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the mother

the mother

by Gwendolyn Brooks

Stanza 1 Summary

Get out the microscope, because we’re going through this poem line-by-line.

Title

  • We're going to start off our analysis of the poem with a quick reading of the title. There are two things to keep in mind about this baby. 
  • First, it announces who the speaker of the poem is: it's "the mother." It's not "a mother." Nor is it "some lady who happens to be a mother." The speaker of the poem is defined by her singularity—she's "the" mother. She's also defined by her relationship to her children. She's not "Susan"; she's "the mother." 
  • Second, the title is in lowercase letters. Does this diminish the position of this mother? Does it make her seem not-so-important? Let's read on and see what we think…

Line 1

Abortions will not let you forget.

  • Woah—this is one heck of a way to begin a poem.
  • Let's break down everything we know about the poem so far. The speaker of the poem is "the mother," and this line is the first thing she says to us, her audience. She addresses her audience directly with the word "you." This kind of direct address immediately involves (and implicates) us in the poem. 
  • And what are we implicated in, exactly? "Abortions." 
  • So, the mother begins the poem by telling us that "abortions will not let [us]" forget—but what will they not let us forget? The aborted fetuses? Something else entirely? Let's keep reading.

Lines 2-6

You remember the children you got that you did not get,
The damp small pulps with a little or with no hair,
The singers and workers that never handled the air.
You will never neglect or beat
Them, or silence or buy with a sweet. 

  • The next five lines provide some answers. The abortions will not let us forget "the children that you got that you did not get."
  • Hmm. These are all simple words in this line, but they are strung together in a strange way.
  • But we can unpack them, knowing that the topic of this theme is abortion. "The children you got"—the fetuses that you were pregnant with—"that you did not get"—that you did not give birth to. The mother is talking about the fetuses that she's aborted. 
  • She then goes on to describe these never-born children. She imagines that they would be "damp small pulps" after birth, that they might grow us to be "singers and workers."
  • She imagines a near, and then a distant future, for the children that were never born. 
  • The mother then imagines her relationship with these non-existent children: she will never neglect them, or beat them, or silence them, or bribe them with candy. And that's because they will never exist. 
  • She doesn't just think about the good times that she would have had with these non-existent children, but also the rough times.
  • She paints a small, but realistic portrait of motherhood.
  • But wait—is this motherhood? Is "the mother" who aborted her fetuses still a mother? Can you be a mother if you don't have any children?
  • Get ready to dwell in uncertainties, guys. These questions are at the heart of this poem.
  • Before we move on, let's just notice that we've got some rhyme going on. The first lines of the poem are written in rhyming couplets: "forget" and "get," "hair" and "air," "beat" and "sweet." There's almost a childishness about these easy, sing-song rhymes. They remind of us of some rhymes from children's poetry. ("Little Jack Horner / Sat in a corner," anyone?)

Lines 7-10

You will never wind up the sucking-thumb
Or scuttle off ghosts that come.
You will never leave them, controlling your luscious sigh,
Return for a snack of them, with gobbling mother-eye.

  • The mother continues to list all of the things that she'll never get to do for her non-existent children. She'll never get these children to stop sucking their thumbs. Nor will she pretend to chase away the ghosts that the children imagine before bedtime. 
  • She will never know the feelings of sadness when she leaves them, and the feelings of happiness when she returns to them again.
  • Notice anything weird about those last two lines? There are some serious food metaphors going on. She describes the children as "a snack," and her eyes as "gobbling."
  • Is the mother the witch who trapped Hansel and Gretl, hungry for child flesh?
  • We think not. More likely, her feelings toward these children are so deep that she feels them deep in her body. We might even call these feelings "embodied." 
  • But wait: don't forget that the mother is not talking about actual children. She has aborted the fetuses that would turn into children one day. 
  • Don't you think the mother is being oddly specific in her descriptions, her hunger metaphors, her "scuttling" of ghosts? She's not generalizing; these are full-fledged fantasies that she's sharing. 
  • And we're starting to feel like the mother is not talking to an audience of readers. She's so specific about these motherhood fantasies that it feels much more like she's addressing herself in this first stanza.
  • And hey, let's just take note of the poem's form before we move on: more couplets. We've got more childish rhyming going on. (Check out "Form and Meter" for more on that sort of stuff.)
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