The Poem At Length 1/2008 My Mother Said by Marion Cohen

by Marion Cohen

“My mother said to
“choose this very best
“ one right over here…”

My mother said
You were very good today
And the motor skipped a beat
And the moon brightened up.

But then one day she didn’t say that.
And then another day
she didn’t say that.
So finally I asked her,
wasn’t I very good today?
Of course, my mother answered. I thought you knew that.
I’ve said it so many times.

It isn’t what you’ve said, Ma; it’s what you’ve said lately.
Very good yesterday isn’t enough.
Neither, actually, is very good today.
I want very good tomorrow
and the day after that.

My mother said I shouldn’t have made them.
And the last hope went poof.
I had been looking forward to them all day
what color they’d be
what stitch she’d use
which doll they’d fit.
So finally it had been three o’clock and she had picked me up and handed them to me
in exchange for the little folded white card.
And at first my mother had said nothing.
And then she had said more nothing.
And then she had said AGAIN, lack of attention?
I know she still loves me, I had thought, because she made the doll bloomers.
And that’s when she said I shouldn’t have made them.
Yes, that’s when she said it
and that’s what she said.

My mother said Acch! Mozart!
And then she said Acch! Beethoven!
What was the matter with me?
Why couldn’t I appreciate music that way?
Well, over the years I Worked It Through
until she said Acch! Denise Levertov!

(4) Sometimes my mother said Oh Marion you’re just soooo creative.
Other times my mother said Of course it isn’t Mozart.
Well, Ma? Which is it?
You can’t have it both ways.
Or can you?

My mother didn’t say
what she wanted.
All I knew was it wasn’t the same thing as last time
and it wasn’t the same thing as next time.
Maybe it wasn’t the same thing as this time.

My mother wrote Your lunch is in the refrig.
There’s no cereal so how about some choc. milk? The pot’s on the stove. I’ll give you
the rest of your allowance tonight.
Oh Ma, I don’t want to go to school.
Oh Ma, I don’t want to go to play.
I don’t wanna breathe, Ma.
I don’t wanna grow.
I wanna be one-celled and I wanna stay home.
I want my supper. I want my allowance.
Ma, oh Ma. I can’t wait ‘til tonight.

My mother said Your husband, your son…
long before I had either.
Because the history book had said umpteen hundred men had been killed in the
Battle of Algiers
without saying which men.
And my mother wanted
me to know.

My father said What about your math?
whenever I talked about the piano
and What about your piano?
whenever I talked about math.
Dee, I’m wise as Solomon.
Cut me in half
Cut me in half.

My mother remembers all the other eight-graders could afford store-bought graduation
But, undaunted, she and Grandma bought three yards on sale
and spent the spring placing, re-placing, pinning, un-pinning.
But on graduation night when the girls with their dresses all paraded onto the stage
they both of them knew:
It just wasn’t as pretty.
Just wasn’t as pretty.

My mother said Just lie still, lie perfectly still
and the sleep fairy will come and tap you with her magic wand.
Yes, just close your eyes and don’t move and I guarantee the special fairyland express
will carry you off to dreamland.

I forgot to ask how long.
I forgot to ask so I still don’t know

whether it hasn’t been long enough
whether I’m twitching my left pinky
whether she was just kidding
or whether the wind is fluttering the covers
and the sleep fairy thinks it’s me.

Mother, I cannot keep up with you.
In one weekend you’ve been to a Fellini film, an all-Beethoven recital, a small out-of-
the-way Spanish restaurant, and a New York loft inhabited by two male lovers, one an
artist, two an anthropologist, both active in the Gay Socialist Alliance.
And Robert’s SUCH a doll, and Carlos is JUST a darling, the film sooooo fascinating,
the music absolutely wonderful.

Mother, I cannot keep up.
My head hangs, in order not to spin.
My eyes stare, in order not to tear.
If everything ‘s such a doll, just a darling, sooooo fascinating, and absolutely wonderful
whaddaya need ME for, Ma?
For what do you need me?

My mother wrote in my diary
I read your interesting and sensitive thoughts this morning.
I don’t really care as much about your marks as you think I do.
My feeling for you has nothing to do with getting A’s or having musical ability or
other talents.
I’m not horrified by C’s or D’s and I know how un-understanding some teachers can be.
I love you for other reasons entirely.
One of them is that I need you.
You give my life a purpose – and perhaps you need me, too
for who can be more anxious than I to offer you warmth, and love, and protection?

I appreciated my mother writing in my diary.
But it might have done us both more good
had she also written in her own.

My mother said My father said Trotsky said Kiss, children, kiss.
It won’t hurt the revolution.
So then I knew I could kiss.
But then she said Of course, there are certain things ya hafta give up.
And I kind of wondered what those things might be.

My mother said And I’m not even saying what’s really on my mind.
Yes, what my mother said was nothing
compared to what she meant.

I didn’t say O Mother.

My mother fought the revolution first.
Keeping only half of me in her body, my mother fought the revolution.
The photos show greyish-brown comrades, shoulder to shoulder, one arm long
and shimmering.
The other half of me was in my father.
My father fought the revolution too.
The photos are in the attic.
The papers are down the cellar.
The books are on a low shelf.
My mother never left me for meetings.
My mother never wrote me from jail.
My mother fought the revolution first.
My mother fought and lost the revolution
and settled for the rest
of me.

God has a thousand prayers.
My mother had a million.

My father said deedleleedlelee
how ‘bout a little Mozart?
whenever anybody was sick, nervous, or crying.
Shyly he’d approach
with his latest violin

Next week when the doctor comes at me with that needle
meant, surely, for a giant
I’ll think of Dee in the doorway

I remember the day my mother
said Maybe there IS a God.
She was in some mood or other
or Daddy’d been acting odd.

Who knows? she said. You never know.
You never know ‘til you die.
Then she looked like she might laugh.
Then she looked like she might cry.

Yes, well I remember that crazy day.
She must’ve been under a spell.
And there was only one such day
but oh, I remember it well.

My mother said My father said Marx said The artist must be left alone.
And that was very good, Dee, that was okay.
Of course, my mother added, providing he’s not counter-revolutionary
which was also okay.
In fact, even if I’m not an artist
even if I’m counter-revolutionary
at least I know that SOMEONE
must be left alone.

God said Go forth and multiply.
My mother said Stop at two.

Mr. Rogers said I like you just the way you are.
My mother said I like you just the way you will be.

Sartre said Why not nothing?
My mother said You can’t create in a vacuum.

Einstein said What would I see if I rode atop a beam of light?
My mother said Some people just shouldn’t drive.

Freud said Things are not what they seem.
And so did my mother.

The Three Wise Men said Fear not.
My mother said Fear.

Socrates said Know thyself.
My mother said Hide.

My mother said You’ll never be a Mozart.
Jeff said That’s true but neither will Beethoven

My father said After all, NYU was the only one to offer you a full tuition scholarship.
Yes, and Wesleyan was the only one to offer me a full tuition fellowship.
And CCNY was my only job offer in ’71.
Drexel was my only job offer in ’76.
Laurent Schwartz was the only world’s great mathematician to approve my dissertation.
Seven Woods was the only publisher of “The Weirdest Is the Sphere”.
Temple University Press was the only publisher of “Dirty Details”.

You, Dee, were my only father.
She, Dee, was my only mother.
Jeff was my only lover.
Marielle was my only first child.
Kerin was my only baby who died.
Devin is my only baby right now.

That’s how some people get on, Dee
one by one by one.
And a different one each time.

All those silly things my father said and I hardly even laughed.
Like Who’s a horse? Every time anybody said Of course he’d bellow Who’s a horse?
And Your back wheel’s turning frontward. Once a kid actually stopped and got off his
bike, started inspecting the back wheel.
Jack, my mother’d sigh, I’m afraid no one appreciates your brand of humor.
But persistent, undaunted, he’d come right on out with Who’s a horse? every time
anyone said Of course.
Some of his things I laughed at but never either of those.
My mother did, though. Sometimes jokes meant for children are funny to adults and
I’m laughing right now.
I’m laughing right now.

My mother said Everything you are is because of me.
C’mon, Ma, not crossing polygons.
And not pseudo order-type maps.
And not Everybody has his or her own polynomial.

Not the post-partum fetish.
Not the fuss and the fury.
Please, Ma
Come on.

My mother said Freud said Sometimes a cigar is only a cigar.
And You should marry whoever breaks through your loneliness.
And But all these things aren’t what make a person what she Really Is.

Yes, my mother added
certain things
to bolster me against
what she had said.

© Marion Cohen