By Elana Bell:
ELEGY FOR A MOTHER, STILL LIVING
The Lord gives everything and charges by taking it back. —Jack Gilbert
I was formed inside the body
of a woman who wanted me
as she wanted her own life,
allowed to drink the milk
made only for me.
I was given mother-love,
its bounty and its cocoon
of those first years without language.
It is right to mourn the rocky hills
of Crete where we walked, my small
hand in hers for hours. The hidden
beach where we swam naked
then baked on the fine sand. Lazy
afternoons in her lap, thick
hand stroking my curls.
Her fingers have stiffened.
In her eyes, the eyes of an animal in pain.
I hold the memory of my mother
against the woman she is.
Elana Bell’s first collection of poetry, Eyes, Stones (LSU Press 2012) was selected by Fanny Howe as the winner of the Walt Whitman Award from the Academy of American Poets. She is the recipient of grants and fellowships from the Jerome Foundation, the Edward Albee Foundation, and the Brooklyn Arts Council. Her work has recently appeared in AGNI, Harvard Review, and the Massachusetts Review. Elana leads creative writing workshops for women in prison, for educators, for high school students in Israel-Palestine and throughout the five boroughs of New York City, as well as for the pioneering peace building and leadership organization, Seeds of Peace. She was a recent finalist for Split This Rock’s inaugural Freedom Plow Award for Poetry & Activism, an award which recognizes and honors a poet who is doing innovative and transformative work at the intersection of poetry and social change. Elana also teaches literature and creative writing at CUNY College of Staten Island and curates public art installations with Poets in Unexpected Places.
Editor’s Note: If I have learned anything from reading Li-Young Lee and Ocean Vuong, it is that great poetry changes the reader. Whenever I read Elana Bell, I am deeply moved in the moment. Many poems do this, and many make it into the pages of this series. But today’s poet has always moved me far beyond the moment of reading. Her words stay with me. Weeks, months, years later, her poems are still a part of me, as if they are my own memories. Once I have read an Elana Bell poem, I have been forever changed.
I first heard the poet read “Elegy for a Mother, Still Living” at NYC’s Bluestockings nearly four years ago, and the poem has never left me. A year later, I wrote “Elegy for the Still Living: Father Cannot Stand Still”, a mourning poem for my father’s illness, named in homage to today’s poem. Years have passed. My father has passed. No elegy I write for him will ever again be “for the still living.” But “Elegy for a Mother, Still Living” remains with me, a memory of a different time, a different kind of mourning.
When I came across today’s poem in AGNI, it was like coming across an old photograph. A commemoration of my own past. A memory like an artifact, layer upon layer of personal significance buried between the lines of someone else’s words, someone else’s experience, someone else’s life. And yet, by the gifted hand of the poet, someone else’s experience has become my own. I am reminded of a line from the musical Wicked: “Who can say if I’ve been changed for the better? (I do believe I have been changed for the better.) But, because I knew you, I have been changed for good.”
Want more from Elana Bell?
Elana Bells’ Official Website
Academy of American Poets
P.O.P. (Poets on Poetry) Shot and edited by poet and photographer Rachel Eliza Griffiths, P.O.P is a video series featuring contemporary American poets who read both an original poem and a poem by another poet, after which they reflect on their choice.
Poets in Unexpected Places
Buy Eyes, Stones
Reading on PBS