"Mother" is a poem by the Vietnamese-Australian poet and educator Vuong Pham, published as part of his 2013 micro-collection Refugee Prayer. It examines the relationship between the speaker and his mother, who emigrated from Vietnam after the Fall of Saigon and gave up her own dreams of becoming a teacher in order to care for her child. The poem deals with the unique sacrifices of immigrant parents and illuminates the particular bond between this mother and her child, who feels a responsibility to live up to "the teaching legacy" that they share.
I know now, ...
... war and exodus.
On the living ...
... passion in life?’
She smiles—that eternal ...
... meet the sky.
Gardening is the ...
... amongst lotus-dotted ponds.
‘Teaching was my ...
... past made whole.
‘A literacy teacher,’ ...
... of improved literacy.
I continue to ...
... bloodshed in Saigon.
I picture her ...
... and lychee tea;
that familiar ...
... her classroom window;
and all of ...
... down to me—
I knew the ...
... thought of you.’
She smiles and ...
... pork, Asian vegetables
and help pay ...
... labours of factories.
I know now, ...
... refugee boat’s thrum,
the faces ...
... the missile storm.
The homeland was ...
... me, growing inside.
Select any word below to get its definition in the context of the poem. The words are listed in the order in which they appear in the poem.
Poems for Mothers — A list of poems celebrating mothers (rounded up by the Poetry Foundation in honor of Mother's Day).
An Interview with the Poet — Read an interview with Vuong Pham for Another Lost Shark.
Poems on Immigration — A collection of poems about and by immigrants.
Refugee Poetics — An article by Jill Magi for Poetry magazine that discusses "A Refugee Poetics."
1I know now, as I did in my childhood wonder
2that my mother dreamed of a paradise
3one unbound by war and exodus.
4On the living room carpet we sit
5I pluck her grey hairs and ask:
6‘Mother, what ever was your passion in life?’
7She smiles—that eternal smile
8a question suspended in mid-air.
9Her neck tilts like a sunflower
10too heavy to meet the sky.
11Gardening is the reply I expect.
12My mind’s eye turns to childhood, to shadows
13stirring beneath star fruit trees
14rows of cherry tomatoes growing over fences
15a call to supper while sleeping
16amongst lotus-dotted ponds.
17‘Teaching was my passion,’ she says, ‘high school.’
18I smile in agreement. And as I do
19jigsaw-puzzle pieces of memory
20lock together, my past made whole.
21‘A literacy teacher,’ I exclaim,
22she smiles, remembering with excitement
23the moment I arrived home from school
24with a certificate of improved literacy.
25I continue to pluck her grey hairs
26our conversation lingers on
27as the soft daylight illuminates us.
28I know now, as I did in my childhood wonder
29about mother’s youth, before the bloodshed in Saigon.
30I picture her driving a yellow scooter
31on the road to school, the freedom
32of her hair, a glimmering smile; spiriting past
33street markets, the soothing aromas
34of Pho and lychee tea; that familiar
35crescendo of rickshaws, bicycles and scooters;
36landscapes of water buffalo, ploughing
37the flooded paddies from cloud to cloud; each one
38picturesque from her classroom window; and all of which
39was the city she will no longer call home.
40More grey hairs fall, the past realigns itself and
41I know now, as I did in my childhood wonder
42that the teaching legacy passed down to me—
43I knew the responsibilities of providing
44for her children outweighed
45university-degree teaching aspirations.
46That in mind, I tell her:
47‘Mother, this week I taught my students Wordsworth
48saw thousands of daffodils and thought of you.’
49She smiles and I’m taken back to a halcyon-time
50in childhood that reminds how she stitched floral
51pyjamas, tablecloths, bedsheets together
52using a sewing machine for less than $5 an hour
53to afford rice, pork, Asian vegetables
54and help pay for my tuition
55so I could learn to spell ‘persistent’ correctly—
56praying that I might speak an unbroken English tongue
57and never be confined
58to the labours of factories.
59I know now, as I did in my childhood wonder
60what it must’ve been to mother, there
61among the refugee boat’s thrum, the faces
62of Saigon watching—eyeballs ribboned with flames
63incandescent, a disorder of diaspora animate
64in the missile storm.
65The homeland was a mist, the cerulean
66depths of sea stirred on the horizon like some agitated womb
67boats wet as one long vowel, as the city crumbled
68and my mother among them fled
69with nothing but me, growing inside.