Praise Song For My Mother

 Overview

As you can probably tell from the title, this poem is a tribute from Grace Nichols to her mother and celebrates what she meant the poet her through various metaphors associated with Nichols’ childhood. Not only is her mother seen as providing the care and support children need to grow up, but she is a source of inspiration and encouragement and someone who always made her feel loved and valued.

Mini-Glossary
fathoming – not really a word, but suggests unseen depths (a fathom is a unit used to measure the depth of oceans);
mantling – again, not a word you’d often see used (if at all), that relates to the protective role of a mantle or coat.

You were
water to me
deep and bold and fathoming

You were
moon’s eye to me
pull and grained and mantling

You were
sunrise to me
rise and warm and streaming

You were
the fishes red gill to me
the flame tree’s spread to me
the crab’s leg/the fried plantain smell
replenishing replenishing

Go to your wide futures, you said

Grace Nichols (1950-)

Analysis
Click through the tabs below to explore my analysis of different aspects of the poem.
ContextThemesContentLanguage and techniquesStructureTone

Context

Although I’ve not read a huge amount of Nichols’ work, I am a big fan of a number of poems and use them regularly in every day classroom teaching. Her poetry reflects a real Caribbean heart and soul and my particular favour, ‘Island Man’, really makes you question Western notions of success and happiness.

She was born in 1950 in Guyana. This relatively small country on the north coast of South America is actually more typically associated with the Caribbean islands due to historical ties as part of the British Empire. Although it is a nominally English-speaking country, the majority of the population use Guyanese Creole (which is a mix of English and other languages that were used in the country during colonial times – with indigenous, African and Indian influences) and this is often reflected in Nichol’s language and the way ideas are expressed.

Although she moved to the UK in 1977, Guyana and her native culture have remained an important influence in her poetry and this is no exception. A praise song is a traditional African form of poem used to celebrate loved ones lost, while many of the images referred to have strong roots in the Caribbean.

 Themes

We are focused here on a sense of loss, but also what is retained in death. Nichols’ is at once lamenting her mother’s passing and celebrating all the things she represented for her daughter. There is also a strong connection drawn between Nature and the role of her mother and family life in general in Guyana.

Content

The title and opening line make us immediately aware that this poem is looking back upon the death of Nichols’ mother. It is deeply personal as we can see from the use of the second person address.

In the opening stanza, she compares her mother with water, which immediately has connotations such as life giving, vital, soothing and replenishing. However, these obvious connotations are maybe implied, but not specifically explored. Instead it is the depth and power of water that she draws attention to. These words are deliberately vague and almost challenge us to draw our own meaning, but I see Nichols as painting a picture of someone she admired for providing a limitless supply of love and always being able to provide wisdom and guidance for her daughter no matter the situation.

Next she becomes the moon’s eye and is looking down upon her daughter, again suggesting a guiding role in her life. Again, this is not what the poet explores, but is a natural inference to draw. Instead she focuses on the moon’s role in controlling/influencing the Earth, which we can think about in relation to its influence on the tides and the protection it provides us from nasty asteroids and comets that want to smash us to smithereens. There is a suggestion of force and friction here, which imply that this role may have sometimes been performed against the poet’s desires, but there is an admission that it was always to protect and guide her.

While these opening two stanzas make her sound like a good mother, the third makes it clear how much Nichols’ loved her for who she was. The sunrise leads us out of darkness and misery, which her mother is able to do and help her recover from those times she is down or feels worthless.

The warmth of the metaphor in the third stanza continues into the fourth, which is now a rush of rich, cherished memories that will forever be associated with her mother. From vibrant colours of nature to the delicious smell and taste of the food she grew up eating, Nichols places her mother at the heart of a loved childhood and all these elements of her culture that she holds on a pedestal.

The final stanza seems to be a final summation of her mother. She inspired and empowered her daughter with the belief that she could achieve whatever she wanted in life. Its brevity also brings us to an emotional realisation that she is gone forever.

Language and techniques

We can draw significance from the title in the fact that it reflects Nichols roots and cultural heritage as a form of poetry typically associated with African poetry – with colonialism ensuring this connection extended to the various territories with an historic association with the slave trade. Although Nichols wrote the poem while living in the UK, by using this traditional form she is honouring her mother and her native culture.

I mentioned above that the poem is addressed to the deceased with the use of the second person ‘you’. On almost all occasions, I’d look at you a little bit weirdly if you began talking to dead people, but in this poem it makes sense. The reverence towards her mother and the suggestions of continuing maternal influence and guidance, even in death, suggests this poem serves as an address to her mother in heaven, with the belief that she continues to watch over her.

This angelic/divine presence is further suggested by the natural elements she is associated with. Water is the essence of life, while the sun and the moon are often referred to as heavenly bodies and givers of life. Thus her mother is credited with a divine influence in her existence, her development and her continuing life. However, Nichols leaves us to make these connotations and introduces her own more personal and often vague associations.

We associate water its life supporting function, but Nichols highlights the fact it is ‘deep and bold and fathoming’. On a literal level we can consider the depth of the oceans and the considerable power, or I suppose bravery, in its waves and magnitude. We have to speculate on what these represent specifically to our poet. Her depth could suggest a mother who continues to impress their daughter with their knowledge, their wisdom and ability to guide. The tone of the poem suggests a continuing reverence for her mother as if she always feels like she can learn from her. While I would take ‘bold’ to represent a mother determined to support and encourage her daughter, perhaps to stand up to difficult situations and to overcome them, rather than one who shied away from change or challenge.

‘Fathoming’ is a really interesting adjective/verb choice here. It doesn’t really make sense in standard English, but remember that Nichols blends standard English with the native Creole and thus this expression may make more sense in that form. However, we measure fathoms as we descend into a body of water and perhaps this is what Nichols means. Her mother enabled the poet to explores the depths of who she is and develop herself fully. Interestingly, it is presented in the present continuous tense here, which suggests that her mother continues to serve this role, even in death. Thus I would see this as a suggestion that her mother’s example continues to inspire Nichols to push herself and embrace new challenges and development in her own life.

I’ve alluded to the obvious connotations of a metaphorical comparison with the moon above, but will just quickly mention the significance of the word ‘eye’, which really conjures an image of a guardian angel-type figure who has watched over her protectively throughout her life and perhaps continues to do so in death. Nichols again conjures her own connotations. The ‘pull’ makes me think about the gravitational influence the moon has on the Earth, which does not control the Earth, but does have an influence over our tides and weather. For me this implies that her motherly influence has not been overbearing, but she has always provided guidance to be taken when needed and to ensure things run smooth for her daughter. Interestingly, both ‘pull’ and ‘grained’ contain an association of counteracting forces. We pull something that is either stationary or pulling against us, while the expression going against the grain tells us that if something is ‘grained’ it must be being guided in a particular direction. However, ‘grained’ also makes me think about sandpaper and rough surfaces being smoothed. These association would make sense in any parental relationship where there is a strain between parental guidance and developing independence of growing children. The final adjective/verb is ‘mantling’, which contains no hint of friction, but suggests a really protective relationship as a mantle is like a coat and keeps us warm and covered. Again, the use of present continuous tells us that her mother continues to provide this protection even in death.

Next, this protective role is expanded into a sense of unending love and care. The sun only rises after the dark and thus we should be considering their relationship in connection with the dark times in someone’s life – losing someone, being rejected, missing out on a dream/opportunity. With her mother she can ‘rise’ and ‘warm’, just like a bulb after a long, hard winter she is able to coax Nichols back out of her shell and into the world. Just knowing that someone is always there for and will always make you know you are loved and valued. I’m still scratching my head a bit with possible connotations of ‘streaming’ and I presume that is down to the variation in word usage from standard English to Guyanese Creole. Perhaps it refers to the streams of sunlight shooting off in every direction at sunrise and this could refer to her mother making her see the light and have optimism in all areas of her life… I’m scraping the barrel here and would appreciate comments with your ideas.

In the fourth stanza, Nichols seems to abandon her regular form as she is overcome with strong, specific memories of her mother as she grew up in Guyana. The early associations are deliberately vague and seem to withhold the intimacy of their relationship from the reader. However, in the fourth she opens up with specific memories and this seems to stem from the previous stanzas idea of unending love and how worthwhile she was able to make her daughter’s life feel.

The imagery is all very Caribbean specific with the vibrant ‘red gill’ of a fish takes us to the hustle and bustle of her coastal upbringing. The colour of gills fades quickly when fish are taken from the water and thus the brightness of this imagery is a further association with life giving or vitality associated with her mother, as well as serving as a memory connected with her time growing up with her mother in Guyana. More colour with the ‘flame tree’s spread’, but this perhaps also alludes back to the protecting role of her mother, with the tree shielding her from sun or rain.

While recalling these memories she has no time to explain specific connotations, and leaves that to the reader, as these memories seem to race back to her and overwhelm her. The best example of this is the fourth line in this stanza where two competing images of favourite childhood food interrupt each other. A ‘crab’s leg’ would usually share the vibrant red colour of the two prior images, while we have the scent of ‘the fried plantain’ competing. Although these tasty nibbles have obvious connotations of sustenance, it is their role as clear favourites that leave Nichols excited and presumably salivating at the thought that links back to the sense of joy and love the mother was able to inspire in the poet, as earlier evidenced in the third stanza.

Don’t be fooled into thinking ‘replenishing replenishing’ only refers to these food types and their specific involvement in keeping her alive. All these images and associations combined provided replenishment in the form of happy memories and pride that Nichols has in remembering her mother. The repetition only serves to emphasise how deep her reverence is and how successful she thinks her mother has been at providing her with everything she has needed in life.

The final stanza is really powerful as it ends the poem in a single line. This focuses us on something the poet clearly feels is of particular importance and it comes back to this idea of inspiration and encouragement. The imperative ‘Go to’ is an order at odds with its idea. ‘Go to your wide futures’ is a command to embrace opportunity, to travel, to leave Guyana, to be who she want to be. The plurality of ‘futures’ demonstrates a mother who believes her daughter has no limits and can achieve whatever she sets out to and in fact the force of the statement almost compels Nichols to embrace challenges and opportunity in her life.

Phew! How did I manage to write that much about a short little poem like this?

Structure

Okay, I need to be brief because my wife has just told me I have to go to bed!

Although we have a glaring lack of punctuation in this poem, the only wider significance of it is that it demonstrate Guyanese Creole’s often informal structuring. It is a common feature of a number of Nichols’ poems.

What I would comment on is the shifting of stanza structure from 3 lines to 5 lines in the fourth and then a single line to end the poem. As discussed above, this represents an overflowing of emotional memories or associations Nichols has of her mother. As these compete and jostle with each other, we use the formulaic addition of specific connotations for each metaphor or association. The single line represents the finality of death and provide us with a clear focal point of what Nichols is most grateful for.

The other thing, which I was really quite negligent not to mention above, is the repetition of the phrase ‘You were’. The repetition of referring to her mother in the past tense seems to be almost a coming to terms with the fact that she is no longer there, but also serves to emphasise all the different roles she performed in her daughter’s life.

Tone

I see this as shifting from a serious and reverential tone of lamentation, to one of more exuberant celebration of the warmth and love Nichols felt/feels towards her mother. The stand alone line at the end once more falls back to a deep reverence.

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