Luther Hughes’ You Smell Like Outside: Exceedingly My Mother
“You Smell Like Outside” is Luther Hughes’ wonderful column for Frontier where he seeks to answer the question every month: can poetry help us with our real, day-to-day life? For November, Luther explores what it means to have a complicated maternal relationship through an intimate reading of work by Chen Chen.
Exceedingly My Mother
When my grandmother died, my mother asked me to write a poem for her to read at the funeral. Here is the poem:
And What is a Mother
How could you not see her smile
strung across the midnight sky, the moon
praising, and the seas. What was there to say?
See her in everything, everywhere.
Yesterday, the trees leaned forward
and whispered her name. Last night a bird
opened its wings and her voice
bled from each flap as the bird took flight.
For the sake of mourning, you take to the mirror.
See her, there, along the lines of your face,
in your copper colored eyes, your mouth
that sings—hear her singing…
And what is a mother but a reason
for breath? And what do you call life
after she has gone? Do you say, Someone
somewhere must know this song?
Sing it with me. Sing me the honey
in her walk. The love made of her.
When it rains, you think about sadness,
but that is not the sky weeping. That is her, rinsing her hair.
When she started to read it at the funeral, she told me, she began to cry. My aunts had to hold her hand as she stood there and mourned their mother.
Her mother’s birthday was last week. When I called to ask her how she was doing, she said, “I almost forgot it was her birthday.” Her voice sounded weak. Maybe she had been crying just a few moments earlier. “Thank you for calling. I’m just sitting at home watching movies,” she said.
“Okay. I love you,” I said.
“When you coming home?” she asked.
I was only gone for a day.
I must admit my mother irritates me and has been irritating me since moving back home. She asks too many questions. She calls me a thousand times during the day. When I have the heater on in my room, she walks in and turns it down: “Phew. It is hot in here, Luther.” I roll my eyes and turn in it back up. (I be cold.) We have always had this sort of relationship—me, feeling grown and “not in need of her.” Her, caring and overprotective. I’m her only child; she was told she couldn’t have children. And still, I can’t imagine my life without her…
When I told my mother I wanted to kill myself, she asked me why. She said, “Don’t you know people love you?” I told I do know and that wanting to kill myself has had nothing to do with feeling less loved. She asked why I never tell her things. I didn’t have a reason. She was confused about it all, said there was a point in my childhood when I was so goofy. Now I’m always so serious. She wants to me tell her things. The conversation ended with something I still can’t quite wrap my head around: how me being molested resulted in me being gay.
I was sixteen I came out to my mother. In the same conversation, I told her I was molested by someone who we all considered as my play-brother; I came out as molested. She blamed herself for never knowing. She cried some. I sat there. She told me she loved me and apologized. She said it was just a phase. She irritated me.
I say all this to say that I invited someone over for Thanksgiving. When I invited him, he asked if my mother will be okay with that. “She keeps asking me if I’m inviting you over, so I assume it’s okay,” I reassured him. The truth of the matter is, I’m not sure how she would feel. I think of the poem, “I Invite My Parents to a Dinner Party,” by Chen Chen, of the lines:
Then, my mother turns
to me, whispers in Mandarin, Is he coming with you
for Thanksgiving? My good friend is & she wouldn’t like
this. I’m like the kid in Home Alone, pulling
on the string that makes my cardboard mother
more motherly, except she is
not cardboard, she is
already, exceedingly my mother. Waiting
for my answer.
What does it mean to be “motherly,” is what I asked myself while reading these lines? Not being a mother, can I even ask this question? The speaker is embarrassed and wants their mother, who is cardboard-like, “smil[ing] her best / Sitting with Her Son’s Boyfriend / Who Is a Boy Smile,” to be more “motherly.” Or, in other words, they want her to be respectful. Want shatters when reality sets in, “she is / not a cardboard, she is // already, exceedingly my mother.” The reality of the matter is, their mother is their mother and possibly will not change. I can see my mother behaving the same way. (Is “behaving” the right word when talking about one’s mother?)
The couplets in Chen’s poem reinforce the tension between the mother and the speaker—the boyfriend and the respect. This tension, the couplets, propel the poem forward even when the mother tries her hardest to disregard the boyfriend as an important figure in the speaker’s life. The ending is beautiful:
what’s in that recipe again, my boyfriend says
to my mother, as though they have always, easily
talked. As though no one has told him
many times, what a nonlinear slapstick meets
slasher flick meets psychological
pit he is now co-starring in.
Remind me, he says
to our family.
My relationship with my mother is complicated. On one hand, she has sacrificed so much for me. Much more than she lets on. God, I am thankful for her. On the other hand, when she feels the need, she’ll disrespect me: I’m gay because I was molested. This post is to say, I don’t know how to feel about my mother. I love her, please don’t get me wrong. I love her with my entire body. But when does love lose to respect? Is this even an interrogation worth having? I don’t know. I don’t know. We have fun. We laugh. We “talk” as much as I can. I want to talk to her about how I feel about him. About how he makes me happy even when he’s just watching tv. About the times I see a meme and want to share it with him and only him. About the time I told him I wanted to kill myself and he just sat there, listened, and didn’t ask why.
When she briefly met him, she asked where he was from. Like her, he was from New Orleans. She seemed to like that a lot—common ground. This common ground gave me the strength to even want to invite him. Although, his question still rings in my head: “Will she be okay with that?”
I can’t remember the last time I had Thanksgiving with my mother. It’s not a holiday, like many others, I celebrate. Thanksgiving is something I have always disregarded, but I know my family and friends think of it as a time to get together and enjoy each other’s company. But last time I had Thanksgiving with my mother? I don’t know. I’ve been away for almost seven years. Instead of coming home, I stayed where I had moved to, cooked, laughed, drank, and reflected with roommates and friends. Last week, as I was rushing out the door to work, she asked if I was spending Thanksgiving with her. “Of course,” I said, with a bit of an attitude because who else would I spend it with.
“I was just making sure,” she said, a smile across her face.
Luther Hughes is a Seattle native and author of Touched (Sibling Rivalry Press, 2018). He is the Founding Editor in Chief of The Shade Journal, Executive Editor for The Offing, and Editor-at-Large of Frontier Poetry. A Cave Canem fellow, his work has been published or is forthcoming in various journals including, Hayden’s Ferry Review, New England Review, TriQuartlery, Four Way Review, and others. Luther received his MFA from Washington University in St. Louis. You can follow him on Twitter @lutherxhughes. He thinks you are beautiful.