Finding the Words

Poets through the years have been reluctant to delve into the meaning of mother. But as more women have begun to write, moving verse about that oh-so-complicated relationship has appeared.

May 11, 2000|By SUSAN REIMER | SUSAN REIMER,SUN STAFF

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."

Going 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,

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