What holds more beauty –
Mother-of-pearl holds pastel colors, and it shines
like the serene patina of heaven,
so pale, so stark in its white hue
gets labeled a precious stone
threaded around the haughty necks
of opera matrons,
funereal in their monochromatic splendor.
Mother-of-pearl, I have never heard you counted
even among the semiprecious.
Agate and amethyst turn up their mineral noses
at your smooth sheen,
your organic love coat and pink acceptance of the waves.
Perhaps they see the brown shabbiness of your outer shell
and feel the repulsion of the orchid for the clover.
The orchid, holding no sweet nectar for children to suck.
I hear some orchids have a breath
that reeks of rotting meat and draws greedy flies.
Mother-of-pearl, whisper your secrets to the abalone shells
that litter jewelry cases in antique stores.
Trimmed with silver for rings and brooches,
the corpses of the abalones
feel your naked pain.
I will love you.
I will understand.
When I first conceptualized writing a poem about mother-of-pearl, I considered doing a play on words: writing a poem with a double meaning, so that the reader would walk through the entire poem thinking it was about the substance mother-of-pearl and then in the very last line discovering that it actually was about a human woman with a daughter named Pearl. It wasn’t long before I decided that such a poem would be a bit too difficult for me to pull off without more concentration and sustained effort than I was willing to put in at the time, and instead decided to harvest some slightly-lower hanging artistic fruit. I would write a poem that drew parallels between the substance mother-of-pearl, and the life of my own mother, and if I could work it in, I would make some allusions to one of my favorite religious figures (Mary, the Virgin Mother of God – I’ve never been Catholic, but I’m not going to deny that the idea of God having a mother is pretty powerful psychologically).
I’m satisfied with the result. “Mother-of-Pearl” is not the best poem I’ve ever written, but I think it works well. The central conceit of the poem is that something considered entirely ordinary by mass culture can have more beauty than something prized because it is rare. I do consider the iridescence of mother-of-pearl more beautiful than many examples of precious gems, and while my mother is not famous and in many respects has a life story typical of a smart, determined woman who surfed the Second Wave of feminism, I love her more than many of the idealized women of history. To continue drawing the parallel, according to the Bible, Mary the Virgin Mother was not anybody special except in her devotion to her God.
Specific Lines Worth Commenting On:
- it shines / like the serene patina of heaven: I like this line because a patina is a coating and therefore “patina of heaven” could refer to either a coating of something on heaven, or to the idea that heaven is a coating of something, onto something else. What would coat heaven? What would heaven cover over? This was not the poem in which to explore that image, but the seed has been planted and I might write more about this image in another piece.
- Agate and amethyst turn up their mineral noses: I ran this poem by my mother before posting it here, to make sure she was not offended by my implication about her ordinariness. She really liked this line. I didn’t think it was anything special, but that’s art for you.
- your organic love coat and pink acceptance of the waves: This is my favorite line in the poem. I feel it’s a powerful and poetic image that does a good job of reflecting in words the way mother-of-pearl works on the eyes.
- the repulsion of the orchid for the clover: I love orchids, particularly yellow cymbidia, but they don’t produce an attractive scent, and as a child I always used to de-fluff orchids to get the taste of nectar at the base of the fluff, which is something you can’t do with an orchid. Rare does not automatically equal better, and that’s the point of the poem.
- the abalone shells / that litter jewelry cases… the corpses of the abalone / feel your naked pain: These lines were an attempt to express how I feel in relation to my mother. Abalone is a similar, related substance to mother-of-pearl, but not the same…