Apology for Grandmothers

A poem by Eric Ormsby


"'Who the hell cares about Anne Sexton's grandmother?' W.H. Auden supposedly sputtered after a poetry reading."
—Dennis O’Driscoll, The Outnumbered Poet 

Steady on there, Wystan, I do care about
Annie’s granny—indeed, I care a lot about grannies.
Your granny may have been an appalling old trout,
In turban and pince-nez, scolding your slatternly nannies.

But your verse would have been better for a scattering of grannies.

True, grandmothers are grotesque; they have unsightly hairs
Crowding their withered nostrils and doughy packets of flab—
Tiresome crones, with their loud sighs and dyspeptic airs
Always scuttling sideways like some casserole-wary crab.

Their lacerating consonants, their chandeliering vowels,
Their moldy apothegms, their gumming of old bones,
Their salubrious asides (“Dear, have you moved your bowels?”),
Their putterings and their mutterings, their apocopated groans.

But your verse would have been better for a sprinkling of crones.   

I’d rather spend a drizzly weekend in Brixton
Numbering the raindrops on the windowpanes
Than listen to a reading by Anne Sexton.
I’d rather be trapped in a lift with Jeremy Paxton
Than suffer the maudlin refrains
Of Annie’s theatrics but still, I salute her granny,
Stowed as she must be in some columbarium cranny
Deaf to the ranting of her garrulous grandchild.

Even so, old chap, some little tincture of grannydom
might have rumpled your verse, given it the lift of the wild,
the unexpected, some startlement of the unreconciled. 
If now it rarely gives us pause,
if now its consummate polish leaves us numb.
that may be just because it scorns grandmas.


Language is where our grandmothers began.
Their antiquated natterings gave us
The courage of words; their dribbled
Yet exact articulations,
ever growing dimmer as they aged,
instilled in us some hope of fluency.

Their language wasn’t ours:  it came
from too far away; it came bedraped
in dated locutions, piquant to our ears;
it was too assertive for our irony; had
a vigor that discomfited.  It was
an aural fossil we were forced to dig
out of the rockface of decrepitude.

Their speech, fastidious and bizarre, rang
in our ears for a while after they were gone
like snowflakes on old glass-plate negatives,
scuffed a bit, a bit blurred, clouded
by mishandling but all at once,
projected on a screen, as though
their icy and precise configurations
drifted down lazily on our ears and eyes
in thicket-confidences, almost audible.


ERIC ORMSBY'S latest collection of poems is The Baboons of Hada (2011). His work has appeared in The New Yorker, The Paris Review, The Times Literary Supplement, and The Wall Street Journal.