Brooks’ poetry, so rich in personal detail and authenticity, often does not have to justify the moral side of issues like other poems usually do. Her work, for me, seems less confessional and more like realistic humanity, a difficult feat to accomplish when so much of the material speaks of inner turmoil, lost loves, and wistful sadness. Honest in tone and filled with common and often disturbing themes, the poems were ones I was able to connect with. “The Mother” and “The Sundays of Satin Legs Smith” are two poems that speak to me in terms of universal longing and pain. I have never had an abortion, but I know several people who have.
In fact, last year I had an 11th-grade student who was pregnant, and I told her that I would gladly adopt the baby. She said she would consider it, but she ended up having the abortion. For a couple weeks after she got back, I kept wondering what that child would have been like; but then, I had to force myself to put it out of my mind. “The Mother” brought back all the joys of having a child and all the disappointments of not having a second one. “The Sundays of Satin Legs Smith” reminds me of that sinking feeling when you realize that the man you are with is not who you thought he was.
You still love him, which makes the pain of a failed relationship that much harder to accept. I think of a couple specific men I dated before I got married (thank God I did not marry them), and I wonder at the decisions of women – the willingness to overlook the bad things because they are desperate to have somebody – anybody to fill the void. In “The Mother,” the speaker’s obvious pain and regret comes close to excusing her from the act of killing a child (for some readers it might exonerate her completely).
In line one, the speaker confesses to a horrific action while simultaneously, with the pronoun you, imploring the reader to mentally relate to her experience. When the speaker remarks that, “Abortions will not let you forget,” she makes her abortion the readers’ abortion. Because of the personal pronoun “you,” readers must imagine themselves in the midst of one of the most painful decisions a woman can make. This simple choice of diction allows Brooks to comment on the universally-felt consequences of abortion: people never forget.
The sentence structure in the irst line also serves to take the blame off the speaker and transfer it to the action. By writing that “abortions will not let you forget” and making the actual abortion the subject of the first sentence, Brooks makes the action of abortion that which will not let mothers forget, not the actual decision to get an abortion (made by the mother) the primary cause of the pain. By distancing herself from the act, Brooks allows the speaker to reflect on the consequences of the abortion without addressing the moral issues of the decision.
With the usage of the 2nd person voice throughout the first stanza, Brooks continues to pull her readers into her (or the speaker’s) story, thus eliminating blame and creating a bond between reader and speaker. Using rich details to show readers what they will not experience because of an abortion, Brooks recounts several instances that typify the first year of a baby’s life: “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” (2-4).
By stating that a mother who aborted a child did not “get” that child, Brooks creates a tone of one longing for a prize lost, as if the mother did not choose the abortion but rather was forced by someone else to make that decision. The speaker tells readers that they remember the child they did not get; as a result, the reader can picture facing the awful decision that the speaker and so many other woman have faced. The blame, then, dissipates into the possibility that all people must face difficult decisions in their lives.
In the last three lines of the 1st stanza, Brooks’ choice in diction reveals the genuine love the speaker feels for the lost children. Although it seems paradoxical to love someone and then kill him, Brooks makes it easy for readers to believe that this is what the speaker actually did. She writes of those special moments that only a mother can understand: “scuttle off ghosts…control [the mother’s] luscious sigh…return for a snack of them with gobbling mother-eye” (8-10).
A mother will brave ghosts and monsters (real or imagined) for her child, and sometimes it takes amazing self-control to simply stop staring in disbelief at the beauty of the child you have created. When my son was a baby, I used to sit behind him and just breathe in his lavender baby-smell. I felt like I could “gobble him up,” and I still do – but he, of course, won’t let me now. At 8-years-old he is a “big boy. ” Brooks has somehow made the reader remember and re-live the good and beautiful aspects of having a baby; and yet, the poem is about abortion.
By creating such a nostalgic mood in the reader, Brooks again takes the focus off of the terrible act of murder and waits until the second stanza to address the speaker’s regrets. With the nostalgic mood carrying over from stanza-one, the shift in stanza two works because the reader has already forgiven the persona for her sins. And yet, in answer to the readers who still have a difficult time accepting the harsh reality of the poem, Brooks makes a convincing argument in this second stanza, claiming that she still thinks about her babies, she regrets what she has done, and that she mourns the lives her dead children will never live.
The first line of the stanza serves as the primary claim: “I have heard in the voices of the wind the voices of my dim killed children” (11). The speaker still thinks of her dead children; and like the wind that comes and goes, so too does the sorrow. There are times when people can forget about a loss, but then, like a strong gust of wind or even a gentle breeze, the memory will come back. This universal reaction to loss again puts the reader and the speaker in a similar position. Although the reader may not have gone through an abortion, there are bound to be issues that the reader wishes to forget and simply cannot.
In lines 15-22, Brooks’ use of the word “if” escalates the tension in the poem by creating uncertainty about the speaker’s intentions. Most people would feel comfortable blaming the speaker for murdering an innocent life; however, with that first subordinating conjunction, the reader must accept the possibility that the speaker is not to blame for the murder: I have said, Sweets, if I sinned, if I seized/ Your luck/ And your lives from your unfinished reach, If I stole your births and your names, Your straight baby tears and your games If I poisoned the beginnings of your breaths
When the speaker asks “if [she] has sinned,” she subtly implies that perhaps she did not do anything wrong. While not actually justifying her actions, her simple questioning of guilt reveals more in what it doesn’t say than in what it says, like the directing of a conversation or an order from a restaurant. When the bartender wants the patron to order top-shelf liquor, he will give the patron two choices, both of which are top-shelf. The patron has no other option (or so she thinks) but to order one of the two liquors the bartender has suggested.
Brooks, then, gives the reader two choices where before, there was only one. The first choice is to believe that the speaker is fully to blame; the second is to question whether or not the speaker has done anything wrong. The next “if” sends a blatant and almost defiant message. “If I seized your luck” would imply that the speaker did exactly that; and yet, with the “if” in front of the action, the speaker recognizes the wrongdoing but justifies the action: she took the ability to have luck, and thus to experience life, from her unborn children. The “if” adds an element of inevitability.
The speaker may recognize her mistakes, but she also suggests to the reader that something higher (or more powerful) than herself ultimately caused that action. With the juxtaposition of the words seized and if, Brooks creates a universal paradox: one of freedom of choice and yet helplessness. With assertive verbs like stole and poisoned, the speaker abandons this helplessness and continues her tones of defiance. Whereas the previous instances of the usage of “if” encourage the questioning of guilt and the possibility of speaker justification, the verbs stole and poisoned admit to a wrongdoing – albeit still with a sense of regret.
Courtney from Study Moose
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