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Poetry Sunday: ‘Mozart’s Mother’s Bones,’ by Robin Ekiss

The poem opens with a conundrum: the notion of a shadow having its own shadow, one that is “too dark to see.” We are given the analogy of looking into a nautilus shell to help us grasp the problem, each “turn of light” leading into another darkened, sealed chamber. And then we are given the speaker’s memory of herself and her siblings outside their mother’s bedroom, arguing “about the disposition / of her possessions.” Is the shadow here cast by the mother’s death, or cast by her life? At any rate, its own problematic shadow exists in children in whom “anger envelops love.” That phrase strikes me as being representative of the whole-subsuming-the-parts structure described above. And it is revisited in the phrase later in “Love embraces anger.” The two phrases have grammatical identity: noun, verb, noun, where the verb describes some kind of consuming, all-enveloping action, and the nouns are the same, although they switch places. Anger is the enveloper in the first phrase, love in the second, and we are made to consider how these two feelings are the reverse coefficients of one another.

The phrase introducing the third stanza, “[r]ecalcitrant as opals” is another that “glows” with a kind of inward light. A great example of the heightened diction that characterizes good poetry, “recalcitrant” is not a word we are likely to use in casual conversation, but it’s one whose meaning is clear and very precise. Being hard to pronounce, it’s also onomatopoeic. The word means “resisting authority or control” and “not obedient or compliant; refractory” (dictionary.com), and at first blush seems an odd word to describe an inanimate object like an “opal.” But like all good lines, this one makes us think and seek to resolve the apparent paradox. I was a rockhound as a kid and had a few opals in my amateur collection. Until cut and polished they are shy gems, looking like ordinary run-of-the-mill chunks of rock. You have to look hard to see a gleam, and they have to be coaxed into their beauty with a saw and a grinding wheel.

We can understand the comparison of opals and bones, first Mozart’s Mother’s in the catacombs, then the speaker’s mother’s that “lay starched in the sheets.” Like opals, bone do not immediately give themselves up to being seen as objects of beauty, with luster and depth. They, in fact, categorically resist such formulation and tend instead to inspire fear and horror. But as anyone who’s visited the Paris Catacombs can attest, they can also have an eerie beauty. Bones that lay starched in sheets, instead of the expected “lay in starched sheets” is also interesting. “Starched” suggests unnaturally stiffened, held rigid, and the speaker is telling something here about the mother’s personality as expressed in her posture as she lies on her deathbed.

My favorite line in the poem, what Dorianne Laux might call its “hot spot,” is the one that opens the fourth stanza and also opens the speaker’s heart to readers: “It was harder to make her love me / than to drive the stars / into the ocean.” What an image this is—mythic, powerful, and agonized, a simple and explicit statement of a daughter’s desire for her mother’s elusive love. The next few images pick up on the ocean image to describe, again in terms that recall classical myth, the mother’s beautiful but rigid (so like the word “ridged” in the poem) hair, its “wave-cuneiform,” and “ridged like sand above her shoulders.” This image leads by associative thinking into another memory of the mother’s habit, “in the rain,” of looking “down / through the pavement.” Clever use of a line break at first makes light of this—it was just “something to do”—then delivers the gut-punch follow-up of it being something to do “with shame and disengagement.” By this time, we know quite a bit about the speaker’s mother: beautiful, obdurate, inaccessible, and consumed by shame.

The poem ends with another paradox: “this white, desirable death.” On one level, the phrase describes bone—the bones of the speaker’s dead mother, Mozart’s mother’s bones in the Paris Catacombs, desirable because it’s in some way beautiful. But it also means what it says, that the mother’s death is on some level “desirable.” Freud says we must kill our parents in order to create our own identities. Even the best mother-daughter relationships are necessarily tormented with issues of dependence versus independence, identity formation, role reversal, competition, and impossible desire. Some give rise to poems like today’s: fraught, even agonized at times, but also honest and still holding a place for love.

 

 

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Paradise Drive book coverRebecca Foust’s fifth book, “Paradise Drive,” won the 2015 Press 53 Award for Poetry and was reviewed in the Georgia Review, Hudson Review, Huffington Post, Philadelphia Inquirer, San Francisco Chronicle, Washington Review of Books, and elsewhere. Recognitions include the 2015 American Literary Review Award for Fiction, the 2015 James Hearst Poetry Prize, the 2014 Constance Rook Creative Nonfiction Award, and fellowships from the Frost Place, MacDowell Colony, Sewanee Writer’s Conference, and West Chester Poetry Conference. “Paradise Drive” can be ordered at www.press53.com. For more information visit rebeccafoust.com.

 

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  • Mickey May 8, 2016 at 1:51 pm

    Oh, my, oh, my. What a great poem! And I love that hat! Hugs and best wishes to all.

    Reply