The poem marks a point in the poet's relationship with his mother just before she died. The poem's movement is from "mother sits on the edge of her bed", to a cafe where "a new mother fed her infant daughter", and finally to his own daughter, the granddaughter, who "met a boy for a moment in a fleamarket, who is now a first love."
Usually, we avoid assuming that the voice in the poem is the poet. But, Burt is a friend and colleague at NJIT and I know something of the poem's genesis.
It's a poem that I connect more directly to myself lately because I maintain the same ritual of bringing dinner to my 92-year-old mother.
There was an article in Poets And Writers magazine about reading John Donne (The Sick Genius Of Remorse) by William Giraldi where he talks about his own depression that hit him after his father’s untimely death. He rediscovered the poetry of John Donne as a way out of the darkness.
Of course, the John Donne of “Death, be not proud, though some have called thee/Mighty and dreadful, for thou art not so...” is part of a body of poems of grief that includes Gerard Manley Hopkins and poems like "Deathfugue" by Paul Celan, or many of Marilyn Hacker’s poems, My Mother’s Body by Marge Piercy and “Little Father” by Li-Young Lee.
But that's not what Kimmelman is doing in his poem, or what I want you to try in your own writing this month.
I hesitated to even list those poems because I don't want to receive an inbox of elegies.
Burt also sent me two other poems that he feels serve nicely as companion poems. Both about the end of his mother's life.
When you told me, "I'm dying - it's
all right," I dreamt I was treading
water in the ocean, no land
in sight, and a great ship, its sails
jutting into the night sky, was
making its slow way toward the far
horizon. The world of the dead
must be like that realm where dreams hold
the living, where we come and go,
breathing stars. If I could rouse you
from that place I would tell you how
I swam, swam to shore, exhausted,
where I hear your voice in the waves.
The Sleep of the Dead
My mother would sleep "the sleep of the dead,"
she used to say. We would wake her and she
would sigh, saying she had slept longer than
she had meant to. On the day my father
was to leave our home he lay in bed with
his back to her, a single tear in his
eye - and she, breathing softly, lay with her
back to him. "I wake to sleep," Roethke wrote.
In her sleep she seemed to leave her daily
torments behind with her two sons, boyfriends,
job, landlord, books, music, movies, paintings
and sculptures - as if sleep were without thought,
without language or dream, the stepping out
of time and into a still and deep lake.
In her old age she grew sick, too full of
pain to walk more than a few steps from her
bed. One night, after a light meal with wine,
she fell asleep. When we found her in the
morning she was lying on her side, her
arm crooked at the elbow and tucked under
her pillow, her eyes and lips closed, her cheek
smooth. A thin thread of saliva and blood
had trickled from the corner of her mouth
and turned brittle on her chin. Her heart had
surged and stopped, She looked like she had not known
it. Perhaps that night she dreamed - dreaming of
lying in her mother's arms, of sinking
into the calm water of her embrace.
For this month's writing prompt, try writing a poem about caring for someone old, or sick, or dying. But don't write an elegy. Celebrate the life, the ritual and the connections that caring has to other parts of life.
PennSound from a reading at the Kelly Writers House. The reading of "Taking Dinner to My Mother" includes some back story about the poem, and refers to Garrison Keillor's reading of the poem on public radio's The Writer's Almanac.
On his blog, Al Filreis has commentary on Burt's poetry and two videos of him reading at the University of Pennsylvania.
Burt Kimmelman has published six collections of poetry. "Taking Dinner to My Mother" is from As If Free (Talisman House, Publishers, 2009).
He has also published There Are Words (Dos Madres Press, 2007), Somehow (Marsh Hawk Press, 2005), The Pond at Cape May Point (Marsh Hawk Press, 2002), a collaboration with the painter Fred Caruso, First Life (Jensen/Daniels Publishing, 2000), and Musaics (Sputyen Duyvil Press, 1992).
Burt Kimmelman is a professor of English at New Jersey Institute of Technology and the author of two book-length literary studies: The "Winter Mind": William Bronk and American Letters and The Poetics of Authorship in the Later Middle Ages: The Emergence of the Modern Literary Persona. He also edited The Facts on File Companion to 20th-Century American Poetry and co-edited The Facts on File Companion to American Poetry. He has published scores of essays on medieval, modern, and contemporary poetry.