Poem of the Week / As Erica Jong's Mother Lay Dying

Erica Jong interprets her dying mother's babbling as colors and love, but it hurts.

Send in e-mailSend in e-mail
Send in e-mailSend in e-mail
“Mother and Daughter,” Paul Gauguin, 1901 or 1902, Metropolitan Museum of Art.
“Mother and Daughter,” Paul Gauguin, 1901 or 1902, Metropolitan Museum of Art. Credit: Wikimedia

Dying is not black

Erica Jong

Touch, words, color,
my expiring mother
notices the red & purple of my shirt
with delight.

Color is her language
though she taught me
both painting & poetry
interlocking languages for her
& now for me.

She has no words for my shirt
but exclaims nonsense syllables
of joy, her only brush now
for the ecstasy of red,
the blue note
of mauve over it,
making plum.

Erica Jong.Credit: Gianni Franchellucci

Her sounds become
a damson jam
like her mother's,
sweet but muddled.
But her love is clear.

Her love assails
my eyes
as if it were
blood glittering
on a knife
aiming for
my heart.

© Erica Mann Jong, 2012, reprinted by permission

Parents are like magnets. They attract and we move closer; they repel and we move away – we progress from “I want my mommy!” to “You don’t understand me and I hate you” onto “So this is what you meant when you told me just wait until you have children,” and so on as we mature and they age.

But a parent’s approaching death can draw us closer, and currents of connection can become salient.

Here, the mother can no longer speak coherently; the daughter translates her babbling as delight in color. (Jong’s mother was an artist and designer.) Sustenance from the mother’s communication has become “like damson jam ” handed down from an earlier generation – her mother’s mother – gratifying but bewildering, “sweet but muddled.” Nonetheless, the “love is clear.”

“Delight,” “joy,” “ecstasy” and sweetness would yield somewhat sticky forgiveness and gratitude were it not for the final stanza. There, love hurts: It assails the daughter’s heart “like blood on a knife.” The assault is in the immediate present (impending loss creates a need to stave off tears by recalling the good) and also in the past, in the positive and negative force field between daughters and mothers during their time together, more charged than mere “muddle".

Since 1971, Erica Jong has published 22 books, among them seven volumes of poetry. Her first novel, “Fear of Flying” (1972) established her as a “voice of her generation.” In brief, her entire oeuvre examines the challenges facing women, particularly Jewish women, and their growth. Her most recent novel, forthcoming from St. Martin’s Press in September, is “Fear of Dying.”

“I never wanted to go to Israel when I was young. Growing up in a sophisticated, assimilated New York Jewish family,” she has written, “I had a horror of kibbutzim What an ignorant little twit I was. I went to Israel for the first time after I was 50 (the occasion was a poetry festival in Jerusalem) and I fell in love with the country.” In an interview, she told Israeli English-language poet Karen Alkalay-Gut of Tel Aviv that she “can’t swear” she won’t end up in Israel.

Currently she resides in Connecticut but follows events here and signed the letter condemning New York Mayor Bill De Blasio’s support for AIPAC.

*Musing: How would the poem be different if the shirt were green and yellow?