When I was a child I would run
through the backyard while my father
yanked dandelions, daisies, thistles, crabgrass,
mowed, rearranged the stones around the porch—
the task of men, though I didn’t know.
Blushed with cartoons and chocolate milk
one Saturday, I found a bee working
a dandelion for its treasure the way
only God’s creatures can, giving
and giving until all that is left
is the act itself—and there’s faith, too,
my mother used to say in her magnolia lilt.
It comes as it comes—there’s a road to follow.
When I swat the bee, I plea in triumph.
My father, knee-drenched in manhood,
grins and his gold tooth glistens a likely tale.
And when the bee stings my ear,
I run to him screaming as my mother
runs outside hearing her only child’s voice
peel back the wallpaper. She charms my ear
with kisses. This afternoon, I notice a bee
trapped inside the window as my mother
on the phone tries to still her voice
to say her mother has died. I wonder if he can
taste the sadness, the man on TV tells the other.
The bee is so calm. The room enlists
a fresh haunting, and the doorframe bothers.
To believe her when she says—
as the bouquet of yellow roses on the dresser
bows its head and the angles of my clay bloom
with fire—it’ll be okay, is my duty as son.
My mother sits in the hospital in San Antonio,
motherless—my mother is now a mother
without the longest love she’s ever known.
My mother who used to wake up
before the slap of sunrise with my father
to build new rooftops. My mother who wrote
“I pray you have a great day”
on stupid notes tucked in my lunchbox.
My mother who told the white woman
in Ross to apologize for bumping into me
as I knocked over a rack of pantyhose.
My mother who cried in Sea-Tac airport
as I walked through customs, yes-ing
the woman who asks, Is it his first time
moving from home? My mother who looks
at me with glinted simper when the pastor spouts
“disobedient children.” My mother who was told
at a young age she’d never give birth,
barren as she were. My mother, my mother.
What rises inside me, I imagine inside her, although
I’ve never had a mother leave this earth.
I’ve never been without love.
Copyright © 2020 by Luther Hughes. Originally published in Poem-a-Day on July 23, 2020, by the Academy of American Poets.
She, being the midwife
and your mother’s
longtime friend, said
I see a heart; can you
see it? And on the grey
display of the ultrasound
there you were as you were,
our nugget, in that moment
becoming a shrimp
or a comma punctuating
the whole of my life, separating
its parts—before and after—,
a shrimp in the sea
of your mother, and I couldn’t
help but see the fast
beating of your heart
translated on that screen
and think and say to her,
to the room, to your mother,
to myself It looks like
a twinkling star.
I imagine I’m not
the first to say that either.
Unlike the first moments
of my every day,
the new of seeing you was the first
—deserving of the definite article—
moment I saw a star
at once so small and so
big, so close and getting closer
every day, I pray.
Copyright © 2019 by Sean Hill. Originally published in Poem-a-Day on December 13, 2019, by the Academy of American Poets.
Last night I asked my mother to cornrow my hair
A skill I had been practicing since last summer
But always ended with a tumbleweed excuse of a braid
My black has always resided in braids
In tango fingers that work through tangles
Translating geometry from hands to head
For years my hair was cultivated into valleys and hills
That refused to be ironed out with a brush held in my hand
I have depended on my mother to make them plains
I am 18 and still sit between my mother’s knees
I still welcome the cracks of her knuckles in my ears
They whisper to me and tell me the secret of youth
I want to be 30 sitting between my mother’s knees
Her fingers keeping us both young while organizing my hair
I never want to flatten the hills by myself
I want the brush in her hand forever
Copyright © 2020 by Micah Daniels. Originally published in Poem-a-Day on August 5, 2020, by the Academy of American Poets.
Once there were coyotes, cardinals
in the cedar. You could cure amnesia
with the trees of our back-forty. Once
I drowned in a monsoon of frogs—
Grandma said it was a good thing, a promise
for a good crop. Grandma’s perfect tomatoes.
Squash. She taught us to shuck corn, laughing,
never spoke about her childhood
or the faces in gingerbread tins
stacked in the closet.
She was covered in a quilt, the Creek way.
But I don’t know this kind of burial:
vanishing toads, thinning pecan groves,
peach trees choked by palms.
New neighbors tossing clipped grass
over our fence line, griping to the city
of our overgrown fields.
Grandma fell in love with a truck driver,
grew watermelons by the pond
on our Indian allotment,
took us fishing for dragonflies.
When the bulldozers came
with their documents from the city
and a truckload of pipelines,
her shotgun was already loaded.
Under the bent chestnut, the well
where Cosetta’s husband
hid his whiskey—buried beneath roots
her bundle of beads. They tell
the story of our family. Cosetta’s land
flattened to a parking lot.
Grandma potted a cedar sapling
I could take on the road for luck.
She used the bark for heart lesions
doctors couldn’t explain.
To her they were maps, traces of home,
the Milky Way, where she’s going, she said.
After the funeral
I stowed her jewelry in the ground,
promised to return when the rivers rose.
On the grassy plain behind the house
one buffalo remains.
Along the highway’s gravel pits
sunflowers stand in dense rows.
Telephone poles crook into the layered sky.
A crow’s beak broken by a windmill’s blade.
It is then I understand my grandmother:
When they see open land
they only know to take it.
I understand how to walk among hay bales
looking for turtle shells.
How to sing over the groan of the county road
widening to four lanes.
I understand how to keep from looking up:
small planes trail overhead
as I kneel in the Johnson grass
combing away footprints.
Up here, parallel to the median
with a vista of mesas’ weavings,
the sky a belt of blue and white beadwork,
I see our hundred and sixty acres
stamped on God’s forsaken country,
a roof blown off a shed,
beams bent like matchsticks,
a drove of white cows
making their home
in a derailed train car.
From Leaving Tulsa (University of Arizona Press, 2013). Copyright © 2013 by Jennifer Foerster. Used with the permission of the author.
Small light in the sky appearing
two pine boughs, their fine needles
now etched onto the radiant surface
and above this
high, feathery heaven—
Smell the air. That is the smell of the white pine,
most intense when the wind blows through it
and the sound it makes equally strange,
like the sound of the wind in a movie—
Shadows moving. The ropes
making the sound they make. What you hear now
will be the sound of the nightingale, Chordata,
the male bird courting the female—
The ropes shift. The hammock
sways in the wind, tied
firmly between two pine trees.
Smell the air. That is the smell of the white pine.
It is my mother’s voice you hear
or is it only the sound the trees make
when the air passes through them
because what sound would it make,
passing through nothing?
From Faithful and Virtuous Night (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2014) by Louise Glück. Copyright © 2014 Louise Glück. All rights reserved.
My mother married a man who divorced her for money. Phyllis, he would say, If you don’t stop buying jewelry, I will have to divorce you to keep us out of the poorhouse. When he said this, she would stub out a cigarette, mutter something under her breath. Eventually, he was forced to divorce her. Then, he died. Then she did. The man was not my father. My father was buried down the road, in a box his other son selected, the ashes of his third wife in a brass urn that he will hold in the crook of his arm forever. At the reception, after his funeral, I got mean on four cups of Lime Sherbet Punch. When the man who was not my father divorced my mother, I stopped being related to him. These things are complicated, says the Talmud. When he died, I couldn’t prove it. I couldn’t get a death certificate. These things are complicated, says the Health Department. Their names remain on the deed to the house. It isn’t haunted, it’s owned by ghosts. When I die, I will come in fast and low. I will stick the landing. There will be no confusion. The dead will make room for me.
Copyright © 2020 by Richard Siken. Originally published in Poem-a-Day on December 4, 2020, by the Academy of American Poets.
In the room almost filled with our bed,
the small bedroom, the king-sized bed high up
and on casters so sometimes we would roll,
in the room in the corner of the corner
apartment on top of a hill so the bed would roll,
we felt as if we might break off and drift,
float, and become our own continent.
When your mother first entered our apartment
she went straight to that room and libated our bed
with water from your homeland. Soon she saw
in my cheeks the fire and poppy stain,
and soon thereafter on that bed came the boy.
Then months, then the morning I cracked first one
then two then three eggs in a white bowl
and all had double yolks, and your mother
(now our mother) read the signs. Signs everywhere,
signs rampant, a season of signs and a vial
of white dirt brought across three continents
to the enormous white bed that rolled
and now held three, and soon held four,
four on the bed, two boys, one man, and me,
our mother reading all signs and blessing our bed,
blessing our bed filled with babies, blessing our bed
through her frailty, blessing us and our bed,
blessing us and our bed.
She began to dream
of childhood flowers, her long-gone parents.
I told her my dream in a waiting room:
a photographer photographed women,
said her portraits revealed their truest selves.
She snapped my picture, peeled back the paper,
and there was my son’s face, my first son, my self.
Mamma loved that dream so I told it again.
And soon she crossed over to her parents,
sisters, one son (War took that son.
We destroy one another), and women came
by twos and tens wrapped in her same fine white
bearing huge pans of stew, round breads, homemade wines,
and men came in suits with their ravaged faces
and together they cried and cried and cried
and keened and cried and the sound
was a live hive swelling and growing,
all the water in the world, all the salt, all the wails,
and the sound grew too big for the building and finally
lifted what needed to be lifted from the casket and we quieted
and watched it waft up and away like feather, like ash.
Daughter, she said, when her journey began, You are a mother now,
and you have to take care of the world.
From Crave Radiance: New and Selected Poems 1990-2010 (Graywolf Press, 2010). Copyright © 2010 by Elizabeth Alexander. Used with the permission of The Permissions Company, Inc., on behalf of Graywolf Press.