See Me Slant:
Poetry Considers Her Mother
Poetry ought to have a mother as well as a father. —Virginia Woolf
I am a woman who slants. Standing, I lean into my right hip. When I catch myself doing this, I realign, redistribute my weight, and establish that poise my mother would be proud of, standing as if a book were balanced on my head, my neck full of understated attitude, my eyes focused on an object across the room, hips symmetrical. My mother insisted that I practice this posture, the dictionary resting on the crown of my skull, shoulders fluid, my gait as smooth as suede. I crossed the room several times as she watched, and this practice always occurred in silence, as if spoken words might topple all that vocabulary just above my head. Whenever we went out in public together, my mother, taller than I, would bend slightly and whisper, “Stand up straight.”
My mother gave me this body, the one that slants while standing, and she worked hard to ensure that I’d have a voice of dusk for those words that teetered on my head, along with the common sense to pause and rearrange myself when aslant. She gave me practical advice—where to dash, how to shape my nails into commas, what style to wear, who to date, when to use a period. And when I was older, my mother instructed me in the art of reading between the lines, and how to catch (as if they were fireflies) the words that live in the mind. She showed me how to care for my lips so they’d be useful, and how to keep my tongue clean so as not to disturb the ecology of what I tasted.
I grew up in my mother’s body. On the long, wide savanna of her back, I pretended to be grass. In the fertile crescent beneath her breast, I hid like a turtle. At the twin beaches of her thighs, I invented waves. I browsed in the orchard of her hair. Found safety in the coves between her toes. She offered me these landscapes connected to her body, along with a universe beyond—the constellation of her mind and the momentum of her orbit. She could fold herself into a boat simply by wrapping her arms around me. My mother comprised all these dimensions at once—the place of arrival and point of departure, the act of journey, the vessel that affords passage, the North Star that guides.
As a child, I listened carefully to my mother, watching her mouth as it shaped what it uttered, imitating how she touched her lip in a coy-mistress kind of way as she hesitated to locate the perfect word, my ear against her chest as she fashioned a sentence out of thin air. She was always leaving language around the house for me to find, asking me to celebrate ordinary things like fishhouses or oranges, and to consider extraordinary ideas like the design of an oyster or the curve of time or the progress of a beating heart.
My mother divided time into stanzas. Matins we sang to the breaking day and last vestiges of starlight. Before lunch, we washed windows and banished the dust, setting the house in order like any mother and her daughter. She showed me how to organize the bureaus into sonnets, folding fourteen articles of clothing mixed in color and utility into each drawer. How to iron out the wrinkles and sew on the buttons. Afternoons, we painted haiku on the bathroom mirror and looked at our reflected faces webbed in the seventeen syllables of our design. At twilight we cleaned our pens, repaired the spines of books, and my mother hummed a tune for the rising darkness. It was always at this hour, the moment between day and night (the hour when a wolf might be mistaken for a dog, as they say in French), that she rested her teacup on the table, leaned toward me, and told me things she knew. Like the true names of the birds. Or that each person I encountered would be as full of stories as the great library rumored to have stood at Alexandria. That she named me Poetry to keep her body alive, a fleshy dialogue across the ages.
After dinner, she opened all the doors and windows in the house and I explored. She always hid something for me, in the closets or the attic, under my bed, in the medicine cabinet. A moth wing. A swatch of black velvet. A lead pencil. A bell jar. A copy of National Geographic from 1918. A wild iris. A blackbird feather.
I always started my exploration in the house, sometimes running from room to room, sometimes standing still and closing my eyes, focusing my entire inside self to picture where she had hidden the latest treasure. After I located and studied the gift she had secreted away, I went outside. We stood in the frame of the front door, my mother and I, until she stretched her arms out to the night.
“This is your backyard,” she always said. “Play in it all you want, but come home when you’re ready.”
I learned to see in the dark this way, to stand so still that I could hear a spider repair its web, smell the breath of trees, sense the dance of water murmuring beneath my feet. Sometimes I held my tongue out, trying to catch a solitary raindrop. When it snowed, I took off my shoes.
As I grew older, I yearned to hold hands with the darkness, to shape it into a person whom I could bravely face and tell my secrets. I longed to build a house of night for my secret-keeper, a dwelling that smelled like moss and safety where we might lie down as lovers and tell each other stories until daybreak. There I sat, alone in the geography of desire, summoning a human form with a human heart, remembering to choose each word as if the wrong word at the wrong time might dissolve my lover’s hands. I was never ready to go home, never tired of playing this game.
My mother knew that I would not return once I wandered in the place she had invented for me. She did not want me to be nostalgic for her, for our house, for the gifts she left me.
“That was the point,” she always said, “that you’d become a cartographer, that you’d know how to come home even if you didn’t want to.”
She was an expert at redefining and expanding desire’s boundaries, pushing me against that uncomfortable edge you must navigate to reach clarity. Because my mother was expansive in imagination, I was able to steer beyond the melancholic pulse and the cynical wink, and out into the land, not to be silenced as some have been silenced who move into the world, but to make it part of memory’s biography. Infuse it with images and sounds and that invisible thing in the gut that falls through the center of the body when one is alarmed or aroused, stunned or stunning.
The day she died, my mother reminded me to care for memory as if it were my child.
“No tarrying too long in the backyard,” she said.
But I could see the coy-as-a-coy-mistress smile (something my father had inspired in her, I am sure) tugging once again at her lips, and I knew she was not completely serious. I believe she was telling me instead to take all that I remembered with me, as if it had a hand I could hold, a body I could love, the acuity to rename everything possessed of a beating heart.
When I lean into my right hip, it is as if I were trying to lean into another body, place my head on its chest. Sometimes I feel the heat of a torso, the bone of the hip, an arm, like the secret-keeper I made of night in the topography mapped of my mother’s body and mind. And often I hear its voice.
“Stand up straight,” it always says.
With thanks to: James Baldwin, Elizabeth Bishop, Laure-Anne Bosselaar, M. Wylie Blanchett, Mark Doty, Louise Glück, Jane Kenyon, Phillip Lopate, Andrew Marvell, Frank O’Hara, Sylvia Plath, Wallace Stevens, Walt Whitman, and Virginia Woolf.
Kim Dana Kupperman has had work published in Best American Essays 2006, Brevity, Hotel Amerika, Ninth Letter, River Teeth, and elsewhere. Her honors include notable mentions in Best American Essays 2007 and the Pushcart Prize XXXI anthology, the 2003 Robert J. DeMott Prize from Quarter after Eight, and first place in the 1996 Elie Wiesel Prize in Ethics Essay Contest. She is the founder of Welcome Table Press, whose mission is to publish and promote the essay in all its forms. She works as managing editor of The Gettysburg Review. (4/2008)