THE MOTHER, WHOLE
On our first date he said he loved me.
Don’t say that to me.
I would later tell him
Don’t touch my stomach.
You might harm it.
Pregnant with my first, even I
kept from touching it
when I could.
Because family must be earned.
Each child fell from me like a dress.
I was a whole person becoming less.
As a girl, I learned how a boy’s hands
Could hurt. As a mother, too,
Gripping his arms and legs, I bathe him
In the kitchen sink.
Small legs so thin they could almost break.
His little eyes following me like two stars
To a black hole.
Bathing him until his skin
He reflects on me like moonlit water.
I could turn into someone else entirely, the mirror-like
I could devour you.
I would hold, but never hug him.
I hold him heavy against my breast
As he drains me.
The essence of male and female.
This, almost unspeakable, ails me.
And whenever I gather up the nerve to love
I hold him so tight, as to break him.
After he touches the iron, I hear his screeching from the kitchen. I run
to him. The heat
of his hand faces me, a red palm like a warning. The six-eyed iron faces
the both of us,
glaring from its Formica laminate island. I think at first he must have felt
power, his hand a thief
stealing away the hot sky. Did he desire
to see how the world would react, to see how love
would react, to see how pain exists?
Now his palm is turning
white, like pith peeled off skin— cocooned bruised. I slather
his hand with Land O’ Lakes Butter. I hold him rocking in an amber recliner.
And this is how love works.
It is a period placed in the middle of sentence. A fragment.
But his palm now tender, can only want.
And still, he extends his hand out like waiting for the rain
JOSHUA BURTON is a Houston native who received his B.A. from the University of Houston and is currently an MFA candidate for poetry at Syracuse University. He is a 2019 Tin House Winter Workshop Scholar. His work seeks to navigate the way historical, generational, and familial trauma crosses wires with mental and physical illness.
Note: The poems here are all from a collection about the life of the author’s mother and these poems in particular are all in the voice of his mother.