Maysa Vang’s “Between Her and Me” [Read the poem here]
(First published in Issue #11 of Cha)
-This post by Marybeth Rua-Larsen was awarded the Second Prize in the Fine Tea Competition 2011.
What comes between mothers and daughters? Nothing and everything, as Maysa Vang’s poem “Between Her and Me” eloquently illustrates. With spare and direct language, Vang describes a loving relationship, but one in transition, one where a daughter builds her own life as an artist while acknowledging her mother’s hard work and sacrifice to get her there. A common enough theme, but Vang transcends the common with her layered images of separation and use of simple language to convey powerful emotion.
We all seek to separate from our parents and lead independent lives, with some of us being more successful than others. Achieving success hinges on both parties acknowledging that the separation must occur and then allowing it. On the surface, the poem’s speaker describes a quiet moment as she takes care of her mother’s personal needs — scraping a callus off her foot with ‘a two-sided razor blade’ (L1). It’s a vivid image, but it’s more than that. The fact that the mother hands her daughter the blade suggests that the mother gives permission for the separation, that this is the time they have been working toward. The two-sided razor also suggests the daughter’s readiness to separate. She accepts the blade and makes the cut, and by cutting the callus away from ‘under her foot’ (L3), the daughter will, in a sense, no longer be under her mother’s foot. She will lead a more independent life, and one that can offer her more than ‘rice’ and ‘poultry’ (L15).
Even small shifts in diction seem to have larger implications, such as Vang choosing the more distant, third-person ‘her’ to reference the speaker’s mother in the title and then shifting to the more intimate ‘mom’ in line one. By using both terms in close proximity, Vang evokes a relationship in flux, showing both a ‘pulling away’ (her) and a loving relationship (mom). There is a push and pull of language, with the speaker searching for the best way to describe their relationship, a way to be separate from her mother while remaining close to her. ‘Mom’ or even ‘mother’ in the title would have provided much more intimacy, but it would not have signalled the struggle with separation which is at the heart of the poem.
As the daughter removes her mother’s callus, she shares details from her printmaking class, a class her mother made possible by taking menial jobs like bundling flyers (L8–L9). Vang uses printmaking to build on her imagery of separation since an inked plate is pressed to paper to create the print and then is permanently separated from it. The mother becomes her daughter’s canvas, or in this case a copper plate, and when the calluses are carved away, the artist separates herself from the plate, and the work of art stands on its own. Toward the end of the poem, when Vang writes ‘Her spine curls forward as she leans in / closer and hair falls like wine poured /down her shoulders in silver and black’ (L19–L21), she describes the speaker’s mother as a work of art, thereby recognizing the mother’s long hours assembling the postal sacks that will allow her daughter to live an artist’s life and avoid, hopefully, working in a factory.
The mother says little and doesn’t respond to her daughter’s discussion of art, suggesting that their different levels of education also separate them, and that the gap in their understanding of the world may only grow wider as the daughter continues her education. The mother may choose silence because she has never seen a piece by Rembrandt or is unfamiliar with the process of printmaking and doesn’t know what to say. In this case, however, silence is acceptance since the mother ‘pray[ed] that I might speak an unbroken / English tongue and never return to the factory’ (L17–L18). As her daughter achieves her goals, the mother accepts and adapts to the resulting changes, and she’s content to listen as her daughter takes on the role of artist.
Like mothers the world over, who want better for their daughters than they had themselves, the mother here earns her calluses with hard work and knows that her daughter’s continued education will create a certain distance or separation between them; still, she gives her all and asks little in return, willing to do whatever it takes to ensure her daughter has a happier, easier life. The poem balances love against change, and Vang asserts that love endures even as it separates. When the mother says, ‘it doesn’t hurt anymore… /do my left foot’ (L22–L23), she speaks as much to the physical pain of removing the next callus as she does to the emotional pain for the distance that will grow between them. The mother understands there is more separation and pain to come, but she is strong enough — they both are — to withstand it, and any subsequent changes in the future. And isn’t that what we hope for? Love that doesn’t call attention to itself, that isn’t a bargain-in-the-making… that simply is, despite change.
Maysa Vang is a 24-year old Hmong artist, poet and freelance writer. She was born and raised in the inner cities of Minnesota after her parents migrated to the United States. A recent college graduate, she enjoys traveling, making art and trying exotic foods with good friends.