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My Mother


my mother my mother my mother she
could do anything so she did everything the world
was an unplowed field a dress to be hemmed a scraped knee it needed
a casserole it needed another alto in the choir her motto was apply yourself
the secret of life was spreading your gifts why hide your light
under a bushel you might

forget it there in the dark times the lonely times
the sun gone down on her resolve she slept a little first
so she'd be fresh she put on a little lipstick drawing on her smile
she pulled that hair up off her face she pulled her stockings on she stepped
into her pumps she took up her matching purse already
packed with everything they all would learn
they would be nice they would

apologize they would be grateful whenever
they had forgotten what to pack she never did
she had a spare she kissed your cheek she wiped the mark
away with her own spit she marched you out again unless you were
that awful sort of stubborn broody child who more and more
I was who once had been so sweet so mild staying put
where she put me what happened

must have been the bushel I was hiding in
the sun gone down on her resolve she slept a little first
so she'd be fresh she pulled her stockings on she'd packed
the words for my every lack she had a little lipstick on her teeth the mark
on my cheek would not rub off she gave the fluids from her mouth
to it she gave the tissues in her ample purse to it I never did
apologize I let my sister succor those in need and suffer
the little children my mother

knew we are self-canceling she gave herself
a lifetime C an average grade from then on out she kept
the lights on day and night a garden needs the light the sun
could not be counted on she slept a little day and night she didn't need
her stockings or her purse she watered she weeded she fertilized she stood
in front the tallest stalk keeping the deer the birds all
the world's idle shameless thieves away


Ellen Bryant Voigt

Headwaters
W. W. Norton


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