on mothers and motherhood

[The poetry and writing in this newsletter has been curated by a friend of the mag - Meghna]

Ocean Vuong — Headfirst

Khong co gi bang com voi ca.
Khong co gi bang ma voi con.
Vietnamese Proverb

Don't you know? A mother's love
neglects pride
the way fire
neglects the cries
of what it burns. My son,
even tomorrow
you will have today. Don't you know?
There are men who touch breasts
as they would
the tops of skulls. Men
who carry dreams
over mountains, the dead
on their backs.
But only a mother can walk
with the weight
of a second beating heart.
Stupid boy.
You can get lost in every book
but you'll never forget yourself
the way god forgets
his hands.
When they ask you
where you're from,
tell them your name
was fleshed from the toothless mouth
of a war-woman.
That you were not born
but crawled, headfirst––
into the hunger of dogs. My son, tell them
the body is a blade that sharpens
by cutting.

Author's note:

Ocean Vuong is a gay Vietnamese American, a writer, from a working-class refugee family in Hartford. A lot of their writing is for their mother, although they admit they write in a language she can never read, she stands in the back of the room and weeps as white people applaud her son. In this poem, using just the form of the poem and it’s line breaks, Ocean makes us uncomfortable. The life of a mother is as fragmented as the structure of this poem. They start the poem by elaborating on the mother’s sacrificial spirit. A mother loves unconditionally. Even if this love that she gives out might burn her, even if the child is unworthy of love, the mother keeps loving and giving. “A mother’s love neglects pride the way fire neglects the cries of what it burns”. The imagery he uses is stunning - the mother walking with a second heart, the child has no independent body, his body is an additional weight on his mother, so she carries his heavy heart and moves forward through the obstacles of life. How does one truly separate the mother and the child? Even when we had the Nirbhaya rape crimes in India, the media kept focusing on the mothers of the criminals who were hanged. How does a mother feel when a child commits a crime? How does a mother feel when someone kills their child, be it the state, the public, an unknown assailant or the child himself. Does a mother have the right to separate herself from her child? Does society allow for it?

As a queer poet myself, I come back to Ocean to ask myself, can we queer, non-binary folks ever truly become mothers? Can Ocean ever become a mother when they find the love of their life and want to have a child with them? Maybe not biologically, but as individuals who can adopt, can I ever become a real mother? And if I am allowed to become a mother with another woman, can a man or a woman or a trans person become a mother? Who is allowed to be a mother in our society? Is motherhood deeply intertwined with gender binary roles forced down our throats by society? Ocean calls their mother a war-woman, but I don’t believe it’s only because they have emerged alive out of a war that consumed their whole community. It’s because as a woman, as a mother, as an Asian mother who cannot speak English in a racist America, the war she fights is far from over. “The body is a blade that sharpens by cutting”. The last line hurts me the most but it heals me with hope too. Our bodies are cut open with pain, but we endure it with thicker skin now.

“Before I die, I want to be somebody’s favorite hiding place, the place they can put everything they know they need to survive, every secret, every solitude, every nervous prayer, and be absolutely certain I will keep it safe. I will keep it safe.”

― Andrea Gibson