Read the introduction by guest editors Shara Lessley and Bruce Snider.

 


If You Need Me, MOTHER is the Poem Where I'll Be

 

In the dream the sign over the old, black door reads MOTHER. It is trimmed with the hair of the missing. The hair is thin and blond, unlike my MOTHER’s hair or her MOTHER’s hair. “When we talk about the writer’s country we are liable to forget that no matter what particular country it is, it is inside as well as outside him. Art requires a delicate adjustment of the outer and inner worlds in such a way that, without changing their nature, they can be seen through each other” (Flannery O’Connor). I reach up and touch the hair, and when I do the old, black door creaks open. I step back. My MOTHER places her hand on my shoulder. “Thank god you are here,” I say, turning around, but it isn’t my MOTHER. It is Flannery. “Your mother,” says Flannery, “is dead.” “To know oneself is to know one’s region. It is also to know the world, and it is also, paradoxically, a form of exile from that world” (Flannery O’Connor). “Shut up, Flannery,” I say. “Shut up, shut up.” In the dream I want to call her a stupid peacock but I can’t remember the word for peacock so I call her peas.

*

The Chevra Kadisha is a holy society of men and women who prepare the Jewish dead for burial. Shards of pottery are placed over the eyes to mark the body a broken vessel. “For dust thou art, and to dust shalt thou return.” (Genesis 3:19). If it pleases you, feel free to read this essay as the shards of pottery I fear being placed over my MOTHER’s eyes. I don’t think I will survive her dying.

*

In graduate school one of my professors told me I write too many poems with MOTHERs inside them. In the same workshop, he told us poets are often in the habit of dragging lines around with them, like corpses. Lines that don’t really belong anywhere. Lines that should be buried. But we drag the lines around with us. With the hope that maybe this time it will fit inside the poem. No. Maybe this one inside this poem? No. We prop the line up and beg it to live. We rouge its cheeks. We put our hands up its torso and open its face. One of my corpse lines was “too much architecture, not enough rain.” Disappointing, I know. I think the line had something to do with freedom. If only I could etch it into the side of a skyscraper made entirely out of dew. But even MOTHER knows this is impossible. Especially MOTHER.

*

Ever since I became a MOTHER, I have written one poem, and about twenty stories. The last line of the only poem I’ve written since my sons were born goes, “I’m sorry, Son, / I’m just a poet. I hope this is enough. / If it isn’t I’ll burn down the house / and give you the ashes.” The endings of most of the stories I’ve written involve bodies climbing over bodies or being swallowed.

*

My MOTHER and my father — neither of whom have ever gotten over anything in their lives — are often in the habit of telling others — specifically their children — to “get over it.” I have never gotten over anything in my life. This too is a place. This too is a kind of poem.

*

“One has to be very careful what one takes when one goes away forever, something seemingly useless might become essential under specific circumstances.” (Leonora Carrington). I wasn’t careful when I left poetry for storytelling. All I brought with me were these lousy notebooks filled with words like “roses” and “liver” and “king” and “rot” and “boy” and “heaven.” I will have to go back. I ask my MOTHER what useless thing she would take with her if she was to go away forever. She wants to know, what do I mean by “useless?” “Like a photograph?” she asks. And then she begins to worry: “What about the necessary things will they have the necessary things where I’m going?” “Forget it,” I say. “This is all too much,” she says. “Plus I think the stock market is crashing.”

*

I say to my sons bath time, or dinner time, or don’t throw the apple at your brother, or helmet, or get down from there, or socks and shoes, or please be careful, or brush your teeth, or go to bed. Once I told my older son that those squirrels over there once were boys, but they didn’t eat their dinner. “I love squirrels!” he hoorayed. There is a hole where the MOTHER words go. One day I will find the hole and pull the words out, one by one, mud caked and sleepy. I will wash them and lay them all out in the bright sun, and out of them make a poem that will break all the children’s hearts if only (for once) they would listen to me.

*

(Forgotten) rumor has it that a famous poet once referred to me as Claudia Rankine’s “tail.” I think it was meant to be an insult. As an undergraduate at Barnard, I had taken all her classes, then worked for her, then lost her when I went to Iowa, then followed her to Georgia, then almost followed her again to Houston, but didn’t, then lost her again, then found her again among the cheering crowds. She is my poet MOTHER. All I ever wanted was to be close enough to her to hear everything she ever said. When I met her “I was still in the very beginning of being human” (Jorie Graham). When I saw her last December for a quick tea (almost 20 years after we first met), we hugged, and out of her purse she started pulling gifts for my two sons: a periscope and a superhero and a tiny police car. Impossible not to read each of these toys as a metaphor for what her poetry is after.

*

One Sunday afternoon, a woman knocks on our front door. She is frantic. Her father has just had a heart attack. They don’t think he will make it. “Oh my god,” I say. “Come in, come in.” She stands in our livingroom. My sons are staring. “How can we help,” I ask. She needs money for gas. The hospital is in another town. I give her $20, and a weird smile flashes over her face. It isn’t gratitude; it is something else. I notice her front teeth are rotten or rotting. My husband enters, and the woman waves the $20 bill like the flag of a disappearing country. I can tell from his eyes she’s been here before. “How’s your MOTHER?” he asks. Last time it was her MOTHER who was dying in the exact same way the father is now dying. The hospital is always in another town. She is gone before it dawns on me entirely that she’s lying. I’ve been had. Later that evening, I find out she goes up and down the streets knocking on doors. Her parents dying over and over again. In a far off hospital. It looks like they will never make it. She will never get there in time, but she’ll try. At first I am angry, and then I realize this frenzied scam artistry might not be all that different from writing.

*

There is a Brown Thrasher that repeatedly flings itself into our living room window. We have done everything: covered the windows with black paper, hung scarecrows, soaped the glass, cursed it out, taped up raptor silhouettes…Nothing works. We could remove its nest, but we don’t have the heart. The thrasher has been fighting with her reflection for months. And even when her reflection is obstructed she still keeps hitting the window because this route (nest to glass) has become like a necessary heartbeat. It’s miserable. I can’t decide whether to name this occurrence “What Is a Poem” or “I Miss my MOTHER.”

*

For my 40th birthday I wanted two things. #1 to clean my entire house. #2 to have a word with Gertrude Stein’s MOTHER.

*

About the value of critique, Claudia Rankine once said to our workshop, if the whole room is looking in one direction it’s probably a good idea to look at what they’re looking at. You don’t have to believe in it, or care. But it’s probably worth your time to turn your head, to know what has caught everybody else’s attention. After I visited her class at Pomona, she told me I look up at the ceiling too often when I speak publicly. I do. I’m probably searching for a heaven above, or Claudia, or my MOTHER or some other inconceivably vast thing. Once, when our tea date was drawing to a close, she looked at me with a gravitas I know only Claudia to possess, and very slowly, and very deeply asked, “how to you spell woohoo?” And with the same precision I forced on myself when I spoke to her as an undergraduate about Paul Celan or Toni Morrison or J.M. Coetzee or Aime Cesaire or Gertrude Stein, I spelled the word the only way I knew how: w-o-o-h-o-o. That night she gave the most magnificent poetry reading I have ever attended. She moved the whole gigantic audience to tears. She read from Citizen, a collection that breathes in the sadness of the world, and breathes it out as poetry. At one moment, before she read one of her anecdotes-gone-poem, she confessed to changing the “real” ending to make it a happier ending. “I believe,” she said “in repair.”

*

When I was arranging my first collection, The Babies, the brilliant poet and pianist Oni Buchanan gave me the best advice. She said each poem should somehow contain a window or a portal or a hole or a trapdoor through which the poem that follows can enter. Nabokov calls these the “nerves” or the “secret points” or the “subliminal coordinates by means of which the book is plotted.” Just between you and me, I’ve already plotted the coordinates of my new collection. It is a perfect drawing of my MOTHER’s face.

 

 


Sabrina Orah Mark is the author of the poetry collections The Babies (Saturnalia Books, 2004) and Tsim Tsum (Saturnalia Books, 2009). Mark’s awards include a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship, a fellowship from the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, and a Sustainable Arts Foundation Award. Her poetry and stories most recently appear in Tin House (Open Bar), American Short Fiction, jubilat, B O D Y, The Collagist, The Believer, and in the anthology My Mother She Killed Me, My Father He Ate Me: Forty New Fairy Tales. A long time ago she lived on a street called Pearl with The Oldest Animal. She now lives in a big blue house with her husband, Reginald McKnight, and their two sons.

Close

Places I've Been

The following links are virtual breadcrumbs marking the 27 most recent pages you have visited in Bucknell.edu. If you want to remember a specific page forever click the pin in the top right corner and we will be sure not to replace it. Close this message.