On shelves now The book had me fooled. I opened it up and had the notion that what I was dealing with here was just a collection of mom-centric poetry. In my defense, I don’t like reading bookflaps and I’d never read a Hope Anita Smith book before. Nope. I hadn’t read The Way a Door Closes or Keeping the Night Watch. Also, as a children’s librarian I’ve been trained to think that if a book is called something like Mother Poems then it’s probably going to be a bunch of unrelated verses about mothers and how swell they are. The kind of thing publishers like to release around the Mother’s Day time of the year. As I started reading, I was struck by Smith’s voice and sheer clarity of her verse… and then the mother died. Suddenly I had a story on my hands. A tale told in poems about the needs of girls who lose their mamas. Stark and solid, Smith pulls no punches and gives us a strong story infused with the raw pain of loss.
"She is my mom." Thirty-one poems and that’s the thought that cannot leave this young girl’s mind. They have the normal mother/daughter relationship. The hugs and kisses. The annoyance and the whining. But through it all they’re remarkably close. So much so that when the girl’s mother dies she’s cast adrift. Told entirely in the first person, we see the pain of losing someone you love and the snail-like crawl back from the feeling of utter abandonment. In this world there are only two people, a mother and a child, and when you take the mother away what’s left is a series of thoughtful, moving, utterly honest poems complemented by collage paper illustrations.
The sheer hunger of wanting your mother roars through this book. I’ve never read a collection of poetry that just leapt into that void so unabashed. At times the book resounds with the girl’s desperation. "Good Behavior" catalogs her attempts to do everything right. To be the model child who will be rewarded with the return of her mother once again. Then Smith socks in you the gut with the simplicity of those last two lines. "Tomorrow / I will try harder." Mother Poems shifts from merely being a sweet series of poems about a mom, to cataloging the stages of grief in a child. The layers of hurt that have to be mended and healed are revealed here. The father hardly plays any part at all, which is interesting. Maybe there’s a story behind who he is, but if that’s the case it will have to be told in another book. She may die, but the mother in this story overwhelms everyone else, and the dad is left as merely a plot device and not much more.
And while she’s doing all that with one hand, the other hand is mixing together delicious turns of phrase. "My Mother’s Kitchen" discusses an aunt whose cooking leaves something to be desired. "We all `Mmmmm’ together / and raise our eyebrows ever so slightly, / hoping the gesture will act as a lever / to open our throats, / allow Aunt Nedra’s / home cooking to pass through." Meanwhile the poem "Sound Advice" talks about earning the right to have an attitude. "Get your hands off of your imagination" is what the girl’s grandmother says to her when she plants her fists on her (as of yet) nonexistent hips. The turns of phrase ring in your ears as you read them, and linger there like catchy songs when you’re done.
For the most part, the book is free verse, but once in a while Smith shakes things up a bit. "Dangerous Game" is like that. I can see using this poem with kids. Each stanza is four lines and the final line is always "This is a dangerous game." Here’s a taste: "I saw her when I went out one day. / She asked me if I wanted to play. / I should have turned the other way. / This is a dangerous game." Kids should be asked what they think this poem means, particularly when you read the poem right after it "Sleuthing". Because whoever that mother is, she appears and then disappears from the final three poems in the book. Is she a new stepmom? Just a woman who lives on the street? A threat? Smith raises the questions, and then returns to memories of the old mother, and finally the daughter’s peace (if not acceptance). Funny choices, but ones that make for great discussion.
It’s funny that on Ms. Smith’s other books she usually is paired with an illustrator. And after reading through "Mother Poems" it seems impossible to think that anyone’s art could be better suited to her work than her own. For this book, Ms. Smith creates torn paper collages. The pieces look rough and accidental, though the likelihood is nil that a scrap would just happen to come out indicating the slightest hint of a nose or the raised second finger on a hand. Though supposedly flat they also reveal a certain amount of depth to them. The poem "Sleepover" shows a mother sleeping on her side, arm above head above hand. Next to her, the daughter has flung one of her legs backwards and over the mother’s knee. It’s very difficult to view this as a picture that wouldn’t even lift a centimeter off the page. In this scene there is a layering to people that overwhelms the layers of pulp. The pictures also suggest, though they never outright say, how the mother died. In many of the pictures, the mother is featured as bald or wearing a headwrap of some sort. And maybe it’s just a creative stroke on Smith’s part, but for people looking for an answer, there’s one in the details.
Assumptions stamped into the dust, I view Mother Poems as a unique, beautiful collection. On the outset, it looks all sunshine and light. Inside, there’s more pain than you might think to expect. A book that lures you in with the possibility of banality, then hits you over the head with meaning and light. A whole lot of people are about to be surprised.
On shelves now.
Source: Book sent from publisher.
- It’s Poetry Friday!
- Hear Ms. Smith talk about the collection and read some of her poems on NPR.
- Ms. Smith also recently completed her term as the writer-in-residence at The Thurber House. She writes about her experience here.
- Bookends at Booklist reprints one of the poems in full, in case you’re curious. Thriving in the Chaos reprints another.
- Ohio State University’s Doug Dangler interviews Ms. Smith in a three part series as part of Writers Talk. Writers Talk is produced by the Center for the Study and Teaching of Writing at the Ohio State University. There’s no better place to see Ms. Smith read her poems and do her stuff.