Mothers are perhaps one of the most universal subjects of poetry, but one that is not very often read about; one can ready poems about war, or love, about family and trauma, but poems specifically about mothers such as ‘Mother, Any Distance’, seem to be a bit of a rare breed of writing. This is not to say that there are none, but that, for whatever reason, the subject matter does not come out in literature very often.
Probably the most infamous literary mother-son duo is Beowulf’s Grendel, and his mother; two monstrous creatures who the titular hero kills throughout the epic, but it is only after killing Grendel that Grendel’s mother comes into the picture at all – spurned on by revenge, Grendel’s mother attacks Heorot, the mead-hall where Beowulf defended the people there against Grendel, and later, against his mother.
Motherly love is an interesting topic to ruminate on for a poem, and something that does come out in literature – perhaps more contemporary than in other eras – is the extent to which mothers will go to please and to soothe their young. In Beowulf, Grendel’s mother avenges her dead son by attacking the mead-hall Heorot, an action that leads to her own death later on in the epic; in ‘Mother, Any Distance’, the mother helps her son to decorate his house as he is potentially moving home and requires her aid in sorting out the materials that he might need.
In ‘Mother, Any Distance’, the narrator asks his mother to come and help him measure his new house; it is suspected that he might be moving house soon, and so needs his mother to help him measure for wallpaper, carpeting, and so on.
Structurally, it is written freehand, in fifteen lines of unequal lines and rhyme scheme. One can argue that it is probably a sonnet, just with an additional line; an act that makes us focus specifically on the extra line.
There is an unfocused, almost dazed way of writing this poem; it reads a little bit like a song, a moment of thinking between the poet’s heart and his mind, a moment of reflection that pulls on throughout the rest of the poem. It’s interesting to note that the focus here is specifically on actions, on brevity, on little moments that are eventually lost to time.
Analysis of Mother, Any Distance
Mother, any distance greater than a single span
the acres of the walls, the prairies of the floors.
It is interesting to note that, depending on where you put the stress, the first stanza of the poem can ‘sing-song’ like a children’s nursery rhyme, which strengthens the timelessness of this poem; it reminds the reader of a childhood spent protected by their mother, of a childhood spent reminiscing and ruminating over the nursery rhymes that (in many cases) were taught by the mother; here, the nursery-rhyme flow to the lines helps to immortalize the poem, to put it in a section of time where it is not quite written for the young, and not quite written for the old. Note how the poet says that any distance ‘greater than a single span / requires a second pair of hands’ – not the almost internal rhyme scheme in that sentence, the not-quite hum to the words. It is a simple thing, but it feels very comforting and homey; it feels as though it is something to be sung to children.
‘A single span’ is a very small amount of space, thus further strengthening the idea that he and his mother are very closely connected; ‘a singe span / requires a second pair of hands’ – thus showing that his mother is always close by to help, that they have a relationship that is built on mutual help, on the mother always being there to help him. It is also if the reader chooses to go along with the idea that it is the mother that is helping him set up his house, sweet and almost timeless to imagine that, even when he is old enough to own his own property, to move away from home, he still looks for his mother to help him with the important things; with the things that he should, at this point, know. It proves that there are some things that people do not grow out of, and the need for mothers to set things to rights is one of them.
The same sing-song rhyme scheme is evident in the last line of the first stanza – the acres of the walls, the prairies of the floor’ – and it helps to strengthen the image of evident peacefulness, of an almost fantastical, fairytale location; he does not appear too far removed from his childhood, but instead compares the house to a wide-open space.
There is also a trace of loneliness in that – notice the way that he uses ‘acres’ and ‘prairies’, both of which, historically, stood for large spaces that were devoid of any people, of any life at all; this is at odds with the happy, nursery-rhyme flow of the first stanza, adding enough sadness to the phrase that leaves the reader wondering whether or not the narrator actually wants to move out from home. Though in America, teenagers do often move out from home when they are young, this is not the case everywhere; in Malta, for example, teenagers live with their parents well until they’re in their twenties, only moving out when they’re married or have a steady, well-paying job; in Italy, the situation is something similar to that, and therefore there might be a bias of misunderstanding in this particular poem, for readers who moved out when they were young and haven’t looked back since.
That line speaks volumes about growing up, about forgetting and leaving behind family; the attempt to get her to help him measure the house is a way of getting his mother to stay a little longer, however when the moment passes, he is still moving into a house that is, probably, not close enough to his parents to warrant visiting at all; this is all supposition, of course, based on the phrases ‘acres’ and ‘prairies’ – it seems to imply that there will be a lot of empty space to fill up once the mother is gone, and a lot of space between them in general; that he might not be able to see her as often as he would like, as frequently as he hoped, and this might lead to the sadness that is prevalent in the first couple of lines.
Though at its core, it is a happy poem, there is no denying that the situation is not a strictly happy one; it is a rite of passage, yes, and something that might be done, but the narrator does not sound overjoyed to be moving out; does not sound as though he wants to think about it much more than he has to. His attempt to get his mother to help him reads like an attempt to hold her closer to him for the final time, before he lives a different life to her, and thus there is a finality to the first stanza that gives the poem an edge.
The only way we know that the poet himself is grown up is through the epitaph ‘mother’. A younger man would call her ‘mum’ or ‘mummy’, and we can surmise that the poet might be using the overly-formal ‘mother’ to try and put some distance between them – not that he wants to, in the long run, but distance helps when one is moving countries when one is going away from the family. It might just be that he wants to feel free, and yet he knows that he will be rolling back to his mother at any other attempt.
You at the zero-end, me with the spool of tape, recording
years between us. Anchor. Kite.
In the second stanza of ‘Mother, Any Distance’, the poet places his mother ‘at the zero-end’; zero is commonly used as the beginning of everything, and so it is used herein that regard as well; his mother is the center and the be-all and end-all of his universe, the place where he starts from, the place where he pushes away from. She Is the base, the place where he departs from to conquer the vast world of his new home, with its ‘acres’ and ‘prairies’.
However, that being said, note the presence of the tape measure. The tape-measure, held between a mother and a son, has very distinctive imagery; it reminds one of the umbilical cord spiraling out from a mother to her unborn child, connecting the two together, and bridging the distance that then naturally grows with birth and with age. It could arguably be considered that mothers and their babies have a far deeper connection than one realizes, given that children live inside of their mothers for nine months, are connected by a thin cord that holds them all together; and therefore, bearing this in mind, note how the tape-measure holds them together even now; there is nothing that can thoroughly destroy or break that connection between them, leading Armitage to compare it to the measuring of the house. The tape-measure acts as a surrogate umbilical cord, and the poet, although grown-up, uses it to be connected to his mother; though he explores the house, measuring this, that, and the other, the very fact that he is connected to his mother shows, again, that his moving out has a hint of bittersweetness to him, that on some level, he would rather stay with his mother than to move out and to leave himself alone; that being said, the poet goes upstairs, ‘reporting metres, centimetres back to base’, another image that smacks of nostalgia and homework (how many times, one can wonder, has the poet sat down and done the same thing with homework, has the mother helped him measure out things for some other purpose?).
The main message of this stanza is that, age aside, the two of them are connected; the mother is the center of his universe, the center of his creation, and when he spirals outwards from her, he is still connected to her via a bond that cannot be severed; that when he is given the opportunity to check back with his mother, he still does so, coming back every time to see that what he is doing is acceptable.
There is individuality and freedom in the poem – note the fact that he moves ever, ever outwards, always spiraling farther and farther away from his mother, the second stanza leading him to ‘leave up the stairs’, though they remain, even then, connected.
He compares her to an ‘anchor’, a ‘kite’, something that pulls him back, sometimes that draws him in every time that he flies farther away; this is the act of a mother, to hold her children protected and safe, to draw them back whenever they are in danger, to make sure that they grow as people, but that they know that they could return to her whenever they need. There is such sweetness to this particular poem that almost beggars belief.
I space-walk through the empty bedrooms, climb
the ladder to the loft, to breaking point, where something
towards a hatch that opens on an endless sky
to fall or fly.
In the last stanza, the poet’s explorations of his new house lead him ‘to breaking point, where something has to give’, and the mother still fights to retain control of her position, to keep control of her son; she holds onto him, even though he is so far away from her, and he, in turn, turns towards ‘a hatch that opens on an endless sky’, and then the final, added line of the sonnet, ‘to fall or fly’. It is not clear whether he decides to fall or fly, but the image that it brings up is the one of him leaving the nest, one of him deciding that it is time to grow up and to be independent – however, that being said, bear in mind that he hasn’t done it yet, that he is still connected to his mother via the tape measure that she is holding in her hands, and that despite everything, they remain every closer.
This poem forms part of the ‘Burning Matches’ collection, which was published in 1993, and are a series of sonnets that are written specifically about the brevity of the moments that we come across in day to day life.