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Recorded for Poem-a-Day, October 25, 2016.
About this Poem 

“I have lived in the aftermath of losing my mother for thirty-one years. Carrying that grief, that wound, is one of the reasons I am a poet.”
—Natasha Trethewey

Imperatives for Carrying On in the Aftermath

Do not hang your head or clench your fists
when even your friend, after hearing the story,
says: My mother would never put up with that.

Fight the urge to rattle off statistics: that,
more often, a woman who chooses to leave
is then murdered. The hundredth time

your father says, But she hated violence,
why would she marry a guy like that?—
don’t waste your breath explaining, again,

how abusers wait, are patient, that they
don’t beat you on the first date, sometimes
not even the first few years of a marriage.

Keep an impassive face whenever you hear
Stand by Your Man, and let go your rage
when you recall those words were advice

given your mother. Try to forget the first
trial, before she was dead, when the charge
was only attempted murder; don’t belabor

the thinking or the sentence that allowed
her ex-husband’s release a year later, or
the juror who said, It’s a domestic issue—

they should work it out themselves. Just
breathe when, after you read your poems
about grief, a woman asks: Do you think

your mother was weak for men? Learn
to ignore subtext. Imagine a thought-
cloud above your head, dark and heavy

with the words you cannot say; let silence
rain down. Remember you were told
by your famous professor, that you should

write about something else, unburden
yourself of the death of your mother and
just pour your heart out in the poems.

Ask yourself what’s in your heart, that
reliquary—blood locket and seed-bed—and
contend with what it means, the folk-saying

you learned from a Korean poet in Seoul:
that one does not bury the mother’s body
in the ground but in the chest, or—like you—

you carry her corpse on your back.
 

Copyright © 2016 by Natasha Trethewey. Originally published in Poem-a-Day on October 25, 2016, by the Academy of American Poets.

Copyright © 2016 by Natasha Trethewey. Originally published in Poem-a-Day on October 25, 2016, by the Academy of American Poets.

Natasha Trethewey

Natasha Trethewey

Natasha Trethewey, who has served as both the state poet laureate of Mississippi and the U.S. poet laureate, received the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry in 2007.

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2
poem
—after the painting by Diego Velàzquez, ca. 1619
She is the vessels on the table before her:
the copper pot tipped toward us, the white pitcher
clutched in her hand, the black one edged in red
and upside down. Bent over, she is the mortar
and the pestle at rest in the mortar—still
poem
Overhead, pelicans glide in threes—
         their shadows across the sand
                  dark thoughts crossing the mind.

Beyond the fringe of coast, shrimpers
         hoist their nets, weighing the harvest
                  against the day's losses. Light waning,

concentration is a lone gull