Poetry Explorer- Classic Contemporary Poetry, MOTHER (MARGERY CARRUTH, 1896-1981), by HAYDEN CARRUTH

Poetry Explorer

Classic and Contemporary Poetry

MOTHER (MARGERY CARRUTH, 1896-1981), by                 Poet's Biography
First Line: Mother, now at last I must speak to you. The hour, so late but even so has come
Variant Title(s): The Event
Subject(s): Death; Memory; Mothers; Dead, The

Mother, now at last I must speak to you. The hour, so late but even so, has
Mother, after sixty-one and a half years of my life,
After one and one-quarter years of your death,
After your incomprehensible durance and anguish, which deranges me still,
After the wordless years between us, our unutterable, constricted, strangling
After the long years of my private wrecked language, when my mind shook in the
tempests of fear,
After everything between us is done and never to be undone, so that no speech
Nevertheless I must speak.

The sea is not here, nor has it ever in my life been where I was,
Nor was it more than briefly ever in yours (you, bound inland, away from your
Yet how you spoke, sixty percent aphasic as you were,
Of "the water" and "the ship," and of "the glittering water" or "the golden
shining water"
Between the ship and the pier when you looked down from the fantail,
(Was she the Vulcania? I almost seem to remember),
How you spoke in the phantasmic childhood you were living again
Of the water gleaming, of your mother, of her leaping down into that golden
alley of death,
(But she did not; she leapt from the sixteenth floor of a hotel on Broadway),
How your pallid, brown-spotted, wrinkled, half-paralyzed countenance grimaced,
So that I could not tell whether you were smiling or struck with terror,
Until I recognized that it was the ultimate human expression, the two masks
Mother, how you spoke then, giggling and whimpering, your voice skipping from
node to node of your mind's dispersion,
How you mingled the water, the glimmering, the exhilaration of a voyage
beginning, the horror of a voyage ending,
(Your mother, my Nana, the strange woman of glistening auburn hair),
How you spoke gave me to understand the as it seemed inhuman human lucency
Of your half-dead mind,
And the way, intermingling there, these visions of childhood, death, mother, and
Were the wisdom beyond speech,
Were knowledge in its clearest configuration,
Which did not for one minutest part of an instant relieve your agony.
"O Hayden, take me home," you wailed, singing it out fully and tremulously.
But you thought home was England.

Was your damaged brain the same as a damaged soul?
I ask myself, and have asked in long, long sequences of perturbation and doubt,
(I who have called and called to my own soul and never heard an answer),
You lay there three years, twisted,
Until your body became so rigid that no man could have been strong enough
To undo the knot, as no person, man or woman or even child,
Could penetrate your mind in its writhing, convulsive indagation.
Oh, the suffering! You in the focus of the pain of all our lives,
You on the threshold, knowing it clearly, peering into the darkness,
But so ravaged in the coils of thought that no current could be induced,
And thus you lay there smashed, a machine of random parts, of no definable
Unable to generate so much as the least beginning spark of an idea,
Unable to conceive any suppositum of your predicament,
And fear wailed out of you, unintelligible sentences that vanished in rising
As if you were an animal somehow granted the power to know but not to think,
Or as if you were a philosopher suddenly deprived of every faculty except
Original fear and pathos. I cannot surmise a state of being more inconsonant
With human consciousness.
Oh, many as evil, many and many, God knows, but none essentially worse.

To which was added, of course, humiliation.
"I am not nice," you repeated in your weeping quaver. "I am not nice,"
Covered from head to foot with your own shit.

Once when I came you would not acknowledge me. Not even a flicker of your
I thought you were dead.
I shook you as it seemed unmercifully and shouted next to your ear. I shouted.

At last, unmoving, you said in a quiet, perfectly normal voice, as in old times,
"I hear you."
Nothing more. After an hour I left.
Never have I heard anything more terrible than that "I hear you."

Three years. For you they could have been three million. You lived only
In the present moment,
The moment before death.
And the doctors who had "saved your life" would give you nothing.
Three million moments before death.
Should I have smuggled in marijuana for you? Heroin? I think I should.
A century ago the doctors would have fed you laudanum like sugar cubes,
Assuming you had lived through your first stroke. But you would not have.
You would have died quickly, appropriately, humanly.
For every technological advance, intelligence makes a moral regression.

Three million moments. Three million deaths. O my mother.
You lying there in a twisted, useless body.
You on the shore of death, perpetually.
You in the shadowy tumult of memories.
You in your language broken, stammering, whole aggregates of once-luminous words
blown out.
You nearly blind, your son's face unrecognizable.
You with your hearing still acute, able to distinguish voices.
You with your radio that the nurses always turned to a rock station, in spite of
your frowning.
You unable to cover yourself, your withered cunt showing.
You wailing and wailing, no, not like a child, but in a voice torn and wasted, a
cruel parody of a child.
You with your teeth broken and rotted like barely discernible, almost effaced
lines of an ancient wooden sculpture (and the doctors would permit no dentistry
for fear the shock would "kill" you).
You there, always and forever there, in the termination that obliterates
everything else.
O my mother.

I think I know why in death's unrelenting moment you thought of the water, the
ship, and your mother,
And of your mother's death,
("I think," so common, so perilous a verbal alibi),
For this is the technology of intellection in our time, state-of-the-art,
How are implanted in every childhood the great emblems of our being, one way or
Then to roil fomenting like magma in our deepest centers, managing us whether we
will or no,
For did not the land rise from the sea? Oh, consider that spasm:
Did not you erupt from the amniotic fluid of your mother's uterus, as I from
That sea whose currents, swaying, are the flow of motherhood through all our
idea of time,
From the earliest parturition,
From the first warming of blood,
From the primeval rising and falling, the moist vapors and condensations,
The warmth of the remote sun nevertheless occurring here on this stony shore,
this wall, this hospital,
And our returning through all existence to the tidal source, death in the water
and forgetting.

Once I sat on a bluff by the Susquehanna, that broad green fluvium,
I looked backward beyond the near diagonal slope to the broad field undulating,
A farmer ploughing there, guiding the share in the furrows behind his horse in
the old way,
Patiently, steadily, a man familiar with the good way of loving,
And the field was writhing in her corresponsiveness,
But as if all the declensions of intelligence with its smeared graphia had
blurred my vision,
I could not see if she moved in pleasure or pain,
O rainlike sun, O earthen sea.

How was it when you were ploughed?
Not aphasia can be the cause why you never said
In all the clinging cries of your long death
The word for your husband.

O my mother, how we have in paltry intelligence made a foul language,
For do not we say "conceiving"
To mean both the transactions of love in nature and the negotiations of thought
in emptiness?

The land risen, streaming in all her vulval channels, the fecund mud,
The loam ploughed and harrowed (oh language of violence) and dark and clean,
The corn sprouting, green leaflets, rows curving with the contours of earth's
The worms working the soil and the swaggering crow lording and eating,
Could you in the chaos of misery, the wound of your ancient sex aroused and
stinging under death's touch,
Make any conceiving of these conflicting emblems?
Or shall I say that before intelligence, pleasure and pain simply were, and were
The undifferentiated sensing, without discrimination?
No. But for you were we all hagseed.
But for you.

When an old woman, staring blind, her skeleton, the skull and bones, showing
almost white
Beneath the mantle of her dissolving skin,
Dies at last,
We rejoice and say that she is a bride again, and we give her flowers,
Virgin of the sea, girl of the sun,
-- And mother, I could bide no more in these damnable
Inconsistencies, fear-wrought, flimsy, hysterical,
And I saw we are right to rejoice, a small, reluctant celebration of the drowned
For the passage out of consciousness is at least in itself a minor advantage,
Though it is not a passage out of existence.
Ah, that it were, my mother,
Then would we have true marriages!
Rejoicing points our way through the little door at the back of the garden,
Hidden in the vine-leaves that we in all our power of thought are afraid to
To rejoice for death is to mourn existence,
As we do in the vine-covered depths of imagination,
All secretly, all in vestigial instinct unknown to us, as animals who regard the
world with scorn,

Look at them, great panthers, wolves, study those eyes, they hold our own
ancestral, proud resentment,
Existence is the crime against the existing, and no matter who is the criminal,
(The death of God, like the death of Hitler, is an affair of no consequence),
This thisness that is, all this something that could just as well be nothing,
The seed or the sequoia, the neutron or the galaxy,
What is and is and is and is and is,
Oh, in my rage at No One to address, I cry out: Intelligence,
(For mind is implicit in it all),
Give over, it is enough, let existence subside,
All this that words point to meaninglessly like vanes jerked in the wind,
Sea, land, sun, consciousness, the universe, most meaningless word of all (the
fantastical coverting into one),
I cry out for us all, Desist, give again the void, the one word that means

Margery Tracy Barrow Dibb Thummell Sterling Carruth, you used to rattle out
Your name like a litany, your Latin that nevertheless remained for you a little
You linked, you connected, a place for you in the generations of Old England,
Yet you told me nothing of your family, you ran away from home when you were
A lost child whose kinship was the waifs, those Dickensian forlorn whom everyone
must love,
And only later did I learn that Tracy was the knight (the punk) who inserted the
stiletto (the shiv) into Thomas a Becket,
Or that Barrow was rector of Christ Church, tutor to Isaac Newton, artificer of
much of the Principia,
(When first I read what John Aubrey wrote of him, I was as if swept gently into
an eddy of time by my admiration),
You in the long moment of death remembering your voyage (were they two? I think
so) to England,
(And now my memory comes clearer, your vessel was the Mauretania),
How you crossed the shining water from earth to the great ship,
And went forth on the dark sea,
A child you were,
Then an old woman dying,
An event, an instant.

Clearly the first sailors were the dead. Why do I find here no scholars?
(Intelligence a structure of optimism, the human error, and thus ships must
have carried corporate earnings to Thebes.)
The dead was placed on a dead tree at the riverside and sent on its voyage to
the sea,
The temple of Osiris was built with a moated pool in the forecourt, on which
voyaged a toy boat, the Ship of the Dead, wafted
This way and that by the currents of air that were Ra's whisperings,
And it is told that such a temple existed in Taunton, Massachusetts, which I
For surely I am an Heliopolitan and Isis is my mother, and I dwell in the curse
of Thoth forever,
(And yet, You Jackal, Eater of Carrion, if words were inevitable in your numen,
how more wondrously than the hieroglyphikos, the priest-writing?),
And all oceans run westward in our minds,
And if rivers appear not to, still we must cross them,
The ferry, shadow of the sun's barque, each sundown into the dying aureole,
A lingering, languishing disappearance (appearance in Dis).

I have seen the jet at 35,000 feet, a spark in the sunset, under Hesperus,
And then no more,
The empty acorn cupule, vacancy so vast, turning in the rivulet. (Akran, Goth.,

Has anyone ever set foot aboard without a dark inarticulate knowledge of the
true cargo?
The little last-minute hesitancy of embarkation.

Mother, I stood on the pier with you, in the turbulence of whirling images,
I leaned down to you, down to your words muffled by the wind,
I watched you cross, I waved to you, I smiled and took off my hat,
Little blonde girl frowning at the rail, your muff and shining black shoes,
The flowers crushed to your chest.

She shook him and the boy tumbled down the stairs, bouncing oddly from side to
side. A box containing a loose weight.
At Hartford on the deck of the packet, awaiting departure, they sat under an
awning and stared at the rainbow, one of which was located in the river halfway
to the opposite shore.
The young woman, dressed in a long dark flannel skirt and a blouse buttoned at
the throat with a wide white collar, held the reins with both hands, but
lightly, as the carriage lurched up Hardscrabble Hill.
The dresser was painted, medium gray enamel, a white cloth with cross-stitched
hem in blue thread, a large mirror behind, speckled in one corner where the
silver had flaked. A hairbrush, comb, and handmirror of tarnished silver. In
the middle of the cloth lay her favorite pendant, a blue moonstone very
delicately carved to reveal the face within. Decades later it was presented to
a granddaughter and now lies at the bottom of the Gulf of California off Isla
San Marcos.
In the spring of 1926 she ran across a lawn, into an orchard, where apple petals
fell thickly about her. She wore a short skirt, tennis shoes, a sweater, a
double strand of amber beads. In the brightness her legs flashed whitely.
Her diary. Small black-covered record books, scores of them over the decades.
She wrote at a carved oval table in the corner of the dining room, next to a
fern and a telephone. For fifty years she used a green Parker pen with a gold
loop in the cap for suspending it on a ribbon, though she never carried it that
When her first great-grandchild was born in 1970, she tried to feel glad, but it
was useless. She bitched and nagged as usual. No room for great-grandchildren
in her vision of the House of Reality.
At age four she stood on a piano stool in a white ruffled dress and played a
half-sized violin. The music was not preserved in the photograph. Later one of
her favorite recordings -- she had many -- was Menuhin's performance of the
concerto by Mendelssohn.
At seven she dined at Delmonico's and marveled at the ballet girls dancing
overhead, their skirts whirling in circles above the glass ceiling.
At thirty-three she went to bed for six months. "Pernicious anemia." It was
successful and from time to time thereafter she repeated it.
She and her two friends, Madge and Milicent, canned peaches all day, filling the
kitchen with steam. A cloying odor. This was in 1939.
In 1925 she refused to sleep any longer in the same bed with her husband. She
kept the white enameled, iron double bedstead for herself. In 1928 she began
refusing to accompany him on his Sunday afternoon walks.
When her husband died, week after week she wept for his loss while she watched
baseball on the TV. "He was a good man," someone said. "He was the only person
who could comfort me in my trials," she answered. It was true.
The assembly of skeletal crones in their wheelchairs near the nurses' station.
The smell. The inosculation of thecal miseries. The wails and babblement.
Death permeative. Dachau.
Her pride. Never to include the lack of money among her complaints. To keep
her house orderly and clean; to cover up its shabbiness. In old age she
implored and cajoled, that others might wash the windows.
Her fear of coal gas. How she ran to the cellar door to sniff. How she threw
up the sashes when someone farted.
Over and over she read the novels of Arnold Bennett, H. G. Wells, Helen Hunt
Jackson, H. Rider Haggard, W. Somerset Maugham, Hugh Walpole, etc. But when
television came, she gave up reading.
In her first years of marriage she wrote stories for girls and sold them to a
children's magazine. Then she lost interest. A few years later her husband
gave up writing poetry, although he had enjoyed a modest success with light
verse in the slicks.
When she was a girl she skated to school from 96th and Central Park West to (I
believe) 83rd near Amsterdam. Sometimes, if the northeast wind were strong, she
could coast the whole way.
She delighted in avocados exceedingly, and was put out with her family because
no one would eat oysters. She regarded her marriage as a social, though perhaps
not a cultural, catastrophe. She ate avocados standing at the kitchen cabinet
and scraped the hulls with her spoon. She called them alligator pears.
Anemia. Miscarriage. Chronic psoriasis. Hemorrhoids. Gallstones. Chronic
cystitis. Uterine cancer. Cataracts. Toothache. Many cerebral incidents.
Rectal cancer. Two major strokes.
When was her finest hour? She does not know. She remembers only successive
faint sensations of imprisonment and flight.

The Indo-European root pha, suggesting light and clarity, surfaces in
phenomenon, the thing that appears,
And also in the Greek for "I say," phemi, thence in phonation, verb,
(And, I suspect, in speech, though my magic partridge is roosting in some
other hemlock tonight),
For appearance is nothing until it has been spoken and written, nothing at all,
And now words are revenant, like the tides of shards drifting on the waste at
Old Oraibe,
The issues my friends and I settled twenty years ago or thirty years ago
Are now impossible even to describe.

Nana, so remote, yet only second in the chain of motherhood,
(My own grandchildren sending crayoned flowers as I sent mine to you),
You brushed your waist-long auburn hair until it shone as if it were burnished,
you wore dead foxes with bright little eyes,
You came with trunks and hatboxes and bright packages of toys, and you stayed
two days, and you departed,
You vanished into the train, which went away calling Who? Whoooo?
And you carried a book called Science and Health, which you left open upon
the bed when you flumped from the hotel window,
And beyond you is no name, no woman, no mother, far down the valley of dark
None in the mountain pass, none on the sunlit plain,
Far and far to the grove by the sea where dwells the water-woman whose beauty is
too great to be looked upon
And where the bronzen child calls always in the sea-wind Who? Whoooo?

And the words are tokens, and the tokens are despair,
And the silence which is beyond everything, the silence which is around
everywhere, is unattainable,
No death can reach it.

Hypocritical reader, you think you know better than I, and you do,
But your knowledge is of tones, not meanings; it is soothings and alarms,
The unrolling and rolling up
Of contrivance unending, images, blandishments, the calculus of inexperience in
a thingless world,
The flat screen;
And your knowledge is the massive dictatorship that runs this camp of ignorance
where I find myself;
Oh, the loathing with which I look out upon you, my horror, my despair.

I held out my fingers while you burnt them with matches, one after another,
I snuggled close to you in the deserted railway station in Southbury while
whirling snow filled the night,
I was astonished when you shrieked because you imagined I would marry the woman
next door,
I never told you, when you visited me every week during the year and a half of
my commitment, how grateful I was that you brought no other gifts,
I swallowed when you forced the castor oil into my mouth for punishment,
I cooked dinner in the fear of mystery when you lay ill and called directions to
me in your unrecognizable voice,
I ducked when you stroked the back of my head and told me I had the handsomest
nape in the world,
I tried not to scream when you hit me with my father's strop,
I tried not to cry when you fed me junket and sweet custard with the half-sized
silver spoon, those times when I had measles and rheumatic fever,
I ironed the pillow cases, towels, and handkerchiefs, you ironed the shirts and
I came to you in shame when I pissed in my pants at age twelve because I could
hold it no longer,
I stared when you held the ether over my nose in a tea strainer so the doctor
could cut out my tonsils on the dining table,
I wondered when you held my face with your palms and looked at me a long, long
time until I cast down my eyes,
I was shocked when you laughed delightedly at the hot juice fountaining up from
the cherry cobbler you had made and it spurted all over the linen,
I was sobered when you took me to school and explained everything to the
I never understood (how could I?) the hunger of your love, or why you called me
selfish . . .

Often people ask me how you were as a mother, and I ask myself how I was as a
son, but what shall I answer?
We were like no others.
I know this. Anything else is inconceivable. My mind will not think it.
But more I cannot say, for what created our difference is still unknown to me.

On the sea of motherhood and death you voyaged, waif of eternity,
You were the pioneer whether you knew it or not,
You were the unwitting pioneer, and most of the time unwilling,
You who for seventy years despised your stepfather, I am certain (in the nature
of things) with justice,
You who knowingly first met your father when you were thirty,
The seedy businessman from St. Louis, that droll city,
You whose husband, loving and incapable, the knight in podgy armor, the poet
from the land of the Brownies,
Talking away your blues with the wisdom he gave instead of love and that he
himself could never use,
(Oh, might I say, with the dicky bird, that things past redress are now with me
past care!),
You, my mother, who taught me without words that no secret is better kept than
the one everybody guesses,
I see you now in your eternal moment that has become mine,
You twisted, contorted, your agonized bones,
You whom I recognize forever, you in the double exposure,
You in the boat of your confinement lying,
Drifting on the sea as the currents and long winds take you,
Penitent for the crime committed against you, victim of your own innocence,
(Existence is the crime against the existing),
Drifting, drifting in the uncaused universe that has no right to be.

Used with the permission of Copper Canyon Press, P.O. Box 271, Port Townsend, WA
98368-0271, www.cc.press.org

Discover our poem explanations - click here!

Other Poems of Interest...

Home: PoetryExplorer.net