Poem of the week: My Mother says No on Bloomsday by Mary O’Donnell

·5 min read
<span>Photograph: Angela Hampton Picture Library/Alamy</span>
Photograph: Angela Hampton Picture Library/Alamy

My Mother says No on Bloomsday

It is not easy, it is not easy
to wheel an old woman to the shower

on Bloomsday, when the world
and Molly cry yes, yes, yes,

and she is saying no, no, no,
because what’s left of her life

depends on the freedom of No.
How Joycean of her

to resist the cleaned-up conscience
of filial attention, your need

to fix her taints and odours,
wash hair and teeth,

attend to toes when all she wants
is to float on the lily-leaf of her own

green bedspread, drowsing Molly
in a tangle of snow-white hair.

Now, dreams enclose her
more than talk of showers or meals,

the flowing waters of memory
rise and touch her skin

just where the mattress eases
spine and bones

in that yellow-walled room.
Hello, my darling, she greets

his photograph, flinging kisses
towards mottled frame.

To her then,
the logic of love,

to her, the logic of No,
her tongue untameable.

The generous feminist vision in Mary O’Donnell’s latest collection Massacre of the Birds embraces a range of environmental concerns, reports on the “ordinary” female experience of sexual abuse (#Me Too, 12 Remembered Scenes and a Line) and, at the opposite end of the spectrum, registers the pleasures of inhabiting a woman’s body (The Men I once Knew).

A loosely connected series of poems, narrated by a daughter caring for her widowed mother, are interestingly positioned on this spectrum. Caregiving responsibilities in a family typically fall to women, unrecompensed and unrecognised. The poems might have protested against exploitation. But, though centred inevitably on the gendered nature of the experience, and alert to some of the conflicts, they turn out to be more celebration than protest. They are love poems of a kind.

Related: Bloomsday quiz: how well do you know your Joyce?

My Mother says No on Bloomsday begins, admittedly, by emphasising demands on the carer: “It is not easy, it is not easy …” The physical effort is heightened by the patient’s resistance; and the day of celebration, Bloomsday, 16 June, which represents for the speaker a celebration of female sexuality, “when the world / and Molly cry yes, yes, yes”, seems to have been cancelled. The mother’s repeated “No” negates more than the Molly’s affirmatives. But the poem unfolds to reveal that the “No” is really functioning in another way altogether, rejecting the drab routines of physical care for what the body, even in age and infirmity, most profoundly needs.

The soliloquy that closes James Joyce’s Ulysses is a journey in Molly Bloom’s consciousness, ultimately taking her from current infidelity to her husband, Leopold, to the memory of her early surrender to him, with the suggestion that the marriage after all will be replenished. Molly’s final memories are like “the flowing waters of memory” for the mother in O’Donnell’s poem:

and how he kissed me under the Moorish wall and I thought well as well him as another and then I asked him with my eyes to ask again yes and then he asked me would I yes to say yes my mountain flower and first I put my arms around him yes and drew him down to me so he could feel my breasts all perfume yes and his heart was going like mad and yes I said yes I will Yes.

O’Donnell uses an interesting verb when she describes the carer’s task (and need) to “fix” the mother’s “taints and odours”. The primary meaning of “fix” here is to “fix up”, to make things right. But the other meaning sticks around. The woman subjected to the washing and changing routines is also somehow being “fixed” in her decline. The carer herself opposes this reduction. She moves on swiftly to a scene of pleasure, the restoration of the mother’s voluptuous ease on the green bedspread in a room with yellow walls. These are the colours of vegetation and sunlight. The old woman herself is rejuvenated, transformed into “drowsing Molly / in a tangle of snow-white hair”.

The mother has been portrayed in an earlier poem as a woman who enjoyed a marriage so strong and satisfying it could be felt to exclude the offspring. In My Mother says No on Bloomsday, we see in closeup the paradoxical isolation of the carer-daughter. While the impulse of the poem is the mother’s determined, care-defiant “No”, the stronger shock occurs in the last line of couplet 12, when, restored to the bed, she calls out to her husband’s photo, “Hello, my darling,” and “fling[s]” kisses towards the “mottled frame”. Now we feel the renewed force of the earlier idea of “Joycean” rebellion against “the cleaned-up conscience / of filial attention”. If there’s any anger or irony in taking on the mother’s perspective in those earlier couplets, it’s muted by admiration. The term “Joycean” can only be intended as an accolade.

The restrained descriptions of the washing and grooming of the mother are minimal exposures of bodily helplessness which neither invade privacy nor demolish dignity. The poem is radically feminist in that it recognises the mother’s fully human and womanly status. She has a capacity for sensuous pleasure as well as rebellion: the ageing body is permitted its eroticism. Perhaps she’s not simply a version of Molly but a female Ulysses, who, after a long voyage, is finally in sight of home.

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