In a poem of one long stanza, with drifting rhymes just holding it together, Jenkins’ speaker explores the effects of the final illness and death of his mother. It is a moving, understated poem, turning on the pun of its title.
A sign of compassion, the poem begins ‘I held her hand’ and the hand becomes a conduit of memories. The hand is ‘scarred’, bearing the marks of a lifetime of household tasks, ‘chopping’, ‘washing up’ and ‘scrubbing’, the menial jobs emphasised by the listing of ‘saucepan, frying pan, cup and plate’. The language portrays an old-fashioned traditional housewife role, confirmed by references to ‘roast and stew,/ Old-fashioned food’. That sense of a bygone age is also implied by other details Jenkins includes, such as the ‘faded snapshots’ in the ‘dressing-table drawer’, with ‘Scent-sprays, tortoise-shell combs, a snap or two’.
The mother is clearly from a different generation, a different world, and the reader sees a separation open between her and her son. The placing of inverted commas around ‘abroad’ suggests the tone of voice of someone who sees a foreign holiday as unusual and exotic, and the speaker admits ‘disdain’ for the ‘soaps and game shows’ his mother likes to watch. He also quotes her disparagingly with her comment on ‘funny foreign stuff’ that ‘Young people’ eat. The sneering attitude is acknowledged, with a suggestion of guilt, as the speaker admits he has grown up ‘and learned contempt’. The poem explores an awkward space between sympathy for the mother and an emotional and world-view distance from her.
The sympathy is invited by the details of the mother’s decline, descending into alcoholism after her husband’s death before commitment to ‘the psychiatric ward’. The desperation of her consumption is indicated by the repetition of ‘Drink after drink’ and the greedy verb ‘gulped’, in an urge to be ‘with him again’. Other details, such as that she ‘stared unseeing’ and ‘blinked unseeing at the wall’, show her lack of connection with the world around her, isolating her in her memories of ‘when she was girl’. Add in Jenkins’ other details of her psychiatric care, such as those who surround her, who ‘shuffled round, and drooled, and swore’, the polysyndeton and punctuation emphasising the list, and her identity reduced to a ‘smudged black ink’ name on a ‘thick rubber band’, and we have a desolate picture.
The speaker’s guilt comes not just from the gulf that has opened between mother and child, but from abandoning her to this bleak world. The poem returns to the hand with which it started. At the beginning there were all the signs of a hard-working past; now it is ‘blotched and crinkled’ and the ‘fingers couldn’t clasp mine any more’. The verb ‘clasp’ again implies a desperation, but there is no strength to act on it; she cannot either wave even ‘falteringly’ or ‘fumble at my sleeve’. All these impossible actions indicate the mother’s need to cling on, to maintain contact with her child. It is also there in her ‘last words’, the direct ‘Please don’t leave’. The request is simple, almost childish, and the guilt at the failure to comply is loaded into the two simple words ‘of course’: ‘But of course I left’. It is an acknowledgement of the inevitability of failure. The final two and a half lines do not denote the mother’s death directly, but make it achingly plain, particularly in the final line’s reference to ‘the little bag of her effects’, the small possessions she has been reduced to. Of course the whole poem explores the effects on him.