The Good Poetic Mother

Featured on Amsterdam Quarterly cover!

How to tell the story of a decades-long search for my mother? It has been the great puzzle of my life—how to find her, to understand her, to forgive her, to have whatever relationship might be available to us after everything that happened.

I’m grateful to Bryan Monte, editor of the journal Amsterdam Quarterly, for publishing my epistolary essay, “The Good Poetic Mother,” in November. 

Crab in a Borrowed Shell

This piece didn’t have to be a series of letters, but it did need some kind of borrowed form. The hermit crab essay, as Randon Billings Noble says, is especially helpful when the writer needs a hard shell to contain especially tender material.

The hermit crab essay can take the form of letters (like mine, or Brenda Miller’s heartbreaking “We Regret to Inform You”), or a set of instructions (“Bodywash: Instructions on Surviving Homelessness” by Dorothy Bendel), or a course syllabus (Jill Talbot’s “The Professor of Longing”), or a medical information pamphlet (Kristine Jepson’s “Jaw Wiring: What You Need to Know”) or a list, or a recipe—you get the idea. 

Writing about my mother naturally brought letters to mind, because so much of our relationship, such as it was, existed in correspondence.

I imagine writing to her from my father’s apartment in Washington, D.C. where my three sisters and I have been since the marriage, and then the custody arrangement, fell apart. My older sister is 16, I am 14, the little girls are seven and five. I am not sure where Mama is, have yet to hear of someone named Charles Bukowski, and for a while will continue to hope she might return.

Bukowski’s Breakout Book
“Already a collector’s item”

I am fifteen when I receive a copy of Bukowski’s break-out book, It Catches My Heart in Its Hands, along with a note from the publisher, Jon Webb. I don’t know what to make of it—the volume is gorgeous, the poems anything but, and the personal inscription is incomprehensible. I imagine what I might have written to Mr. Webb.

Bukowski gives me my essay title: “The Good Poetic Mother”

More imagined letters in my essay show how after many years, much water under various bridges, and children of my own, I gradually reconnect with my mother.

Poetry Journals, francEyE’s own collected poems

I come to appreciate her poetry, go back and read from poetry journals she has sent me over the years. After Bukowski’s death she publishes two collections—Snaggletooth in Ocean Park and  Amber Spider.

I look forward to her memoir, Grandma Stories.  At last, my mother will fill in some of the missing pieces in my own life, and I will finally understand who she was, and thus who I am myself.

My mother’s memoir

That long-awaited memoir turns out to be another setback.

The prose poems describe the most important events in her life. She is “Baby Grandma” in Maine, “Second Grade Grandma” in Brooklyn when her father falls ill, “Third Grade Grandma” in Lexington when he dies, “Soldier Grandma” as a WAC in World War II, and “Poet Grandma” when she arrives in Los Angeles, meets Charles Bukowski, and finds her own poetic voice.

But between the two final poems—”Rank, 1944″ and “New Life, 1963″—there is a gap of almost two decades. 

She has written nothing of her marriage to my father, of the five states they lived in over the course of a dozen moves, and nothing of her first four daughters.

I am not in her book. 

Shock, hurt, confusion—not for the first time. But having come this far, I can’t afford to waste time sulking. I will have to get her to talk to me—she’s getting old, her health is not good, and time, I know, is running out. 

It was a two-hour interview.

She does tell me the stories, and I will always be grateful, even though there are some that are painful to know. 

She was a poet her entire life, and a prolific one.  “My God, she wrote a lot!” said John Harris, a cofounder of a long-running Wednesday night poetry workshop L.A.’s Beyond Baroque literary center.

Published by S. A. Griffin’s Rose of Sharon Press

My mother’s final collection, Call, came out in the last year of her life.

She died June 2, 2009, at 87.

My manuscript

My mother’s memoir was about the life I never knew—the infant, the child, the young soldier, the Los Angeles poet who lived with Bukowski.

Mine is about everything she left out.

Looking for Pete


Album cover with girl circled
It took fifty years to find the picture

When your mother runs away before she has finished raising you, when she takes all the stories with her, when you are left with a father who won’t talk, when you remember so little to start with and forget more with the passage of each un-mothered year, what happens?  You are not sure who you are. You are not sure, deep down, that you really exist. In the darkest of times, you are not sure that you should.

You try to hang on to the stories you have, but when your older sister runs away too, not long after your mother does, there is no one left to talk to about anything that happened before the radical discontinuity that will divide your life into two eras—before, and after.

When, after far too long, you finally take up the project of recall and writing, it is with a kind of grim determination not to let yourself be erased.

One thing you know for sure is that when you lived in Michigan, your unhappy family had one happy week every year, at the Unitarian Midwest Summer Assembly on Lake Geneva, Wisconsin. You remember that Pete Seeger was there once, that it had something to do with him being blacklisted, that you heard him sing, in large groups and small, for a whole week.

Sing Out cover
An arm, a leg, just a glimpse of the swimsuit.

You have always remembered that somehow you ended up in a photograph with him that was supposed to be, maybe even was, published. You are pretty sure that it was going to be on the cover of Pete’s iconic folk music magazine, Sing Out! You aren’t sure of much else.

But you know, too, that after Kennedy was elected and your father went to Washington and your mother didn’t, you never went back to Lake Geneva.

Me and Pete at the Lake, just out in Wisconsin Reviewtraces the long-delayed search for a lost photograph, how I found it, and what I was really looking for.

At first I thought I was trying to find a picture. Then that I needed to pin down which year it was that Seeger had come to Lake Geneva. Probably what I really wished for was a kind of time-travel. I’d been searching for Pete, for my mother, for a lost past. He’s gone, so is she, and the picture on the album is all that remains of those Lake Geneva summers. But I know, finally and for sure, that I was there.






“Supermoon” Finds a Home

Today, March 20, 2019, is the vernal equinox, the beginning of astronomical spring. Tonight (which will be approximately as long as the day) there will also be a full moon, and because the moon is close to perigee, we will have a—SUPERMOON! So maybe it’s a good time for some definitions:

Perigee:  Noun. Astronomy. The point in the orbit of the moon or a satellite at which it is nearest to the earth.  The opposite of apogee.  From French perigee, via modern Latin from Greek perigeion ‘close round the earth,’ from peri-‘around’+ge ‘earth’

Supermoon: Noun. The phenomenon whereby the moon appears particularly large in the sky owing to the coincidence of its closest approach to the earth (the perigee) with a full (or new) moon:

Syzygy:  Noun. (plural syzygies). Astronomy. A conjunction or opposition, especially of the moon with the sun: the planets were aligned in syzygy. from early 17th century: via late Latin from Grteek suzugia, from suzugos ‘yoked, paired,’ from sun-‘with, together’ + the stem of zeugnunai ‘to yoke.’

Supermoon:  By Irene Hoge Smith, revised at least eight times, turned down by almost three dozen journals.

Syzygy: By Irene Hoge Smith. Did not place in an essay contest.

Syzygy.  By Irene Hoge Smith. Creative nonfiction essay, in Chicago Quarterly Review, Volume 28, Winter 2019.

This essay has always been my sentimental favorite. Not because it’s my very best work, or because beta readers love it so much (I will always be grateful to friends who patiently plowed through long astronomical descriptions that I was a bit over-obsessed with), but because (a) I enjoyed working on it, and (b) it was the first essay I ever submitted for publication. More than five years after beginning to write and revise “Supermoon,” (later titled “Syzygy”) this braided essay has found a home with Chicago Quarterly Review and I am so glad I kept coming back to it.

Read the complete essay here: SYZYGY by Irene Hoge Smith

(Photos above:  Supermoon over Bexley Hall at Kenyon College, 2013; CQR Winter 2019; Supermoon at Cape May New Jersey, 2015; First page of my essay in CQR; Supermoon at Oak Bluffs on Martha’s Vineyard, 2015.)

Caring Bridge (We Are Afraid)

bridge in deep forest, natural green forest

We are afraid.  When we see the email heading, the name of someone we have loved, we are afraid to open the link. We hope, in fact, that it is a scam, a mean trick that will destroy our hard drive, blow up our own email accounts, even dissolve the just-finished book. In that moment it is a bargain we would make.

We are afraid that he might be gone already, or that he may be going soon, when we didn’t even know anything was wrong.  We are afraid that we did not tell him how much we thought of him, sorry that we didn’t stay in touch better, sad that we were so constrained by the complicated connections and disconnections between us. We are afraid that we have acted too much out of fear and not enough out of love.

Their daughter and our son were married just before 9/11. My husband and I, and our new daughter-in-law’s parents, then became machatunim, a Hebrew/Yiddish word for that describes this unique relationship.  There is no English equivalent.

When our children divorced after two sons, many tears and not quite a decade, it was a time of suffering for all of us.

We are afraid to ask if we are still machatunim.

We are afraid to hope, when we learn it is not a death sentence, not necessarily, not yet. Maybe he can beat it, maybe he will.  He is researching the disease, they are going to Sloan-Kettering, he will have the treatments, he feels a bit better now. It is very survivable. We are afraid to think about the fact that when he does have the treatments he will not feel better. We are sorry to think of his pain, and now we think of her fear. We wish there were a way to reach out to her, too, across the complicated history of the last decade.

We are afraid it might not be possible. It was our son who left their daughter, and for a long time we were afraid that they hated the young man we love so. We are afraid that there may have been too much damage to repair.

We are afraid that the grandsons we share may lose their other grandfather, their younger grandfather. We are afraid that they will not have the chance to follow him again to the woods, once more to the lake, help paddle the canoe, climb another Adirondack peak. They are not grown, they are not done with him. Not done helping him with his bees, not done with the Cub Scouts and the Eagle Scouts and the annual cardboard boat race.

We are afraid when we realize that we ourselves are not done with him. We are afraid that we took for granted his good humor, his resilience, his willingness to forgive. Once his daughter and the boys were settled again, once the years did their healing work, he didn’t hold it against us. He was glad to be friends whenever we had a chance to meet, and we were grateful each time.

We are afraid that we may be letting go of him too soon, afraid that if we do not ignore the worst possibility, ward it off with enough determination, we might somehow invite it.

We are afraid that we did not deserve him. We are afraid that if we do not lose him now after all that we will go back to other things. We are afraid that we will again forget to think of him, that we may forget the gratitude that our fear brings now.



Voices on the Wind


On a hill in Otsuchi, Japan, high above the Pacific, a white, glass-paned phone booth stands. In view of the water that five years ago swept so many away, the “wind phone” is where those left behind may talk to the loved ones they lost.

The story takes me back more than thirty years, to the first dream I had of him, after.

In the dream we are on the phone, long-distance, and the sound is as if a wind blows through our words. Perhaps he is still in Paris; he’d been there for a week only a short time before. But we know that he is much further away than that, and that he is not going to be able to get back.

His voice is low, and I strain to catch it. He asks me if the money is there, do I have what I need, and if I am all right. I don’t remember now what I said; I’ve always thought it was something like, “Yes, all right.” Or, “Don’t worry.”

Those dreams became more precious as time went on. Around anniversaries—ten years, twenty, especially, for some reason, thirty—they come back. In these he is with me, but he can never speak. I want to tell him of everything that has happened since that far-away summer, when we were both so young.

In the dreams I always want to tell him of the Great Suffering. Why is that? To feel his comfort? As a gift to him? Because it is the thing I had to learn and do without him, the big thing, my own tsunami. I want to tell him how I almost drowned, and how somehow I did not. I want to tell him that perhaps things have come out well after all. I want to tell him I’m all right.

And then, in the dream, I remember that he has not been here all these years, and is still not here. I want to tell him that, no matter how much I have, I think of him.


Image is a screen capture from this short documentary.

Mystery Moon

Kenyon Moon and SF 171


An enormous full moon rises over low hills east of Riverside, California. I am two, maybe three, and cling to my mother in the cool twilight. We have come outside after supper to watch. It will be something to remember, she says.

It has remained one of my earliest and most enduring memories. In my mind’s eye the moon looms above the horizon and seems to move toward us and even though I know it could not really have filled half the sky I have always known that something important happened. Somehow my mother and I never talked about it, not in the years we were together nor after she left, and I’ve never understood what exactly we witnessed. The image is like a tattered snapshot of recall with only the place—Riverside—to identify it.

The first time I heard of something called a “supermoon” was when my meteorologist niece sent me an article in 2011 (this seems to have been the first time that the term, originally coined by astrologers, crossed over to popular science writing). On March 19, the NASA story said, a “full moon of rare size and beauty will rise in the east at sunset … a super ‘perigee moon’—the biggest in almost 20 years.” What was going to happen was uncommon but not unprecedented, and this official encouragement to stop in our usual routines to go outside and wait for the moon caught my attention. It was the kind of thing my mother would have made time for.

Two years later, leaving Gambier, Ohio at the end of a week-long writing workshop, I found myself gazing at a full golden moon rising above the turrets of Bexley Hall. A headline in that day’s Columbus Dispatch, I remembered then, had read “Super Moon Looks Bigger Because It’s Closer.”   While the week’s essays had all been completed, I felt there was an unfinished assignment about another such moon. After a week at Kenyon, everything seemed like it might make a good essay, but I’d also fallen in love with the nonfiction “braided” narrative form. I could combine elements of memoir with explorations of lunar phenomena. What causes a supermoon? Why is it rare? The moon could serve as an extended metaphor to tie together the difficult story of my family, my mother, maybe even myself. It would require some research into both astronomy and family history.

The former would turn out to be a lot easier than the latter. Star charts, astronomy books, and NASA’s website made it possible to understand the complicated three-dimensional clockwork of our moon and solar system, while trying to piece together the fractured history of my own life was more arduous work, both cognitively and emotionally. Retrieving my father’s Civil Service employment form was the breakthrough that showed me, for the first time, where we had lived when and how many times we had moved (nine moves during my parents’ marriage, six more by the time I left home).

We are in Riverside and I am almost three and my mother and I have seen the amazing moon that I will remember for the rest of my life, rising enormous and red. And then, I know this must be true and perhaps I remember it, we watch as the moon rises further and seems to become smaller, turning from pink to yellow as the sky deepens to blue, paling to a flat silver coin pasted on a black sky. Did we stay outside until dark? Did the stars come out? I might have felt the air becoming chilly. Maybe I remember being carried home. I know when it was and I know where it was and I know, finally, that I was there.

(My 7500 word essay “Supermoon” is currently seeking a literary home.)