Literary Mama writing about the many faces of motherhood
Lesson from a Poet

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"Whatever flames upon the night
Man’s own resinous heart has fed."
-- W. B. Yeats, Two Songs from a Play

At a corner bodega in treeless
TriBeCa I bought flowers,
the first forsythia of March,
guessing somehow the scale
and light of her loft and how
she'd light up at their flaming
branches when she let me in,
with a grinding of dead-bolts
in the machine shop two
floors below.

I should have been in awe.
Of the vast space, leased
for nothing years ago,
and all its assembled things
like friends summoned to a wedding
or funeral. Of her. The poet's
poet, in some poet's outfit
of wrinkled linen or crinkled
silk, I can't remember.
But I hadn't read her poems,
and I was dying to connect.

We had a connection, in fact,
comic but intimate. She
was older, much older
than her lover, who was the nephew
of my much older
ex-lover. He'd put us in touch.
We had tea out of some gilded Russian
thing she'd bought for her lover
and talked, as women do,
about the two men we knew
and the upstate house she had a bid on,
with a great room marked
on the floor plan. Like me,
she'd never had a home.

Then I blurted out that
I'd always wanted to write.
She flamed at me, impatient
at the girlishness to which, at 35,
I should have had no right. She said,
You have to be ferocious.

I didn't really want to write.
I wanted to be her,
at home in her
unpartitioned room. And what I
really wanted, inconceivable --
I wanted to have a child.

She gave me one of her books,
plucked from a shelf of identical
spines. I read it on the subway
home, in a shiny orange
seat, rocked against strangers.
Immediate but remote, the images
wheeled like angels
at an annunciation of meaning.

Except for one long
poem she'd mentioned as an exception.
A confessional poem about the choices
she'd made to become
a poet. Relationships
cut off, abortions,
and other things not
chosen, a riddled womb,
everything heartbreaking
summoned, like friends dead
and living, to bear witness
to her being a poet
and a poet who was a woman.

I thought of her proud bed
in an uncurtained alcove
and the young lover,
certain to leave, as a grown-up
child leaves home,
as I had left my older
lover, and something about her
I'd seen in childless women
past childbearing age
who may have wanted or not
not-wanted a child.
An eggshell beauty,
as if she were backlit by death.

I didn't see her after
that evening when spring was
almost inconceivable.
Later, much later,
I found out how
(after I'd had a child,
after I'd started in fragments
to write) how
ferocity, like poetry,
(whatever flames)
is something neither given
nor fully chosen.


Minati Singh was born and raised in India. She came to the U.S. in 1985 and earned a Ph.D. in English and Comparative Literature at Columbia University. After a couple of stints as an Assistant Professor of English, she left academia in 1998. Her daughter, Esther India, was born in 2001 and since then, she has been struggling to find time to write and sometimes resisting, sometimes embracing being transformed by motherhood. She lives with her husband and daughter in Seattle. “Lesson from a Poet” is her first published poem. She is currently working on a novel and a collection of poems.


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