Effects by Alan Jenkins explores the poet’s memories of his mother as, after she has died, he holds her hand and waits to receive her belongings. There is a deep sense of regret throughout the poem, with Jenkins wishing he had done more to connect with his mother while she was alive.
The poem is structured as one continuous stanza, covering 50 lines. There are only two sentences within the poem, with the sprawling punctuation being typical of an internal monologue. This structure symbolizes the theme of memory, as the poet quietly reflects on his late mother.
A similar poem dealing with a mother’s passing is explored within the same CCEA Anthology, which can be a good point of comparison for an essay, In Memory of My Mother by Patrick Kavanagh.
You can read the full poem here.
I held her hand, that was always scarred
The beginning of Effects focuses on the two characters, pulling focus on the poet and his mother with the link of ‘I’ and ‘her’. The linking verb between the two characters, ‘held’ suggests a caring relationship. Right from the first sentence, Jenkins is giving the reader an insight into the love between him and his late mother.
The use of ‘always’ within the first sentence suggests Jenkins has known this person for an extended period of time. The use of a longterm ‘always’ instead of a more short-term characterization gives the reader an impression of their relationship. Indeed, we know this poet is about his mother and Jenkins presents the love between them as subtle, but caring.
From chopping, slicing, from the knives that lay in wait
In each cheap cut of meat, in roast and stew,
These lines establish further character traits for the mother. Jenkins presents the idea that perhaps his mother was not the best speaker, finding it difficult to show her love. Instead of speaking, she chose to show it through cooking food and sharing time with her son.
The literal labor of his mother’s love is emphasized through the repeated verb uses, ‘chopping, slicing… scrubbing’. The use of asyndeton, purposely avoiding connectives, leads this list to seem almost endless. Jenkins presents the idea that his mother worked hard, showing love ‘the only way she knew’.
The difficulty of the tasks the mother performs is emphasized by the sounds within these lines. The hard consonants throughout the asyndetic list, ‘knuckles reddened’, break up the melody of Effects. The harsh sounds a representation of the manual work the mother is doing.
Lines 8 – 11
Old-fashioned food she cooked and we ate;
With faded snapshots, long-forgotten things
Within these lines, Jenkins focuses on the sentimental value of objects that his mother had collected over her life. The double repetition of the ‘ring’ within lines 8+9 focuses on their sentimental wealth above other objects. Whereas ‘snapshots’ have begin to ‘fade’, and a wealth of ‘long-forgotten things’ have amassed, these rings remain a symbol of her love, something which she treasures above all.
(scent-sprays, tortoise-shell combs, a snap or two
From the time we took a holiday “abroad”)
The encapsulation of lines 11-12 within brackets furthers the previous lines’ suggestion of the fading importance of sentimental objects. For Jenkins’ mother, these objects have become less important over her life, but still bare a sense of sentimentality, which is why she has kept them. Yet, for Jenkins, alien to the memories associated with each object, they fade into nothing, being encased in forgettable bracket punctuation.
But lately had never been without, as if
Only now that he was dead.
These lines mark the end of the first sentence within Effects. They ruminate on death, one of the key themes of the poem. Indeed, the final word, ‘dead’, followed by a harsh end stop emphasizes this concept. After this elevation, we see a flash of foreshadowing for the rest of the poem.
These lines also explore the theme of loss or detachment. Jenkins’ mother attaches to the ‘rings’, not because of their worth, but because of what the stand for. She is lonely now that her husband has died, trying to establish a connection over an unbridgeable gap through her wearing of the ‘rings’.
And her watch? – Classic ladies’ model, gold strap – it was gone,
And not when my turn came to cook for her,
Following the somber finish of the first sentence, these lines in Effects continue to explore the relationship between his parents. The verb ‘sit’ is conjugated to represent ‘they’, showing their ‘together[ness]’ through the suggestion of proximity. Both parents are presented as doing one thing, represented under the same conjugated verb. This continues into the nondescript ‘watching’, which suggests another activity that they are doing simultaneously together.
Lines 21- 26
Chops or chicken portions, English, bland,
Night after night and stared unseeing at
These lines focus on the difference between Jenkins and his mother. She seems to be more old-fashioned than him, separating herself from the ‘young-people’. She is set in her ways, preferring the ‘familiar flavours’ to anything new. Jenkins’ expresses his ‘distain’ for this by using the adjective ‘bland’ when describing the ‘English food’ that his mother likes.
The television, at her inner weather,
I was born, or grew up and learned contempt,
These lines of Effects offer a glimmer of guilt within Jenkins’ writing. The short, sharp nature of the sentence, disrupted by a caesura of ’Not all the weeks I didn’t come,’ suggests an element of regret. The long period of time in which his mother sat alone because of him not coming to visit being shameful to him, now that she is gone.
The mother, in this section, is suggested to turn to alcohol to cope with the loss of her husband. The lifelessness of ‘stared unseeing’ suggests the total dissociation with life of the mother, retreating into herself as she sits alone, ‘drink after drink.’
The semantic mirroring of ‘night after night’, followed by ‘drink after drink’ suggests the empty endlessness to the mother’s despair. All days blend seamlessly into one, with the lack of her son and her husband turning her inward, her ‘inner weather’, a representation of emotions, slowly stirring.
The morning for her lost life is evident through the dreaming of ‘when she was a girl’. This tragic image of his mother sat alone, drinking each day, and reflecting on her life is one that haunts the poet. His own self-hatred, at realizing the way in which he handled his mother in her life was wrong is pinpointed through the self-criticism of his ‘contempt’. He regrets dearly not being there for his mother, wishing he had visited more often.
While the TV in the corner blared
As the others shuffled around, and drooled, and swore…
These lines offer a climax to the tragedy of the mother’s final weeks. The use of ‘drowning’, ‘shuffling’, ‘drooling’ present the complete dehumanization of the woman. She is reduced to her vices, taking pills, watching lifeless television, and drinking in order to suppress her own suffering. The long ellipsis after these lines compounds a sense of grief from the poet, representing him taking a moment of reflecting on his mother’s state, and his own failure to visit her.
But now she lay here, a thick rubber band
Or falteringly wave, or fumble at my sleeve –
These lines set the scene of the present situation. Jenkins is sat in a morgue, holding the hand of his dead mother. The vulnerability of the naked woman, only wearing a ’thick rubber band with her name on it’ is palpable after the descriptors of the preceding lines.
There is a contrast between the presentation of his mother’s ‘hand’ at the beginning of Effects and here at the end. Whereas they were once strong, ‘rough’ hands, they are now ‘blotched and crinkled’, the age of the mother seeping through her hands and shocking the poet at how much she has changed.
The attempt at connection is shown through the ‘hand I held’. Yet it is an attempt that fails, ‘couldn’t clasp mine’, showing the disconnection between mother and son. He did not go to see her, and now that she has died, there is no way of regaining that connection.
The last words she had said were
But of course I left; now I was back, though she
The sorrow of the shortest line in the poem, the mother’s desperate ‘please don’t leave’ is heartbreaking at this point in Effects. Jenkins’ regret is emphasized by the short nature of this begging line. The utter melancholy of these lines is compounded again through the difference between mother and son. Where she wants him to stay, he ‘left’, with the regret being strongly presented through his words.
This is furthered when considering the importance of the ‘last words’, with Jenkins ignoring the importance of these ultimate words. Although he of course did not know it at the time, he went against his mother’s final wish, for him to stay. The total lack of connection, and the mourning of the loss is palpable here.
Could not know that, or turn her face to see
A nurse bring the little bag of her effects to me.
The final rhyming couplet focuses on a nurse bringing a ‘little bag’ of ‘effects’ to Jennings, his mother’s possessions. The link between ‘her face to see’ and ‘me’ compounds the sense of sorrow within the poem. The mother will never again see her son, never fulfill her final wish. The bitter final word, ‘me’, emphasizes the sense of self-hated within Effects. Jenkins regrets not having been there for his mother, reflecting on her life and wishing he would have tried harder to connect.