Beyond the Words: Why I Mother You Like I Do

Many thanks to Mark Brown for this wonderful analysis of my poem (which appears in Seed Across Snow)--this is from Mark's Green River Writers Newsletter Column

Why I Mother You the Way I Do
by Kathleen Driskell

That afternoon, I have to admit, there were no thoughts
of you. I was in high school - making my way past
the buses to a waiting car - a boy who would not be
your father - when the line of traffic stopped. The girls,
classmates, sisters, had darted between buses
and into the highway, trying to cross the field to their home.
They both lay twisted in the road. My science teacher,
Mr. Desaro, took off his suit coat and laid it over Susan's
face. He was crying because he only had one coat.

By the time they let us pass, Eve had been covered with a white
sheet. The ambulances had come. Red lights flashed, but
their mother was still pushing her silver cart
through the grocery. The sheriff was walking up behind
her. As she reached for a gallon of milk, he moved
to touch her arm.

This poem from Kathleen Driskell’s new collection, Seeds Across Snow, is a revealing example of how compression in artful hands builds tension and power. The events of “That afternoon,” are retold in a journalistic fashion. Beyond the first two sentences, the speaker inserts no editorial observations about the horror of witnessing the aftermath of two classmates who readers must assume where struck and killed by a car. She lets her just-the-facts observations provide the canvas that we paint this heartbreaking scene onto as we travel through the poem.

Driskell’s choice to use a sonnet-like structure aids in compressing the event to build potential that carries us along as she stacks setting and objects into a narrative that we hope isn’t happening. She summons us into the poem with an almost sticky sweet title that prepares us for a different Madonna and Child exploration. The title and structure manipulates and disarms us. And to further dupe the reader about how fast and deep the story goes, she delays the opening action for a half-beat by directly addressing the child the speaker is mothering.

As we read the details of the speaker making her way to the waiting car with the boy, we get an inkling of dread when the traffic has stopped. When the girls who have darted into the highway are added, that dread heightens. When we are presented the image of the girls “twisted in the road,” we’re shaken with disbelief. In the ninth line, we fully realize the size of the tragedy. That Mr. Desaro “was crying because he only had one coat” is a detail fraught with subtext and honored by its placement at the turn within the sonnet-like structure. We ache to think that two, teen-aged sisters have died such a shocking death in full view of the students making their way home.

We learn that eventually both sisters’ bodies are covered and then retrieved by ambulances. But what of the girls’ mother? The power of this compressed scene is at last unleashed when Driskell presents us with the image of the oblivious mother at the grocery. And the greatest power comes from Driskell’s choice to end the poem with the sheriff fulfilling a most horrific task. The wise omission of the mother’s reaction gives us the opportunity to imagine and empathize more so than any attempt at description could.