poem index

Mother Knows Best: "How to Build a Child"

Written by

Sandra Simonds

Contributor Page


May 10, 2012
Printer-friendly version

A few weeks ago, my mom told me that she went to her local Barnes & Noble to buy a copy of Poetry magazine since I had a poem "How to Build a Child" published in the April 2012 issue. Then, last week, I emailed her to ask her what she thought of the poem and what she thought of having a daughter who became a poet. Her reply was pretty short and didn’t mention anything about the poem. She said, "I don't know, it does not make a difference what you do. One half of you seems to be on earth and the other half floating somewhere else in space but I am mostly happy that you are gainfully employed. I'm sorry that I can't come up with anything deeper!"

I think that my mom was excited and proud to buy the magazine in a store and by now she has a good understanding of how undervalued poetry is in our culture. Although I know she doesn't share in that sentiment (she's highly literate), it probably makes her nervous that I chose to write poetry. That she can actually go to a bookstore and buy something that includes my poetry has only happened a handful of times, and this outer indication of success, however small, is meaningful to her. At the same time, what she thought of the poem in the magazine remains an utter mystery so I've had to come up with my own theories.

During spring break last year, I went to the south of France to visit my grandmother (my mother's mother) and I took my son two-year-old son, Ezekiel, since I wanted him to meet his great-grandmother. It is this trip, back to the "motherland," on which the poem that is included in Poetry is based.

When I think about what I wrote, it's really a poem about family lineage, about the idea of the "Wandering Jew," and it's much more about my mother than I had realized when I asked her what she thought of the poem. My mother left France for Israel in the late 1960s because she had been told that France wasn't a place for Jews to live, that Israel was the "true" homeland, and then in the late 1970s she left Israel with my father, finally ending up in Los Angeles.

My grandparents were very lucky to have survived the Holocaust, but the scars were passed down to my mother's generation and this, for my mother, took the form of breaking with France and all things French. She left and never really looked back. For all of its flaws, America has been a breath of fresh air for my mother, whereas France is the old "claustrophobic" country to which she never wanted to return.

But I think any poem is always a form of return as much as it looks to the future. I had realized that this poem was about the future (the futility of "building" a child) but I had been shortsighted in not seeing how much it is about the past. Walter Benjamin's "Angel of History" is a good visual metaphor, I think, for this pull of history in opposing directions: all of the groundlessness, the hopes, fears, excitements, disappointments, and our helplessness are embodied in this image that has always seemed particularly European to me.

The site of this poem is ultimately where the bloodlines and history intersect, since poetry must confront history in any way that it can, and we cannot do this without understanding our roots, even if the roots are debris. What else can we give our children?

I think of Celan, who also enters the poem, and his heartbreaking desire for his lost mother to speak, the play between silence and speech in poetry and in general, the white space and the words. My mother, who is particularly conscientious about answering my emails, blew me off, leaving my poem and interpretation of it to fill in the gaps.

You Can't Build a Child

with the medicinal poppies of June
nor with Celan's bloom-fest of dredged stone,
      not with history's choo-choo train of corpses,
    not with Nottingham's Robin Hood
            nor Antwerp's Diamondland.

Not walking on the Strand in Manhattan Beach with her
       silicone breast implants, refinery, waves of trash,
        not out of the Library of Alexandria
            with her burnt gardens that prefigure gnarly,
        barnacle-laden surfboards broken in half.

You can't build the child with the stone paths
        that we have walked on through the atmosphere,
            the pirate's plank, the diving board, the plunge,
          nor with the moon whether
                she be zombie or vampire.
        Not with Delphi, not with fangs, or cardamom bought
                in Fez, red with spring, red with
                    marathon running cheeks.

            Not with monk chant, bomb chant,
        war paint, not with the gigantic Zen pleasure zones,
                nor with this harnessed pig
        on the carousel that I am sitting on with my son
                in Nice, France. How it burns on its axis
            as if it were turning into pineapple-colored kerosene
        the way the Hawaiian pig, apple in snout, roasts
           in its own tropical meat under the countdown sun.

Poem first appeared in Poetry, April 2012.

collected in

The poets in this collection present poems about their mothers and dis...