Big Mama laughs
and points her hand.
Her pretty laughter
shoves the air between.
Her flirting eyes
Her dangling ear rings
dance and shine.
Her dark, blue-satin coat
shudders and clings.
She is a happy woman
all the time.
Long ago my mama danced the shimmy—
shook her shoulders under sweaty lights
that whirled and glittered, the music loud and tinny.
She shook her hips and shimmied away the nights;
her hip-beads would swing and click against her skirt.
Her legs were pretty. She even caused some fights—
she couldn’t help it that she loved to flirt.
She drank and laughed until the years would spin—
as if to hold away all future hurt—
the tears to be—the way it all changed when
the carefree jazz was traded for bad news,
brought by some man she loved. But until then,
she danced the shimmy-shimmy—not the blues
she’d later dance—in sadder dancing shoes.
I’m driving along
to sweet jazz.
Sweet jazz on my radio.
Sweet Mama . . .
How you loved to drive
your little car . . .
all those years and miles ago.
You had no radio.
IN SUMMER RAIN
Mother, I made you dance with me in the rain.
“Come out and dance with me,” I said,
and you stared at me as if I was crazy,
or just young, which I was,
but the day was warm, and the warm rain fell,
and I wanted to dance in it, but not alone.
“Let’s put on our bathing suits,” I said,
“and dance in the rain.”
“Oh, come on, Mama,” I begged.
And we went dancing in the rain.
BIRTHDAY POEM FOR MAMA
On the eighth day of March we got very drunk
with you. We sang happy birthday and you sang
with us, and you blew out the one candle of your
cake, making some wish as one is supposed to do . . .
And this time I did help you with the dishes, and
we were good friends, and the one who was ill
among us watched us with brooding eyes, and
thought, perhaps the birthday was his . . .
But this is the way we blunder, forgetting what
those who cannot celebrate cannot remember :
Love becomes many years away from its first
person. The one you care for daily has forgotten
how to love you, but we were there to tell you
that we do, and that we remember . . . .
(first pub. in Kansas Quarterly, 1973-74)
TRAVELING WITH MAMA
The grief is hunch-hearted in my dark.
How they hurt in the lack of tears.
How my silence weeps
reaching for its peak.
No midnight or dawn can
make me speak its word.
I am mute.
I am lost upon myself like a folded map.
I cannot travel here.
The road is finished
and the little inn is closed.
My patient car is waiting to unlock.
How bright its wheels will be
when we embark
because we must, again
because we will, again.
The travel signs have lied.
They all end here.
The nighttime noises creak
and scrape and rustle
while the windshield stars deflect
and burn my cold.
MOTHER, IN THIS LETTER
I tell you all the news I would not tell you yesterday. It’s
warm for March. I’ve taken on too many things to do.
My housework suffers. I barely cook a meal. Have put on
weight. Don’t care. Or if I do, put it aside for later. You
know me and my good intentions.
You have become my angel. Did you know that Mother?
Why do I call you Mother now? I always called you
letter from the years we’ve been apart. The years that blur
together with no need for counting, only that I make them
Today I stared out of a moody window and thought of you.
And more and more I smile at you in my mirror—hold the
look a long while and say, “Hello, Mama”.
It all goes where it goes—time and its slow followers. You
went. I stayed. But you are here—isn’t that funny? It makes
me think of God or something like that—a chance religion
that I might inherit from your irritating optimism. How I
used to argue that with you. Your foolish hope and what you
bet on it. And you were right. It’s better to hope and believe
in what we want and need.
Oh, Mother, Mama, how my love for you has grown. I treasure
it as something good in me. You loved me well. It made me
have a lightness that despair can never quite bring down.
(No suicides for us, eh? No fatal flinging-off-the-edge of life,
which gets so awful sometimes.)
Mama, Mother, how goes it with you now? You grew so small
and tough. And so resigned. And even then you ruled. I fussed,
and then obeyed. Each time I came to you in Canada I came as
daughter, not my other self, and allowed you every little thrust
and parry that I knew so well; I climbed the same old angry
Oh, Mother—what a sad cliché. Such a little thing to fret about.
Then or ever. You made me good. I never doubted your fierce
protective love for me that I so frequently abused…my im-
“Yes, Mama. I won’t. And I do.” With all my love, your loving
ALL THE NEWS IS GOOD
Mama, all the news is good.
You were right to be
I have filled the little cup
and I am here
with all my blues
sewn to a morning dress.
I sit at the window
and watch the birds
who know me now.
Their shifting songs
wash over me in happiness.
I say to you,
I love those birds.
My dress of blues
fits me like words.
I think I know your secret now.
(first pub. in One Dog Press, January, 1997)
MAMA, I HAVE A CAT
We could be sisters now, my Mama;
we are the same age now.
I sit here and talk to you in your picture—
the same age now—grinning at each other.