For many of us, our first memories of Mother’s Day are rooted in art and verse: cut-out flowers on classroom walls, acrostic poems, or scribble-portraits with spider eyelashes. We would come home and present our Elmer’s glued gifts, proud of having created something—Look at what I made!

Now, though, greeting cards have replaced construction-paper notes. A quick text suffices for a sonnet. An ode can’t pay insurance premiums, and with pre-packaged cosmetic gift sets sold in every department store, we don’t need to create to say thank you. In celebration of Mother’s Day this year, we’ve selected a list of poems to inspire in our readers the joy of invention once again. After all, our mothers are the first creators of our theories, dreams, and poetry, as Sarah Rose Nordgren writes in “Darwin’s Mother.”

But just as everyone’s relationships with their mothers and caregivers differ, this list encompasses an array of stories—immigrant mothers, grieving mothers, grandmothers, expecting mothers, mothers who once or never were. We were raised in cadence and rhythm—we each listened to a heartbeat, to the poetry of embryonic whale songs and nursery tunes. So read these poems, pick up a pencil, and come home.

1. “Darwin’s Mother” by Sarah Rose Nordgren

This poem starts how it all starts—with a bundle of cells, indistinguishable from any other being on this earth. Darwin, too, evolved from the processes of his own theory, once “the red speck growing in a yolk / to fill the egg with feathers / and folded bones,” as Sarah Rose Nordgren writes. But Darwin himself had already learned to spurn the mother, though it is in her womb where the miracle of evolution occurs: “In a way, he was / already a man, therefore / discomfited by the smell / of her good clean blood.” It is the hypocrisy of scientific advancement; in the age of human progress, “human” often excludes women. Nordgren’s piece honors the women who nurture the first teetering steps of science and the first babble of civilization.

2. “Gusano” by Leslie Sainz

Mothers, too, originated from somewhere. “Gusano” traces the paths of both the father and the mother as infants exiled from Cuba, children marked “defector” and “Escoria” from birth. Leslie Sainz’s fragmented lines intensify the story’s empty spaces – how the speaker’s mother, smuggled from her country, “forgets / the sound   of her mother’s voice” or “learns / the word absence     and hangs it / on      the roof of her mouth.” Wood, crosses, and the human form fuse through Sainz’s religious imagery. This poem illustrates two stories of the same slice of history, or one story of a single family, united even in separation.

3. “How to Take Your Medicine During a Recession” by Lauren Berry

Even if their younger years are filled with splinters, some mothers, through their children, get to experience a more hopeful childhood. Playful and confident, Lauren Berry’s poem transforms taking the pearl-like benzonatate pill into a moment of pride: “Step right up, folks! / This little one here / swallows pearls.” While the speaker imagines unmarried rich girls who throw out their diamonds in hopes of being gifted more, she find a “kind of currency” in a different kind of love. Sophisticated in its execution, Berry’s endearing voice strikes the perfect balance between naivete and adult reflection. A bright pearl of a poem to celebrate the moms who, despite everything, still afford their children those bite-sized moments of trust and wonder.

4. “Mariposa” by Rachel Inez Marshall

Not every mother will be there for the little moments. This poem is dedicated to the ones for whom Mother’s Day is an unanswered question, a map leading to nothing but wreckage. Written about abandonment and adoption, Rachel Inez Marshall’s poem mesmerizes in tide-after-unrelenting-tide of images. Through waves that “r[i]se in whispers / off moon-splashed coquina,” a pushing-pulling feeling of loss persists; even the “spinnerbait, honey and Magnolia, / chamomile calm” offered by the new Christian family fails to satisfy the marooned heart. Marshall’s poem functions as a creation myth, sculpting a story for the mother and child from an “unknown sea.”

5. “From Another Dormitory” by Molly McCully Brown

Mother’s Day is also a celebration of the maternal figures in our lives, family or not. The girls in “From Another Dormitory” are learning to give up waiting and to adjust to the orphaned life: “They tell you that it takes ten years of being blind / before your body gives up dreaming about sight.” Still, the desire for warmth still lingers. “From Another Dormitory” speaks to the mothers whose kindness extends to the children of other women; sometimes, the caretaker, a baby in her arms, will reach down and touch the child’s wrist. Molly McCully Brown’s poem reveals in us a continuous search for motherly comfort, for the message in the air that “tells you when another body is near.”

6. “Asylum” by Aria Aber (third poem on the page)

Sometimes, our mothers can’t always be our guardians. Here, in the refugee camp where “piss rust[s] on elevator floors so gilded I mistake it for a trinket,” the daughter must assume the role of the mother. “Poverty contains, by necessity, poetry,” writes Aria Aber. Although truthful in its depiction of poverty, the poem celebrates the mother’s “caravan beauty,” seeking to find a sliver of gold and beauty in the midst of “fibrous shatter,” because there is no other choice: “To return to where we’ve come from would mean to mourn, to moor, to morning.” And so they sit, huddled, mother becoming the child, child becoming the mother, both becoming the other’s shelter.

7. “Marriage” by Smriti Verma

Like “Asylum,” Smriti Verma’s poem portrays an honest kind of beauty, the mother’s body described as a “golden orb, a mass of heavy muscle and cement.” But beyond seeking beauty, “Marriage” seeks to grapple with “the reality she lived.” Each image layers over the last, revealing the home life only through flashes and starts of clauses, incomplete, fleeting, showing just enough to be violent, or truthful – how “a body learns the shadow of a knife,” or how Mama “Steps where he doesn’t, rests like a cuckoo bird, / on perch of flight.” Verma’s poem doesn’t offer an answer. Instead, it demonstrates the power of image to unmask an unspoken narrative.

8. “Everything Must Go” by Imani Davis

While “Asylum” and “How to Take Your Medication During a Recession” present richness amid poverty, “Everything Must Go” shows us how to make peace with shame in vanity. For this lineage of women who originated from “country ribboned by war,” dressing well is pride, reinvention. Grandmother’s shopping is a “selfless love,” hoarding for her children “enough patent-leather & lace to clothe every ghost / she left in Honduras.” Defiant, this poem wears self-confidence like an heirloom and refuses to undress: “if this is a sin,” she writes, “I’ll take one in every color.”

9. “Portrait of Mother as Gone” by Meghann Plunkett

“Portrait of Mother as Gone” illustrates another kind of inherited sin. Vulnerable and real, Meghann Plunkett’s poem grieves an addict mother, even missing the familiar disappointment and heartbreak. Like phantom fingers that rattle empty bottles, there are lines that stay with the reader: “Give me empty promises like / flowers rotting in a vase on my vanity until they smell like her– / a body that’s given up on being a body. Give me something I know.” The last words separated from the end of each line spell out another confession—“I am / an addict / too”—and reveal how our mother’s poisons live on in us.

10-12. Three Poems by Willy Palomo

Read these poems apart if you wish, but together, they form a portrait of strength. Like many other poems in this list, “Mama’s Heart” uses poetry and biography as a form of gratitude, honoring an immigrant’s story of flight and assimilation. In a few striking details, Palomo captures the guilt and violence that haunt the second generation, the children of a sacrifice: “What does that make me but an Aztec, / the same empire that made conquer sexy / before Cortes y las Tlaxcaltecas, / that made murder a sport before las policia / y las maras, that made terror our textbook / before the School of the Americas?” Throughout all three poems, Palomo intertwines mother and son through shared history, love language, heartbeat, and flesh.

13. “Girlhood” by Joyce Zhou

Over preparations for Lunar New Year, a mother teaches her daughter a lesson—how to navigate a “forbidden” girlhood, how to be “doglike in the way only a hemline / Could be vulgar.” “Girlhood” carries with it a suppressed wildness, only hinting at the glory surrendered for the “muted harvest,” a life of steaming pears while other kids “curl off the streets like smog” in search of a kind of freedom. Through one tradition, Joyce Zhou gracefully reveals the other: the inheritance of female suppression and an anger allowed to rise only as high as steam.

14. “Mother” by Fatimah Asghar

Like “Girlhood,” Fatimah Asghar’s piece, “Mother,” shows how mothers teach gender, or its performance. Asghar’s piece recounts a journey for girlhood, boyhood, and personhood: “Mother, where are you? How would / you have taught me to be a woman? / A man?”  Through its continuous dialogue on the body, the piece treads a thin balance: How do we mourn and still find joy in our bodies and identities? With profound sensitivity, Asghar reveals that sometimes, “I let you go & my body is fully mine. / Fully alive, dancing, boy-girl / feet pounding into the earth.” Assertive at times, questioning and searching at others, “Mother” reclaims a body from grief, but not memory.

15. “Bubbe” by Robin Estrin (second poem on the page)

The mothers of mothers deserve a spot on this list, too. Through a few simple but stirring images, Robin Estrin’s “Bubbe” seeks to find a grandmother’s memory in things left behind—old lipstick, lingerie, a certain body shape. And while the body in Asghar’s “Mother” struggles in a tug of war between mother and self, “Bubbe” illustrates how mother and self are inseparable in the body. Estrin highlights the first, fundamental inheritance—the genetic code; beyond old photographs and pearls, we carry the wills of our mothers in ourselves.

16. “Echolocation” by Jenny Molberg

Jenny Molberg’s “Echolocation” takes us to would-be mother’s perspective. This image-driven poem submerges the reader in the language of whale songs, “the loudest blues / on earth.” As her grief ebbs and flows, the voice eases seamlessly from one form to the next. In shells, “things that once housed the living,” to the whale that swallowed Jonah, Molberg displays her heart-rending gift for metaphor. And through these reincarnations, she gives life to the child “near drowned in the cage I’d made of my bones.”

17. “Slipper” by Maggie Smith

There are second chances for motherhood, Maggie Smith reminds us. Throughout this list, we turn time and time again to the water, and it’s no wonder why—the ocean, writes Smith, has a “relentless / newness, the constant turning over.” “Slipper” itself also communicates a returning of sorts. Even surrounded by her own children, another son “bobbing inside” her, the poem still conveys the extraordinary wonder of a new mother; “I am becoming my mother here,” as if this were a new revelation for her, like the way her daughter “gasps” to find “a common slipper.” But like wonder, her uneasiness in a changed body takes time to outgrow, too: “Imagine if I could / wear my home and call it my body, / wear my body and call it home.”

18. “A Beginning” by Michael Dhyne

In the spirit of turning over, our final poem urges us, “look how far you’ve come to get here.” Almost blunt in its precision, “A Beginning” starts at what feels like the end of all things: the death of a father, a guardian, and “years of nothing.” Dhyne’s visceral voice conveys the violence in grief, anger at a unannounced departure, an attack on all the parts of a father that “Mom says” are “still inside me.” But mother’s attempts at reconciliation are not made in vain. At its conclusion, “A Beginning” chronicles a reconciliation of self, breathtaking in brevity: “I fall in love. You have no idea. I look exactly / like you. I dissolve into hands. We smile.” And throughout it all, the mother witnesses our birth and our fall from grace, still reminding us, look how far you’ve come.

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Meimei Xu
Meimei Xu

Meimei Xu (Zhimei) is a senior at the Westminster Schools in Atlanta, GA. Her journalism and creative work have been recognized by the National Scholastic Art and Writing Awards, the Library of Congress, Torrance Legacy Creative Writing Awards, and the NCTE Superior Writing Achievement Award. Her poetry appears or is forthcoming in Typishly, Cathexis Northwest Press, and Sooth Swarm Journal. She is a 2019 alum of Asian American Journalists Association's JCamp and a 2018 alum of the Kenyon Review Young Writer's Workshop. Meimei currently works as a content writer for The Adroit Journal.

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