Mar. 15, 2009

Ode on My Mother's Handwriting

by Barbara Hamby

Her a's are like small rolls warm from the oven, yeasty,
       fragrant, one identical to the other, molded
by a master baker, serious about her craft, but comical, too,
       smudge of flour on her sharp nose, laughing
with her workers, urging them to eat, eat, eat, but demanding
       the most gorgeous cakes in Christendom.
Her b's are upright as soldiers trained by harsh sergeants,
       whose invective seems cruel in the bower of one's
own country but becomes hot gruel and a wool coat
       during January on the steppes outside Moscow.
Would that every infant could nestle in the warm crook
       of her c's, taste the sweet milk of her d's, hear
the satiny coos of her nonsense whisperings, making
       the three-pronged razor of her E easier to take,
the bad girl, I'm ashamed of you, disappointed, hateful,
       shame, shame, shame
, the blistering fury
of her f feel less like the sharpened rapier of a paid assassin,
       left only with the desire to be good, to be ushered
again into the glittering palace of her good graces,
       for her g's are great and fail not, their mercy
is everlasting. The house of her h is a plain building. It has no
       pediments or Palladian windows but brick walls,
sturdy and indestructible. Oh, the mighty storms that rage
       cannot tear down these thick walls or alter
their sturdy heart. But her windows are small—she does not
       like to look out, shuts her eyes, for the world
is cold while her fire is warm. She is a household god,
       jumped up on Jesus, Jeremiah, Job, all the Old
Testament scallywags and their raving pomaded televangelist
       progeny, yet her k's know how to kick up their heels,
laugh at you and with you, which up a Christmas Dickens
       would envy, kiss your eyelids as you drift off to sleep,
though no one can know the loneliness of her l, a forlorn
       obelisk in the desert, hard and bitterly cold
in the heat of the sun. Other m's are soft and round,
       but not hers—the answer to every supplication
is, "N-O spells no," which, in a way, is comforting,
       because you know where you stand,
where your please, pretty please begins, and how far those p's
       must climb before meeting her most serene
and imperial q's-regular, rigid, redoubtable. For the dark wind
       of her s's can be like the desert simoom, hot and dry.
You could die of thirst, your throat taut as a tent pole holding up
       your bones and their tatters of flesh, but for her hurricane
of words, blowing roofs off houses, lavishing water on an arid world,
       unleashing slaps, hugs, prayers on the long, ungainly hours
that separate us like the spaces between her lines, the waves
       of her u's, slice of her v's, vivisecting each moment
with the x-ray of her ecclesiastical gaze. What is her x, a kiss
       or a rebuke? Both—her lips sweet as the nectar
bees suck from flowers, cruel as their sting. So why
       am I still her acolyte, her disciple, her most obstreperous
slave? Because in the curve of her zed is my Zen master,
       my beginning and my end. How I have felt the five
fingers of her one hand; seen her hair, once chestnut, turn white
       as a seraph's wings; heard her high, naked voice combust
with love's bitter perfume; sat down at her Puritan
       table and feasted on her wild blue eyes, like rustling
cornflowers in the dark, mutinous grass of the past.

"Ode on My Mother's Handwriting" by Barbara Hamby, from Babel. © University of Pittsburgh Press, 2004. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

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