The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“The mother” is a short poem in free verse, written mostly in the first person. In her narrator, Gwendolyn Brooks adopts the persona of an impoverished mother. In the tradition of the lyric, this narrator addresses the reader directly and personally to convey her feelings. The poem contains thirty-five lines, which are separated into three stanzas. The title, “the mother,” is ironic, for this mother is a woman who has lost her children because of very difficult and painful decisions—decisions that she believes were for the best.

Brooks’s “the mother” implicitly explores the impact of abject poverty on the life of a female character. The poem depicts the struggles and regrets of a poor woman who has had many abortions. The mother has continuing anxiety and anguish because of her difficult decisions. The very first line of the first stanza, “Abortions will not let you forget,” immediately draws attention to the title, “the mother,” and to the importance of the word “love”—what it has meant to the narrator to love her children or, rather, the children she might have had.

The narrator of the poem, the mother of the lost children, ultimately accepts responsibility for her acts, although she seems to alternate between evading and admitting that responsibility. Throughout the poem, the narrator refers to her decisions with concrete adverbs and adjectives.

The brief final stanza is climactic. The narrator confronts her familiarity with her lost children and, despite her decision to abort them, proclaims her love for them. The final line, consisting of only one word, “All,” is particularly effective in that it stands in stark contrast to the apparent harshness of both her decision and her own attitude toward that decision.

The city is an important and recurring symbol in Brooks’s work. She has created a series of portraits of women inhabiting Bronzeville, a setting for many of her poems, which may be taken symbolically as the African American community. In a way similar to that of Richard Wright, Gwendolyn Brooks’s work expresses the tragic and dehumanizing aspects of the ghetto experience. Brooks also ventures deep beneath the surface of the ghetto experience to uncover areas of a poor person’s life that frequently go unnoticed and should not necessarily be considered terrible or ugly.

The mother Forms and Devices

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

A sharp contrast is created in “the mother” between potential—what could have been—and reality, what has been. This contrast establishes a dialectic of dreams versus reality, since, in the mother’s imagination, the lost babies still exist and grow even though she knows that the babies are dead. Throughout the poem the mother drifts between the imaginative and the real, finally revealing her need to believe in an existence after death.

In stanza 2, she imagines giving birth, suckling babies at her breast, and hearing them cry and play games; she even thinks of their “loves” and marriages. Yet these thoughts are bluntly followed by the words, “anyhow you are dead.”

The speaker cannot quite bear the word “dead,” however, and immediately follows it with “Or rather, . . ./ You were never made.” The alternation of accepting and evading responsibility, of plainly saying “my dim killed children,” then denying that terrible picture, gives the poem its complexity and its deep emotion. The speaker begins, in the first stanza, by using a second-person address—“the children you got that you did not get”—then switches, in the second stanza, to the painfully personal first-person meditation: “I have heardthe voices of my dim killed children.” Her attempt to keep a distance between herself and the experience she describes fails. In stanza 2, she addresses the children who were never born with a series of clauses beginning with “if,” attempting to apologize or explain herself to them: “If I sinned,” “If I stole your births.” She can conclude these thoughts only with the contradictory statement, “Believe that even in my deliberateness I was not deliberate.”

An important unifying device in the poem is memory. Memory is constantly functioning in “the mother.” The narrator is in a fluid and changing relationship with the past, and specifically with her decisions that have drastically affected the present. These decisions keep intruding into the present, and her recollections move between her dreams of what might have been and the harshness of her memory of what caused her to decide as she did.

The mother Bibliography

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

Brooks, Gwendolyn. Report from Part One. Detroit: Broadside Press, 1972.

Bryant, Jacqueline, ed. Gwendolyn Brooks’ “Maud Martha”: A Critical Collection. Chicago: Third World Press, 2002.

Kent, George E. A Life of Gwendolyn Brooks. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1990.

Lanker, Brian. I Dream a World: Portraits of Black Women Who Changed America. New York: Stewart, Tabori & Chang, 1989.

Madhubuti, Haki R., ed. Say That the River Turns: The Impact of Gwendolyn Brooks. Chicago: Third World Press, 1987.

Melhem, D. H. Gwendolyn Brooks: Poetry and the Heroic Voice. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1987.

Mootry, Maria K., and Gary Smith, eds. A Life Distilled: Gwendolyn Brooks, Her Poetry and Fiction. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1987.

Washington, Mary Helen. “Plain, Black, and Decently Wild: The Heroic Possibilities of Maud Martha.” In The Voyage In: Fictions of Female Development, edited by Elizabeth Abel, Marianne Hirsch, and Elizabeth Langland. Hanover, N.H.: University Press of New England, 1983.

Wright, Stephen Caldwell, ed. On Gwendolyn Brooks: Reliant Conversation. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1996.