Within Lim’s ‘Mother’s Song’ the speaker addresses a man who begins the poem as a baby and ends it as a grown man with greying hair. Lim uses a gentle and understanding tone to craft a speaker who is at once solemn, yet celebratory in the milestones the child reaches.
The poem takes the reader through a series of images that imagine a baby in various stages of his future life. He grows, becoming a young, energetic boy. Soon though he’s getting older and growing more distant from his mother. Eventually, he’s playing at “groom” and getting crows feet and silver hair.
You can read the full poem here.
‘Mother’s Song’ by Shirley Lim is a twenty-one line poem that is contained within one stanza of text. The poem does not follow a rhyme scheme, but there are examples of half-rhyme throughout the text. Half rhyme, also known as slant or partial rhyme, is seen through the repetition of assonance or consonance. This means that either a vowel or consonant sound is reused within one line or multiple lines of verse. For instance, “man” and “many” within lines four and five or “fury” and “fishy” in line fourteen.
Lim makes use of several poetic techniques in ‘Mother’s Song’. These include repetition, alliteration, enjambment, and anaphora. The first, repetition, is the use and reuse of a specific technique, word, tone or phrase within a poem. For example, the words “beautiful man” are used seven times in this short poem. There are also several references to the body, specifically the mouth and face.
The use of “Beautiful man” at the beginning of those seven lines is also an example of anaphora. It is the repetition of a word or phrase at the beginning of multiple lines, usually in succession. Other examples include “Your” at the beginnings of lines eight and nine.
Another technique, alliteration, occurs when words are used in succession, or at least appear close together, and begin with the same letter. For instance, “Beautiful” and “boy’s” in line four and “Beautiful” and “bitter” in line nineteen.
Another important technique commonly used in poetry is enjambment. It 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. There are examples throughout ‘Mother’s Song’. These include the transitions between lines four and five, as well as five and six.
Beautiful man, milk teeth bared in a trap,
Swimming to her gaze.
In the first lines of ‘Mother’s Song,’ the speaker begins by making use of the refrain, the words “Beautiful man”. The speaker depicts the “Beautiful man” who at the time the poem is taking place is still only a child. She returns to the word “Beautiful man” letting the reader know that the speaker and the mother in the text are looking towards the future willing the child to grow up in a specific way. This child, at the moment, has its “milk teeth” or baby teeth “bared”. It’s crying, curling its lips in “despair”.
Despite the child’s cries, the mother who is used to this sort of emotion smiles down at “your face”. Here, it becomes clear that the speaker is addressing their words to this child who will one day become a man.
In the next lines, the child ages and suddenly he has “twitching,” energetic “boy’s shoulders”. They are, the speaker says, “Like many golden carp”. This simile is in reference to their frequent movements which resemble those of a fish. The image is continued in the sixth line with a reference to “swimming”.
Beautiful man, your white skin turns redder,
Like fine hair, like cloth.
In the next six lines of ‘Mother’s Song,’ the speaker returns twice to the refrain. She speaks of the days as the child ages. His eyes “grow wide” and his “chin’s fuzzed with moth”.
He’s no longer a baby or a young child, he’s growing up and his thoughts are becoming more complex. They’re compared to “fine hair” rolled into “cloth”.
Beautiful man, leaning back stock-still, now
Silvering the room.
The child grows older. Now, he is “stock-still” and playing “at the groom”. The use of the words “at the” are interesting in these lines. They suggest that the man is not actually a groom but just pretending to be. His age has quickly increased in the next three lines. He has “crowsfeet” or drinks on his brow and with the use of the word “silvering” in the eighteenth line the speaker alludes to his hair turning grey.
Beautiful man, bitter, slipping her grasp.
She swallows her doubts.
The final three lines depict the man “slipping” out of his mother’s grasp. He ages and moves away from that closeness he once shared with her. The mother is put in a position where she has to accept these changes and trust that her “Beautiful man” is going to make the right decisions for himself.