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Shifting and Layering of Tone in Maureen Morehead’s “My Mother Is a Hand”

October 8, 2008 by · 2 comments

Barbara Sabol

Photo: Rene Ehrhardt

In Maureen Morehead’s “My Mother Is a Hand,” from her collection, A Sense of Time Left, the memory of a childhood visit to the speaker’s grandmother’s house is described, in two voices and from two subtly but significantly different perspectives. The memory of the speaker as a child and, later in the poem, as an adult are embedded and unified in one long stanza.

The poem begins and ends with the same basic narrative plot – the visit; however, the tonal plot, which carries the poem’s power and meaning, begins to shift mid-way through the poem, at the point where the adult’s voice is heard. In addition to tone shifting with voice and scene, there is a layering of tone over tone that links the opening and closing memory: in the adult voice overlaid on the child’s memory in the first 19 lines.

For example, the specific references to time and place (6 a.m., Buffalo; 8 a.m., Ohio) and mature, descriptive diction – likening “her red lips” to “the red of black ripe cherries” – mingles with a fresh and undifferentiated, primarily sensory perception of the colors and sounds of the room upstairs, the soft cheek, the kiss. It is the adult speaker inhabiting this childhood memory, which establishes the underlying and dominant tone of nostalgia that suffuses the entire poem.

Nostalgia – for a particular time, place, person, for the illusion of security – is both cause and effect of grief, and thereby the emotion or tone that defines an elegy. The mode of “My Mother Is a Hand” is elegiac: the loss and impending loss of significant family members – grandmother, mother, father – anchors the narrative.

The implicit and most important loss, however, is that of innocence, when security and the permanence of familial love seemed a given. The memory of the child’s/speaker’s visit to her grandmother’s is initially depicted as a wash of pleasurable and undifferentiated sensory images: she hears “the cars on the leaves,” sees the “green walls” and “the car’s red/ shining,” feels “the cool air . . . ” upon being awakened by the doting kiss of “someone” above her.

The tone in this opening sequence of impressions is of simple happiness and intimacy. What could foster greater longing than the memory of such distilled and innocent contentment? Certainly, loss of the grandmother and the fear of losing one’s parents, or any beloved, fuels sadness, and provides the raw stuff of the lyric elegy. While such is the case in this poem, the dominant nostalgic thrust is for the blissful awakening (following, no doubt, the untroubled sleep), the absence of responsibility, loss or dread, which is endowed by the presence of child’s family and, key to the tonal changes in the poem, the illusion of their lasting presence.

The tone begins to shift at line 16 from contentment to a serious and matter-of-fact grappling with reality and mortality, as the adult voice begins to take over, in a style less descriptive than it is objective reportage. The effect on the reader is unsettling, because in four lines (16 – 19), a dissonant array of “facts” in jumbled time periods is reported:

All of this was when my grandmother was not dead,
And before my mother became a hand,
And when my father wanted to get an early start,
So we were in Ohio by 8 o’clock.

This section of the poem serves as the bridge between childhood and adulthood in the narrative, and as the initial curve of the tonal arc that propels the emotional shift from innocence/happiness to experience/grief. Thus, the attitude of the child-speaker’s contentment to the adult qua child’s as yet incomplete acceptance of mortality and loss (note the past progressive tense employed in line 16: “. . . my grandmother was not dead,”) begins its transition, and serves as a kind of buffer for the subsequent tonal shift.

The chief narrative of the visit and return journey home is suspended, when the tone shifts once more to one of shock; the attitude is solemn, a numbed acknowledgement, in the following lines. This transition to a stark style, an austere tone, is as unnerving as the father’s unexpected diagnostic news, presented in lines 20 – 23:

This is the artery that makes widows
100 percent of the time,
and yours is 98 percent blocked,
said the doctor to my father.

Interesting, the continued specific numerical references here, much like those to clock time in the preceding sections. The unadorned journalistic style of the previous lines becomes even more so here, signaling the attitude of one stunned, as when everything but the awful essential information falls away. Note the brief, breathless line length, the lack of modifiers, the narrative distance of the speaker, who can only relay this information through the doctor’s voice.

Of note, also, is that while the content of these lines is definitely adult-rated, the simple style is not unlike a “Dick and Jane” story; again, remnants of the child’s voice emerge and increase the poem’s disquieting impact.

In the next two lines, the jarring effect of the father’s diagnosis is relayed in successive fragments:

The still mouth of death.
The black heart of morning.

These lines read like a pronouncement, delivered in a grave monotone – the voice of fear and anticipatory grief that can neither compose nor sustain a complete sentence. Although this style and the tone of this section contrasts with the brightness and sensuous ease of the opening sequence, the images of the mouth and morning hark back to that opening memory, uniting the stylistically distinct sections of the poem. It is the contrast of the “still mouth of death,” to the tender kissing mouth, and the morning in this later section, not as a rush of primary colors, but as a “black heart,” that makes these fragments all the more powerful.

Yet another level of meaning is conveyed in the double meaning of “morning” here. It is understood both as a time of day and also as “mourning,” the act of grieving. In fact, were one only to hear these lines, one might well understand the sense of this line as “The black heart of mourning,” particularly following the previous line, which refers to death. Here, in this one strongly nuanced play on words, is a précis of the essential tension of the poem: in the morning, the speaker is awakened, not only to love but to the possibility of losing the loved one(s).

The following lines, 26 and 27, relate the cold facts of the father’s cardiac surgery, and could have been lifted from the medical report, save for the pronominal, “They.” Here again, the stunned tone and the necessary emotional distance of the speaker is conveyed:

They took an artery from the leg
And redirected the mammary.

Narrative distance is also revealed through the use of the definite article, versus a pronoun: “. . . the leg,” and “. . . the mammary,” as well as the continued absence of descriptors. The effective use of synecdoche extends into this part of the poem, but with grim association: as the grandmother is a pair of lips and the mother “a hand,” the speaker’s father becomes an assortment of critical body parts: artery, leg and mammary. Here is fragmentation, literal and emotional, conveying a fear of conceiving the whole person, whose loss would surely exceed the sum of his parts. Thus, the near objectification of her father into parts that corresponds to the somber tone of pain, of expected grief.

In the following section of the poem, beginning at line 28, the language begins to breathe again, to resume a comparably expanded and fluent lineation, suggestive of released emotion. In lines 28 through 36, a nostalgic tone, fed by memory and longing, resumes in the voice of the adult speaker. Her loss is palpable, as sadness resonates in the acknowledgement that her grandmother, even before her death, would not “kiss me ever again in the morning,” and that innocence, along with that symbolic morning kiss, was lost.

The voice in these lines is more interior and meditative, like audible thoughts, and the language turns, once again, lovely, emotionally expansive and lyrical. This is realized in the slowed inflection and pace of the mainly iambic meter, the extra pause following the end-stopped lines in eight of these nine lines, while, in the only enjambed line in this sequence, the “ . . thin white curtains/” float from line 32 to 33. And the presaging of death is conveyed, coincident with a hushed and tender mood, as the white curtains become a metaphor for the gauzy veil of cataracts, as well as for the thin, permeable boundary between this life and the next.

The above images and references naturally lead into the final lines of the poem, where the childhood memory of the visit is recounted, this time clearly from the perspective of the adult speaker, who has experienced and reconciled loss, as well as one is able. The tone in these last five lines, 37 through 41, is patently nostalgic, but suggestive of a longing that simultaneously accepts what can no longer be. There is a haunting echo effect in the repetition of basic elements
of the childhood visit to grandmother’s in the opening, compared with those of the closing lines: the “soft-skinned grandmother,” her flowered nightgown, her lips on the child’s cheek.

Despite such similarities, the two versions of this memory differ substantially in how the memory is described, and the resulting tone of each. The child’s version is prolonged, as is her pleasure in the story: the first sentence of the poem stretches from lines 1 to 12, and it includes numerous impressions unrelated to the actual wake-up kiss. Among these are free associations, such as the grandmother’s red lips likened to “. . . the red of the black ripe cherries” on the tree outside the window, and the blue print flowers like “small dark pools in early summer.”

While seeming like simple associative thoughts, these two images actually foreshadow events in the subsequent section: her father’s “black heart,” like the black cherries, while the “small dark pools” resemble the dangerous clots obstructing his cardiac artery. So the child in this poem is never “100 percent” free of care, as in her story lurk threats that augur losses she is bound to experience.

The diction of some of these lines springs from a child’s voice: “ . . . the car’s red/shining,” “the cool air was filled with someone- (italics added).” The syntax, also, is childlike, with sentences beginning with the conjunction, “and,” in a child’s manner of beginning a sentence in the middle, and continuing a story with a series of independent clauses beginning with a coordinating conjunction. Lines 13, 15, 17, 18 and 19 all begin with conjunctions, as if told in a rush or with a child’s shallow breathing pattern.

By contrast, the adult speaker’s account of this memory at the poem’s finish is completed in one sentence that spans five lines, with the final line containing only one word – “me.”

The diction is high, restrained, and the description minimal:

When I was a child, my soft-skinned grandmother,
her gown a virtual perennial garden,
her lips whispering nothing when they touched me,
came into the room with clean, cold sheets, and kissed

Note, for example, the remarkable contrast in the description of the grandmother’s gown: “blue flowers . . ./small dark pools . . .” versus the refined diction in, “virtual perennial garden” employed by the adult speaker. The “cool air,” denoting freshness and possibility in the child’s story becomes “. . . clean, cold sheets,” suggestive of a shroud, in the adult’s version. The grandmother’s lips offer an awaking kiss to a new day for the child, while “her lips whisper nothing. . .” to the adult. “Nothing,” so closely associated with nothingness, with finality.

With that kiss, unbeknownst to the child speaker but realized by the adult speaker, the grandmother was already departing.

The music rendered by the alliteration of soft and hard sounds also distinguishes the two memories. Take, for example, the alliteration of the lengthened, breathy /r/ sound, combined with the repetition of soft-sounding plosives, /b/ and /p/, in that sonorous and beautiful, previously cited line 15: “and her red lips were the red of black ripe cherries.” Compare the mellifluous quality of this line to the hard sound of the repeated /k/, the gut punch of the isolated personal pronoun, which render a comparatively severe tone in lines 40, 41 “[she] came into the room with clean, cold sheets, and kissed/me.”

The omission and presence of words also communicates tonal shades in this section. For example, the ellipsis of the pronoun, she, in this line 40 conveys the absence or anticipated absence, of the grandmother -a tone of sorrow. Conversely, the significance of the single word, “me,” standing alone on the last line of the poem is power-packed. It is a brilliant trope for the poem’s meaning: all that I have, ultimately, is me, and I am reconciled to that hard fact.

The crucial contrast between the two versions of this memory lies in the tone: the child speaker’s simple contentment, the adult speaker’s nostalgia and resignation, both expressed by
diction, syntax, music, lineation and selective images in the initial and closing accounts of the grandmother’s kiss. We arrive at the point of the speaker’s internal reconciliation by way of her experience with her father’s cardiac diagnosis, which, for the adult-speaker, is the real
“wake-up” to the realization of the transitory nature of all that is dear.

This passage and the subsequent memory of her mother and grandmother in the kitchen, by the blowing curtains, define the nadir of the tonal arc that leads back to that initial, re-envisioned memory.

The power of this memory of the grandmother’s kiss lies in its repetition, not solely as a
pleasurable sensory reminder of familial love, but as a clear impression that evokes sadness and longing for what is forever lost, and for the childhood notion that security, in the form of others, endures. It is the repeated memory of the grandmother’s kiss that establishes nostalgia as the tonal plot through the poem, obliquely suggested by the overlay of the adult’s voice in the child
speaker’s story, and then openly and compellingly in the repeated memory at the poem’s conclusion, relaying the speaker’s experience as a child, now grown.

My Mother Is a Hand

Her mother’s lips
awoke me once when I was a visitor
at 6 o’clock in the morning
in Buffalo, New York,
so many miles from Jacksonville:
I heard the cars on the leaves in the avenue below me,
the green walls of the room awake in the car’s red
and the cool air was filled with someone-
my soft-skinned grandmother bent to kiss me,
the blue flowers of her nightgown
small dark pools in the early summer.
And there was a cherry tree outside the kitchen
and her red lips were the red of black ripe cherries.
All of this was when my grandmother was not dead,
and before my mother became a hand,
and when my father wanted to get an early start,
so we were in Ohio by 8 o’clock.
This is the artery that makes widows
100 percent of the time,
and yours is 98 percent blocked,
said the doctor to my father.
The still mouth of death.
The black heart of morning.
They took an artery from the leg
and redirected the mammary.

But even when she was not dead,
my grandmother could not somersault towards me,
nor to her daughter,
nor kiss me ever again in the morning.
Once, when thin white curtains
blew in and out at the kitchen window,
she felt her own mother’s hands,
traced their green viens downwards-
like cataracts the fabric in the breeze obscured the cherry.
When I was a child, my soft-skinned grandmother,
her gown a virtual perennial garden,
her lips whispering nothing when they touched me,
came into the room with clean, cold sheets, and kissed

-Maureen Morehead
from A Sense of Time Left
Larkspur Press, 2003

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