Home » Issues & Poems » Issue Five » My Mother, Her Tongue

My Mother, Her Tongue

Stephen Watts

My mother died on 19th December 1991.

I wrote this poem about two years after her death, and after her home of fifty years (which had also been my childhood home) had been sold and was finally gone. Her garden had been a place of utter calm to me, a place of earliest childhood memory, her love a strong constant through all my early life.

My mother’s mother, my grandmother, was born in a small village in the Swiss-Italian Alps, with Italian and dialect as her mother tongues. My mother herself was born in London, returning to her family home each year when she was very young, but then not again until I went back with her in her old age. Some of the images of the poem are dug from her deep childhood memories or are my direct observations from years later. Other poems I’ve written consider my grandfather’s migration from the Alps, but this is a poem of my mother and grandmother tongues.

Behind the poem are memory, language, childhood, migration : but all put through the lens of mother love and mother tongue, and then of loss. As with most poems of language, it weaves sweeps and waves of many different strands and threads. But it is difficult to say more, since the poem either says it or fails to.

I remember very clearly a time twenty-five years ago when I realised that poetry is my ‘mother tongue’ and English the language I happen to write it in. This, it seems to me, is very relevant to the writing of the poem, as also is my sense that poetry is deeper than anything, deeper than memory, and that our lives and deaths also are rooted in language.

Also : the refrain, running throughout the poem, of ‘mother white as jasmine’ is a latch onto a flower dear to my mother. But it is more a direct echo from classical Tamil poetry, which, in the wonderful translations of A. K. Ramanujan, had been one of the strongest influences on me as a young poet ‘finding my voice’ in the early 1970’s and whose echo lodged inside and surfaced in this poem twenty years on.

A first draft of the poem was finished by the end of November 1993. But then was mislaid (history of many of my poems) and only found again nearly ten years later. Thus I finished the poem in the autumn of 2003. I had a much shorter poem of the same title that was published in my book ‘The Blue Bag’ in 2004, but this much longer celebration has remained unpublished until now.

My Mother, Her Tongue

When the body leaves the body with such

suddenness, such speed,

when there is no time to draw a face, to say

a word, to hold a voice in memory – where

are you gone ?


I went into your garden and walked on its

brittle grass : the little

trees were stiff with frost and the sun drank

milk from the pewter of its glass, o mother

white as jasmine


I cupped the shaman’s cup in my hand &

tossed it to and fro,

your body has become these rancid flowers

that in the night-time glow, but where now

are you?


Birds came to me in that garden – swallows

turning their high bellies –

they spoke to my fingers with their tongues,

they filled the air, inside my head and out,

but where are you?


Car of death that moves off at the speed of

the living,

car of death that moves off at walking pace,

unendured pain of peace, sun wrapped

in its own linen


Wisteria and summer honeysuckle melted

their scents in that yard,

jasmine and lilac, basil and mint and apple,

grasses that were magnified beneath my

eye where I lay …


Horses drifted into that garden way past

midnight: they nuzzled

the windows and the door. I saw their hoof

prints in the snow: what dream was that,

mother of jasmine


As a child I was happy in the garden of your

house: through

an air of daisies taller than my head to where

a tiny sun shone through the milky belly

of a horse


There was a litany, a bright effacement,

you were there who

were no longer there, seamstress-swallow

pulling needles of air through the cloth

of my sight


Little fish of the midday sun, little fish in

the air swimming,

little fish that gobbled oxygen and insects,

I see you turn high up over your wing

to look down at me


I see you fling the blue vocable ‘never’ with

its dull meaning against

the void of the sky where it explodes colour

in the space where nothing happens, o you

in the summer of jasmine


When your ashes were scattered you became

those flowers, you became

these trees, you became those birds that fling

their songs across torn webs of sky leaping

from goblets of light


You are not ashes, you are a tree unfurled

from where the soil and air

are slung against a silent wind that folds me

back from despair, o language coming from

you white as jasmine


You’ve flown between the frost and the sun,

you never were ash

in the charnel-house, the ordinary guards of

death had no meaning before the jasmine

of your face


Now your body is gone and your discourse,

your spirit like a bird is flown,

I strain to measure your voice in my lungs

but I know colliding rivers have loosed

my mother tongue


I was not there when the bird of your soul

flew off from your body, I

could not watch that final trance and when

I was late come your breath was no longer



Its slow unmeasured dance across the floor,

when I got to your death your

mouth was already set in its trancing curve,

your nose was held and bent against those

jasmines of your face


I do not know if it was the struggle with

the oxygen mask (you

trying to push that sudden strangler off )

or if it was the struggle to stay alive that

stopped your breath


This body, this light, these words, this work:

where are you now?

What dialect of the mother-tongue rose into

your mouth before being reeled back to this

fading dream ?


You took that sense to where your ashes

flock as dancing birds –

you singing across blueness to those snows

where shaman meditate the dying of

their sisters


What shaman words can sing against my

dullness now?

What melted core of language has stunned

my mother-tongue? That slow lark rising

from stiff snow


In its cliff-face field in mild January winds

is become the bird you,

weaving breath from under streamy cirrus

and the earth that seemed to stagger under

me as you flew


You were a spinning top in front of an

open fire: I was

watching colour fly and we were talking

and what was dull was melted down to

this still measure


Car of death that moved at the speed of

the living, car of death

that moved at a walking pace, unendured

pain of peace, sun that was wrapped in

its own linen


When I came back to the house I knew you

were still there –

though much of the house was gone – and

I cried out through the world’s war to you,

O mother white as jasmine


The house is blind without you inside: but

I am lifting it as

a lantern and swing it through its barriers

of pain and there is affirmation in this

graft of light


The house is blind without your eyes, but

you are still there,

wrapping pancakes in lemon, tired limbs

in warm sheets, folding pastry on apple,

roasting meats


The house is blind without your eyes, but

I will walk in your

door and rub my face stiff with frost and

bring roses inside that will flower in your

tender house


And I will bring pasta and mushrooms and

spinach and aniseed loaves,

this time I will bake bread and pour coffee

from a green jug to feed you, as once you

fed me


I will bring milk and polenta and red wine,

and mackerel with thyme,

sour-sweet apples from the garden, broccoli,

mint and burnt sugar : not enough, for all

you gave


You who lived fifty years in the same house

what happened when

you passed over to the language of silence?

What dialect of the mother-tongue faded

from your face?


In your last years your skin became as crepe

paper is

and who knows but it was you wrapped inside

thinking on your nieces and your nephews

and your sons


Your face has irrevocably changed: I will

wipe clear the white

walls of your house and you will rise in flight:

bird of jasmine, tree of frost, starling burst,

glint of schist


Swallows are dancing above the barn-half in

the slow trapeze of the sky,

stretched cirrus is carded in the weave of air:

how is it possible that memory can travel

back so far?


Your own mother is calling back toward you

in the plum harvest,

along the vine terrace, into the cow-house,

across the snows of calm or in the valleys

of the mountain


You are still in the barn-half of that house

jumping from the threshold

down to steamy hay with milk-drunk calves

then running through the thick wood doors

out to jasmine air


Dun cows walk past the blunt end of a byre

and I can hear you hear

their belling necks then see their bellies sway

past as they veer out onto the pasture slope

into jasmine air


And the red mountain collapses and the red

mountain is still there,

and the red mountain is a road and is a river

and rises through my blood as melted mess

held there as love


Because the dead do not die when they die,

because the dead

always die when they die, because the shaman

of death is a bird in this translation of breath

into words


One time I carried you the last few metres to

the mountain hut. Now

your body is leaving you as you sleep and you

can see your waiting mother calling to you

from the slope


You remember your childhood dialects as

you die, their curt

abbreviations clinging close to breath, then

air lifts you and you look back at us from

jasmine night


And I write this in happy memory of you:

a song to be sung,

a flight of birds across a burning sky, bare

feet on wet grass, aniseed loaves looped on

poles to dry


And I write this poem to celebrate you:

words white as jasmine,

a sutra for when the body’s padding-left the soul,

a song to be sung for the life-line of the


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