Dear Elizabeth Alexander,
My name is You Young, and I’m an eleventh grade student in Seoul, South Korea. When I saw the title of your poem, the first thought that came to my mind was, “This poem must be about an in-law conflict.” In Korea, mother and daughter-in-law relationships are considered one of the most difficult relationships to navigate, and are believed to be the source of various family tensions and conflicts.
With such preconceptions in mind, I was pleasantly surprised to find that the relationship in your poem was a near antithesis of my expectations. The speaker’s emphatic change in referring to the mother as “your mother” to “our mother” and phrases like “our mother… blessing us and our bed” reveal the affection and gratitude she feels toward her mother-in-law. I felt quite embarrassed that I had presumed the nature of a certain relationship solely based on my culture’s stereotype. Thank you for reminding me to maintain an open mind, especially when approaching subject matters that I might already be familiar with.
Additionally, your recitation helped me realize the importance of not just reading, but also listening, to poetry. When reading the poem, its sentimental tone (in the second stanza especially) gave me the impression that it would be read softly in a slow tempo throughout. But you read certain phrases, particularly those with repeated words, with a strong and steady pulse that made them really stand out. For example, the lines “we would roll / in the room in the corner of the corner / apartment on top of a hill so the bed would roll” were read so rhythmically that I could envision the words actually “rolling” smoothly from one corner of the room to another. It also felt as if I, too, was drifting along on the rolling bed with the poem’s words. Did you repeat certain words and phrases with the intention of creating visual imagery through rhythm? If so, do you think of the images first before writing the words, or do you create images out of the words you’ve already written?
I also want to share with you my interpretations of the poem. I noticed that while the pronoun “you” is mentioned several times in the first stanza to refer to the speaker’s husband, it is not mentioned again in the second stanza. Although the husband is mentioned in the second stanza, he is simply mentioned as the son of the mother-in-law: “And soon she crossed over to her parents, / sisters, one son (War took that son.)” Was there a specific purpose for detaching the husband from the speaker? I’m thinking that it may be to change the focus of the poem from the speaker’s relationship with her husband to her relationship with her mother-in-law. Would I be correct in thinking this way?
Furthermore, it seemed that throughout the poem, the mother-in-law and the daughter-in-law figures overlapped to create a single image of a loving mother. The lines in which the daughter-in-law tells the mother-in-law about her dream stuck out to me the most; the speaker was photographed and her portrait, revealing her truest self, revealed “[her] first son, [her] self.” To my interpretation, the mother-in-law loved this dream because just as the son is the embodiment of her very self, he was everything to the mother-in-law as well.
Such a loving and selfless image of a mother provoked me to think whether you took inspirations from Mother Nature. The mother-in-law’s actions, like libating the bed with water from the homeland to blessing the bed and reminding the speaker that she “ha[s] to take care of the world” now that she is a mother, seem to suggest the belief that mothers must nurture the world.
And were the idea of Mother Nature embodied in the two mother figures, has it also influenced the structure of the poem? To me, I felt that the life-giving and nurturing traits of Mother Nature complemented the free verse structure. I was thinking this might be because while Mother Nature does provide fundamental principles of life, such as regeneration, it allows its children to roam freely. Would I be going too far off in thinking this way? If not, was there another reason why your poem is free verse?
I truly appreciate the opportunity to engage with your poem and write to you about my observations. I’ve always loved how poetry can captivate readers with aesthetic and rhythmic qualities. My experience thus far with poetry has taught me that there is a special intensity in poetry that cannot be found in other mediums of literature and art. This subtle yet powerful expression of emotions and aesthetics has improved my ability to better conceptualize the world and communicate it to others. Though I don’t consider myself a poet, I am thankful that I was able to come across your poem, and that the Dear Poet Project has given me the chance to engage with it on a deeper level.
Seongnam-si, Gyeonggi-do, South Korea