This Is My Mother’s Camera

Which I am given since plants in her garden
knew the least significant of our names
when we walked there together, and made us feel
we had a place among the look of things.
A window informs me there’s a film inside
already, with five shots taken.
Your mistress’s eyes have laid you down
at last, slid slowly away
from the five sights, as yet unknown to me,
stored in the clever chemistry of your dark;
the film, like any life, left
surprisingly unfinished. Your spooling memory
awaits nineteen more snapshots
from her life, screwed face lined
up to the apparatus with the enormity of the task,
and days taking on a shutter speed
her legs could not keep up with.
Should I finish the film? And whose album
will I paste my life into? I point the camera
aimlessly, and the lens of this poem’s language
suddenly adjusts, revealing you,
crouched in the boat, as you did on your visit
two years ago, still waiting
for that perfect shot of a heron. I try
to whisper through the lens that it’s there, to the right,
posing magnificently. But I can’t communicate
with you in your last nineteen shots. I can only
hold the camera steady, so that the lake
and trees won’t rock or spill a single
drop. You turn your head and look
right through me, snapping furiously. You have got
the shots you were waiting for, and leave me with something
blue and flying upwards in my life.

Questions and Answers

What inspired “This is my Mother’s Camera”?

I was moved to write this poem by the death of my mother, and by receiving, several months later, a package from England containing some of her prized possessions. There was a salt-shaker, still containing salt she hadn’t used on her last meals. And her camera, with a film inside, with five shots already taken. The unfinished film, in particular, made me feel particularly close to her. If I got her film developed, I would see what she had seen; and if I finished the film with snapshots of my own, my visual world would be connected, in a seamless roll, with hers, as though her eyes were still alive and well, seeing though mine. The divide, between the past of her vigorous life and my present, would be overcome.

What poetic techniques did you use in “This is my Mother’s Camera”?

The poem is what literary critics might call an “elegy”: a poetic reflection on sadness and consolation over a death. Written several months after my mother’s death, this poem concentrates more on consolation and coming to terms, than on deep sadness: those we love live on in us, in how we see things, think and act. Naturally, because of their subject matter, elegies are written, metrically, in slow rhythms of sound. Greek and Roman elegies were often written in alternating hexameter and pentameter lines. I try to keep close to the rhythms of ordinary speech, with four stressed syllables per line, and enough unstressed syllables between them to keep a contemplative rather than rapid rhythm of speech—but not so many as to slow the poem into a saddened dirge, since the poem is mainly concerned with consolation.

I concentrated on the sounds of quite long sequences of words in various places. In “screwed face lined/up to the apparatus with the enormity of the task,” a series of long vowels (“ee,” “aa,” “iy,” etc.) can be called “onomatopoeic” in one sense of the word: the sounds—and the stretching movements of your lips, cheeks and tongue as you make them—correspond to the deliberate movements of someone screwing up their face to confront a difficult task. It’s a case of “sound-symbolism,” where the sounds of words seem particularly appropriate to their meaning.

Metaphor is crucial to the consolation sought in the poem. The language of the poem—indeed language generally—is spoken of as a lens. The metaphor seeks to understand poetic language, its power and its challenges, in terms of how we ordinarily speak of cameras and optical instruments of various sorts. We see, though a telescope, spectacles or a camera lens, what their lenses can focus for us. Otherwise, things go unnoticed, or are merely blurred. And, in many ways, it is though our language, in poetry and elsewhere, that our world becomes vitally distinct to us. Could you distinguish the many fine shades of colour that artists employ, without learning some of their extensive vocabulary for colours (“burnt sienna,” “ecru,” etc.)? My poem tries to make distinct for me the ongoing presence of my mother in my life.

This poem “This Is My Mother’s Camera” originally appeared in Literature & the Visual Arts. Spec. issue of Canadian Literature 113-114 (Summer/Autumn 1987): 167.

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