Martha Rhodes opens her book, Mother Quiet, with “A Progression,” a poem in an unofficial form based on repetition and line content. Rhodes pulls off a wide array of images and emotions while using very sparse language. She manages to give the reader a very specific and surreal sense of the household without any sentimentality. Within the same poem, Rhodes both establishes and strays from the form:
I am wearing the last of the sheep.
Winter at the table devouring.
Father torpedoed by hail.
Mother forgetting his name.
I am wearing a necklace of caskets.
April at the table, my birthday.
Father napping, his wallet clutched.
The tip of mother’s nose, white frosting.
I wear a perennial garden.
July at the table perishes. Mother
wants to know who’s that Southerner
over there, or is it a lion laughing?
I’m wearing their house around me.
September and the boiler full-blasting.
Father with an axe in the back yard,
Mother in the hallway, maybe.
In each quatrain, the first line begins with a reference to the speaker wearing something. The second line contains a season or month, a reference to the time of year. With the exception of the fourth stanza, all of the second lines also contain the words “at the table.” In all but the third stanza, the third line refers to the father, the fourth to the mother.
The progression indicated in the title is achieved not only by the changing seasons and movement and disruption of the family, but through the form as well. The second stanza opens with a line very similar in structure and opening to that of the first stanza. This has the effect of inserting the meaning in the first line of the first stanza into the first line of the second stanza. The violence of the wolf image is a shadow behind the caskets around the neck. In both cases, the speaker is physically bearing the brunt of the deaths. If you read through all of the first lines, they read “I am wearing the last of the sheep. I am wearing a necklace of caskets. I wear a perennial garden. I’m wearing their house around me.” This seems to trace the shifting role of the speaker through the ordeal. The third sentence “I wear a perennial garden,” because it has followed the wolf and the caskets, does not make the reader think only of flowers, but also has two morbid images layered above it. The word perennial, as well, enhances the two lines that have preceded it, suggesting repetitive death and rebirth. The final opening line, “I’m wearing their house around me,” by the time it comes, is heavy with connotations. The house has been weighed down with violence and mortality. The choice of the word “their” house as opposed to “our” house also inserts a suggestion of distance into the speaker’s feelings. This distance is enhanced by the removal of “at the table” from the second line of the fourth stanza.
The second lines of each stanza carry their own progression. They read, in order, “Winter at the table devouring. April at the table, my birthday. July at the table perishes. Mother …. September and the boiler full-blasting.” From Winter to September, approximately a year goes by. Devouring to a birth to a perishing, it zooms out to move through a lifetime in a household. The absence of the table in the final line shows a break or shift in the domestic rituals. The center is removed. The pattern Rhodes establishes enhances our understanding of the poem as a whole.
The breaks from the pattern hold their own weight. By the time we arrive at the third and fourth stanza, the pattern has been established so that when the reader comes to the Southerner/lion, its placement associates him with the Father. Because in the first stanza the Mother forgets his name, her asking who he is notes the progression of her illness or mental breakdown. The reader literally sees his name disappear in the line. Another shift in the third stanza brings Mother up to the second line. It is the placement of her figure beside the word “perishes” that holds the impact of this shift.
“A Progression” is followed in Mother Quiet by poems that provide focused glimpses on the family as the mother’s condition gets worse. Before knowing any of this, going on this poem alone, the reader is left with an understanding that two parents and a child are suffering an ordeal together, centered around the mother’s illness. Because her memory loss is the only symptom we are given, we can assume something like Alzheimer’s. The two final lines, following the deletion of the table, show the father outside of the house, and the mother’s position followed by a “maybe.” She has become ephemeral by the conclusion.
Rhodes’ poem is a masterful example of subtlety. Without going into explication, balanced by concrete images that are each loaded with meaning, the Rhodes writes a poem that is linguistically minimal but enormously meaningful. She uses a word like casket as a piece of jewelry worn around the neck – a shocking and jarring image that loads the images before and after it in the pattern with its weight. Through the structure of repetition she establishes, she avoids sentimentality and melodrama by distributing the weight of the images onto each other to work in layers. Instead of telling the reader that a year or a lifetime is passing, she repeats in the second line a month or a season. The images do the work of informing the reader. As a writer, I feel I have learned from this poem. I strive for subtlety and sometimes struggle with how much information to give, how much to withhold. Rhodes’ poem, through the pattern she establishes and the order in which she places images in that pattern, shows that it’s not what you give and what you withhold, but how to let the images play off of each other in structure.