I often think that it is in the final line of a poem that the reader’s relationship to a poem really begins: it’s the last line that sends a reader back to the beginning of a poem that they will really love. These endings may open the poem out, resist a definitive “reading”, or they may feel like everything shuts up tight, a sprung trap. I’ve certainly heard arguments for both, and there are poets that have a decided preference for “open” or “closed” endings. For myself I find both approaches offer much to the reader: the widening view, the well-handled but slightly diffuse ending of course invites rereading as we seek to find out more about the processes, mechanisms, language, world of the poem; on the other hand, that sprung-trap feeling of a poem that brings everything together does not cut off the relationship of reader to poem, and invites the question “How did he/she do that?” just as much as the poem that contains, in Whitman’s words, multitudes.
David Campbell is a poet whose work I first encountered as an undergraduate: I was in a teacher’s office, and he was looking at some bits of poems for what I thought might turn into a verse novel. A particular phrase made him pull down a volume from the shelf and open to this poem, “Mothers and Daughters.” The longer I’ve spent with this poem the more astonished I am at its simplicity, and the way in which is simply works. Though I doubt I will ever write a verse novel now, I’m grateful that this long-aborted project brought me the gift of this poem.
The whole poem is a single sentence—a difficult feat, not made much easier for being just eight lines long; the lines are short, with two or three “beats” per line. There is enough regularity here that the poem may, overall, be considered formal, though enough variations in that regularity that the suddenly straight iambic motion of the last two lines have the effect of great propulsion; similarly, the rhyme scheme—a balladic ABCB—is only gentle in the first stanza of the poem, as the slant rhyme of “forty” and “beauty” hits the ear as intentional, but also loose. That slant rhyme also plays out something of the poet’s vision of the relationship between “forty” and “beauty”: in this poem they don’t quite meet. As such when the second and final stanza uses the full rhyme in conjunction with the regular meter, the whole poem falls—seemingly effortlessly—into place.
So much here, too, is carried in the adjectives: there is nothing flashy about the words Campbell chooses, but they all feel terribly apt and irreplaceable. The once-“cruel girls” are held up against their “subtle daughters”; it is not just the eyes of these daughters but their stare that is “blue” (a hue that, of course, has both visual and emotional registers) and “cool” with surprise; against the subtlety and coolness of the new generation, the “anxious mothers” almost bristle, so that when these two generations are collapsed into one attitude, the tensions rise even as the poem locks into place. The girls who stare at their mothers “with their mothers eyes” presumably bear the cruelty and anxiety of their mother, while those mothers reflect coolness and a hint of mockery. The poem is elegant and taut, but in its eight lines presents the complexity of the relationship depicted with a startling clarity that is anything but simple.
A selection of David Campbell’s poems is available in the volume Hardening the Light, published in 2006 by Indigo.
Mothers and Daughters
The cruel girls we loved
Are over forty,
Their subtle daughters
Have stolen their beauty;
And with a blue stare
Of cool surprise,
They mock their anxious mothers
With their mothers’ eyes.