Meeting My Mother in Her Poems
By David Ebenbach
My mother burned all her appointment books. It was a ritual, something she did at the end of every year; she would sit with the book—usually a spiral-bound week-by-week one with a nature photo on the left side and the dates on the right—and she’d look through all the appointments and commitments she’d had, taking the time to reflect on the things she’d done over the previous year. Then she’d burn it. I don’t know how or where she did that—in the bathtub, out in back of her house—but I suppose I do know why.
My mother wasn’t at home in time.
What I mean is that she struggled with time. My mother struggled with the present moment, for example, because it was generally a disappointment, characterized as it usually was by isolation, too much work, and not enough money. The future, on the other hand, was promising but often hinged on improbable things, like a windfall from who knows where. The future never seemed to arrive, or at least not the promising one she was hoping for; instead it just turned into a series of disappointing present moments. And the past—the past was worst of all.
My mother didn’t like to think about the past, let alone talk about it, and, on those rare occasions that she did talk about it, you got the sense that you weren’t supposed to ask too many questions—sometimes she said so explicitly—and you weren’t supposed to bring it up again later. “Anyway,” she would say, when she wanted to change the subject to something more comfortable. This was the psychological counterpart to the annual appointment book ritual: One’s personal history sometimes surfaced, but it was best to turn those memories to ash afterward.
And so my mother was homeless in time, disconnected from past, present, and future—or so it seemed to me.
Naturally, when my mother died in 2013—in November, a month she hated for its darkness—my sister and I weren’t expecting her to have left behind a tell-all memoir. There were memories in the form of photos—old photos of our childhood, for starters, and, from more recent years, some very beautiful nature photos that she’d taken herself—but we figured what little she may have written down about herself would be long gone.
We certainly weren’t expecting to find, among her things, a folder labeled “Poetry.” But that’s what my sister did find, one day when she was looking through things; she was looking to see if there was anything in there that I might want to keep as a remembrance.
I’d been having trouble imagining anything I’d want to keep. I wasn’t sure there was any object, any thing, that was going to mean much to me. What can an object mean? Your mother’s gone and, in the face of that, the things—all the things—are actually nothing. But then Karla found this folder.
The folder—a regular manila one—held a bunch of poems on pages and partial pages torn out of newspapers and magazines and a couple printed out from the web. Wislawa Szymborska, Jorge Luis Borges, Rosanna Warren, Yehuda Amichai, Richard Wilbur, Anna Akhmatova, others. There was even one poem—“The Darkling Thrush” by Thomas Hardy—that I’d given to her, because it meant something to me at a time when things were dark for me, and I thought it would mean something to her, too. Apparently it did. She had plenty of her own dark times, of course. It struck me, too, that there weren’t any of my poems in that folder. I think my poems would have changed the collection, made it something it wasn’t supposed to be.
What really arrested me, though, were the ones that were in her handwriting—the ones she’d written. My mother wrote poetry. And I’d had no idea.
Think about that: I’m a poet myself; my mother had been watching me write poetry since I was a kid, had been listening to me talk about it for years. Meanwhile, here she was, writing her own poems—and she never shared them with me. Never brought them into any of those conversations about poetry. She never even told me they existed.
They say you often learn new things about people after they’re gone; you keep getting to know them. It’s true.
When I got the folder, I read all the poems with feverish attention—the ones by other people and, especially, the ones by her. I read hers many times. I wrote about them in my journal. I typed them up so I could (almost) feel what it was like to write them myself, letter by letter, word by word. I savored and inhabited them.
And for sure I recognized the woman who did the writing. There’s sadness there, for one thing. She writes:
the wind finds its way
through every crack in this
my body like a
massive ink blot
I know this woman. Honestly, I know those feelings. Sometimes the wind does find its way in.
And there’s my mother’s familiar desire to relocate to a particular kind of future—pleasant, better, and out of reach, though in these poems not necessarily impossible:
think I would feel better
if I could sit under a tree and
look at the mountain….
I’d wait for peace
to come down the mountain—
Anything green would be welcome,
a patch of grass would do.
I am waiting for spring
in its own good time
But it’s not all yearning, my mother’s poetry. There’s something else there that I didn’t expect. She wrote about nature, mostly, and moments of stillness—and what she did is she froze these things in place. She looked right at the present moment, in other words, and held on to it.
For now the pond is still.
Even the frogs are quiet.
clouds on the
Even when the moment was complicated, she held on to it:
Gloriosa daisies and
Long shadows on
the aching beauty of
Even when the moment was hard, she held on to it, and sometimes transformed it:
there’s a slight
feeling of melancholy but
there is a sweetness to it.
Most surprising, sometimes she actually wanted to keep the past with her:
trying to remember
There’s one pair of poems that especially move me. They’re both about the same moment where she was outdoors and a rabbit hopped out from beneath a hedge. Something about this touched my mother profoundly. She wrote about it in a beautiful eleven-line poem. Then, on the next page of her notebook, unwilling to turn from the instant—needing, in fact, to go further into it—she wrote the experience over again, this time in twenty-nine even more attentive lines.
Right, I thought. This is what we do as poets, I thought. We see something and we can’t bear the idea of losing it, so we write about what we’re seeing in order just to hold it. Richard Wilbur’s blackberries; Rosanna Warren’s mother between the bed rails; Thomas Hardy’s blast-beruffled thrush. We’re the people who don’t let go.
And my mother was one of us.
For my mother, any given present moment was tough, if she stepped back to take it all in. Things generally hadn’t turned out the way she expected; she was living alone, working too hard, post-dating checks, eventually ailing, watching November come in with its shorter and shorter days. The big picture was sometimes understandably hard for her to look at.
But what if the focus was smaller? Closer?
In these poems I met a woman who made peace with time, a woman who managed to split minutes and seconds into instants tiny enough for her to embrace them—tiny enough to allow her to be at home. I didn’t really know this woman when she was alive. I have to say I’m upset about that; there’s a loss there, beyond the original loss of losing the mother I did know.
But I’m glad she didn’t burn these poems. I’m glad that I’m starting to know her now—starting to know a woman who over and over again did make herself a home, who was able to make it out of what she had at hand.
I am sitting, just
sitting and aware
and wide awake
DAVID EBENBACH is the author of five books of poetry, fiction, and non-fiction, including the poetry collection We Were the People Who Moved (Tebot Bach) and the short story collection Into the Wilderness (Washington Writers’ Publishing House). Ebenbach has a PhD in Psychology from the University of Wisconsin-Madison and an MFA in Writing from the Vermont College of Fine Arts. Find out more at www.davidebenbach.com.