To My Mother

I do not know now if you sang to me
in the first grace of days, but there’s a sound
still at my sleeping side, that rang to me
down boyhood’s cavern. You were not around
and nothing of the heart was to be found.
But there was something deep and dear to me:
a light stream tumbling over rocky ground,
a far-off music that was near to me.
And if it came from tunes far back, a making
of tender songs of old, I do not know.
Softly upon my sleeping and my waking
it sounds the changes of a poem ringing.
I like to say, it is my mother singing,
and now that you are gone I tell you so.

After my first two years you were not there.
Ah, was there not a light-of-beauty sifted
from a few thousand hours within your care –
that on a near-dead mollusc-shell down-drifted?
To some bewildering depth-of-ocean shifted,
a ditchling in the dark, it had no sense
of the stars’ glow, astonishingly gifted. . .
that took an age to peep through its defence.
My young and careless mother, you created
an instrument and handed it away.
A flute was mute, a trumpet did not play,
as all my childhood in a death’s-grip waited.
Adopted into a family I hated
I died in life. I say it first today.

Nineteen years. A galaxy too far.
I found you then. At first a loving wit.
I went to buy two sherries at the bar:
your comment was, I hadn’t changed a bit.
But there was an uncertainty with it,
a greeting that was not of son and mother,
an absence. For the first time I admit
I went towards a nowhere. You were other.
But still through realms of space a river ran
past light and dark, a timeless conversation
to span the stars. It ceased as it began:
an eye on me, now in exasperation.
I’d called a “nurse” a “girl”. You put me right.
And still a river runs past dark and light.

Forty years or more you kept an eye
on who I was, my teaching and my writing,
my marrying and my children, so that I
was known. You saw the drab and unexciting
apprenticeship to age; the blind in-fighting
at work, for the dry bones of bonuses;
and then the scratching-of-backs and the back-biting
of literary lions: you heard of this.
You knew it all before; but, dear, you listened
with sympathy, and watched me on my way.
You traced the arc and oversaw the crescent
of youth to middle-age. It was my day
you knew the impulse of, far more than me.
I face the dusk now without you to see.

After a death one finds out which is which:
a magnitude of mind, or thoughts that matter;
a heap of ownership, or being rich;
a necklace strung of sound, or a mere clatter;
a story or a disconnected chatter;
a shift of scenes or an unbroken play;
the linkage of a poem, or words that scatter
the breath behind the use of words away . . .
after a death one knows why art is born.
But I know more. The river of my bearing
through you, through me, is of a burning power
such as to steep the ordinary hour
in a dark fitful current of words flaring.
My little art from a great store is drawn.

Mother, if you and I partook of song,
if song of us, then when my song is ended,
and vanished my lost hours, and childhood long
down which a scrap of gloom went undefended;
and the rich friendship gone, so long extended,
that stalled at first (from a too speedy start);
and the dusk darkened, into which descended
a ray of that swift mind and loving heart . . .
Mother, if song was ours, and poetry (past
the practicals of day) named us for song,
if we were two notes in time’s melody,
then you have held me near a lifetime long,
from the last grace of days, my going at last,
back to the time when you first sang to me.

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