The following is from my judge’s report for the South Island Writers Association’s 2018 Jean Ruddenklau Trophy poetry competition, which this poem won. In the interests of full disclosure, I need to note that Gail is a good friend and we’re in a critique group together. Having said this, I had no idea who had written the poem until after I had delivered the results.
On the splashback, delineated flax leaves fan
like torch beams trained to the night sky
losing light. Wilfully, you polish
the oven, dewlap quivering
with the thin humming that seems
not to originate from the reeds of your throat
but somewhere near the ceiling fan.
I remember the crisply tied bow
of the apron at your back, as you lifted
neat rows of Kisses from the shining rack; your energy
crackling as you kept your distance from childish dirt
that we must flick away. Let me wash,
you dry. Side by side at the sink,
buff the spots, let the gleaming link.
– Gail Ingram
first published in Landfall 237
There are lots of ways that a poem can win a competition. Some are glorious riots of sound and image that knock you over. Some are poems with luscious lines that you walk around repeating for days, which fill your mind as well as your mouth. But there’s another sort of poem, hard to do, which relies on the sort of quiet rightness you get sometimes from the sound of a bell, or when a single bird starts singing just on dusk – one pure, simple series of notes that makes everything else fall away, and you stand there feeling blessed. This was one of those sorts of poems.
It’s an English(ish) sonnet with variable length lines, which flirts with cross assonance and consonance up until the perfect end rhyme of the final couplet. A simple story: the poet is watching their mother polishing the oven. The mother is humming as she works, the poet is remembering other times when the mother was baking biscuits. The poem finishes with the poet offering to help with the washing up. Simple.
Except it isn’t quite as blissfully domestic as that. The mother is cleaning the oven “wilfully … dewlap quivering”, which is not quite so Happy Families as we expected. It sends the reader back to the arresting imagery of the first few lines, where the pattern on the splashback is “delineated flax leaves […] / like torch beams trained to the night sky”. Not just painted, but delineated. Precise. Sharp. Like spotlights. Or searchlights. So there’s menace here. Threat. Not soft, or gentle or welcoming. Harsh. And the mother is polishing the oven “wilfully” – there’s some sort of defiance here. Against whom? Against what? The poet? Is there something the mother is meant to be doing, or saying, that she is refusing to face? It’s about here that I started remembering some of the other, rather less domestic connotations of ovens and elderly women. Suicides. Death camps. Witches. Added to the rather ugly description of the mother’s “dewlap quivering”, and it begins to look like this relationship is less Little Women and more Brothers Grimm. “Dewlap” is ugly: no two ways about it. Cows have dewlaps. So the mother is being made somewhat animal. But all is not completely lost – there’s that eerily beautiful description of “humming that seems / not to originate from the reeds of your throat / but somewhere near the ceiling fan.” Wow. Eerie, beautiful, and utterly original. (As a side note, just think for a moment about how much less effective that would have been if phrased the more usual way: humming that seems to originate from somewhere near the ceiling fan, not the reeds of your throat. Still interesting, but so much less powerful.) So we have quite a complex relationship building up. And we’re only one stanza – seven lines – in to the poem.
The second stanza feels like an attempt to appeal to the happier memories of childhood – the mother is wearing an apron, baking Kisses, and seems to be thoroughly engaged in this housewifely task – her “energy crackling”. Yay! Except even here there’s an edge – the first thing the poet remembers isn’t the apron, or the biscuits, or the mother cooking. It’s the bow of the apron, “crisply tied … at your back” [my emphasis]. And not just that, the Kisses are in “neat rows” on the “shining rack” (this mother is very particular), and part of the reason her energy is crackling is that she feels the need to “keep [her] distance from childish dirt / that we must flick away.” Ouch. And lets not forget that in this poem, the only sort of kisses we have aren’t ones bestowed lovingly on cheeks and lips. They’re ones that have to be made, beaten and baked, and set aside on racks to cool until much later. So as we prepare to exit the second stanza, we’re seeing a not-entirely-warm-and-fuzzy mother/child dynamic, and one that has seemingly always been this way. Distant. Not abusive, not neglectful, but also not a relationship that put a lot of emphasis on fluffy sweetness and indulgence. It makes the “we” of line twelve – childish dirt / that we must flick away – especially poignant. But … which we is that? The poet and a sibling, striving to make themselves acceptable? Maybe, although there’s no suggestion of any siblings anywhere else. The child-poet and the mother? Maybe. If so, then when is this action needing to take place? When do we flick away the childish dirt?
I think the key is in the words that follow, that lead in to the concluding couplet: Let me wash, // you dry. Side by side at the sink. (Digression: what a great stanza break! Talk about making us rethink what we’ve just read!) Somehow I don’t think that the “childish dirt” is just the sort of thing kids get all over their clothes and hands and faces through playing outside. Not by line 13. It may have started as that, but we’re now entering into much more complicated territory, and I can’t help hearing “childish dirt” morph into “childish hurt”. This is a mother who had no tolerance for dirt, for mess, and a child who was, presumably, messy, as children invariably are. But now the poets is an adult, and may be starting to understand the mother’s motivations, the mother’s own issues. (I know it’s a stretch, but is there also an echo of “dirt” in the sense of disreputable stories, family secrets?) So the gesture of flicking away dirt – flicking, not scrubbing, or soaking or scouring – shows an understanding of how little it really mattered. Before the stanza break you could read “I’ll wash” as the poet’s offer to make themself more seemly, more acceptable to the mother. But in the couplet we see that it’s more than that – not just an offer of domestic teamwork, but an attempt at redemption, at acceptance, at forgiveness. So it ends:
… Side by side at the sink,
buff the spots, let the gleaming link.
Beautiful. Whether intentional or not, the echoes with Seamus Heaney’s gorgeous sonnet sequence Clearances bring me again and again to the edge of tears. From dirt and spots and hurt and mess, back to gleaming, back to light. From one person watching another work, to two people working together. Two parts of a single chain. Separate, but– in this moment, through this simple, shared, female action – linked.