Praise Song For My Mother

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Context and general meaning:  The poem is about her mother’s importance to the poet, drawing upon the influence of Guyana on their lives.   We might see the song as both referring to her actual mother and her mother country, Guyana. There are sub-themes and loss and the natural world, which link Nichols’ mother to the country of Guyana from which the poet also may have emigrated.  

 

Stanza One

  • Repeated line ‘You were’ at the start of the first four stanzas immediately emphasizes a loss, that her mother is no longer with her (and that she is no longer in her country).   

  • Throughout the first stanza the poet compares her mother to water which is ‘deep and bold and fathoming’.   ‘Fathoming’ here suggests the vastness of her mother’s influence as well as her huge amount of knowledge (to fathom something is to find it out, but a fathom is also a unit of measurement).  ‘Deep’ suggests that she has a deeply embedded influence in the poet’s mind, and also suggests perhaps that she can never be fully understood or encapsulated in words. ‘Bold’ suggests the vivid presence of her mother, and her inner strength.  Listing with a co-ordinating conjunctions creates simply images, in order to convey deep and complex truths about her relationship with her mother. Water also has connotations of clarity, life-giving and purity, suggesting that her mother also had these qualities, always there to help her daughter when she needed her.  

 

Stanza Two

  • ‘Moon’s eye’ uses another metaphor to suggest that her mother is also the moon, watching over her daughter and creating light in the darkness.   The moon is a traditionally feminine thing, suggesting her as a positive role model for her daughter. The moon also draws upon the tides and influences the earth, showing her mother’s strong pull on the poet and the way she keeps the natural order of the world going for the poet.  It also creates an extremely beautiful, romantic image.

  • ‘Pull’ suggests an emotional pull, ‘grained’ suggests support as well as creating a vivid image of the mother and ‘mantling’ (putting a cloak or blanket on someone).  This suggests the protective qualities of the mother, cloaking her child as the moon does with moonbeams.

 

Stanza Three

  • The poet now uses a simple metaphor to suggest that her mother was her own opposite, both moon and sun, encompassing all aspects of the natural world.  

  • The fact that she was ‘rise’, suggests the illumination of the world, leading the poet out of the darkness and constantly providing new hope.  ‘Warm’ is both a sensory quality which makes the poem more vivid to the reader and an emotional quality, conveying the mother’s love, while ‘streaming’ suggests how the sunlight streamed out of her, as though made of water and flowing everywhere.   The poem frequently uses vivid depiction of the senses in order to show the poet’s memories, which are made tangible to the reader.

 

Stanza Four

  • The poet now changes her images from simply features of the natural world to smaller features of the natural world which are alive, and specifically cultural images of Guyana.  This shows that her mother reminded her of her heritage and is inescapably linked to that heritage in the poet’s mind.

  • ‘The fishes red gill’ uses powerful colour in order to show that her mother lives even in the smallest things that allow creatures to draw breath.  ‘Red’ is a vibrant and triumphant colour, and is only see in gills when the fish is fresh - showing just how vibrant life and produce is in Guyana.

  • ‘Flame tree’ again uses the idea of redness, but now conjures the idea of a fire as well, suggesting the mother’s beautiful power (possibly with an element of description) which provides both warmth and shade.  

  • ‘The crab’s leg/the fried plantain smell’ uses images of smell and taste to suggest that her mother also provided ever ‘replenishing’ sustenance for the poet.  Repetition of ‘replenishing’ suggests the constant and everlasting way in which the mother will provide for the daughter.

 

Stanza Five

  • This is a stranded line rather than a stanza in itself.  In some ways, that creates a sense of culmination at the end of the poem, as though this was her mother’s message (and is the only time we see the words of the mother.)  The lack of lines beyond it suggests that going to these futures will also cause her to break away from her mother.

  • Exchange of pronouns from ‘you were’ to ‘to me’ and ending again with ‘you said’, showing how the poet ends not with her own words, but her mother’s influence upon her.

  • ‘Go’ is a directive and an imperative, showing her mother’s command to go out into life and seize the future.  ‘Wide futures’ shows that the poet has to learn independence, ‘futures’ suggests the many possibilities open to her, which will lead from away from her mother but back to her in poetry.   

 

Structure

  • Lack of punctuation and short stanzas: the poem is written entirely in free verse.  This reflects its nature as a praise song, rather than as a Western poetic form.   The expanding stanzas represent the overwhelming and overflowing praise that Nichols has for her mother, who represents everything in the natural world, while the isolated final line provides a sense of conclusion and resolution beyond the loss of her mother.

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