the mother by Gwendolyn Brooks

‘the mother’ is one of Brooks’s most popular poems. It is incredibly moving, complex, and as relevant today as it was when it was written. The text speaks on a very difficult topic, abortion, and was first published in 1945. This was thirty years before Roe V. Wade guaranteed women the right to safe abortion in the United States. 

 

Summary of the mother

‘the mother’ by Gwendolyn Brooks is an emotional poem that conveys the thoughts of a woman who has had abortions and regrets them. 

Throughout the lines of ‘the mother,’ the speaker remembers her past experiences and the children that she’s now never going to actually “get”. She wonders about the people that they could’ve grown up into and even speaks directly to them, a technique known as apostrophe. The poem ends with the speaker saying that she “loved” all the children she almost had. 

You can read the full poem here.

 

Structure of the mother

the mother’ by Gwendolyn Brooks is a three-stanza poem that is separated into uneven sense of lines. These stanzas range in length from three lines up to twenty. The poem is written in free verse. This means that there is not a single rhyme scheme or metrical pattern that unifies the lines. But, there are a few rhymes scattered through the poem (for instance “hair” and “air” at the ends of lines three and four of the first stanza). 

 

Literary Devices in the mother

Brooks makes use of several literary devices in ‘the mother’. These include but are not limited to enjambment, apostrophe, and anaphora. The first occurs when a line is cut off before its natural stopping point. Enjambment forces a reader down to the next line, and the next, quickly. One has to move forward in order to comfortably resolve a phrase or sentence. For example, the transition between lines five and six of the first stanza as well as seven and eight of that same stanza. 

Brooks also makes use of anaphora, or the repetition of a word or phrase at the beginning of multiple lines, usually in succession. This technique is often used to create emphasis. A list of phrases, items, or actions may be created through its implementation. It is seen in the final lines with the repetition of “Believe me, I” and throughout the poem with the resume of words like “The” and “I” at the beginning of multiple lines. 

Apostrophe is an arrangement of words addressing someone, something, or creature, that does not exist, or is not present, in the poem’s immediate setting. The exclamation, “Oh,” is often used at the beginning of the phrase. The person is spoken to as though they can hear and understand the speaker’s words. The poet has her speaker talk directly to the aborted fetuses in the middle section of the poem. She acknowledges them as children who were never really children. 

 

Analysis of the mother 

Stanza One 

Abortions will not let you forget.

You remember the children you got that you did not get,

(…)

Or scuttle off ghosts that come.

You will never leave them, controlling your luscious sigh,

Return for a snack of them, with gobbling mother-eye.

In the first lines of ‘the mother,’ the speaker starts off with a “hook”. The first line draws the reader into the complex topic of abortion. It is followed up with a description of the fetuses who existed as people but didn’t. They were “damp small pups with a little or with no hair”. This line rhymes with the next, creating a slightly disturbing singsong-like couplet that considers the lost possibilities of these unborn children’s lives.

They could’ve become workers or singers or gone into any other profession and benefited the world at large. Now, the mother who is not a mother, will not get to raise them. She won’t treat them well or treat them poorly. All opportunities, experiences, and outcomes are lost. She won’t get to act like a protector, running off the ghosts that come in their rooms nor will she “gobble” them up with her mother’s eye.

The imagery in this stanza, and all the stanzas to come, is quite impressive. The poet is able to convey an intimate, emotional, and very personal depiction of motherhood or the lack thereof. Throughout the poem, Brooks wanted to raise questions of what a child is, what life is, and the meaning/value of both.

The second stanza is considerably longer than the first, at twenty lines. One of the most obvious techniques that work within the first part is anaphora. It is seen through the repetition of the first-person pronoun “I” at the beginning of multiple lines.

 

Stanza Two 

I have heard in the voices of the wind the voices of my dim killed children.

(…)

But that too, I am afraid,

Is faulty: oh, what shall I say, how is the truth to be said?

You were born, you had body, you died.

It is just that you never giggled or planned or cried.

The first line of this stanza presents another disturbing, rhyming description. She describes, as someone who has had abortions, the “voices of the wind the voices of my damn killed children”. The half-rhyme of “wind” and “dim” makes this phrase one of the most memorable in the poem. 

The speaker is not beating around the bush or shining a positive light on what she feels like she has done. She has “erased” her “dim dears” that would’ve sucked at her breast but now I never will. In the next lines the poet uses a technique known as apostrophe. The poet has her speaker talk directly to the unborn, now nonexistent children. She tells them that she stole them from their lives and stilted their “tumults” and their marriages.

She uses repetition and the eleventh line to announce that she may have ended the possibilities of their lives, but she was not deliberately malevolent. In the next lines of the stanza, she contemplates truth. She wonders over the form of these children and if they ever existed. They lived but they never lived, they were children but they never were.

 

Stanza Three 

Believe me, I loved you all.

(…)

All.

The final stanza of this poem is only three lines long. It also contains an example of anaphora. The first two lines both begin with the words “Believe me, I”. She states that she “loved” all the children and “knew” them even if it was faintly. The last lines end with the repetition of “I loved”. The arrangement of these words, the use of enjambment, commas, and repetition adequately convey the emotion in the speaker’s tone.

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