Clearances 3: A Poem for Mother’s Day
Some things are hard to give fit tribute to. No matter what we may say, it always seems to fall short. On those occasions, I’ve found that it can be better, actually to avoid “giving fit tribute” but instead approach the matter “sideways” by focusing on one concrete detail – of the person or occasion – that suggests the larger whole. Seamus Heaney wrote “Clearances,” a series of eight sonnets, in memory of his mother. In the third of those sonnets, Heaney focuses in on the detail of he and his mother peeling potatoes while the rest of his family were away to church. The kindred spirit and communion they shared in that simple work evokes a much deeper sense of the relationship he shared with his mother than he could possibly achieve if he’d gone at the matter directly.
If I could write a similar poem about my mom, I would focus on the first time she took me out driving after I had received my driver’s permit. We were going to soccer practice and were picking up some of my teammates along the way. She assumed that I had been driving already at driver’s ed. in school. By the time it became apparent to her that I had, in fact, never been behind the wheel of a car, we had already picked up one of my friends. Rather than instruct me verbally, or ask me to move aside for her to drive, or anything else that would have embarrassed me in front of my friends, she would simply touch my leg, indicating whether I should slow down or speed up, turn the wheel more or less sharply. So when the day comes that the parish pastor goes “hammer and tongs” about ultimate things, I will remember the compassion and understanding that two deft forefingers can convey.
When all the others were away at Mass
I was all hers as we peeled potatoes.
They broke the silence, let fall one by one
Like solder weeping off the soldering iron:
Cold comforts set between us, things to share
Gleaming in a bucket of clean water.
And again let fall. Little pleasant splashes
From each other’s work would bring us to our senses.
So while the parish priest at her bedside
Went hammer and tongs at the prayers for the dying
And some were responding and some crying
I remembered her head bent towards my head,
Her breath in mine, our fluent dipping knives–
Never closer the whole rest of our lives.