Kevin’s Much-Loved Poems–“What I Learned from My Mother,” “To My Mother,” and “Hooky”

This continues the series of columns which highlight a much-loved poem and present other poems that speak to, or resonate with, that poem. This week features “What I Learned from My Mother,” by Julia Kasdorf (from Sleeping Preacher, U. Pittsburgh, 1992). A related brief poem is a poem to his mother by Robert Louis Stevenson; the third poem, also brief, is one of mine.

Her complete Poetry Foundation entry is available at Poetry Foundation: Julia Kasdorf

In part it states: “Kasdorf’s lyrical poems, steeped in her family’s Mennonite background, explore faith, social justice, and cultural inheritance. In an interview with Melissa Beattie-Moss, Kasdorf described how motherhood has affected the concerns of her poetry, noting, ‘You’re both incredibly drawn to the small and the domestic, and you’re also suddenly very sensitive to matters of the world. Your attention is pulled urgently in two directions.’”


What I Learned From My Mother

                                    By Julia Kasdorf

I learned from my mother how to love
the living, to have plenty of vases on hand
in case you have to rush to the hospital
with peonies cut from the lawn, black ants
still stuck to the buds. I learned to save jars
large enough to hold fruit salad for a whole
grieving household, to cube home-canned pears
and peaches, to slice through maroon grape skins
and flick out the sexual seeds with a knife point.
I learned to attend viewings even if I didn’t know
the deceased, to press the moist hands
of the living, to look in their eyes and offer
sympathy, as though I understood loss even then.
I learned that whatever we say means nothing,
what anyone will remember is that we came.
I learned to believe I had the power to ease
awful pains materially like an angel.
Like a doctor, I learned to create
from another’s suffering my own usefulness, and once
you know how to do this, you can never refuse.
To every house you enter, you must offer
healing: a chocolate cake you baked yourself,
the blessing of your voice, your chaste touch.


I particularly liked the directness of “as though I understood loss even then,” and the notion of flicking out “the sexual seeds with a knife point.” While the image gave me the willies, the poet earned my respect.

Unfortunately, I couldn’t find any videos of her reading this poem, but for those who want to see her read, I found only one reading, where she read another poem: Julia reads “Bad Boy, Break a Leg”

* * *

The first poem that resonates with Kasdorf’s is from A Child’s Garden of Verses by Robert Louis Stevenson (see Earlier column featuring RLS) The complete Poetry Foundation entry on RLS is available at Poetry Foundation: Robert Louis Stevenson   

Stevenson had a complex relationship with his mother, who ultimately outlived him. Rivalry over her (“my mother is my father’s wife”, 1875) partly motivated several arguments with his father. Only a few weeks after his father died, RLS insisted that Margaret Stevenson, “Maggie,” accompany him and family to America and then to the South Seas. She was actually delighted by the challenge of backwoods and South Sea islands. An attempt to show independence by writing an account of their travels was discouraged by her son, so her lively From Saranac to the Marquesas was not published until 1903. Letters from Samoa (1906), a greater literary achievement, reveals how much of the creation of his estate, Vailima, came from her—she encouraged and paid for a new wing.

To My Mother

By Robert Louis Stevenson

You too, my mother, read my rhymes
For love of unforgotten times,
And you may chance to hear once more
The little feet along the floor.


See  this poem read aloud: Ghizela Rowe Reads “To My Mother”

* * *

            My relationship with my mother, though loving, was troubled. Joining my father in the North from a farm in South Carolina, where she’d grown up, had never been easy for her. By the time we’d moved to a suburb of Chicago, she had become addicted to prescription drugs and alcohol and was only intermittently available. The fact she’d experienced six full-term pregnancies but was mothering only three children–two had been stillborn and one boy lasted only ten days–was lost on me then. I wanted her attention. She was checked into a nearby hospital with some regularity, where, after a week drying out, she would become my loving mother once again. In this poem, I look back on the renewed relationship we shared when she left the hospital.



By Kevin Arnold

Mom’s out of Elgin hospital, helping me play hooky.
She buys me a mint-chocolate milkshake.
Her face is so calm after these dryings-out—
her eyes follow my every word as if I were a poet.

Here’s a video of my reading it. Kevin reading “Hooky”  I wish I’d looked up at the audience.