Poetry

“Mother,” by Lola Ridge

Mother

Your love was like moonlight
turning harsh things to beauty,
so that little wry souls
reflecting each other obliquely
as in cracked mirrors . . .
beheld in your luminous spirit
their own reflection,
transfigured as in a shining stream,
and loved you for what they are not.

You are less an image in my mind
than a luster
I see you in gleams
pale as star-light on a gray wall . . .
evanescent as the reflection of a white swan
shimmering in broken water.

 

[This poem is in the public domain.]

 

Born in Dublin on December 12, 1873, Lola Ridge grew up in mining towns in New Zealand and Australia. When she was thirty-four years old, she immigrated to the United States, eventually settling in New York City. Her long poem, “The Ghetto,” received critical attention when it was published in The New Republic. Later that year, Ridge published her first book, The Ghetto and Other Poems, focused on the lives of Jewish immigrants in the Lower East Side tenements Ridge also inhabited. Her subsequent collections include Sun-Up and Other Poems (1920); Red Flag (1927), a book of political poetry; Firehead (1929) and Dance of Fire (1935).

Ridge was employed as a factory worker and was politically active, often writing about race, class, and gender issues. An ardent advocate for women’s rights, gay rights, and the rights of immigrants, she was arrested in 1927 while protesting the execution of Sacco and Vanzetti, anarchists and Italian immigrants convicted in a controversial and highly politicized trial of murdering two men during an armed robbery in Massachusetts.

The critical success of Ridge’s early work led to editorships at the avant-garde journals Broom, and Other, where she worked with William Carlos Williams and Marianne Moore. Her awards include a Guggenheim Fellowship (1935) and the Shelley Memorial Award (1936). She died in New York at the age of sixty-seven on May 19, 1941. [Source here.]

 

Commentary by Rebecca Foust, Poetry Editor

Mother’s Day is next week, but I like the idea of making the entire month a celebration for mothers, don’t you—my kids say I do that anyway. In any event, let’s let today’s poem, “Mother,” by Lola Ridge, serve as a kind of opening act. I found it last winter while combing the online archives for poems by our “mother poets” for these features. Doing that research, I felt competing sensations of overwhelm and underwhelm, because while there are thousands of poems by women in the public domain, the number of women poets represented is much smaller, especially compared with the number of men, and the number of women poets of color is smaller still. We’ll do what we can to rectify that imbalance with future installments of Poetry Sunday.

“Mother” is free verse written in 15 lines arranged into two stanzas, one nine and another six lines long. That’s roughly the length of a sonnet, but even though there is arguably a volta or turn between the two stanzas, the change does not feel emphatic enough to warrant giving the poem that label. To me, “Mother” feels more all-of-a-piece and represents a simple lyric, a meditation on what the speaker’s mother has meant to her. It’s meant to be accessible, using simple syntax, grammar, plainspoken diction, and direct address to communicate its message.

That message—homage to a mother—is a common theme in poetry, but, refreshingly, is presented here without the Hallmark cliché or sentiment that so often mars such poems. Restraint is evident in every line. Diction is simple and straightforward, with words chosen to show, not tell. Adjectives are scarce, adverbs entirely absent, and descriptions communicated mostly by means of vivid verbs (“gleams”) and nouns (“luster”) rather than modifiers.

Figures of speech are important, and one is the opening simile that compares the speaker’s mother’s love to moonlight—and not what moonlight looks like, but instead what it does: magically changes the ugly into the beautiful. In stanza 1, a mother’s love alchemizes the world for her children, including the speaker. And also does something more profound: rehabilitates their self-images, so that children see themselves in their mother “transfigure[d]” into possible better versions, all the things “they are not.” What an interesting idea: that what makes maternal love so powerful is the way it allows children to see in their mothers not merely their own physical images, but also their best potential selves.

Stanza 2 takes a different tack, moving from simile (“your love was like moonlight”) to metaphor (“you are . . . a luster”) and using a device called via negativa to describe the speaker’s mother in terms of what she is not (“less an image” than “a luster”). That last move emphasizes the evanescent quality of any memory, one reason I chose the poem, because it mimics the shimmering, flickering sensation I experience anytime I try to remember my own mother. Now twenty years after her death, I have trouble conjuring precisely what she looked like, and what arises instead is the feeling and mood of her effect on me, what the world was like with her in it. I’d certainly agree with calling that feeling a “luster,” something that put a shine on my life and the world as I knew it then. The feeling was very strong while my mother was alive. Memories are fragile and fade, however, which explains why their luster gleams in such an understated way in the poem, “pale as star-light on a gray wall,” and mercurial as the reflection of a swan in rippling water.

Via negativa talks about things by professing not to talk about them or by describing things in terms of what they are not, an old rhetorical strategy that a former teacher, Reginald Gibbons, related to the “apophatic” tradition in a craft lecture I once attended at Warren Wilson. Apophatic theology teaches that God can be apprehended only through negation, one reason for altar screens in churches. The idea is that the human cannot bear the full-frontal presence of the divine—is blinded by it—so that the only way truly to see God is through not-looking. You may have heard of the anonymous medieval text called The Cloud of Unknowing,” a work that refers paradoxically, to a kind of knowing by not knowing: “We cannot think our way to God. He can be loved but not thought” [Source here.]

As a literary device, via negativa is highly effective in poetry, not just because it heightens the drama and opens up fresh and more subtle ways to describe things, but also because it allows for more efficient delivery of information, enhancing poetic compression. When Shakespeare says his “mistresses’ eyes are nothing like the sun,” readers must envision eyes that are like the sun before they can imagine those that are not. This essentially delivers two images for the price of one: the image of eyes-like-the-sun and its negation. The result is a much more complex and layered description, conveyed with power and compression.

“Mother” invites us to see mother-love as a luster gilding the speaker’s life, allowing her a vision of her own potential while mother and daughter were both alive and still shimmering in glimpses after the mother is gone. The luster is soft, subtle, and otherworldly—an elusive, nearly-sacred thing for which the poem’s images are perfect vehicles. Light and reflections of light come up again and again in stanza 1: in moonlight reflected from the sun, in the speaker’s siblings seen as “oblique” reflections in “cracked mirrors,” and in the way the children see their own “reflections, transfigured” in their mother’s “luminous spirit.” Stanza two picks up the motif with the “star-light” cast onto the wall and with the swan’s limpid reflection given back by the surface of the water. Light images dominate the poem and create the overall atmosphere that allows us to bask, briefly, in soft, lambent, and very precious light. I might even call “Mother” a tone poem, for its most striking aspect is the mood and atmosphere it generates. I know not all childhoods are this lucky, but I experienced it with my mother in my own life, and I am grateful to this poem for helping me—if only in fleeting, aching glimpses—to remember all that, and her.

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  • Madeleine Holzer May 5, 2019 at 3:35 pm

    I am so glad to know about this work. Thank you!

    Reply