The Poem

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 588

“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.

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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 to poke food into her daughter’s mouth until she gagged. Enemas, mucus, mineral pills, bowels, and sore throats are the subjects of the mother-daughter discussions; the seemingly unhealthy relationship focuses solely on the daughter’s health.

Van Duyn behaved in a submissive manner, partially because she “was scared to die,” until she finally fought back as a junior in high school when her mother, in disciplining her, was “Breaking/ another free yardstick from the drygoods store/ on a butt and legs still bad.” She continued rebelling in college, learning “how to tear up the letters” in which her mother gave her the customary advice: “for my sake please don’t do itdon’t try itdon’t go . . .!” Years later, after Van Duyn had married and begun her career, when she returned to her mother’s house to tend her ailing parents, she still heard the same litany: “Don’t you dare go outside that door without your sweater!” The poet imagines that her mother can see on her daughter’s shoulders, only “the weak, rolling head of a death-threatened baby.”

In the beginning, section 2 turns the focus away from the mother’s obsessive fascination with her daughter’s health and concentrates on the mother’s self-scrutiny; the self-scrutiny is limited to the world of the senses. Van Duyn’s mother apparently has little interest in struggling for spiritual or psychological truths. She charts the levels of “blood in the snot,” marvels at the smell of her sweat or urine, chronicles “the gas that makes her ‘blow up tight as a drum,’” and counts the times she vomits: “I puked four times, and the last one/ was pure bile!

Despite listing all the obvious shortcomings of her parent, Van Duyn remains fond of her mother and, in her mind’s eye, can “still see the mother [she] wanted, that [she] called to come,/ coming.” The poem closes with tremendous tenderness after all the “suppurating, rotting, stinking, swelling,/shrieking,oozing.” The emotional warmth, in the end, outshines the body’s powers and failures.

Forms and Devices

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 446

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 journey toward death, but she only charts the number of times she “pukes” or the number of units of penicillin her doctor prescribes. The classical allusions end with another mock-heroic picture: The mother consults an oracle (a mysterious and sometimes dangerous action in ancient Greece), but here she consults only “the eight shelves of the six-foot, steel,/ crammed-with-medication oracle.”

The final coupling takes place between the two different pictures the poet has of her mother. Van Duyn says, initially, “I know what she is, I know what she was:/ a hideous machine that pumps and wheezes.” Her mother is a disgusting, stinking machine for “students to learn/ the horror, the nausea, of being human.” The poet, however, draws the poem to a close with a typical gesture: She counters the mood by saying, “And yet. . . .” The qualification comes in the form of a reversal: The mother, looked at now, is “an attractive woman” and is the kind of mother the poet actually wanted. The formal device of the couplets makes the reader anticipate some sort of yoking or linking, and Van Duyn delivers on the promise that her formal choice suggests: Her mother is terrible and tender, both a horror and a blessing.

Bibliography

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 53

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.

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Themes