Mother tongue

My one-year-old son learns to talk
Language forms like the lumps in buttermilk.
The starry white scrambles, clots,
Composing itself into phrases, bits of rhyme.
Pat, pat, pat,
A primitive sentence banged into shape between wooden clappers.
Your words arc like the fluted yellow curls in crystal dishes,
Precise articulate scallops that roll off the tongue,
Suave and sweet and unguent.
(June 2000)

Yellow and purple flowers. Wild bees hazing the big shrub of which I do not know the name. So many different sappy greens. April. Spring smells strong this year.

You were a year old when I wrote this poem and now you’re man – reading for a degree in … words. What’s to be said about the flight of time and the love thicker than blood that isn’t a cliché really?

April was my seventh month. Of course it would be so much easier if you could just keep them safe inside. All mothers know that. But every womb shrivels in the end. Time is a despot. You can’t run and you can’t hide.

I have a new kind of life – one I yearned and yearned for when you were one and I felt like a biscuit ground into the carpet. I thought that was erasure. I was too young to know that, like the moon, the self has many phases. Still I feel adrift somehow, among all this middle-aged arrival and fruition.

The shifting nature of time has always been hard for me. When I was young, I tried to fix it by not eating, as if I could hold my breath and be a chip of a harder kind of matter – sterner stuff. Eventually, of course, time bust the seams. You cannot win this one. One day I will be an old woman and you will inherit the earth.

Words were important – the song of them – back and forth. And the meaning too: ‘that’s a cat’ – ‘cat’ … ‘that’s a cup’ – ‘cup’ … And so you talked early – people remarked on it – as I did too, both licked by mother tongue.

And in the middle of this, my neighbour gave me big clumps of giant daisies, and I thought how once I would have felt interrupted, unable to hold together my scattered parts and endure through. Writing was so precious then. Now I stop, plant, pick up again, as if it were all one thing. As if I could always write and life is an unstoppable stream.

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