Critical Analysis of My Mother at Sixty Six– Kamala Das’s poetry is most often identified as confessional poetry. “My Mother at Sixty Six” can also be identified as such. She is as open and uninhibited in this poem as she is in her other famous confessional poems such as “An introduction”. She describes her mother’s aging face and her reaction to it without the slightest bit of hesitation. She compares her mother’s face to that of a corpse. This is a rather morbid image, but that shouldn’t surprise us. As we have said before, Kamala Das is not afraid to put off her readers a little if it serves the overall purpose of making her poem as honest as possible. And so makes this stark comparison to show how the process of aging immediately brings up the fear of losing her mother in her mind.
She also describes how that fear disturbs her so much that she is forced to turn her attention away. This turning away doesn’t symbolize a turning away from her responsibility towards her mother, but only a turning away from her own pain-filled emotions. Even though her mother is no longer a young woman, she is still beautiful. That is why the second time around, she compares her mother’s face with that of the moon on a winter night. This image is not morbid, but pleasant. However, both images are used to signal the end of something. The corpse more directly addresses the issue of human life coming to an end.
But the fact that the poet has specified that the moon which her mother’s face resembles is the moon seen in winter shows that winter is also used here to signal the end of a year – one more year that a man has lived, and one that is drawing him closer to the end of his life as well. Thus, even though the two images seem to be dissimilar, they symbolize the same thing. They together symbolize the brevity of human life and the certainty of death. This is the poet’s biggest fear – that her mother will die, and she will not have the power to stop it from happening.
As a child, it is natural that one should feel powerless. However, as an adult, as a strong and independent woman, as an eminent poet, Kamala Das is by no means powerless. But where death is concerned, there is nothing she can do. She fears that the loss of her mother can never be replaced in any way. However, she is determined not to dishearten her mother. So she smiles and says goodbye. But one can literally hear her heart breaking. It is this covering up of her pain that makes the poem beautiful and relatable.
Poetic Devices in My Mother at Sixty Six
The poet does not use any identifiable rhyme scheme in this poem.
Simile: This rhetorical device is used when an overt comparison is made between two different things. In this poem, the poet uses the device of simile on two instances. In lines 5 – 7, she compares her mother’s face with that of a corpse and also uses the word “like” while making that comparison. In lines 15 – 16, she again compares her mother with the moon in wintertime and also uses the word “as” while making this comparison.
Personification: This rhetorical device is used to bestow human qualities on something that is not human. In this poem, the poet uses the device of personification in line 12 with respect to trees. She imagines the trees to be figures that are running alongside her car.
Apostrophe: This rhetorical device is used when a poet addresses his or her poem to an absent audience. In this poem, the poet uses the device of apostrophe in line 18 when she speaks directly to her mother, addressing her as “Amma”, even though we never see the mother replying to the poet.
Central Idea of the Poem–
On her way to the airport from her parents’ house as she is leaving for Cochin, the poet is driving in her car with her mother beside her. When she chances upon her mother sleeping, she notices how old her mother has grown for the first time. She is disturbed and turns her eyes away to focus on young trees and younger children instead. Again after the security check at the airport, she notices her mother’s aging face. This fills her with the fear she had experienced since childhood – that of her mother dying. But she does not let that fear show on her face. She smiles and bids her mother goodbye, promising to see her soon.
Themes of the Poem
Comparisons: The poet compares her mother’s pale face with two things – the white face of a corpse, and the moon on a winter night. The first comparison is made chiefly on the basis of the similarity of hue between the two objects. When a person dies, blood stops being pumped out of the heart and circulating through the brains. In the absence of the flow of blood, the body loses its healthy glow and takes on an unnatural white pallor. When her mother is sleeping, the poet’s mother also has reduced heart function. As a result the life-giving flow of blood is also reduced and her skin appears paler than usual. After their arrival at the airport, he mother has woken up, but the creases on her skin that have appeared due to aging are still there. These creases look like the craters on the moon’s surface that disrupt its otherwise immaculate appearance. Hence they take away some amount of the moon’s beauty, but certainly not all of it. Similarly, age does show on her mother’s face, but it cannot really mar her beauty.
Contrasts: When the poet notices how old her mother has grown, she tries to focus her attention on other things. She ends up noticing only those things that are not old. She notices the trees that her car is going past and they appear to be moving at an equally fast pace by themselves. This leads the poet to feel that the trees must be very young to be filled with such invigorating energy. She also notices children pouring out of their houses excitedly. It is not possible that on an average day there are no adults out on the street. However, the poet’s attention does not fall on adults, but only on children, who are just starting out on their journey of life. Both these images serve as a contrast to her mother who is almost at the end of that journey. Another instance of the poet using a contrast to express herself clearly comes at the very end of the poem. The sorrow in her heart is in contrast with the smile she has bravely put on her face as she says goodbye to her mother.
Tone of the Poem-
The tone of this poem is predominantly pensive and sorrowful. The poet suddenly notices that her mother looks as old as she is. This could have surprised her since she only sees her mother during holidays and not on a daily basis. However, it does not surprise her because she has always been aware of the certainty of her mother’s death. As she does when she turns away from her mother to look at the tress and the children, she has simply chosen not to think about losing her mother anytime soon. Yet that fear has always plagued her and it plagues her still. This saddens her and one can see her silent tears even when she has forced herself to smile.
You may also want to take a look at this Video-Playlist to Learn More about this Poem in an audio-visual format!
Suggested Reading: Line by Line Meaning of My Mother at Sixty Six
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