Analysis of ‘Praise song for my mother’ by Grace nichols
Grace Nichols is a Guyanese poet whose works reflect many cultural influences. Her youth was spent in Guyana, South America where she lived, first in small villages and later in cities. The Caribbean heritage with its strong oral traditions is strongly felt in her poetry. Oral story telling that is common in African cultures is another influence that has shaped the form and structure of her poetry. There are clear Amerindian overtones also in her poems. Once she moved to the UK in the late 70s, European influences started appearing.
Praise songs that are sung rather than written down are part of a larger African tradition that the poet was familiar with. This particular poem celebrates her relationship with her mother who has worked hard to enrich her life. In a series of powerful images, the speaker recalls her mother’s presence in her life. The speaker looks back upon childhood and reminisces her mother’s nurturing presence in her early life. Most images are taken from nature – another clue to the life the poet had led and the influences that have shaped her poems. Water, sun and food are the basic needs for humans. A series of metaphors drawn from these show how central her mother was for her.
Using a series of metaphors, the speaker shows what her mother was to her. It is no accident that she chooses water first. It is the element we are all made of. It sustains life; it is free flowing, liquid and takes any form. To the poet, her mother was water. She was complex, enveloping and sustaining. The next metaphor that the speaker works on is the moon. Here the attributes are the magnetic pull of the moon, its attractiveness and its ability to spread its gentle light over everything. The poet then moves on to sunrise – Its warmth, its ability to lift up sagging spirits and its endless bounty. The mother was like a fishes gill to her, giving her life and helping her stay alive. The mother was food to her, helping her grow and be healthy. All this helped to replenish her strength and spirit. When the time came, her mother encouraged her to go into the wide world, grow further and find her place in it.
As the title makes clear, this is a song in praise of the speaker’s mother. She uses water as a metaphor for mother, focusing on water’s ability to be life giving and life sustaining. It is deep, complex and indispensible.
In this stanza, the poet chooses the moon as a metaphor. Here there is a natural contrast to water. Moonlight is gentle, cool and spreads everywhere without being intrusive. At the same time, it has a symbiotic relationship with water.
In this stanza, the mother is referred to as sunrise. Sun’s light is warm, uplifting, nourishing and perennial. Life is possible only with the presence of sunlight.
The mother is variously the fish’s gill which help it to breathe under water, the tree’s shade, the crab’s leg and warm, comforting food that sustains and replenishes the poet.
When the time was right, she encouraged the poet to venture forth into the wide world and find her place in it. She does not smother her but lets her free to grow.
This poem is very evocative of the culture in which Grace Nichols spent her childhood. The close bond that she shared with her mother and her natural affinity for women’s issues has doubtless influenced her choice of the subject. The influence of a mother during a girl’s formative years cannot be overstated. Though the bond was strong and close, when the time comes, the mother advises her daughter to break loose and venture forth.