Saturday, September 11, 2010

These are the women

Today's prompt was inspired by this beautiful poem by Eleanor Lerman that appeared on the Writers' Almanac on 8th September 2010 and which she has generously allowed us to reproduce here:

Small Talk

It is a mild day in the suburbs
Windy, a little gray. If there is
sunlight, it enters through the
kitchen window and spreads
itself, thin as a napkin, beside
the coffee cup, pie on a plate

What am I describing?
I am describing a dream
in which nobody has died

These are our mothers:
your mother and mine
It is an empty day; everyone
else is gone. Our mothers
are sitting in red chairs
that look like metal hearts
and they are smoking
Your mother is wearing
sandals and a skirt. My
mother is thinking about
dinner. The bread, the meat

Later, there will be
no reason to remember
this, so remember it
now: a safe day. Time
passes into dim history.

And we are their babies
sleeping in the folds of
the wind. Whatever our
chances, these are the
women. Such small talk
before life begins.

from The Sensual World Re-Emerges (2010)
available from Sarabande Books
and Amazon UK

I love how the detail in this poem recreates both scene and character, how the poet invites us (our mothers, we are their babies) to share this moment of reflection, a time before loss, a time before whatever is going to happen, happens.

I like how the poem expores how life is made up of 'small talk', or ordinary things: a kitchen window, pie on a plate, a cigarette, even decisions about what to make for dinner, yet this attention applied to them helps us recognize their worth, how they are the building blocks of our lives.

I am also incredibly moved by the insight in:

......... Whatever our
chances, these are the

There's an acceptance in these lines I find both comforting and liberating to read. These are our mothers. Whatever comes later does not change that moment.

I look forward to reading your 'mother' poems. Here's one of mine, a haibun (a blend of prose and haiku poetry) that I didn't intend to be about my mother until I came to the end. And that surprised me.

Fast Train

When the 17.22 heads out of Victoria and begins to pick up speed I start thinking about seatbelts, or the absence of seatbelts, and how in an emergency I might be thrown onto the woman opposite, cracking my head against hers, or puncturing my face on a corner of her open hardback book. But then I notice her breasts which are packed beneath a bib of pink frills, her tiered paisley skirt rumpling in waves over plump knees, her curly hair the colour of hazelnuts, her milky skin, which takes me back to her breasts which are pendulous, generous. And I’ve forgotten about seatbelts, as I shift my knees to one side to get a view of her feet, the shoes she’s wearing which I know will make all the difference to whether she’ll scream and push me away as I fall, or cradle my face away from her book, those wonderful breasts receiving me like a tumbled duvet.

not knowing
how to hold her
my mother at eighty

First published in Frogpond Volume XXX Number 3
And in dust of summers (Red Moon Press 2008)

I'm away at the Ghent Haiku Festival in Belgium for the next 10 days so, write well, and I'll speak to you when I get back.


Keith Wallis said...


A blending:
apron strings and the smell of carbolic,
the click of knitting needles
the Trafford catalogue
and the nightly soap.
Six in her litter
seven if you count Dad.
The daily rotunda
of cooking and washing,
seeing to and doing.
Folk remedies for aching ears,
calamine for poxy spots.
The words
‘there’ll be tears before bedtime’
for ignoring ears and
‘I’ll warm you, my lad’
when warnings failed.
Now she’s gone
never having had
a life
to call her own.

Glenn Buttkus said...

Betty & Butch

Ode to Ovum

In the beginning I felt
I was her prisoner,
and I did not love her.
I did not even know her
in the womb darkness,
tiny as a pea, warm as
blood, blind yet dreaming
with the truth still lingering
within the formation of this fresh life;
hearing her heart beat, the
first music of this new landscape,
happy to suck her sustenance.

For a time I was liquid black,
at one with the void, blissful
in my solitude--but then in the
distance I heard the calling,
babble, then warble, then words;
come new one, little one, the
whole world awaits your arrival,
and the conundrum continued
as my mind began to uncloak;
was I a freedom fighter or just
a fast growing seed wanting to
burst the placenta petals wide
open and emerge, and merge,
and make my opening statement?

She, who had baked me, grown me,
kissed me with her own genes,
heard me, loved me, with one
great undulation threw open the
freedom doors and birthed me
into an instant carnival of sights,
sounds, lights, smells, shrieks,
machines, wires, pain, and the
first incredible inflation of my own
lungs, breath incarnate;

My first image was her breast,
my first meal her milk, and those
nipples were my friends, and those
few months there in her arms
created my knowledge
of love, of women, of breasts.

This beautiful woman is
your mother the universe whispered,
this towering cascade of chestnut tresses
and eyes of snowbank sapphire,
your guide, your link to all of it;
and I grew tossle-haired, and limber,
and intelligent, with her there as
best friend, conversationalist,
maternal and imperfect, but the moment
I became accustomed to her presence
and role in my life, with the blush
of youth still evident in her eyes, we were
embraced by a dark visage; the withering,
the time of cancer blight--and I greeted
sadly those hollow cheeks, those glassy eyes
staring at nothing, with life flickering
like a red candle flame burned too near
its holder, once white hot and alive--
dead now, with wisps of smoke
lingering after it.

Glenn Buttkus September 2010

Anonymous said...


I ask you for memories to stitch together.
You offer me a young girl, her arms shaking,
bike rattling along the boreen, stones flying

into grassy verges filled with cuckoo spit, tall
nettles, downy dandelions. Above, hedgerows
are stores of ripening berries she will collect.

Beyond them a corn-crake rasps, as wind
blows waves through fields of long grass,
waiting to be cut and gathered into ricks.

Now she skids to a halt where her father
cuts turf, stacks sods for winter months.
And freewheeling beyond home she rides

a rough sea, skirts rivers and mountains
to sit across a kitchen table dissolving time
with a patchwork of colour given like a gift.

jem24 said...

I am closer to the girl
Eating fruit, sticky-smiled,
Than the girl with the watermelon under her shirt.
Only a child.

I am closer to the torn knee
She kissed and plastered,
Than the hand she will hold
as it tears me apart.
Barely twenty.

Gardening together I seek solace
in the soil. Turning it over
in my mind.I cannot bear
the thought of weeds.
Despite myself, I can only find
beauty in the the idea of seeds.

Silently I watch the easy way,
she moves between each chore and kindliness.
And all I really want to say:
"This is small yet so much bigger than me"
Wondering if my youth would make me less
compassionate or strong than she.

martin cordrey said...

Small talk
Prostrate on the sofa his ear on my chest, my arm around his back, we talk intermittently whilst watching sport, or laying on the floor his chin digging into my neck too close to a film, we gossip. I hug him, ruffle his head, squeeze his shoulder, and tickle his feet, anything for disguised contact just to let him know.

Long ago before he was born I’d squeeze between my parents; my father, who’s a good man, forbade me to cuddle mother – perhaps jealous of that mother-child bond so much more permanent than husband and wife, or some primeval ritual of readiness for leaving the nest to follow his siblings through the woods on his first hunt.

It is the only time I understood the pain of childbirth; something you love ripped from inside you like a square peg from a round hole, as you look but can’t look at the surgeon in a white coat, scissors in hand a fraction away from cutting the umbilical cord, and they are lost to you forever.

Lu said...

For My Mother

This summer dusk
when we steal a moment of luxury
walking into a brush of sunset,
the girls going to a sleepover,
sprinklers taking care of my newly seeded lawn,
I feel we are, as Confucius says, two old friends
who have come to meet from afar.

(Hi Lynne, great change to the design and layout. The color is more eye-friendly)

Anonymous said...

Billy Collins, The Lanyard

Lane Savant said...

Fate is the mother of us all -
Therefore we are all siblings -
Therefore is why we fight.

Martin Cordrey said...

Cake stand

even in the seventies
the womens institute mamorial hall
smelt old felt damp;
that day I brought for 2d
a 'silver' cake stand for my mother.
On leaving home the first time
she gave it back to me -
maybe to hold food purchased
from a supermarket knowing boys like me
can't cook, or perhaps to hold her love
sprinkled with hundreds and thousands
coated with sweet marzipan

Anonymous said...

Iam a new member. I love trawling through the blogs and found a wonderful poem describing how the enemies of Jesus justified his killing. I can't find it now. Can anyone help please? There was an exercise
to write a similar poem about someone famous.

Lynne Rees said...

Hello Catherine Foster : )

This might be the link you're looking for. It was a post and prompt on this blog from December last year.

I'll be back later with the first of my responses to poem posted over the last couple of weeks.

Glenn Buttkus said...


we of the male genus
wonder long past the womb
if ever we were once mothers
in some distant land
and time,
whelping poets, bastards,
and presidents.

Glenn Buttkus September 2010

Lynne Rees said...

Hello everyone - I'm back from my poetry festival and anxious to catch up with your poems, which I'll do in stages.

@ Keith: 'Mum' - a wonderfully precise portrait and the close resonated with me too. I wonder the same thing about my mam - so many women of her age wouldn't have had the choices and opportunities that exist today... I'd like to think her life was what she wanted, but maybe there were things she wanted to do and never did? Thanks, Keith.

@ Glen: Ode to Ovum - this is a powerful poem, Glen, with some vivid and surprising imagery. I think it works very well, and it might be stronger for a little understatement here and there. I wasn't sure if stanza 2 was really necessary as it focuses on the foetus rather than the mother and the poem could work if you went directly to stanza 3. In the last stanza 'a withering' and 'cancer blight' work well as images, so maybe you don't need 'embraced by a dark visage' beforehand? And finally, a small thing, you could lose 'with' in the penultimate line to let the reader work with the image, i.e. 'dead now, wisps of smoke'.

@ Anonymous: Fragments - all the natural imagery is just wonderful, so much energy and life and possibility. I'm not sure that the poem has found its best ending yet though... perhaps it needs some kind of contrast, or a more specific shift in time/place to make it resonate fully with the reader?

@ jem 24: This is intriguing. I'm not quite sure of what is happening, and whether the 'watermelon' means to suggest pregnancy? And how the daughter feels more like a young child in her relationship with her mother, rather than as an adult, and the mother she is about to be herself? Perhaps the poem could expand in places so there are less questions in the reader's head? But at the same time I wouldn't like to lose its enigmatic mood.

More comments soon.

Lynne Rees said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Lynne Rees said...

@ Martin: Small Talk - I think you have a strong draft for a poem here, but at the moment it feels a little prose-like, particularly in the second stanza. But I like the shifts in time and relationships, the contrast drawn, and the imagery of loss in the final stanza.

@ Lu: Hi to you too : ) I really like the simplicity of this and the only thing I wondered about was making the first line the last line, or having a line at the end that has an image in it that the reader can take away rather than the statement of another writer. It is a lovely poem though.

@ Lane: I agree with the ideas expressed and I like the economy but its style/language makes it feel less like a poem and more like an epigraph, or condensed philosophical statement.

@ Martin & Glen: I'll take another look at your second poems in the next couple of days and get back to you.

Thanks for posting everyone. There'll be a new prompt at the weekend.

Lynne Rees said...

@ Martin - Oops! I just read 'Small Talk' in my email notification and realise it was set out as a prose poem. Hmmm. I think the language could still have more tension in it though, and the line breaks I thought I was reading actually added an element of tension that, for me, is absent in the prose version? Is that any help?

Martin Cordrey said...

Thank you Lynne

these prompts always produce 'drafts' and your comments either support my gut feeling or create a new angle.


Lu said...

Thank you, Lynne. You gave me a good suggestion - using an image instead of a statement at the end. Much appreciated.


Lynne Rees said...

A couple more comments:

@ Martin - "Cakestand" - I like poems about objects that hold stories. I think you could make it more immediate by starting in the present tense, let the reader experience you buying the cakestand. Perhaps 'food' is a little too vague too? And think about the ordering of the ending - from a logical point of view the hundreds and thousands would come after any topping, but it matters too what you want the reader to take away with them. An image that suggests ideas they can ponder over? I think you're going to have a good poem here.

@ Glen - 'We': Hmmm... this feels like the beginning, or first half of a poem. Perhaps it's too one-dimensional at the moment and it needs something to counterpoint it? Something particular? Interesting opening though.

Anonymous said...

Thanks Lynne,
I thought the ending wasn't working. I'll try your suggestion.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for your help Lynn. I am struggling through an OCA creative writing degree and your ideas are a great source of inspiration. I hope to contribute to Applehouse soon.

Anonymous said...

Teatime Now and Then

A sulky fire coughs up smutty
billows from the bowels of the grate.

Frost has slithered in,smears the windowpanes, fingers latches, holds them fast.
My chilblains gleam like warning lamps,leach itchy fluid into lint and plasters.

The cat lies coiled, quilted in his Persian fur,
captured by the lambent light.

Mother presides, upright in her straight-backed chair;upholstered in tweed skirt and ribbed cardigan.

The kettle screams, steaming on the stove.
Tea sipped from translucent china-cups-milk first.

I fetch precise triangles of sandwiches-shorn crusts.

Brandy snaps, crisp and curled as piles of dry autumn leaves.

Victoria sponge, risen like a church cupola, frosted, no drips.

Now, I sprawl
in my insulated, double-glazed cocoon; nusing a cheap pot mug from the charity shop;
Dunking digestives in defiance of my diet.

Mother never sprawled or dunked.

Lynne Rees said...

Hello again, Catherine, and thanks for posting your poem full of wonderfully precise detail.

Other people won't be able to see all of your intended line breaks because of the width limit on the blog page, but they will get the effect of the long lines. I wonder if shorter lines, that emphasise the words at the line ends, could be more effective here? There's a tension in the scene and the relationship that could benefit from that. For example:

Mother presides, upright/
in her straight-backed chair; upholstered/
in tweed skirt, ribbed cardigan

You'll also notice that I cut 'and' from the last line, as I feel this kind of grammatical compression can also add tension where needed.

Another idea could be to trim some of the description here and there. E.g.:
The kettle screams, steaming on the stove.


The kettle screams on the stove.

So there's no 'gap' for the reader to escape from the emotion of the verb, and they also feel the full weight of a simple declarative sentence. You could equally use 'steams' to suggest a slightly different mood.

These are some ideas that might be of use... and I look forward to reading more of your poems on AppleHouse.

anne basquin said...

I didn't start writing this about my mother, but she ended up in it.


Lying sideways,
face imprinted with the couch's pattern
bare feet dangling at one end

I smell my grandmother making jam.

My grandmother is almost one hundred,
for me, too many years to imagine
and makes her jam with big chunks
of strawberries
that sometimes I am afraid to eat.

I see hearts and pieces of things,
I'm young and don't yet know the shapes of organs
(yellowing in jars or sticky at the roadside).

Behind the slow boil of sugar and fruit
is the news announcer in the kitchen
warning of tornadoes.

And behind this, the whoosh of the gutters filling,
as the announcer warns also of flooding.

Even on the couch
the storm blows rain through the holes in the screen
far enough to land in spatters on my face.

Though it is night
and the wind is up,
it is more than one hundred degrees.

As hot as my grandmother is old,
I think while I worry,
and wait for my mother to return
and place her always cool hands on my hot neck.

I imagine over and over,
the ribbon of headlights
cutting through the rain,
the engine dying,
the screen door's thwack open.

But for now, I close my eyes
and pretend each spatter
is one of her fingers
lying against my cheek.