Our Mothers

In preparation for America’s Next Top Model, I used to cook a giant bowl of pasta and toast a  hunk of garlic bread. A neighbor came over one evening, which happened to be the night of the season premiere, and was surprised when I shushed him. I usually turn off the television / phone / computer—or whatever technological distraction—when someone visits. He sipped his drink and watched as the models cried about their new haircuts, their weight, their tight, pointy shoes.

“Why do you watch this show?” my friend asked.

“Shhh,” I said. It was time for their close-ups.

Here’s why I liked ANTM: it reminded me of writing poetry. Bear with me. The best models possessed both technique (knowing how to angle their bodies into “good lighting,” for example) and an ability to relinquish control. Many of the models were criticized for looking “too posed.” In poetry, the writer must “find the good lighting” through word choice, line break, and punctuation. However, if the writer cannot let the poem grow organically, it feels too manicured, and the reader is left wishing for the poem’s heart to beat.

I like the way Lu Chi describes the relationship between technique and intellectual depth, in The Art of Writing:

“While the language may be lovely
and the reasoning just,

the ideas themselves
may prove trivial.”

I don’t think there’s intellectual depth in modeling. In fact, in cycle 1, the best model of the group (Elise Sewell) got “eliminated” because she responded to the question “What makes a woman sexy?”  by discussing the correlation between estrogen in the womb and desired “feminine” features. To this response, the judges reacted with some version of “Oh, you’re smart, huh? Do you think you’re better than us?” (By the way, if you ever feel like hearing a good, expletive-laden rant, I highly suggest listening to Elise go off about the “wasteful” people around her.) Intellect appears absent, and even shunned, from ANTM. However, in order to produce interesting photographs, the young models must contort their bodies in uncomfortable clothing (or no clothing at all) whilst dropping their emotional guards. I was always impressed by the ones who could do it. To lower one’s shields, one must know she has them and what triggers them. Likewise, the life force of a poem, which I believe is emotion, can only be allowed, never forced. While there is, of course, a place for intellect in a poem (but perhaps not in modeling) without a certain surrender, the poem can sound stiff or “too posed.”

Another theme that I noticed in ANTM was the influence of mothers. Tyra enjoyed discussing her mother’s support and love, and she frequently told the girls how sacred their own mothers were, which I always thought was rather naive. Some of the young models even talked about their broken relationships with their abusive mothers, but Tyra relentlessly conjured the mother figure image, either from her own personal narratives or from the memories she evoked from the young models.

It is through these two lenses—the marriage of form and intuition, and the pervasive presence of the mother, that I wrote the poem, “Our Mothers.”

In the first stanza, the speaker describes the youth of the models. Their “blooming faces” and “Tightly-knit / skin that won’t be missed till / worries stick like flour to the dough” indicates both an innocence and a certainty of future worries. The second stanza switches to a  memory of the speaker’s mother, who’s skin is both vampiric (an image that conjures darkness) and without wrinkles (which reminds the reader of the young models in the first stanza). However, the reader also learns that the mother’s skin is young-looking only because she rarely leaves her dark bedroom and that she also has a pill habit. The speaker remembers handing “her bottles like / spices to a master chef,” which references another reality show, Master Chef.

In the third stanza, the speaker discusses the success of the models who don’t rely on their natural physical beauty but rather, allow themselves to be vulnerable:

“On Top Model, the girls who give up
their pretty bones, that which they’ve
relied on their entire short lives, stare
ugly into the lens. The forgotten
loneliness, a soft rage that burns,
looks back at them like
a friend from long ago.”

The speaker romanticizes modeling, indicating that opening emotionally for a photograph can somehow connect the model to her true self, dark as it may be. The models stare “ugly into the lens,” which seems to have been a strange trend in fashion for at least the last twenty years. (On a side note, I got married earlier this year and was surprised to see that even the some of the women modeling beautiful wedding gowns seemed fairly pissed off about it.)

The fourth and fifth stanzas return to the mother. In the fourth stanza, the reader learns that the drug addiction has gotten worse and that the mother is homeless and alone and possibly hearing voices:

“Alone in her car, where my mother
sleeps every kind of night. Only
her voices listen now, though I try
as if the Milky Way is a sparkled
highway that sags under the weight
of our messages, piled star after star
till it breaks the night.”

The speaker wants to connect with the mother, but it proves as impossible as using the Milky Way as a medium of communication. In the fifth stanza, the speaker  again describes her mother as physically youthful: “My immortal mother only now / begins to silver against the black.” The speaker then imagines her as a contestant on ANTM: “Her long, stringy hair would get / chopped on Top Model, razored / to highlight her cheek bones, / centered, even in her sixties.”

The last stanza focuses on the vulnerability of the models: “The models bend like baby / dolls in vintage, ruffled skirts. / The foreign girl gets sacked. / Back to Europe with her chic, / bald head.” The girls pose like baby dolls, which makes them look childlike and susceptible to that strange hue of misogyny that asks grown women to remain infantile. The foreign model is far from home, and using the word “sacked” reveals the harshness of the reality show’s environment. Upon her dismissal, and in the final stanza, “Everyone is crying / and partly wishing it were / them, far away and alone.” In the final two lines, the speaker connects with the models: “like me. Thinking / of our mothers.” The last few lines take the momentum of two narratives (the models’ competition and the speaker’s trouble with her mother) and create a scene of mixed emotion and contrast. The models presumably want to win the contest but also “partly” wish they were going home, and the speaker finds connection and meaning from a show that centers around arbitrary achievements.

“Our Mothers” first appeared in Two Cities Review, Issue 5, Spring 2015

Our Mothers 

On America’s Next Top Model,
blooming faces march
down the runway. Tightly-knit
skin that won’t be missed till
worries stick like flour to the dough.

I think of my mother’s vampiric skin, without
crease for the years she spent self-penned
in a dark and air-conditioned room, delegating
her pill habit. One by one, from the floor
beside her bed, I handed her bottles like
spices to a master chef.

On Top Model, the girls who give up
their pretty bones, that which they’ve
relied on their entire short lives, stare
ugly into the lens. The forgotten
loneliness, a soft rage that burns,
looks back at them like
a friend from long ago.

Alone in her car, where my mother
sleeps every kind of night. Only
her voices listen now, though I try
as if the Milky Way is a sparkled
highway that sags under the weight
of our messages, piled star after star
till it breaks the night.

My immortal mother only now
begins to silver against the black.
Her long, stringy hair would get
chopped on Top Model, razored
to highlight her cheek bones,
centered, even in her sixties.

The models bend like baby
dolls in vintage, ruffled skirts.
The foreign girl gets sacked.
Back to Europe with her chic,
bald head. Everyone is crying
and partly wishing it were
them, far away and alone,
like me. Thinking
of our mothers.

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