Crammed between art catalogues and magazines on the bookcase in our living room sat a battered clothbound book during my childhood. Titled, The Combined Louis Untermeyer edition of Modern British and Modern American poetry, it belonged to my mother. Her scribbled notes in faint pencil decorated the margins and each time she’d pull it out and hand it to me, telling me it was one of her favorite college textbooks, I’d marvel at the thinness of the pages and the heft of its weight.
Sometimes during my adolescent years, in the afternoon, on a day when no immediate responsibilities were pressing, we’d sit in the living room and read poetry to one another. My mother would be stretched out on the deep green Duncan Phyfe style couch, where she liked to curl up for her cat naps before getting dinner ready, and I’d be sitting across from her in one of the old rocking chairs my father was so fond of, thumbing through that heavy book looking for a favorite verse I remembered.
I’m not sure how our tradition of reading poetry to one another started. Maybe I was looking for a poem to memorize for school and I asked her advice. But when we read poems together, I saw another side of my mother. I saw the schoolgirl, eager to soak up wisdom and understand the complexities of language. Her professional work, housekeeping duties, social calendar all were forgotten as she focused on the words on the page in front of her. Words. We use words every day to speak, to give instructions, to record what happened, but when words are used to create a poem they are used sparingly and that is when the artistry of how they are grouped and selected becomes apparent. Poetry convinced me, I wanted to focus my life’s work on communication.
My mother was partial to T.S. Eliot. She never tired of reading me “The Hollow Men.” This is the way the world ends. This is the way the world ends. Not with a bang with a whimper. I marveled at the insight of Edwin Arlington Robinson’s poem, “Richard Corey” and his description of a town’s envy of a successful gentlemen who “glittered when he walked” until “one calm summer night be went home and put a bullet through his head.” I was lulled by the rhythm of Edna Vincent Millay’s poem “Recuerdo” with the repeated line We were very tired, we were very merry, We had gone back and forth all night on the ferry. We both read back and forth to each other the poems of Robert Frost, imagining the stony hillsides, valleys, trees, and ponds of New England in the landscapes of his imagery. But her all time favorite was “Lucinda Matlock,” a poem by Edgar Lee Masters published in Spoon River Anthology.
She admired the strong woman described by Masters, who raised eight out of twelve children to adulthood, and who at age 60 was still going strong rambling over the fields where sang the larks, gardening and shouting to the wooded hills, singing to the green valleys. The poem ends with a reprimand to anyone who complains they’ve got it tough with the sentence, Degenerate sons and daughters, Life is too strong for you—It takes life to love Life.
Certainly the admonishment that one must approach adversity with strength, rang true this past year as our world was rocked by the coronavirus. The ability to focus on what could be accomplished and to reach out to help others, has enabled many of us to come through a difficult time with renewed energy and insight. It’s the connections we have, our humanity, that make life worth living.
My mother Esta Maril died in 2009. At the tribute to her life, her favorite poem was read and many stories were told about her famous Portuguese soup, her perceptive advice, her humorous and thoughtful gifts, her devotion to my father, love of cats, and zest for living. I couldn’t read the poem, her poem, aloud without tearing up but now I can and I read it aloud often when I’m feeling overwhelmed. It puts everything into perspective. Happy Mother’s Day.
This Post was adapted from my Editors Letter previously published in the May issue of Chesapeake Taste magazine 2012