Lately, my wife has been watching Jon and Kate Plus Eight on TLC, and she’s gotten me into it a bit Today, we were watching an episode where the kids were in a pumpkin patch and then a corn maze, and my wife and I just had to laugh at how absurd the whole idea of having that many young kids to take care of would be for us. And that made me suddenly remember this poem that I read a few years back. The connection is somewhat obvious.
By Corrine Hales
Crowded around the glowing open mouth
Of the electric oven, the children
Pull on clothes and eat brown-sugared oatmeal.
The broiler strains, buzzing to keep up
500 degrees, and the mother
Is already scrubbing at a dark streak
On the kitchen wall. Last night she’d been
Ironing shirts and trying her best to explain
Something important to the children
When the old mother cat’s surviving
Two kittens’ insistent squealing and scrambling
Out of their cardboard box began
To get to her. The baby screamed every time
The oldest girl set him on the cold floor
While she carried a kitten back to its place
Near the stove, and the mother cat kept reaching
For the butter dish on the table. Twice, the woman
Stopped talking and set her iron down to swat
A quick kitten away from the dangling cord,
And she saw that one of the boys had begun to feed
Margarine to his favorite by the fingerful.
When it finally jumped from his lap and squatted
To piss on a pale man’s shirt dropped below
Her ironing board, the woman calmly stopped, unplugged
Her iron, picked up the gray kitten with one hand
And threw it, as if it were a housefly, hard
And straight at the yellow flowered wall
Across the room. It hit, cracked, and seemed to slide
Into a heap on the floor, leaving an odd silence
In the house. They all stood still
Staring at the thing, until one child,
The middle boy, walked slowly out of the room
And down the hall without looking
At his mother or what she’d done. The others followed
And by morning everything was back to normal
Except for the mother standing there scrubbing.
The tension in this poem rises very slowly and very subtly, but when you look back at the first few stanzas, it’s there and it’s powerful. It’s the slow pace of the rising tension that makes the poem so uncomfortable. The woman snaps, obviously tired from the constant pressures of her children, and she does something horrible to the kitten. But the author has already hooked us from the start, so when the terrible event starts to happen, we’re too much invested in the poem to stop reading.
There are a lot of clues early on about the direness of the poem, especially in the colors. The “brown-sugared oatmeal” and the “dark streak on the kitchen wall” help to paint a very uneasy image. And then the sounds the woman hears (the kittens “insistent squealing,” the screaming baby) complete the sensory impressions.
But the most disturbing part of the entire poem, I think, is that the woman “calmly stopped.” She didn’t get upset or angry. She had not yelled at her kids or the kittens, and she had never given any outward signs of her building anger. But it’s there, under the surface, building since the first lines of the poem. Brilliant stuff.
I’m not trying to imply that the mother from Jon and Kate is going to snap and kill a kitten, but you do have to wonder how anyone is able to have the patience to deal with the constant stresses of being the mother of eight toddlers.