Pushcart 2015: Rebecca Gayle Howell , “My Mother Told Us Not to Have Children” (Poetry) from Rattle, #42

Tom French: from the "Duality" series

Tom French: from the “Duality” series

She’d say, Never have a child you don’t want.
Then she’d say, Of course, I wanted you
once you were here. She’s not cruel. Just practical.
Like a kitchen knife. Still, the blade. And care.

The duality I’ve been noticing in this volume so far is at its most explicit here, embedded in some of our most emotional language. Tough love. Smother love. I love you to pieces. In this poem (available online as both text and audio, thank you, Rattle), we see both sides. A kitchen knife is an essential tool; it’s also a weapon. Just like mother love. The interplay of blade and care plays throughout the piece. A bath in dirty water, tenderness that feels like drowning. Drowning that feels like air: the freedom to say what something is.

The line breaks contribute to the duality with enjambments that could go either way, or change on continuation after the break: “Of course, I wanted you” sounds like the end of a sentence, but it isn’t; that clause offers comfort, the next takes it away. I’m befuddled, however, by the transition from brothers and sisters to crickets eating the back forty; is this a simile? Or a juxtaposition of two images? I’m not sure. Could it be either/or?

But I found something else that commanded most of my attention: “Instead, our estate was honesty…” I found my anger intensely triggered by that line. I’m damn sick of people who proudly boast, “At least I’m honest,” which seems to mean, “I don’t care about your feelings enough to do the work to deliver the truth in a way that won’t hurt you. My need to say whatever I think be it useful/appropriate or not, is more important than you and your petty feelings.” I think this kind of honesty is thinly-veiled aggression, not a virtue. Go away and don’t come back until you learn how to behave.

I’m not sure if it’s the poem, or me, or the combination of the two (sometimes we find something at the moment we need it; we call it coincidence), but it’s something that demands I listen.


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