Today we are pleased to feature poet Mary Morris as our Authors Talk series contributor. Mary discusses her writing process involving the current manuscript she is working on, which relates to her ninety-five year-old mother, and reads her poem, “Deduction.”
“Crone” and “Deduction” by Mary Morris can be read on Issue 19 of Superstition Reviewhere
If you want to know more about poet Mary Morris you can visit her website or LinkedIn.
Today we are pleased to feature author Aaron Reeder as our Authors Talk series contributor. In his podcast, Aaron provides insights into his poems, “Untangling” and “Failed Poem for My Mother,” both published in Issue 18. He reveals that, when he was writing these poems, he was interested in the systems people fall back on to deal with trauma and grief, specifically the system of family.
Aaron also discusses his poems in the context of communication and conversation; both of his poems involve issues in communication, specifically with the speakers’ parents. For example, in “Failed Poem for My Mother,” Aaron shares, “ultimately what I think the speaker wants is that…these two individuals, the mother and the son, would be on the same plane.”
Regardless of our life circumstances, we each have a biological mother and father. 50% of our genetic make-up comes from Mom, and 50% comes from Dad. But as writers, we also have another set of “parents.” They may be living, or they may have died decades, even centuries ago. They may come from another country or write in a foreign language. We may not agree with their politics or life choices, nevertheless these other parents influence our lives. They are the poets and writers who have shaped if not our genetic futures, then certainly our creative destinies. These special parents are not simply the writers we admire―they are the writers whose work has turned us inside out, touched our souls, and changed the way we put pen to paper. Often, we recognize our creative parents immediately and instinctively. Sometimes, our connection to them becomes evident only over time.
My poetry “Mom” is Anne Sexton. Although I’d written as a child, I returned to writing seriously as a wife and mother during the decade when feminist and confessional writing flourished. Involved in both undergraduate studies and an ongoing women’s writing workshop, I was taught that nothing in a woman’s life was out of bounds. Suddenly, it was okay to write about our most intimate bodily details, about our psychological struggles, our families’ flaws and our innermost yearnings. Of course, reading Anne Sexton was required. I admired her poetry for its boldness and its craft, but I didn’t recognize her as my poetry mother until a few years later, when I was about to graduate, finally, with a BA in English and a minor in Creative Writing.
It was late, maybe midnight or 1 a.m. My husband and my two children were sleeping, and I was in the family room, curled in a chair, laboring over a poem that wasn’t quite working. I was deep into that space we writers can sometimes enter, that place in which time is meaningless and there seems to be an open conduit between our unconscious mind and our hand. Pausing in my writing, I felt a presence enter the room. It was clearly feminine, and generously approving. It seemed to surround me and―perhaps because in that mysterious space we have access to understandings that elude us otherwise―I knew, in my very marrow, that this presence was Anne Sexton. Then and there, she claimed me.
She’d died by her own hand in 1974, years before this visitation occurred. I was already moving away from purely confessional writing, sensing that some events were better left to memory or exploration in a private journal. And, at that point, Sexton wasn’t even my “favorite” poet. Maybe I’d been half-asleep or dreaming. Regardless, in that encounter, I was infused with a deep recognition. There was, and is, something about her ability to blend the formal with the personal, the way she risks the edge in her poetry, and how her poetic voice is both vulnerable and determined, that captured me. Her presence faded, and I returned to my poem; new, just-right words easily led to a perfect closure. Since then, when my poetic bravery wanes or my poetry becomes too staid, too bland, I return to be nourished by Anne Sexton’s poetic strengths.
Wallace Stevens is my poetry “Dad.” (Imagine that marriage, Anne and Wallace debating the purposes of poetry over dinner!) Again, although I’d read volumes of Steven’s work as an undergraduate, it wasn’t until I was doing graduate work at New York University that I recognized Stevens as my creative father. One of my teachers, Galway Kinnell, required regular memorization of poems. We had to absorb every word, every line break, every punctuation mark, and so be prepared not only to speak our chosen poems, but also to transcribe them perfectly. One week, I chose Stevens’ “Peter Quince at the Clavier.” If you don’t know this poem, find it. Read it. Get lost in it. That’s what I did, and in the process some of Stevens’ poetry DNA became mine. After I recited the poem, Galway Kinnell said, “His rhythms seem to suit you perfectly,” and I could feel it too. It was as if Stevens’ poetic constructions―the placement of his line breaks, the mysterious underbelly of his stanzas―fit into my own creative sensibilities like a final puzzle piece locking into place.
There were other factors too. Stevens had a day job, as I did. His co-workers didn’t know he was a poet, and neither did mine. He embraced a certain privacy and orderliness, evident in his poetry, and yet that order worked to amplify, in a paradoxical way, the secrets and tensions that lived beneath the surface. In “Peter Quince at the Clavier,” Stevens suggests that it’s the misery of not having poetry, of not having something beautiful in your heart, that might be fatal to the human spirit. When my poetic music threatens to fade, or my poems seem too superficial, lacking that lovely “touch of strange,” I return to Stevens, especially to that poem I memorized so long ago.
Maybe you have also discovered your creative parents along the way. Artists too have creative parents, and it’s not unheard of for a writer to have an artist or a sculptor as his or her creative parent. Happily, we can even assemble entire families. Although in reality I’m an only child, my poetry sisters are Sharon Olds and Dorianne Laux. My poetry brother is, without a doubt, Henri Cole. My poetry aunt, on my mother’s side, is Louise Glück. My poetry uncle, on my father’s side, is Yehuda Amichai. My favorite poetry cousin is nurse-poet Jeanne Bryner. An eclectic family indeed, but wholly mine. And while I honor them differently than I honor my actual relatives, I return to my creative parents and siblings again and again, for guidance, for reassurance, and simply for the pure pleasure of being in their company.
The little girl in the picture is a serious child – and already a woman. By the time the picture is taken, her mother has suffered her first psychotic break and survived her first suicide attempt. These days her mom would have been diagnosed with postpartum depression, barbiturate addiction and bi-polar psychosis. In 1945, the psychiatrists named her a hysteric and depressive, and told her she liked her depression because it got her attention. They prescribed electric shock treatments (a terrifying and brutal regime in those days) – and the family doctor prescribed sleeping pills.
I grew up with three mothers: the bright-eyed mom who played jazz piano, drew abstract designs for me to color, learned to stencil the folk-art of her Pennsyvania-Dutch origins, hand-painted Easter eggs and turned our home into a candle-lit shrine during the winter holidays; the sallow mother who grew more and more silent, who took to the living-room couch on long winter afternoons, who burned our dinners and closed the cover over the piano keys; the thing that looked like my mother but contained a howling void.
All three mothers were the perfect teachers for what I do best, for that which seems to be the only act that fills my soul, for what I do in this perfectly imperfect moment – writing. My bright-eyed mom read, not just to me and my brother, but for herself. She took me to the library when I was six and introduced me to the librarians. She told me they held the keys to magic – and since she had introduced me to Scheherezade, the women who told stories to save her life, I knew the librarians were guardians of an endlessly replenished treasure chest. When I begged off washing dishes or doing chores because I had a book to read, my mother shrugged, laughed and said to my father, “You know Liz. She always has her nose in a book.” And when I began to write my own stories, she read them. She never pushed me to write them or snooped in my diary. But when I brought her my writing, she read it carefully and told me what she liked.
My silent mother gave me more than she could have ever guessed. When she came home from the hospital, she, my father and I must have believed that it – the “nervous breakdown” – would never happen again. We were wrong. Two years later, the color began to leave her face. There was strained quiet at our dinner table. I came home from school to find my mom stretched out on the couch. And then, I was waked in the middle of the night to the sound of her retching. I pulled the pillow around my ears and struggled back into sleep. In the morning, my mother was gone. My father told me she was back in the hospital. Then, for reasons I can’t fathom to this day, he said, “She took too many sleeping pills. She wanted to die. I made her drink a quart of milk so she would throw up.”
In that instant, I became a radar screen. I learned to pay scrupulous attention, to monitor people and surroundings as accurately as any creature who relies on external information to survive. And I learned to store away what I learned. It would be years before I would hear the political slogan: To Understand the Present, Study the Past. At eight, ten, twelve, fourteen, sixteen and eighteen, I became an encyclopedia that contained every nuance of my mother’s face, moods, laughter and silences.
The mother skin bag that contained a black hole gave me the third great gift. I was five. I’d been kept home from kindergarten. I sat in my parents’ big bed with a coloring book in my lap. I didn’t read yet. My mother was in the kitchen. Someone was singing, a tuneless, wordless high-pitched croon. Then there were footsteps coming toward me. I knew my mother was the only other person in the apartment. I tightened my hands on the coloring book and stared down at the page. There was a tree, a little house, smoke coming out of the chimney. I began to tell myself the story of whoever was in the house. That’s the last thing I remember of that morning.
My mother and I made peace when I was fifty-five and she was eighty-three. We were brought to a sisterly ease with each other through miracles, hard work and, as we would have told you, “Who Knows What.” For the next two years of her life, we talked openly and with love about our time together as mother and daughter. She died at eighty-five. I was with her a few weeks before her death when she gave me the second most valuable thing she has given me.
She was drifting in and out of consciousness. I held her hand. She came wide awake, looked into my eyes and smiled. Her eyes were wet with tears. “Oh Liz,” she said, “I don’t have many regrets, but the one I have is so big.” I waited. “It breaks my heart,” she said, “that the god-damned depression robbed me of being able to be the mother I longed to be.” We were quiet. Her hand was warm in mine; mine warm in hers. “I know,” I said. “Thank you.”
And the greatest gift? The writing. My bright-eyed mother gave me trust in what I write. My silent mother unwittingly taught me to become a gathering net. The not-mother jolted me out of the ordinary and into the world of story. Trust, curiosity, infinite possibility. And one regret – I wish she were here to read this post.
Lillie Foltz Mammosser, thank you.
Note: This piece first appeared in my former Psychology Today blog. I thought I might re-work it, but as I read it, I knew I would not change one word. All of it is even more true today than it was in 2010 when it was published. And, as I read it I found myself paraphrasing an old saying: “That which doesn’t kill us makes some of us writers.”
You can find more of my work – and weekly writing tips and exercises on my new website: http://www.breakthroughwriting.net