My Mother at Sixty Six | About the poem
My Mother at Sixty-Six is a poignant poem by Kamala Das which deals with the themes of aging, a person’s love for her mother, separation, uncertainty and death . A sensory and deeply sensitive poem, My Mother at Sixty-Six is a first person confessional poem that captures the reader’s attention and provides a glimpse of the subtle intricacies of a mother-daughter relationship. The poem captures the speaker’s train of thought and the entire poem is written in a single sentence. My Mother at Sixty Six has a gloomy, somber and an almost detached tone. It makes use of a natural unaffected rhythm, striking imagery and a sense of movement to convey the insecurities and apprehensions of the poet-persona about her rapidly ageing mother and the inevitable separation that must follow. Dealing with the theme of ageing, love, loss and separation Mother at Sixty Six is a poem that remains with the reader long after it has been read.
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My Mother at Sixty Six | Summary and Analysis
Because this poem follows a single line of thought and switches between the physical and emotional realms with great fluidity, it is neither necessary nor desirable to differentiate the poem in separate segments. However for the sake of understanding we will divide the analysis into two parts while dealing with the poem. The first part of the analysis will deal with the sensory and emotional experience of the poet-persona while travelling in the car and the second will deal with her experience at the airport before separating from her mother:
My Mother at Sixty Six | Analysis, Lines 1-14
Driving from my parent’s
home to Cochin last Friday
morning, I saw my mother,
doze, open mouthed, her
face ashen like that
of a corpse and realised
that she was as old as
put that thought away,and
looked out at young trees
the merry children spilling
out of their homes ,
This confessional poem is as intense in its feeling as it is subtle in its approach. The poem engages with a plethora of mingled emotions ranging from love, pain, nostalgia, sadness and despair. Furthermore, action and emotion are beautifully intertwined in this poem.
The idea of movement is central to understanding the poem: the physical movement to the airport, the emotional journey of the poet and the movement of her mother towards old age are all intermingled in this poem about love, longing and separation. Notice the very first word of the poem is a verb for movement in the present continuous tense: Driving from my parent’s home…
The poet was driving from her parent’s house to Cochin Airport the previous Friday. While inside the car, she happens to see her mother beside her doze off … The striking image of a woman weakened by age, dozing off with her mouth open leaves a very strong impression on the speaker who feels that her mother’s face resembles the pale face of a dead body ( like that of a corpse). The thought of her mother rapidly advancing (quite like them in the car) towards death deeply disturbs her and she attempts to put the thought away by looking outside the window where she sees :
trees sprinting, the merry children spilling
out of their homes.
This transition from the stillness of the dozing mother to the frivolity and movement of youth through a single glance is simply remarkable. The literary device of contrast is used to bring out the distinctive features of the two different worlds separated by a window pane – one with the infirmity of old age and the other tinted with the frolic of youth. The device of personification used to describe the trees ‘sprinting‘ outside. They are likened to children “young trees sprinting’’ while describing their apparent movement as seen from inside the car. The merry children on the other hand, are said to be “spilling” out of their homes, thus providing a fluid nature to their happy movement. The literary device used in this case describes the human subject (children) in terms of an inanimate object. Such a technique is known as chremamorphism and can be understood as being opposite of personification. The movement of the trees and children is in sharp contrast to the dozing posture of her mother.
My Mother at Sixty Six | Analysis, Lines 15-25
but after the airport’s
security check, standing a few yards
away, I looked again at her, wan, pale
as a late winter’s moon and felt that old
familiar ache, my childhood’s fear,
When the speaker looks at her mother standing a few yards from her at the airport security check, the mother’s face is described by the simile “wan, pale as late winter’s moon“. A brilliant imagery of the winter moon is used in this part of the poem. “Winter” is used to evoke a sense of an ending (like the ageing mother), a certain frigid, inert state (like that of a corpse) and the inevitable darkness (death) that is to follow. Also, moon has stereotypically received a feminine treatment and the simile “as a pale moon” is quite apt to describe the round, pale face of the aged mother. On seeing her mother, the poet persona experiences “that familiar old ache, my childhood fear”. Though she doesn’t specifically state what it actually is, we can safely infer that it is the fear of losing her mother.
My Mother at Sixty Six | Analysis, Lines 27-28
but all I said was, see you soon, Amma,
all I did was smile and smile and smile…
Despite being deeply thoughtful of her mother’s present and future, the speaker can neither stop herself from going away from her mother nor can she stop her mother from going away from her forever. All she can do is part with the hope of seeing her mother again. The parting is made all the more poignant by the fact that though she hopes to see her mother, she fears that she might not.
This intermingling of emotions of love, hope, longing, nostalgia, fear and a sense of helplessness at the face of the inevitable seems to find its way in the repetition of the final words of the poem: all I did was smile and smile and smile…