Response to “For Mother’s Day”

by on February 13, 2013

Responses Takes
For Mother's Day

I went to a reading recently in the West Village, by mostly middle-aged poets. Several of them, men and women, stood and read poems about their dead or dying parents. These parents had lived long, competent lives the poets seemed to admire (though one had philandered) until being forced into dotage by cancer or Alzheimer’s or another debilitating disease. The messy medical details and bureaucratic wrangling and financial strain rendered the inevitable, natural event alien, which in turn prompted poetic revelations. Hands, blood, tubes, childhood recollections, hands again, hands that weeded flowerbeds now blue-veined, hands that applied lipstick now cold.
This impulse to mine memories of the parent for lyrical symbols of love’s austere and lonely offices is a humane and expected response. Confessional poets have exploited the wedge between love and the desire to leave or even destroy the parent. But their historical moment was defined by an incommensurable generation gap. That ground is broken, and lyric poems on parents now too often seem a transparent attempt to give nuclear dramas greater significance—to make the poem say something that isn’t merely confessional. Those middle-aged poets in the West Village harbored no hate for their parents. They likely already have children they text or call (on “family plans”) several times a day. Where’s the angst in that?
“For Mother’s Day” dwells in nostalgic detail but lands on no belated epiphany; instead, “the future was gone.” The lyric of generational revelation could emerge out of the careful, yes, tender, details Dan cites: “she and her friend from girlhood/ Echo/ children sitting in their slender way” or “ice cold gin and/ a GMC Gaucho van.” It could lead to poised, memoirish mush. Instead, the speaker is more or less lost in a metaphysical character study, a morbid pile of spiritual mumbo-jumbo, rocks that listen, a “spectral” boyfriend whose “sharp/teeth twinkle in the moonlight,” language pile-ups of plain-speak and verbal capers like “klutzy drunken coulters.”
It isn’t satire, either. The droll anti-lyric is there (Sundays at the morgue!), but when pressed upon for irony, it evaporates into language, and the weirdness of the world. There’s nothing wry or Freudian in the investigation of the swirling interior of the mother. “Once I saw her looking…” is the poem’s most sincere, and therefore tenuous, section. It ends in failure. Form and language games break down and “nothing was reflected back;” her myths and intimacies hold no secrets, can’t answer death.
As for the spiritual, the “thin of twine, a love…no last man with one last/ grain of salvation sand”: are we to trust a man with a gemstone necklace and a “spirit carapace”? Or the mother herself, “a fortune teller,” who holds forth in the poem’s last section? Dan’s portrait is filled with the real but the real is still untethered. We aren’t asked to nod along to sentiment tied neatly to symbol. Certainly most of us babes of Boomers will be closer to our parents, and remain so for longer, than any generation that’s come before. I hope young poets will fight against the simply elegiac, not to mention the tired tropes of the deified mother and gruff but loving father, revealed in the pallor of hospital lights. They do their own disrespect. The emotional appeal of Dan’s poem lingers on the very slight presence of the child, looking into a face perhaps only he could love.