I always had the feeling my mother would
die for us, jump into a fire
to pull us out, her hair burning like
a halo, jump into water, her white
body going down and turning slowly,
the astronaut whose hose is cut
blackness. She would have
covered us with her body, thrust her
breasts between our chests and the knife,
slipped us into her coat pocket
outside the showers. In disaster, an animal
mother, she would have died for us,
but in life as it was
she had to put herself
She had to do whatever he
told her to do to the children, she had to
protect herself. In war, she would have
died for us, I tell you she would,
and I know: I am a student of war,
of gas ovens, smothering, knives,
drowning, burning, all the forms
in which I have experienced her love.
One critic has said of this poem that in it the poet 'reveals the way she has been bent beneath every kind of love', and she certainly is not making clear to me how she feels about her mother. On the face of it, and more clearly in the first stanza, she adopts a tone of admiration, of wonder at the ability and willingness of the mother to save the children in circumstances where extreme action is required, in 'disaster'. And she returns to that theme at the end of the poem, bring in 'war' and listing its 'Forms' - the title of the piece.
But - and this is where I am asking for your help - she seems to be critical of what in fact, in the performance, her mother actually did. In that, where there was not 'disaster' or 'war' but merely 'life as it was', she 'put herself first' and did 'whatever he told her to do to the children'.
Have I understood this all right? Is this in point of fact a negative and not a positive statement on the mother's parenting?
Stephen, I read it as an accepting/forgiving statement, not critical. The child needs no convincing of the mother's total love, and of her willingness to sacrifice herself for her children in some external emergency, or in the imagined turmoil of war, yet understands that in ordinary reality ('life as it was') the mother had to do what was necessary to survive, and was unable to protect her children from her domineering man. It's harder to self-sacrifice when there's no life-threatening crisis. Life must go on.
Strange title 'Forms'. Though echoed in the last stanza, it hardly matches the essence of this poem.
Post Edited (10-01-04 10:14)
Stephen, as I read it, the statement that "she had to do whatever he told her to do to the children" is more of an indictment of the father than a chastisement of the mother.
Thankyou, Ian and Les.
But I have moved on to reading another poem from the same book, this one called 'The Fear of Oneself'
As we get near the house, taking off our gloves,
the air forming a fine casing of
ice around each hand,
you say you believe I would hold up under torture
for the sake of our children. You say you think I have
courage. I lean against the door and weep,
the tears freezing on my cheeks with brittle
I think of the women standing naked
on the frozen river, the guards pouring
buckets of water over their bodies till they
glisten like trees in an ice storm.
I have never thought I could take it, not even
for the children. It is all I have wanted to do,
to stand between them and pain. But I come from a
who put themselves
first. I lean against the huge carved
cold door, my face glittering with
glare ice like a dangerous road,
and think about hot pokers, and goads,
and the skin of my children, the delicate, tight,
thin top layer of it
covering their whole bodies, softly
Reading this poem, you have to ask about the significance of the statement 'I come from a/long line/of women/who put themselves/first'. It carries such a charge against mother, and perhaps grandmother, and further back: who have NOT stood between their children and pain. So, I am still thinking that perhaps - and I agree with you, les, the father is the prime villain - she has an intense dislike for her mother.
So, who are the naked women on the frozen river?
Stephen, I think what the author here is portraying is typical in attitudes where there has been an abusive relationship.
1. She indicts the mother because the mother was an enabler.
Her term for this is putting herself first. In other words, needing this man so badly that she would not risk losing him even for the good of the children.
2. Daddy was the abuser, but clearly so was grandpa.
Post Edited (10-01-04 14:02)
Stephen, that other poem doesn't change my interpretation of 'Forms'. I can't read 'Forms' as expressing the child's intense dislike of the mother. Rather it seems to express a loving child's realistic readiness to excuse the mother's human failings. At the same time, the child's idealised view of the mother, based not on reality but on pre-wired imagination ('I always had the feeling...'), remains unshaken ('I tell you she would...'). Humans live with many such contradictions!
Nor do I read 'The Fear of Oneself' as accusing the poetic persona's mother or grandmother. The focus is on the persona asking herself the terrible question whether she could hold up under torture to save her children. She has read or heard about atrocious cruelties inflicted on others, and on their children, and the images prey on her mind. She is tormented by the certainty that she would fail if put to the test (hardly blameworthy, because almost no one would not be broken by modern methods, whatever was at stake). It doesn't help her to hear others say they believe in her courage. She fears that her physical cowardice may be genetic, judging by the way some of her forebears behaved. (I explain the 'Oneself' in the strange title as referring to some such physical inheritance, feared as inescapable). The shortcomings of her mother and grandmother aren't detailed. They are cited as rationale rather than as matters of blame.
It's a distressing, memorable poem, implicitly raising the question whether individuals can transcend modern evil. Can anyone be heroic enough to face the worst of modern cruelty? Who has enough bravery or faith to follow the example of Christ who, according to the Bible, went to his crucifixion (the worst death the Romans of that time could devise) with extraordinary equanimity and selflessness? A startling aspect of his example was that he did not even purport to be courageous, but relied wholly on faith.
I know nothing of Sharon Olds, so have no idea whether these poems of hers spring from autobiographical events or imagination. Sometimes knowing the poet's reasons for writing, and what he or she meant to refer to, can help in appreciating a poem. Personally I prefer to treat a poem as speaking sufficiently for itself; though an interpretation of it has to be the product of collaboration between poem and reader. Likewise, I'm not inclined to interpret one poem in a poet's book by referring to another poem in the same book, unless the author has made it clear that the two are meant to go together, i.e. they are presented as parts of a meta-poem. On these issues however it's hard to draw the line. There are good poetry readers and critics who may adopt a different approach.
Post Edited (10-02-04 11:32)