This poem was first published in 1985 in Wyndmere. It is a multilayered description of the hours and days after the birth of the speaker’s daughter. The poem uses memorable examples of figurative language, including metaphors and examples of juxtaposition, to lay out the emotional landscape the speaker is experiencing.
Explore August, Los Angeles, Lullaby
The poem starts by loosely setting the scene and describing how, after the birth of her daughter, everything was not perfect in the speaker’s world. She alludes to her childhood and what her mother wanted for her, and now she feels something similar for her own daughter. The poem does end on a note of optimism as the speaker observes a hummingbird outside the window.
Structure and Form
‘August, Los Angeles, Lullaby’ by Carol Muske-Dukes is a nineteen-stanza poem that is divided into tercets, or sets of three lines. That is, until the final stanza, which is only two lines (making it a couplet). The poem is written in free verse, meaning that it does not follow a specific rhyme scheme or metrical pattern.
In this poem, the poet makes use of a few literary devices. They include but are not limited to:
- Imagery: irregularly effective description that should engage readers’ imaginations. For example, “imperceptibly: the gardenia / blooming in the dark.”
- Juxtaposition: the entire contrast between two different things. In the case of this poem, the poet repetitively contrasts life and death and darkness and light.
- Metaphor: can you compare tween two things that does not use either the word “like” or “us.” For example, and the first lines, the poet compares the speaker’s newborn child to amnesia.
Stanzas One and Two
The pure amnesia of her face,
newborn. I looked so far
into her that, for a while,
the visual held no memory.
Little by little, I returned
to myself, waking to nurse
In the first lines of the poem, the speaker introduces the main subject—a newborn baby. Through the creative use of syntax, the poet confuses readers with the first line before revealing who the “face” belongs to.
The speaker, a new mother, is looking at the face of her newborn baby. She looked at the child for so long and with such determination that it suddenly felt impossible to truly think about the situation and her child. These are the stunned moments after she has given birth and is trying to understand how her world has changed. Little by little, she returns to herself and is able to think about the situation with more clarity.
Stanzas Three and Four
those first nights in that
in the scarred water glass,
The poem progresses as the speaker describes what it was like to take care of her child the first few nights after she was born. A room that was once familiar felt as though it had been altered in some way, imperceptibly. This is the effect of having a child in the way that it changes the speaker’s perspective on the world.
The poet uses words like “dark” and “scarred.” In the fourth stanza. This indicates that after the birth of her child, not everything was perfect and optimistic. She is noticing things that are at once beautiful and dark or damaged.
Stanzas Five and Six
near the phone my handwriting
the woman holding her child.
The poet continues this line of thought by having her speaker describe the “illegible” handwriting and the lamp’s “shade angled downward and away.” This connects to a description of the woman standing in front of a mirror and holding her child.
She refers to herself as “the woman,” indicating that she feels some degree of alienation from her new role as a mother. Plus, the fact that the lamp is angled away from the mirror obscured her view further. She stands in darkness, unsure of the future.
Stanzas Seven and Eight
Her face kept dissolving
a lullaby makes, head to head,
When describing herself in the mirror, the speaker indicates that she sees the woman’s face dissolving into expressions that resemble her own. She sees flashes of herself one moment at a time within the darkness of the room. In contrast to her own face, which she is capable of recognizing every once in a while, it’s her child’s face.
The child was “pure / figurative.” The child resembled no one. The child is, at this moment, new to the world and without dreams for a personality. She is, it seems, more an idea than a physical reality. The two are consumed in the partial darkness of the room.
Stanzas Nine and Ten
half-sleeping. Save it,
for me. And though, despite her,
The speaker’s mother is brought into the next stanza. The speaker recalls how her mother would tell her to “save it” but meant the opposite. This one-liner was likely used to tell her daughter, the new mother, that she should avoid any negative thoughts or assertions regarding the future.
The daughter did not want to hear her mother’s “terrible optimism” for her own future. For some reason, perhaps just general uncertainty about her new role as a mother, she did not feel that the future was so bright.
Stanzas Eleven and Twelve
I can redeem, in a pawnshop
watching her as she slept,
In the next stanza, the speaker contemplates her childhood and how her mother operated as a parent. She feels now, despite only just having a child, a great deal of understanding when it comes to any bad experiences she had when she was young. She understands now what her mother must have intended for her when she was a newborn. She feels it now for “her,” the newly born child and the woman’s daughter.
Stanzas Thirteen and Fourteen
watching her suck as she
that we were alone, there’s a
The speaker watches her daughter peacefully as she considers what she wants for her daughter’s future and what her mother must’ve wanted for her. She considers her daughter’s simple life and the singular pleasure that is nursing.
Stanzas Fifteen and Sixteen
texture that moves between me
here in this onetime desert,
The next few stanzas are strikingly different than those which preceded them. They are far more lyrical and describe the situation in classically poetic language. This also means that there is less of a narrative to follow and more of an emotional line of thought to consider and perhaps empathize with.
The speaker describes how in that moment when she is connecting with her daughter, despite the fact that everything is not perfect. The two of them feel entirely alone and as though they are behind a sheer, opaque curtain that’s drawn over the view of the future. This moment is the opening of the next phase of life for both the speaker and her newborn daughter. But, neither know what’s to come “here in this onetime desert.”
now green and replenished,
the feeder, then was gone.
Now, considering this moment, it has its perfections. It is different than the rest of the world, which threatens and offers little. But, when the speaker does look outside, the world is not entirely barren. There is a hummingbird touching the hourglass-shaped hummingbird feeder and drinking the blood-colored liquid inside.
Again, the poet skillfully merges images of life and death together. The ending comes with a distinct note of optimism that was hard to detect in the poem’s first stanzas.
The poem suggests that huge life changes, like having a child, are sometimes hard to come to terms with. Just because an event is supposed to be happy doesn’t mean that it is experienced that way. But, if one looks closely, there is optimism, beauty, and life to be found everywhere.
It’s likely that the poet wrote ‘August, Los Angeles, Lullaby’ in order to consider an emotional experience in her own life, but that’s not entirely guaranteed. It’s not clear whether or not the narrative that plays out in this poem is completely factual or not.
Readers who enjoyed this poem should also consider reading some related poems. For example:
- ‘Prayer Before Birth’ by Louis MacNeice – was written during the terror-struck days of World War II. It places the realities of an evil world into the mouth of an unborn baby.
- ‘A Married State’ by Katherine Philips – describes marriage and childbirth in a negative way.
- ‘The Need to Recall the Journey’ by Sujata Bhatt – a poem about the past and a speaker’s desire to return to the moment her child was born.