I am helping my daughter with her homework, and she is frustrated and I am frustrated."
Between the lines, the reader can hear Cerri coming to terms with her own mothering: "There are lots of levels. Issues. They keeping popping their heads up."
An orange -- is it a kilo?
I smile at the question and my daughter adds
if a paperclip is a gram,
just think about a thousand in a ball.
Is that an orange?
It wouldn't make a very good lunch
I say and smile more,
not at my joke, but about kilos
of powder we measured in college
chemistry class, waiting for the bang
and the police
in France who measure baguettes,
ready to arrest the errant boulanger.
My daughter snorts
and throws her pencil onto the table like a spoon
when there's too much oatmeal
she stretches "Mom" into four syllables --
my name when I'm incapable
of knowing simple things.
Judith Grey teaches seventh-grade English at Ridgely Middle School, and not much poetry gets written during the school year. But she keeps a journal, something she has done since she was a child, and when she and her family retreat to Maine in the summer, she finds poetry in those journals.
"Poetry is not just something you tried not to do in high school," she says. "It is a way to express important things in your life."
Grey has three poems in Scharper's collection. "My mother loves my poetry. But she thinks everything I do is great. What can I say? She's my mother."
When the Bermuda high settled,
and heat stroked us
with an unwelcome hand,
neighbors would drag chairs
from the stifling house,
pass around beer and cigarettes
and sigh down into mysterious
ciphered love in the branches
edging the darkening
woods with a riot of longing. I
danced into the shadows greedy
for their rampant light. My mother's
thin silhouette hung against
the house lights, her voice a tether,
pulling me back from the fringe.
"Thy Mother's Glass: More Poems for Mothers and Daughters" (46 pages, $10.95), will be available at area Bibelot, Borders and Barnes & Noble bookstores.