Ode to Motherhood (a cento)

Joan Baranow


Older this morning, the moon
wants to shine, plainly, as
at the beginning of creation,

and yet I think
her breasts are many years milkless, threadbare,
a nothing color, the color of ash,
as if something with wings was crushing itself

and I could tell
to be born with breasts
in time
they are useless—
these husks will turn to dust.

Now I can ask: What about my life?
Who is that hollow woman? who am I?

Impossible to imagine
the youngest is grown and gone.


My sons,
it’s true—
I am an old bat batting around,
falling apart.
I have never been fast, or good,
never listened, never understood
what you were becoming.
You were so brave to enter our world—
always there was some bleeding,
the skinned knee in spite of me.


I think when my head finally cracks
I will try not to be deaf.
I will listen to what you say.


For you,
even then,
while you were blooming within me,
were looking on as if you already knew
our story,
the Earth, under its arch of sky,
one perfect moon,
puller of water—

You were
settled as if you knew you were
already planning a city, and I
want to see it, I want to

believe this
that I, too, was at the mercy of something
untouched and still possible.


Photo: David Watts

Joan Baranow is the author of six poetry collections, including Reading Szymborska in a Time of Plague, winner of the 2021 Brick Road Poetry Book Contest. Her poems have appeared in The Paris Review, The Gettysburg Review, Blackbird, Forklift OH, JAMA, and elsewhere. A VCCA fellow and member of the Community of Writers, she founded and teaches in the Low-Residency MFA program in Creative Writing at Dominican University of CA.



Sources: Stanza 1: Ted Kooser, “November 17”; Louise Gluck, “Daisies”; Lucille Clifton, “far memory: 1. convent” § Stanza 2: Galway Kinnell, “The Call Across the Valley”; Alicia Ostriker, “Dreaming of Her” § Alicia Ostriker, “A Birthday Suite: Cat”; Sharon Thesen, “Elegy, The Fertility Specialist” § Stanza 3: Robert Frost, “After Apple Picking”; Gerald Stern, “In Time”; Eileen Myles, “Peanut Butter”; Ellen Bass, “Giving Rocks to Rocks” § Stanza 4: Alicia Ostriker, “Watching the Feeder”; Lucille Clifton, “c.c. rider” § Stanza 5: Lucille Clifton, “naomi watches as ruth sleeps”; Frederick Garcia Lorca, “It’s True”; Alicia Ostriker, “The Unsaid, or What She Thinks When She Gets My Letter”; Mary Oliver, “Night and the River; Ellen Bass, “Poem Not For My Son”; Ellen Bass, “In My Hands”; Alicia Ostriker, “A Birthday Suite: Bitterness”; Alicia Ostriker, “Propaganda Poem: Maybe for Some Young Mamas”; Alicia Ostriker, “A Birthday Suite: Happy Birthday”; Lucille Clifton, “brothers: 5. The road led from delight”; Laura Kasischke, “Two Men & a Truck” § Stanza 6: Dean Young, “Colophon”; Alicia Ostriker, “Surviving x”; William Stafford, “Ask Me” § Stanza 7: Staceyann Chin, “For You”; David Hamilton, “Even Then”; Audre Lorde, “Now That I’m Forever with Child”; Alicia Ostriker, “A Birthday Suite: The Cambridge Afternoon Was Gray”; William Stafford, “Our Story”; William Stafford, “7 May: Slow News from our Place”; Shiki, trans. Harry Behn; David Wright, “Five Songs: Moon” § Stanza 8: Lucille Clifton, “brothers: 2. how great Thou art”; Alicia Ostriker, “A Birthday Suite: Bitterness”; Alicia Ostriker, “II. Mother/Child”; Alicia Ostriker, “II. Mother/Child” § Stanza 9: Lucille Clifton, “brothers: 1. invitation” § Stanza 11: Laura Kasischke, “Two Men & a Truck”; W. S. Merwin, “To the New Year”

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