The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“Remedies, Maladies, Reasons” is written in a loose iambic pentameter form and is composed of fifty-eight couplets that rhyme obliquely. The last line in the poem, which rhymes with the previous couplet, stands alone. There are three sections in the poem: The first thirty-six couplets form the first part; couplets 37 through 58 compose the second; and the single concluding line is a separate section of its own. The title serves as a synopsis of the poem: The speaker searches for reasons why her mother was so obsessed with her daughter’s and her own physical maladies, and she wonders, in part, whether her mother’s remedies were effective.

Mona Van Duyn and her mother are placed at the center of this lyric poem written in the conventional first person. This is not a persona poem; the speaker is the poet, and she is reflecting on her own past. The first section records chronologically Van Duyn’s personal history, but the history is limited to the speaker’s health and how the mother and daughter respond to it. The first sentence explains the dilemma: Van Duyn “nearly died/ at six weeks from nursing a serum” her mother had taken, so her mother becomes extremely overprotective of her, even when she grows up. “Girl Scouts, green apples, tree climbs, fairs,” everything the “other kids” enjoyed, were off limits to her. Van Duyn describes herself as her mother’s “one goose” that refused “to fatten” despite her mother’s attempts...

(The entire section is 588 words.)

Forms and Devices

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

Poets often write in couplets to draw the reader’s attention toward the pairing going on in the poem; in this case, Van Duyn is drawing together mother and daughter, life and death, grief and tenderness, sickness and health, youth and age, accurate vision and hallucinations. The couplets also serve a more grounded purpose: In a particular rhyming couplet, the poet often tries to join words or ideas that are meant for each other. Van Duyn is a master of this. She rhymes “ate” and “toilet” and thereby heightens the intake/outflow obsession of the mother. “Oil” and “bowel” are linked by sound and function. The mother “marvels” at the “smells” her stinking body makes. It is marvelous to rhyme and find beauty in the beastly flesh. Rhyming also points out oppositions: The young Van Duyn wanted to “hike,” but she was denied permission and forced to wear the shoes of the “chronic” invalid.

Van Duyn also yokes disparate ideas or images through her metaphors and comparisons. The poet describes her mother as a “Homer of her own heroic course” whose catalog of maladies and remedies echoes, humorously, Homer’s own examples of bloody encounters and noble endurance. Van Duyn stays with the epic journey motif and describes her mother as an Odyssean character: “Keeping her painstaking charts, first mariner/ of such frightful seas, she logs each degree and number.” The metaphor is funny but not cruel; the mother is on an epic...

(The entire section is 446 words.)


(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

Burns, Michael, ed. Discovery and Reminiscence: Essays on the Poetry of Mona Van Duyn. Fayetteville: University of Arkansas Press, 1998.

Hall, Judith. “Strangers May Run: The Nation’s First Woman Poet Laureate.” The Antioch Review 52, no. 1 (Winter, 1994): 141.

Prunty, Wyatt.“Fallen from the Symboled World”: Precedents for the New Formalism. New York: Oxford University Press, 1990.