My mother's body

Original Text: 

© The Art of Blessing the Day: Poems with a Jewish Theme by Marge Piercy (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1999): 19-25. PS 3566 .I4A89 1999 Robarts Library

2the pit, the cave where the sun lies down
3and threatens never to rise,
4when despair descends softly as the snow
5covering all paths and choking roads:
6then hawkfaced pain seized you
7threw you so you fell with a sharp
8cry, a knife tearing a bolt of silk.
9My father heard the crash but paid
10no mind, napping after lunch
11yet fifteen hundred miles north
12I heard and dropped a dish.
13Your pain sunk talons in my skull
14and crouched there cawing, heavy
15as a great vessel filled with water,
16oil or blood, till suddenly next day
17the weight lifted and I knew your mind
19candles that burn so fast, weeping
21Those candles were laid out,
22friends invited, ingredients bought
24that holiday for liberation
25and the winter solstice
26when tops turn like little planets.
27Shall you have all or nothing
28take half or pass by untouched?
30as the room stopped spinning.
31The angel folded you up like laundry
32your body thin as an empty dress.
33Your clothes were curtains
34hanging on the window of what had
35been your flesh and now was glass.
36Outside in Florida shopping plazas
37loudspeakers blared Christmas carols
38and palm trees were decked with blinking
39lights. Except by the tourist
40hotels, the beaches were empty.
41Pelicans with pregnant pouches
42flapped overhead like pterodactyls.
43In my mind I felt you die.
44First the pain lifted and then
45you flickered and went out.
##.
46I walk through the rooms of memory.
47Sometimes everything is shrouded in dropcloths,
48every chair ghostly and muted.
49Other times memory lights up from within
50bustling scenes acted just the other side
52my fingers tearing at the flimsy curtain
53of time which is and isn't and will be
54the stuff of which we're made and unmade.
55In sleep the other night I met you, seventeen
56your first nasty marriage just annulled,
57thin from your abortion, clutching a book
58against your cheek and trying to look
59older, trying to look middle class,
61dressing for parties in cast off
62stage costumes of your sisters. Your eyes
63were hazy with dreams. You did not
64notice me waving as you wandered
65past and I saw your slip was showing.
66You stood still while I fixed your clothes,
67as if I were your mother. Remember me
68combing your springy black hair, ringlets
69that seemed metallic, glittering;
70remember me dressing you, my seventy year
71old mother who was my last dollbaby,
72giving you too late what your youth had wanted.
##.
73What is this mask of skin we wear,
74what is this dress of flesh,
75this coat of few colors and little hair?
76This voluptuous seething heap of desires
77and fears, squeaking mice turned up
78in a steaming haystack with their babies?
79This coat has been handed down, an heirloom
80this coat of black hair and ample flesh,
81this coat of pale slightly ruddy skin.
82This set of hips and thighs, these buttocks
83they provided cushioning for my grandmother
84Hannah, for my mother Bert and for me
85and we all sat on them in turn, those major
86muscles on which we walk and walk and walk
87over the earth in search of peace and plenty.
88My mother is my mirror and I am hers.
89What do we see? Our face grown young again,
90our breasts grown firm, legs lean and elegant.
91Our arms quivering with fat, eyes
92set in the bark of wrinkles, hands puffy,
93our belly seamed with childbearing,
94Give me your dress that I might try it on.
95Oh it will not fit you mother, you are too fat.
96I will not fit you mother.
97I will not be the bride you can dress,
98the obedient dutiful daughter you would chew,
99a dog's leather bone to sharpen your teeth.
100You strike me sometimes just to hear the sound.
101Loneliness turns your fingers into hooks
102barbed and drawing blood with their caress.
103My twin, my sister, my lost love,
104I carry you in me like an embryo
105as once you carried me.
##.
106What is it we turn from, what is it we fear?
107Did I truly think you could put me back inside?
108Did I think I would fall into you as into a molten
109furnace and be recast, that I would become you?
110What did you fear in me, the child who wore
111your hair, the woman who let that black hair
112grow long as a banner of darkness, when you
113a proper flapper wore yours cropped?
114You pushed and you pulled on my rubbery
115flesh, you kneaded me like a ball of dough.
116Rise, rise, and then you pounded me flat.
117Secretly the bones formed in the bread.
118I became willful, private as a cat.
119You never knew what alleys I had wandered.
120You called me bad and I posed like a gutter
121queen in a dress sewn of knives.
122All I feared was being stuck in a box
123with a lid. A good woman appeared to me
124indistinguishable from a dead one
125except that she worked all the time.
126Your payday never came. Your dreams ran
127with bright colors like Mexican cottons
128that bled onto the drab sheets of the day
129and would not bleach with scrubbing.
130My dear, what you said was one thing
131but what you sang was another, sweetly
132subversive and dark as blackberries
133and I became the daughter of your dream.
134This body is your body, ashes now
135and roses, but alive in my eyes, my breasts,
136my throat, my thighs. You run in me
137a tang of salt in the creek waters of my blood,
138you sing in my mind like wine. What you
139did not dare in your life you dare in mine.

Notes

18] Chanukah: the Jewish festival of lights, lasts for eight days between the end of November and the end of December and celebrates the triumph of the Maccabees and the "rededication" (chanukah) of the Jerusalem Temple, when a single oil lamp burned for eight days. Back to Line
20] chanukiya: "a candle holder specifically for Chanukah with four candles on each side and a central candle, nine in all. It is not to be confused with a menorah, which has seven candles." (Marge Piercy, e-mail to the Editor, Dec. 17, 2000). (The spelling chanukiyot in My Mother's Body (1985) was a misprint.) Back to Line
23] latkes: potato pancakes. Back to Line
29] dreydl: a four-sided top that has a Hebrew letter on each side -- shin, hey, gimel, and nun (meaning "a great miracle took place here"). When a player spins the dreydl, the letter that comes up dictates her luck: "nun" gets the player nothing and the turn passes to the next player. The letter "gimel" brings luck, because the player takes the whole pot. Back to Line
51] scrim: see-through drop-curtain on a theatre stage. Back to Line
60] Wanamaker's: John Wanamaker's big department store company, based in Philadelphia. Back to Line
139]

Commentary by Ian Lancashire

(2002/9/9)

A dying Jew makes a confession, the Vidui, that asks God to protect her family, to whose souls her own soul is forever tied. Her family in turn stays with her to the moment of death and then utters a prayer of their own, part of which is: "Much was left unfinished in her life, yet we know also the good that she tried to do. May those acts of goodness continue to give meaning to our lives and may the errors in her life be forgiven." Marge Piercy's "My Mother's Body" describes how, although her mother Bert Bernice Bunnin died in 1981 in touristic, Christian Florida, far from her daughter, at her death they were together. Marge shared her mother's dying pain, at a distance of 1500 miles: when her "mind / ... guttered" (17-18), Piercy says, "In my mind I felt you die" (43). The poem itself offers the prayer of Bert's closest family member at the moment of her death. Like the sacred texts of the Jewish faith, Piercy's poem affirms the ongoing co-presence of the dead and the living. Mother and daughter are forever tied; and not only do the mother's acts give meaning to the life of her daughter but her daughter's prayer finishes what was, at her mother's death, "left unfinished."

 

This poem's four sections show gradually how Piercy moves from despair to the affirmation of life found in the Jewish liturgy of dying.

At first, the mind of Piercy's mother "guttered out like the Chanukah / candles" (18-19). In Proverbs 20:27, and in the Jewish faith generally, a candle symbolizes the human soul. Metaphorically, it seems a soul has just been lost. Her mother's life ended with the spinning of a Chanukah dreydl that said Nun and gave "nothing" (27, 29), so that, at her death during Chanukah, she "flickered and went out" (45), into nothing. Like her soul, Bert Bernice Bunnin's body was "thin as an empty dress"; her flesh became, not the grass of Isaiah 40.6, but "glass" (35), transparent. She was to an angel what her family's clothing had been to her: lifeless "laundry" to be "folded up" (31). Her final pain arrived as a bird of prey, "hawkfaced," with "talons," and "cawing." No wonder that the poem opens in "The dark socket of the year", a spacetime into which the sun itself settled, threatening never to come up. Snow fell like "despair" in a world that appeared prehistoric, the Florida pelicans resembling "pterodactyls" (42).

The poem's second section moves from Florida into Piercy's own mind. To cross this boundary is to move from the "curtains" (33) that were her mother's Florida clothes (which were `curtains,' that is, done and over with), to the "flimsy curtain / of time which is and isn't and will be / the stuff of which we're made and unmade" (52). Piercy here echoes Shakespeare's Prospero in The Tempest, that "We are such stuff / As dreams are made on; and our little life / Is rounded with a sleep" (IV.i.156-57). One sense of `curtains' has to do with annihilation, but another sense -- what separates past and present in the mind -- approaches a mystery: the very time that kills us has us in safe keeping. The temporal curtain splitting past from present too can be easily done away with, but someone can now be found behind it, her lost mother. At first, Piercy's memory is just of "rooms" where "dropcloths" cover the furniture and of "bustling scenes" only sensed behind a "scrim" (51; a theatrical screen that also drops), but her dreaming sweeps away these curtains as well. She sees her mother again at 17 years old, her "eyes / ... hazy with dreams" (62-63), and at 70 years old, making do with, "too late," what her youth lacked and what her daughter, in mothering her, gave instead. Piercy's dreaming bridges time, past and future, juxtaposing images more than sixty years apart. These images again have to do with her mother's clothes (33, 66), what she wears, her sisters' "stage costumes" and the garments in which she recalls her daughter "dressing" her (70).

The third section extends this notion of "dressing" from the literal to the metaphorical, just as Piercy bridged the first and second sections with the word "curtains." Clothes become a way of describing her mother's body, the poem's subject. They are not what they seem. Before, her mother's body was "thin as an empty dress" (32), but now it is a "mask of skin" and a "dress of flesh" that is handed down as "an heirloom" from mother to daughter. Time is its medium, its "stuff." Piercy again draws on Judaic scripture to describe this mystery. A body is a "coat of few colors" (75), diminished in the context of, but still recalling, the special coat of many colours that Jacob gave his most loved child Joseph and by which he was, falsely, led to understand that Joseph had died (Genesis 37). Piercy alludes to this much-told tale for its lesson about death: those who may appear to die, die not. Here she looks at her own "coat" and sees her mother's black hair (68, 80), as well as her "ample flesh," skin colour, hips, thighs, buttocks, and "major muscles." In this perspective, her mother's body mirrors and is mirrored by her own, younger body; and Piercy's title takes on a poignant meaning: it refers to herself, not just to the body of a woman who died in Florida in 1981. Piercy looks in this "mirror" (87) and sees "Our face grown young again" (88), and also their arms, eyes, hands, and belly. She imagines her dream-mother asking her, "Give me your dress that I might try it on" (93), but this dress is Piercy's body, and she replies, "Oh it will not fit you mother, you are too fat" (94). Piercy then remembers how they used to disagree and fight, her mother wanting one kind of child, and herself rebelling, living in a way that would not "fit you mother" (95). The third section ends, then, with a new understanding of the way in which parents can live again in their children. Piercy's mother, though bodily "twin" and "sister," remains "lost," unable to put on her daughter's body. However, Bert Bernice Bunnin instead becomes an "embryo" (103), carried by the daughter as if she were her "mother" (67). Memory is that embryo.

Piercy moves into her fourth, last section by symbolizing yet again a word from her previous section. Her mother's diminished "coat of few colors" (her mother's and her own body; 75), alluding to Joseph's many-coloured coat , becomes her mother's

... dreams [that] ran
with bright colors like Mexican cottons
that bled onto the drab sheets of the day
and would not bleach with scrubbing. (125-28)

Piercy transmutes the bleak image of her mother's body as "laundry" (31) and "stage costumes" (62) into dreams having the strong, permanent, many colours that distinguished Joseph's coat. That these dreams "ran" was a good thing, not a bad. They became what her mother "sang" (130), thoughts and desires as radical and ambitious as her daughter's, and they ran into her daughter. Piercy truly says -- in spite of "You called me bad and I posed like a gutter / queen in a dress sewn of knives" (119-20) -- "I became the daughter of your dream" (132). "You run in me" (135) quickens the metaphor. This daughter, then, possesses not only her mother's body but dreams that "sing in [her] mind like wine" (137). In Judaism, wine symbolizes joy, the opposite of the despair in which the poem began. Piercy discovers that her mother's "mind" never "guttered out like the Chanukah / candles" (18-19). That mind survives in the singing, dreaming "mind" of a former "gutter / queen" (119-20).

Drawing on a logic of the imagination permeated by Judaic sacred texts, Piercy's poem consoles deep grief. It enacts the prayer uttered by the family on the death of a loved one. Her "errors" are forgiven -- "My dear" (129) -- and her "goodness" lives on in the dreams and the body of her daughter.

Sometimes critics tell us that great art cannot be made from autobiography or politics. Both supposedly have too deep roots in the lives of individuals. Piercy's poem shows that this is not so. She makes the grief of a daughter for the death of a mother with whom she has fought all her life, and that daughter's desperate longing for reconciliation, understanding, and forgiveness, into universal emotions. A second-generation feminist, Marge Piercy writes for all mothers and all daughters. She draws on an ancient Biblical and Judaic language and employs words that everyone in the English-speaking world says every week of their lives. Her metaphors and similes pair everyday things -- laundry, dresses, colours -- with body and soul, life and death. Addressing her readers directly, without irony, indirection, ambiguity, or subterfuge, she avoids using dramatic characters and fictional situations. Her poetry comes from personal life experience. Readers who cannot put their hearts and minds into their speech become her and experience what she does when they read her poems. She fuses her own and her readers' subjectivities.

One of her greatest poems, "My Mother's Body" gives the promise of being remembered by future generations for passages that are both original and poignant:

Shall you have all or nothing
take half or pass by untouched?
Nothing you got, Nun said the dreydl

 

Give me your dress that I might try it on.
Oh it will not fit you mother, you are too fat.
I will not fit you mother.

 

All I feared was being stuck in a box
with a lid. A good woman appeared to me
indistinguishable from a dead one
except that she worked all the time.

Although every poem must stand as a whole -- and Piercy's astonishing meditation on the birth of consolation from grief through memory does that -- readers carry fragments with them. Eliot placed his in The Waste Land. Piercy remembers the Judaic heritage passed down to her by Hannah, her grandmother. Jew and non-Jew, Piercy's vast readership to-day shows how effectively her poems fulfil their poet's purpose.

 

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Publication Start Year: 
1984
Publication Notes: 

Sojourner (Feb. 1984): 18; Marge Piercy, My Mother's Body: Poems by Marge Piercy (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1985): 26-32. PS 3566 I4M9 1985 Robarts Library

RPO poem Editors: 
Ian Lancashire
RPO Edition: 
RPO 2000.
Rhyme: 
Special Copyright: 

This poem cannot be published anywhere without the written consent of Marge Piercy, Leapfrog Press or Knopf permissions department.