Three Poems for Mother’s Day 2024 – Osler, Dunn and Vuong

A giant peony from our garden. In loving memory, on Mother’s Day, of my mother, Dorothy Elizabeth (Betty) Osler, an angel of flowers.

Today, this Mother’s Day

he will write a different poem. Peony soft
with big-enough curves to wrap around the moon
when it’s full. A poem with photons enough
to light up any night free of clouds and rain.

But it is easier to remember the place a mother might sit
looking over her garden. The one, that day
littered with tulips as if cut down in a hard wind
but worse, the hard wind anger is in a boy
with sheers in his hand.

But in a place where
a mother might sit looking over her garden
could a boy, now a man, inside a poem,
bring one red tulip to place in her hand. And leave
forgiveness out of the story. Maybe it would be
enough – a man, once a boy and a mother – enough
that a tulip might be offered and a hand might be
open enough to receive it.

This, a difference
and, perhaps, enough.

Richard Osler, May 12th, 2024

Mother’s Day 2024. And I wanted to pull out some favorite “mother or grandmother” poems. Instead, first, I wrote my own poem for this Mother’s Day. An unexpected variation on a poem I have written countless times of the moment, in a blind rage, in my early teens, I cut all the heads off my mother’s prize tulips.

I trust that boy enough that he had due cause for that rage. Some way his mother did not understand or see him. Some way she accused him of something that was not true for him. But no matter the reason, the violence of that act haunts me still. A violence I still want to come to terms with. And out of this, a poem. Perhaps enough, or not.

And I don’t want my poem to have the last word. I don’t want to lose the chance to share other poems for mothers on this day made special for them. And I think, first, of the American poet Stephen Dunn’s unforgettable poem for his mother with its unforgettable lines: When Mother died/ I thought: now I’ll have a death poem.

The poem that follows, guts me still. A mother confident enough to make nothing of a twelve-year-old son’s request to see her breasts. Not to shame him or embarass him for the asking but to make it an ordinary, or as Dunn says, routine, moment in an ordinary day.

The Routine Things Around the House

When Mother died
I thought: now I’ll have a death poem.
That was unforgivable

yet I’ve since forgiven myself
as sons are able to do
who’ve been loved by their mothers.

I stared into the coffin
knowing how long she’d live,
how many lifetimes there are

in the sweet revisions of memory.
It’s hard to know exactly
how we ease ourselves back from sadness,

but I remembered when I was twelve,
1951, before the world
unbuttoned its blouse.

I had asked my mother (I was trembling)
if I could see her breasts
and she took me into her room

without embarrassment or coyness
and I stared at them,
afraid to ask for more.

Now, years later, someone tells me
Cancers who’ve never had mother love
are doomed and I, a Cancer,

feel blessed again. What luck
to have had a mother
who showed me her breasts

when girls my age were developing
their separate countries,
what luck

she didn’t doom me
with too much or too little.
Had I asked to touch,

perhaps to suck them,
what would she have done?
Mother, dead woman

who I think permits me
to love women easily,
this poem

is dedicated to where
we stopped, to the incompleteness
that was sufficient

and to how you buttoned up,
began doing the routine things
around the house.

Stephen Dunn from New and Selected Poems 1974-1994, W.W. Norton & Co., 1994

I wish I could remember a moment like this to honour my mother. I can’t as of yet in my life. But I can remember her love of flowers and how flowers loved her. That’s why the image of the giant peony above from our garden taken a few days ago. Something in gratitude for my mother. And perhaps, still, better than the image of a red tulip.

One last poem: this extraordinary homage to an immigrant mother by her son, the acclaimed American Vietnamese poet and novelist, Ocean Vuong.

The Gift

a b c a b c a b c

She doesn’t know what comes after.
So we begin again:

a b c    a b c   a b c

But I can see the fourth letter:
a strand of black hair— unraveled
from the alphabet
& written
on her cheek.

Even now the nail salon
will not leave her: isopropyl acetate,
ethyl acetate, chloride, sodium lauryl
sulfate & sweat fuming
through her pink
I NY t-shirt.

a b c    a b c    a—the pencil snaps.
The b bursting its belly
as dark dust blows
through a blue-lined sky.

Don’t move, she says, as she picks
a wing bone of graphite
from the yellow carcass, slides it back
between my fingers.
Again. & again

I see it: the strand of hair lifting
from her face... how it fell
onto the page—& lived
with no sound. Like a word.
I still hear it.

Ocean Vuong, from Night Sky with Exit Wounds, Copper Canyon Press, 2016

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