Dealing Out Poetry II: Mother’s Day Edition

Claire and I are continuing to experiment with using the Negocios Infernales cards we created for a game as inspiration for writing. On Mother’s Day (May 10 2020) we started out the day by driving around Phoenix and handing out bouquets to the many mothers in our lives. When we got home, we headed for the front porch to meditate on mothers, the cards providing inspiration and spooky, all-too-on-the-nose guidance.

Here are the poems we wrote! We’ll start, as all good things should, with Claire

Cruel Mother / Absent Mother / Matriarch / Friend / Tomorrow’s Mother

1. Cruel Mother

bless all the rest, he says
the ones who kept that promise
but as for mine:
curse you
curse your ilk, and all your blood, your gagged houses
the cars you ride in, the town you rot in

curse her and curse them
for no one rescued him
he knew no love, could love none
till he turned twenty-one, and left—
not home, but to find home—

now, now
sitting at table
or strolling Chicago, stopping off
in New York, sheltering in DC
he talks of her and those blood-others

his mouth is stuffed with
Szechuan peppers
his tongue glazed
green with wasabi, or flowering
with curries, or burning,
burning with bhut jolokia

and he tells us—
those friends he has found—
how he can only taste
fire
lest he taste ash

2. Absent Mother

of your long-ago childhood
of that house where you suffered
she has forgotten

what she turned her back on
what she could not—
or would not—see:

what he did to you
what she neglected to do
she has forgotten

still—all the while—raging
your nightmares rear
rise up
as memories

you wake, gasping
like one daily drowned
build sculptures
from saguaro skeletons
collect dried seed pods, stalks
the stuff of life
paint your bruised mouth and hang it
on the wall

now, now, at the end
she lives with you
still—all the while—gently
forgetting
more every day

surrounded by, sheltered by
your victories
those scars
scorch marks
the work of your hands

3. Matriarch

she calls you by the name she gave you
not the one you go by
crochets her final baby blanket—forgets
the stitch, weeps, rages, re-reads
instructions, sleeps off
confusion, wakes, remembers
carries on

old wars play out in earthen tones on her television
tweedy mysteries
a love she passes on

she prays daily
adores you
will always be disappointed

is more angry at her own body failing
than any wrath of 90 years and running
she, who never failed
to bake her own bread—the prize lasagna—
the melt-in-mouth meatballs, or
those lace-paper wafers that taste of licorice

now, now, everything
she loves and labels precious
has an awful, tender name attached

meantime
her vigil’s candle flame
is not yet guttered
beside her bed

4. Friend

the prayer she taught us
builds back in the death of us
it never seemed morbid; I never questioned it
proud to love as if you or I
could die tomorrow

older and more anxious
I am not so sure
it wouldn’t be better
to live as if
there never was a grave

let it rise and clobber me
in my time
so long as I may cease glancing
behind me, stop gasping in dismay
at every swerve, every corner
or staring like Webster
at the skull beneath the skin

she packed gratitude
and self-preservation into every prayer
shattered the shield
that was our hope for heaven
to make us love this earth

so much she learned to do all on her own
and taught me well
so much I’ve had to unlearn
and now, now to teach her
to sit still, sit still
while another serves her

5. Tomorrow’s Mother

tomorrow’s mother
wrote twenty novels
before she wrote another, birthing you

tomorrow’s mother
toured the world with her guitar
was wild and restless—is wild and restless still—
has learned to settle and be still
to have you

tomorrow’s mother
owned a bookstore, then another
sold them
owns more books than Alexandria ever lost
and has built more shelves to hold them
all so she can share them
with you

tomorrow’s mother
is a historian, a homeschool teacher
a Master Baker, has two Bachelors and a Masters
was a professor abroad
earned her first gray hairs earning her degrees
and all the while, she was longing
longing
for nothing more than
you

tomorrow’s mother
squatted and gave birth to you
into her own two hands
she is teaching herself photography
determined to catch you
in all your light
in all your dark

tomorrow’s mother
has reached beyond her womb
has reached out across the world
to choose you from afar
she fell in love with your photograph
fought great battles for you
plowed through paperwork for you
sat in hospital, saw you through your surgeries
and broke her back
to bring you home

tomorrow’s mother
is a lawyer, a poet, a veteran
a prisoner at the border, a gardener
a supervisor for a non-profit, a counselor
sells pharmaceuticals, plays the flute
gives museum tours in English and in French
plants gardens in Togo
teaches yoga to cancer patients
blogs her way through chemo, keeps up hope
can’t wait to be a student again

tomorrow’s mother
is perfectly splendid
falls spectacularly short
her arms are tentacles
her aim, impossible
and bold

–C. S. E. Cooney 5/10/20

Claire had me weeping at several different points in the poem. But boy, did she kill me with the “Tomorrow’s Mother” section!

For my part, I chose to “ask the cards for answers”—I meditated on an idea, drew a card, and then wrote a stanza about that idea. The four ideas were:

  1. The Mami I remember
  2. The fear of my memory degrading
  3. The impossible desire to hold on to what’s lost
  4. The void of the future

And pictured below (in the foreground) are the four cards I drew:

From the ideas I meditated on and the cards, I wrote these four stanzas:

I.
Before Mami died she couldn’t die. Before mami died,
she made cafecito in the kitchen and dreamed that one day
all her children would move back in with her and Papi and she’d cook
a feast every night for the family and she would lead us in grace
and we’d eat and bicker (she was at least that much a realist).
It was impossible to imagine that one day she wouldn’t win,
that she wouldn’t wear us down, however far we had hurled ourselves
away from her house and our childhoods, and again we would
be tensely, uneasily orbiting her single proton. She would
take her rightful place at the Momhead and rule beneficently,
(if absolutely) over the family, and even though she has died
and continues to die every waking moment of my life, like
a monitor refreshing, I feel like she still might pull it off.
I feel it’s impossible she won’t. I feel and feel
her desire—I’m the tower, she is the bell calling all who hear
to church—and all I want to say is Yes Mami Yes Mami Yes
I’m coming I’m coming I’m running I’m coming home.

II.
Memory, like a potter, surrounds the void
with clay.

The clay can come from anywhere clay
comes from.

The clay in itself means nothing. The clay
is mathematics

until a potter makes it material, vehicle,
vessel for

the common human desire to have
a vase

in which to place some soil and water and
flowers

on Mother’s Day for your mami, who
is void

now, an emptiness that only clay and
a potter’s

care can surround into something
resembling meaning.

III.
Venus is a headless
torso of stone.

Histories are factories,
not museums.

Why is it so hard to remember
Mami’s voice?

It’s wrong even in dreams now.
I heard her voice all my life,

and now, in dreams, I only know
I’m remembering it wrong.

O Muse, shut the fuck up.
O Muse, give my back Mami’s voice.

IV.
Our lies dissipate with us when we die.
That’s the good news.

The bad news is that, as the brain
unspools, as we become a
long, thin ribbon, uncomplicated

by awareness, all our knowing
goes with it: all the worthwhile
ideas and beauties enumerated,

all the sense made of sensation.
Yes, yes—all fraught with
the limitations of preference
and opinion and superstition
and self-deceit most of all,

But what a gift to the living
it might have been, if life
was not required to unravel,

if the scarf of self could be inherited,
patched if needed, then worn, the neck
protected, without the need to knit
a scarf, or to even imagine

the solution to a problem called cold,
since it is so very hard to think
when one is cold. But then,

I spent Mother’s Day in Arizona.
We don’t think much of scarves here.
—CH 5/10/20

Both Claire and I found these poems difficult to write, but cathartic, too. The cards continue to serve as mechanical muses for us.

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