American Life in Poetry: my mother’s hands

Kwame Dawes. Courtesy photo.

In the 1st century apostle Luke’s epistle (the Bible, Luke 3:5), he quotes John the Baptist’s announcement of himself as the prophet who will, among other things, make smooth the “rough ways.”

If Nate Marshall was not conscious of this allusion in “my mother’s hands,” his tender praise song to his mother, he certainly would not mind the connection.

In the end, this unabashedly sentimental poem (poets are allowed), is offered as a balm for the vividly expressed hardships against which this mother’s love is a bulwark: “we survive/ every fire without becoming/ ash.”

my mother’s hands
By Nate Marshall

would moisturize
my face from jaw inward
the days she had too
much on her hands
when what needed
to come through
did or didn't show.
she still shone, still made
smooth her every rough
edge, heel to brow.
hugged my temples
with slick hands,
as if to say son be mine
as if to say this i give you
as if to say we are people
color of good oak but we
will not burn, we survive
every fire without becoming

American Life in Poetry does not accept unsolicited manuscripts. It is made possible by The Poetry Foundation, publisher of Poetry magazine. It is also supported by the Department of English at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Poem copyright ©2020 by Nate Marshall, “my mother’s hands” from Finna (Penguin Random House, 2020.) Introduction copyright ©2022 by The Poetry Foundation. The introduction’s author, Kwame Dawes, is George W. Holmes Professor of English and Glenna Luschei Editor of Prairie Schooner at the University of Nebraska.