Wednesday, January 18, 2006


The following poem by Stephen Dunn appears in the anthology First Light- Mother and Son Poems, edited by Jason Schinder (1992). My reaction to it has always been overwhelmingly positive, but others with whom I've shared it have questioned the wisdom of the mother's response to her son's request. I leave it to you to decide.

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 kow exactly
how we ease ourselves back from sadness,

but I remember when I was twelve,
1951, before the world
unbottoned 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.


Blogger Michelle e o said...

When I thought the poem was going in the direction that it did, I wondered how I would feel about it. By the end I thought it was brilliant. Thanks for sharing it.

12:31 PM, January 18, 2006  
Blogger reniebob said...

Michelle, we are in agreement. :) Glad you liked. So many lines we have to walk as mothers... I like the way the speaker came out of it feeling like his mother gave him not too much, not too little. It inspires me.

2:34 PM, January 18, 2006  
Blogger Rae Pater said...

I too, wonder how far she would have gone had he asked for more.

I'm curious as to his motive for asking to see his mother's breasts. Why her breasts in particular? I think most teenage boys, even in those days, would find another way to view a woman's breasts.

Having spent a few years doing volunteer counselling with survivors of incest and sexual abuse I have to say I felt uncomfortable reading this, and that I don't think the mother's response was appropriate.

I can't imagine my own 13 year old ever making such a request of me, but if he did I think I would take the opportunity to explain some things about relationships to him: the different nature of relationships we have with each person in our lives, and how showing him my breasts would blur the boundaries of parent/child relations for me.
I would explain that I believe people should only do what they feel comfortable doing with their bodies, and that everyone has a right to control access to their bodies in whatever way they see fit.

I would find an appropriate book to show him breasts if he was curious to see some.

I think many people confuse sexual love with other kinds of love.

3:20 PM, January 18, 2006  
Blogger TwistedNoggin said...

This is written in a way that makes a shocking/awkward theme feel perfectly natural and calm. It isn't easy to let the soothing lull of your voice present taboo subjects, when the naked words alone must show their tone and hum in text.
A very successful effort, this poem... interesting. Impressive.

4:36 PM, January 18, 2006  
Blogger J.B. Rowell said...

This poem treads right on an edge, uncomfortably, and in the end I realized the mom's intentions were true. Phew. But back to the beginning, do we believe the speaker who announces at the start that he thinks about the death poem when his mom died? How selfish! Also he talks about the sweet revisions of history - maybe he really asked his mom and she smacked him, maybe she did get out an anatomy book. And what does it mean that he loves women "easily" - is that a good thing?

6:09 PM, January 18, 2006  
Blogger Anna Greene said...

Successful as a provactive poem if nothing else. My overall impression after reading several times is that the writer is simply selfish ... not a pervert, not terribly insightful ... simply selfish.

6:22 PM, January 18, 2006  

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