Sunday, March 18, 2012

Sketches of My Mother

from a sequence (Sketches of My Mother)

In the top drawer, so different from
the soft, neatly folded clothes: her necklaces ––
pearls and beads, the pink coral

trickle and click through my fingers –– feel
the precise weight of the tangle
of memory and dream.


Fatherless, my secret terror
is that some abrupt power may snatch her, freeze

my panicked ten-year-old stare through the windscreen
(for almost a whole half hour)

at the corner of the shopping centre where
she must reappear –– now! –– so my world can snap back.


Just once, at her dressing table, pawed
by my anxiety (‘but are you really
my mother or, or…’)
she swings round a scary-alien-face: ‘Ha!’


Her gentleness scales down the fear
of girls –– women with all their marvelous difference
never too strange or too far.


Yet sex is part of the great
unspoken, an ‘information’ booklet: blotchy
grey and white photos, the girl’s pubescent v
retouched to a modest blur ––

like her life-drawings, the shapes
worried and tentative, furred.
I will have to find that bare continuous line
for myself.


Her eye is for colours lifted
from an Irish landscape –– mossy and warm ––

or seascapes, like one she sketched
from the deck of a boat towing
yellowy moonlit waves, the African coast’s
mountains, taller than Dublin’s

and inset with pale cities: our day trip
from Torremolinos to Tangiers
receding as we watched, at home between continents.


Innocence, yes, though neither naïve nor saintly ––
a working part of her instinct: second eldest
in a family of seven, calm
at the eye of the tantrum: ‘Oh,
I was always the peacemaker’.


The heavy-headed roses have grown
dishevelled, swaying above her

as she stoops with secateurs
among straight, woody stems, extravagant thorns,

burying, I once pompously wrote,
‘her regret’ (At what? Not having lived

a more ordered or wildly-lived life? Not being sure
of herself or what she should do?).

More likely just pleasuring, becoming lost in
velvety pinks, creams, carmines

curling like old photographs
tattered and edged here and there

with tea-brown stains.


In a narrow alcove above her bed, plyboard shelves
sag a little, like hammocks, under the weight
of her cluster of books: Linda Goodman’s Sun Signs,
Belloc, Betjeman, A Child’s Garden of Verses,
Winnie The Pooh, The Larousse Encyclopaedia
of Greek Mythology, a Dream Dictionary (that warns
against dreams about weddings: funerals
in disguise), James’s Michener’s Iberia:
grown-up black and white photographs
of hot dust, sharp shadows, blood, sweat, age.
What else? The Wind In The Willows, Leaves of Grass.


Searching her room for Photoplay or She ––
glossies that might (unlike the monochrome Lady)
reveal a lucky breast, I lift the mattress

and find a Cosmopolitan that unfolds
a naked, hairy Burt Reynolds (his flashy grin
sporting a bent cigarillo) on a bearskin,
one elbow propped on the white-fanged muzzle,
a protective forearm lax between his thighs.

A man, masculine and vulnerable, absurd
as my own pink fantasies, the TV ad:
 ‘…and all because the lady loves Milk Tray’ ––

her long-vanished brand of cigarette, Kingsway
(a white pack with a red ribbon and gold crown),
her style –– the way she wore scarves, belts, slacks,
touches of elegance, flourishes, grace-notes
on a graph of yearning, how high and how far  ––

thirty years to celebrate, to love her
for making ‘a little something’ of her own desire.


There was Pound’s Fascist rant:

‘Oh how hideous it is
To see three generations of one house gathered together!
It is like an old tree with shoots
And with some branches rotted and falling.’

Then Raymond Carver’s (quieter, more honest) ‘Fear
of having to live with my mother in her old age
and mine’
                and here we are, and the greater fears

go blundering past like gale-force
window-rattling golems, far
too overblown to get a foot in the door.


As the home-help women help
my mother out of her clothes
and, if she can make it,
onto the shower stool,

some stay silent, while others
sprinkle a few words, names
like Darling or Dear. I think
she prefers the names. I do.

They drive from M50 estates ––
Clonee, Tyrrelstown, Blanchardstown,
late of that dusty-green cloak
of a continent –– carrying

the business of the world
helping, into our home.
And their own names sound like endearments –
Ola, Ayesha and the one

who is coming on Wednesday: Purity.


An afterlife: arthritic, room-bound
with one of our cats, Claire, Hillary, Toby…
comfortably draped on the TV’s

sleepy cornet of Coronation Street
or The Antiques Roadshow
while a bright patch of winter sun dulls

the orange coals: ‘Is it bad today?’
                                                      ‘Ah yes,
singing in my bones.’


But I remain wary of this
premature mourning, however inevitable,

admiring her doggedness, how on that slow train
boarded at the end of the first World War,

her ‘proper’ age never arrived,
so, at 93 (with her two sisters

nearest in age gone like supporting walls),
she confides as if for the first time:

‘It’s hard getting old.’


She’s driving a little too fast, as if we didn’t have
this whole day to tunnel through –
high-hedged shuttle of fields, hills, sky
a ladder of cloud-ribs, shadow-flits. She smiles

at something I can’t guess and the road rises
and plunges steep enough for a gulp
of vertigo as the canopy unzips and I see

ahead, slate-blue roughed with white, some cove
we visited so long ago I remember
the nested stones, cool sand. She turns to me
with that smile and makes it mine.

The above is excerpted from a loose sequence I was working on when she died last February. It feels odd to post this, a bit transgressive, almost a violation. I remember Philippe Jaccottet's visceral disgust (expressed in a poem of his) at the very notion of a writer bringing specific biographical details concerning a loved one, or anyone close to him/her, into a poem. But then I also remember Patrick Kavanagh's lovely poem in memory of his mother: 
'O you are not lying in the wet clay,
For it is a harvest evening now and we
Are piling up the ricks against the moonlight
And you smile up at us - eternally.' 
Or there is Heaney's poem from his (not at all loose) sequence of 'Clearances', about remembering peeling potatoes with his mother while he attended her death-bed: 
'So while the parish priest at her bedside
Went hammer and tongs at the prayers for the dying
And some were responding and some crying
I remembered her head bent towards my head,
Her breath in mine, our fluent dipping knives–
Never closer the whole rest of our lives.' 

So there are certainly precedents, not that I can ever measure up to them.
In any case, Happy Mother's Day mum.