On a Son Returned to New Zealand
This poem reads as a meditation on a mother’s acceptance of her son’s departure. It explores the mother’s raw emotions and one gets a sense that she is trying to get a grip on the reality that her son can’t “be in two places”.
The poem’s form is peculiar in the sense that it does not resemble traditional poetry with traditional stanzas. One observes several lines written as if they were indentations in prose paragraphs. These indentations and corresponding stanzas seem to have a prosaic matter of fact tone, which is in contrast to sections/lines where there is a heavy emotional tone. This seems to capture two distinct sensibilities: a mother loving her son, a mother trying to be strong about letting go.
The poem opens with two clear, crisp metaphors. You can notice the pride and sense of awe that the persona has for her “green branch”, her “first invention.” The use of “he is my” connotes a possessiveness and affirmation of her accomplishment. However, we are prepared for a touch of heartache. The “green branch” is maturing on a far off plantation and we get the sense that there is a tinge of chagrin. The beautiful nuance of green (youthfulness, innocence) and branch (my offspring, my extension of myself, my life-force) and the distance already indicated, promises a story of mothering that makes one wonder where is the persona going with this outpouring of sentimentality.
How does this relationship unfold? The second line presents a metaphor that is reminiscent of the metaphysical conceit. How can one compare a child to an invention? We can completely understand and welcome the green branch; after all it is a life force. It is alive. It is not unusual to identify humans with plants. However to identify your son with an image of an invention, something typically a machine, inanimate is a comparison which has a different tone from ‘green branch.’ In spite of the oddity, it works. He is her “first invention,” her creation, her outpouring of self, creatively. Branch connotes life-force, invention suggests pride.
The question it provokes though, what do we do with inventions? They do not remain our pride and joy for always. We do not hoard inventions but we share them with the world. That is the very nature of inventing. We create something phenomenal that the world can partake of it. That is why one can see the poem as a meditation on a mother’s acknowledgement that her son does not belong to her alone and the persona seems to be trying to come to term with the reality that she must let go. It is a very mature, noble position to take.
She knows no one “can be in two places at the same time” and she goes on to chronicle the process of severing the physical connection between mother and son.
They separated in Athens and the description of the setting, a “hot railway carriage” and the mundane details of Serbian soldiers and peasant women on the journey is done in such a matter-of-fact tone that you wonder where her emotion has gone to. These details seem to have very little to do with her departing son. Is she trying to tell herself ‘life goes on’? Is she trying to accept the banality of her world now that her son is gone?
The following stanza looks like an indented prose paragraph and the musicality of the poem certainly seems to give way to the visual cues dictating how it should be read. This section begs to be read fast, in keeping with the pace at which this son must be travelling away from her.
The fourth stanza with yet another prosaic indentation feels like another part of this ‘story’ of separation. Now we are closer to how this mother is feeling. She is back in London, her summer is “tarnished” as she puts away the things her son used. She might have been trying to censor her emotions but “tarnished” gives the sense that her world has been damaged or spoiled. Even the solace which letters might offer is diminished because they come from Aden and Singapore after he has arrived at his father’s home.
The fifth stanza, also written with a paragraph indentation style captures a resignation that he is at his father’s house. The persona seems to know this place. The vivid visual imagery of the winter storms and flax bending before the wind suggests she knows where her son’s journey ends.
The poem closes with a powerful metaphor which identifies the son as a bright sea-bird evoking imagery of illumination, wild life, flight, soaring, freedom, openness. Could the rocky beach symbolize life and pain of separation while her son remains a bright spot, soaring, flying albeit away from her but free and wild and in his element? The closing metaphor connects to the first image that he is “growing in a far plantation” and the persona might very well have come to terms with the painful reality of physical separation by trying to look on the positive side that there is still an emotional connection, her son is shining, wild and free, “a bright sea-bird.”
Questions to mull over:
Do you think the persona is at peace with the distance between her and her son?
What do you think is meant by “he could go no further”?
How do the affirmations in the 3 distinctive metaphors differ from the sound and imagery of the rest of the poem?