Praise Song for my Mother – Grace Nichols

Praise Song For My Mother

Grace Nichols has in one very short poem, put together a number of thoughts and emotions about her mother, just after she has passed away. Nichols has said in numerous articles and videos that she wrote this poem in honour of her mother and in doing so, she has created a song of praise to the one person she sees as the best Mother in the world.

For example, she begins in stanza one by writing “you were water to me” reflecting just how when her mother was alive, she was the one thing that the young Nichols could not do without, just like we cannot do without water in life. She then continues and adds the phrases “deep and bold and fathoming” to add depth to her meaning about her mother. The word “deep” is an ambiguous word in that it can mean her mother was a deep person, with lots of things to understand, or perhaps even that she was the sort of mother who had a depth of love for all her children. This use of metaphor and personification allows the reader to see a person being described who is better than the best and immediately makes the reader feel an attachment to the mother depicted.

In stanza two, this style and technique is repeated [indeed it is repeated throughout the poem] with the words “you were moon’s eye to me,” which in a sense, is a typically Caribbean turn of phrase, but also one that is difficult to grasp the meaning. We are left thinking if Nichols is referring to the light that the moon shines in a darkened world, or even the way that in dark times, her mother was always the one she could turn to, as she pulled you towards her for comfort in times of need. With the words “pull and grained and mantling” this difficulty continues because they are deliberate attempts to use the actions and description of the moon to make the mother shine as much in the firmament of her memory.

And if this is not enough, Nichols continues the honouring of her mother’s memory by sharing these positive emotions in ways that show just how much she loves her mother. She says in stanza three that her mother was to her like a “sunrise” in that she was “warm and streaming” with love and affection. Clearly, this is a positive emotion being shared and one that reflects the nature of their relationship together.

But then, Nichols goes one step further and uses imagery from the Caribbean that she remembers and she merges them into this description of her mother. She says “you were the fishes red gill to me” reflecting something of the colour of her homeland. Coupled with the idea that her mother was “the flame tree’s spread” to her as well as the smells and images of food, what is created is an image of a mother who is simply supreme in her memory. It is this positive image of the mother that makes this poem extremely effective in portraying such a positive emotion as love for one’s mother.

And just as we get to the end of the poem, we see one piece of advice that is given to the young Grace Nichols. She shares how her mother once told her to “go to your wide futures,” when she was young. Living in Guyana in the Caribbean, a poor island in that region, life would not have been easy, but Nichols describes her mother in such a positive way that the reader is left with an equally positive image of her homeland as well.

The use of that one element of advice from the mother at the end is the thing that for me, makes this poem such a lovely, positive poem in that her mother wanted when she was alive the very best for all her children and was prepared to tell them all to go out into the world and grasp hold of the nettle of life with gusto, searching and achieving anything they hoped for even though she knew that this may separate her from her children. As a parent myself, I want the very best for both my children and rejoice when they succeed in something or another, so when I read a poem like this I am left thinking just how much I can relate to its content. As a song of praise to her mother, it is simply stunning. As a way of expressing her emotions for and toward her mother, it is equally effective.