with critique by Jendi Reiter
Dress the child in black all his life
feed him licorice
sew him black, stitch, stitch.
Run the child in fields wild over
stumps and streams
train him to climb.
No one will follow.
Cry softly under Baby's cries
when he reaches for a stronger arm
and clutches only a withered breast.
When the milk runs dry, feed him
licorice and chase him, racing
Mirrored between lilies
he'll see a deep fish.
He will ask for sugar, but you'll have
only a black spiral
He'll learn to like it.
irises dawn misted, listless in
before the toweling sun rises.
Work your work, your life;
wear a dress, bare your breasts,
he'll call you mamaŚ
cover them, hide
the scent of milk
wear jeans and heavy shoes
play ball, build a treehouse
he'll call you daddy.
And when the other men strip
their shirts from the sweat of mowing,
run away to the house where window breezes
cool your blasphemy.
Speak softly when he finds
you in the mourning, cotton wet
against your cheeks, breasts buried
in the cool touch of the sheet.
Sit up, take him to you.
He is an only child
and you are his mother.
Die, dressed in his black birthrobe.
He will turn white with your name
watch you raised higher than tips of roots.
He will know he is your only man.
Copyright 2003 by Laurie J. Ward
Critique by Jendi Reiter
I chose Laurie Ward's deeply affecting poem "Blackened" for this month's critique because of its subtlety of thought and expression.
I knew I was in good hands from the very first lines: "Dress the child in black all his life/feed him licorice/sew him black, stitch, stitch." What a complex relationship is revealed in those few words: tender care inextricably entwined with mourning, even ambivalence about the child, as the mother binds him tight, feeds him with her own sadness. Is she immunizing him against a harsh world, or forcing him to lose his illusions too soon? Ward is unafraid to acknowledge the dark side of intimacy.
The title, "Blackened", suggests that both characters in the poem are scarred but still standing, like a lightning-struck tree. No matter how much the single mother and her son love each other, their relationship is overshadowed by the burden of having to be everything to one another. He is her "only man", while she must be both mother and father to him.
In passages such as the stanza beginning "Speak softly when he finds/you in the mourning," Ward frankly portrays the Oedipal tension that their closeness generates, without degenerating into prurience. The recurring image of the mother's breasts takes on multiple meanings, from breastfeeding to the "blasphemy" of her suppressed sexuality and her inability to fill the father's role. It's almost as if, by concealing her breasts, she is holding back some love from the growing child for his own good.
One feels secure, because of the strength of the mother's love and her clear insight into her own feelings, that this is a fundamentally healthy relationship despite the sensual undercurrent. This impression is confirmed by the last stanza, in which she imagines her own death (real or symbolic) and thereby faces the fact that he will grow away from her. He is her only man, but she is not meant to be his only woman.
What makes "Blackened" so successful is that it does not lay out this storyline in a literal way. T.S. Eliot wrote that poetry best conveys emotion by means of "objective correlatives", namely objects and events that, when described, will naturally produce a certain emotion in the reader, without the need to spell out what she should feel.
Unconstrained by realism, poetry can compress a whole relationship into a few strange but apt phrases. "Die, dressed in his black birthrobe," could not be literally true (babies are rarely dressed in black, and it wouldn't fit her anyway) but conveys a wealth of psychological information in a more immediate way than any prose paragraph: one generation making way for the next, the sadness attendant on his birth, the centrality of motherhood to her identity even when he is grown, etcetera. You can see how the poetic version delivers more impact with fewer words.
Another interesting difference between poetry and prose is that images can have emotional resonance in poetry even if their "meaning" (in the sense of something you could paraphrase) is unclear. I had trouble visualizing what Ward meant by "He will turn white with your name/watch you raised higher than tips of roots." In the context, I felt some kind of liberation was at work here, but not sure how the pieces fit together. The son has been freed from the blackness at last, but how does "with your name" come into it? "Higher than tips of roots" is also puzzling, since roots point down, while "higher" in this context suggests ascension into heaven. Tips of trees would make more sense, though it would also be less original. But on another level I still like the images, perhaps for their refreshing oddness, as well as the stately sound of the lines. Both "name" and "roots" suggest the continuity of generations, a fitting way to end the poem.
Where could "Blackened" be submitted? The poem's free-verse narrative style and intimate subject matter would probably be a good fit for many journals. Based on what I've seen of their recently published authors, I recommend submitting to the following:
Main Street Rag (submit to magazine, also see their chapbook and full-length book contests)
The Marlboro Review
Postmark Deadline: March 31 (changed to April 30 as of 2006)
This poem and critique appeared in the November 2003 issue of Winning Writers Newsletter (subscribe free). If you'd like a chance to be critiqued, please email your poem to firstname.lastname@example.org. Please send your poem in the body of your email, rather than as an attachment. One poem per month only, please.
Several of our critique poets have asked me whether their poem would be considered "published", and therefore ineligible for most contests, after appearing in our newsletter. My guess would be yes, but check with the contest coordinator just in case, because some publishers may treat print and online publications differently.
Note on October's critique of Becky Sakellariou's "Crows":
Our well-read subscriber Lucinda Lawson cleared up a question I raised in my October critique. She writes, "You mentioned in the critique wishing that you knew who Mary, Maxine, and Donald were, assuming they were older and wiser members of the 'tribe.' I read poetry for pleasure, and before I reached the end of the piece, I recognized Mary Oliver, Maxine Kumin and Donald Hall (all very influential poets) by the things the writer said they knew, as well as by their first names, the short list of items for each poet being reflective of that poet's repeated themes throughout the lifetime of his/her work. Kind of a neat touch, I thought."
Becky has confirmed that this is what she had in mind. It's great to have such astute readers. I learn something every day!