Self Portrait with Mabel, Rose, Lillianne, Fern, Mildred, Bea
My mother named me
little old lady. Named me:
I lived in a different century.
I was born rural
in a city of mills.
My mother named me
place of unreachable hills.
A temperance movement of one,
I was sober
as spring water. I was old
then I was older.
My mother named me
I was her easy pregnancy, asleep
by eight, awake when convenient.
I held the fetal position
like a moral obligation:
her ribs were unmolested
as a Victorian birdcage. They pried
my soft bones like ancient pottery
from between my mother’s hips
while she slept. An orphaned monkey,
a baby of the ‘70s,
I sucked the bright orange nipple
of a sterilized glass bottle, held
by some other woman
while my mother came-to. She named me
Mabel, Rose, Lillianne, Fern, Mildred, Bea;
names I wear like tarnished jewelry
pinned to the inside
of my bra for safekeeping.
They take turns speaking
through my mouth, choose
my handbags, prefer flat shoes.
They embody the word habit,
placing a napkin atop my glass
of water, one beneath to absorb the sweat,
carry a magnifying glass
to read menus. With them
I’m always the youngest in the room.
And nothing changes. They name me not-yet-
born, but predict a natural birth.
do you believe us?
does it help you to believe in us?
The inspiration for this poem came in a recollection from my mother. Despite the fact that Sarah was one of the most popular girl’s names the year I was born, some female relatives complained that my mother had given me an old lady’s name. In her defense, my mother explained that from the moment I was born I looked and acted like a little old lady. The truth of this anecdote, however, runs deeper and is what I explore in the poem. My grandmothers, Rose and Lillianne, are included in the title. Rose was the one who pinned her jewelry to her bra for safekeeping and Lillianne was the family historian, tirelessly researching genealogy old-school before the internet opened up so many records to the hobbyist. I inherited my grandmother’s passion for history, family history in particular, and this poem is, in part, an homage to my female lineage on both sides. As the first poem in See the Wolf, it establishes the interconnectedness of the women in the collection and the fact that, even when these women are being victimized, they have more power as a collective organism than they would as individuals.
As the oldest child of a single mother who was the survivor of childhood sexual abuse, I think I accepted the ‘little adult’ characterization early. Being my mother’s easy, mature, and predictable child was something I could do to make her happy. My temperament was already well-suited to the role and I further cultivated it into a talent. So, the poem is a bit of ruthless self-reflection in that way. Some ghost of Sylvia Plath’s “The Disquieting Muses” haunts the poem for me as there’s a kind of sad inheritance being transmitted. Ultimately, though, this poem and the ideas behind it give me solace. I like to imagine carrying my female lineage around, for better or worse, allowing them to speak through me, relying on their wisdom and strength. There’s something very comforting in containing that collective ‘old lady’ energy.
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Stefan Komarek says
Sarah, thank you for sharing this beautiful poem and for sharing your personal experiences. I too am an “old soul”…the burden that comes from always being responsible and reliable can sometimes become quite a burden. I hope that you continue to find inner peace and balance in your life, and that you continue to share your wonderful gift of writing with us. Thank you!
Stefan thanks so much for reading and sharing your own story.
Charlene Neely says
“If I read a book and it makes my whole body so cold no fire can warm me I know that is poetry. If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry. ” Emily Dickenson. This is what Sarah Sousa elaborates… does for me! Thank you for expressing it so well. I want to keep a copy of this near-by for constant reminder of what poetry is.
Charlene, thanks so much for your close read and generous praise. I’m a big Emily Dickinson fan 😊
…just getting on this train, after many long rides for decades, thanks in part to my daughter’s seeing your husband in concert ; now I can pass something back to her!! Thank you…Tom Reaves