Poem 13 Beth Mayer
This week’s poem is by local writer Beth Mayer. Beth is an accomplished fiction writer—her stories have appeared in presitigious national magazines—but she is also, as this poem demonstrates, a wonderful poet.
Reading this poem, I can see a fiction writer wrote it. I mean by that the sense of the story within the poem and the ways Mayer moves the narrative so gently down the page. In 21 lines, we have a plot, a setting, two distinct characters. But we also have a poem, not a short story with funky line breaks. Maybe all of Mayer’s fiction is so exquisitely crafted, but certainly this poem is. We can see how strong the verbs are the whole way through, and their momentum drives the poem forward.
And so what is this poem about? It’s another mother/daughter poem. As a mother and daughter (and a mother of daughters), I confess to be drawn to this subject. But this poem, in spite of its domestic setting, suggests a radical revision of women’s domestic work. The speaker in the poem models for her daughter a transformation of chore into religious practice, and while at the poem’s end the speaker is still questioning how much of her revery she should share with her daughter, the fact that the poem is written tells us that,yes, she will instruct her daughter in an alternate form of domesticity.
The poem is stealthy. While the situation is clear in the first stanza—the mother has left her “body behind at the kitchen sink” (the opposite of Thich Nhat Hanh’s suggestion to be fully present even when we wash the dishes)—the reader is inside two consciousnesses at once—the speaker’s and her daughter’s. We also see that while the adult speaker can understand the child’s thoughts, the child cannot yet fathom the adult’s. How does the child react? With action, strong verbs: she can “turn…chatter into song,” “hit her brother” or “confess she is afraid.” It’s on that verb “confess” that the speaker turns inward. It is also here that the previous structure of beginning each line with a verb poses interesting questions for the reader.
The colon at the end of the line “Here I am doing marvelous things:” suggests a list (like the one in the previous stanza) will follow. What are these things? “Asking every pertinent question” seems clear, but the reader must wonder—of whom? The next line reads “Talking to God” and we have to wonder, is that a list of two things or one sentence? Is talking to God different than asking every pertinent question? The next line, when the speaker “is transubstantiating the ordinary” does not really answer the question,instead offering wondrous possibilities for accessing the divine within the domestic.
That the final stanza ends in questions seems entirely appropriate. How does one explain to a child the world of belief? How does one understand faith and the power of that faith in words?
This is a gorgeous poem. And wait until you read Mayer’s stories!
My daughter does not like this
my hands moving under warm running water
as if they are washing a glass.
She knows the three surest ways
to bring me back:
turn her chatter into song
hit her little brother
confess that she is afraid.
Here, I am doing marvelous things:
asking every pertinent question
talking to God. I am
transubstantiating the ordinary.
Should I tell her
my travel is dangerous
but essential? Tell her
I would never, could never
leave her behind? Tell her
that when my work is done,
how glad I am
to step back into my feet?
Check out Beth's webpage for more information about her and her publications!