”Passed On” by Carole Satyamurti
- Pages: 6
- Word count: 1280
- Category: Poetry
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In the poem “Passed On” by Carole Satymurti, the speaker tells a story almost as in a novel of their mother and how she left them a box of index cards with advice on life when she died. The speaker’s gender seems to be female. In the poem, the poet presents the theme of growing up and becoming one’s own person through the maturation and acceptance process. She personifies the index cards themselves, comparing them to her mother. They also characterize the speaker and her mother and create a mood of sadness and longing, implying that perhaps the mother has been dead for some time, but the speaker has never truly accepted this.
The title of the poem seems to have three meanings. On the one hand, the speaker seems to have grown up since their mother’s passing. As she grows and matures, the cards her mother left her “seemed to shrink.” She would find parts of the cards “blank, the edges furred, mute, whole areas wrong, or missing.” There is a certain point in her life in which she realizes that her mother is not infallible and makes mistakes just like everyone else. Whereas earlier in her life she felt like “the world was box-shaped,” that her mother had included everything that she would need in this box full of index cards, she might have had many experiences which her mother could not have perceived and therefore not written anything about them. This feeling of growing up and becoming your own person may be the meaning of the title “Passed On.” The speaker has passed up her mother in terms of maturity and her mother can no longer teach her what she was able to before. The death of her mother itself may be the meaning of “Passed On.” The speaker tells of burning the index cards, stating, “the smoke rose thin and clear, slowly blurred.”
By burning the cards, she is giving herself closure in a symbolic manner, almost as though she were cremating her mother. Earlier, she states that her mother had “rendered herself down from flesh to paper” and she would “shuffle them to almost hear her speak.” The poet personifies the speaker’s mother through these cards in order to give the reader a fuller idea of how much the cards meant to the speaker when she was younger and how symbolic an event it is to burn them on the beach. The funeral imagery is further reinforced by the speaker “creating a hollow cairn,” almost to act as a headstone for the cards, symbolically her mother’s funeral spot. The final possible meaning of the title “Passed On” is the speaker’s own maturation. As she grew and started to doubt her mother’s wisdom, asking, “Had she known?” she has “Passed On” her mother’s advice because it is no longer pertinent to her. She has taken all she can from the cards and now can no longer see any real use for them.
The mother is characterized throughout the poem as a sickly woman but also a wise and foreseeing woman. The speaker is characterized at first as childish but eventually matures and moves past her immature ways into a wiser, world-wearier person. The speaker saw her mother’s “strength drain, ink-blue, from her finger-ends providing for a string of hard winters//I was trying not to understand.” This refers to the many winters in which she has had to care for her mother, who slowly deteriorates. It is also referring to the fact that she did not want to accept the fact that her mother is dying, and she pretends to not know the reason for her mother doing this. Her mother knows she is dying and wishes to impart everything she can to her child so they will not be completely lost when at last her heart does stop beating. The childishness of the speaker is presented by her “nagging” her mother and trying hard “not to understand” the winters that she knows she will eventually have to face. It is a very childish thing to do to see something and try to pretend it isn’t real just by forcing oneself not to understand it. It is hiding from the world and from the truth of the future and the speaker does it.
The mother’s eventual deterioration is presented in the fourth stanza in a string of seemingly unrelated one to three word phrases. The speaker prefaces this by comparing her own notes to her mother’s “urgent dogmatism, loosening grip.” Her mother is seemingly slipping into the senseless world of senility and she shows it by writing in her index cards that she held in such high importance “infinitives never telling love lust single issue politics when don’t hopeless careful trust.” This obviously makes no sense and serves as a representation of the mother’s “loosening grip” on reality, her slow degradation into senility. This development in the mother is paralleled with the speaker’s own maturation. Adding “notes of my own” gives the speaker a newfound level of maturity; she feels experienced enough to alter the cards herself. Enough time has passed for her to gain new experiences that she feels is worthy of being noted and she notes them in these index cards. The speaker’s maturation process is ultimately completed in the symbolic burning of the cards. She has finally accepted her mother’s death and can survive without her. The speaker states, “Then I let her go.” Her maturation is finally complete; this is adulthood and she has achieved it.
The general mood of the poem is quite sad. The poet creates this mood by telling of the mother’s desperation to finish her project before she dies. She “rendered herself” from the flesh, making her “strength drain.” This is all of course being told through the child of the woman dying and it is very sad to think of a young child having to witness this in their own parent at such a young age. When she was young, she thought that her parents were supposed to be rocks of stability and strength; any hint of weakness is a truly sad thing to witness. The mood is furthered with the poet’s diction, using phrases like “hard winters” and the speaker’s “doubt.” The speaker seems to dislike the fact that she was childish beforehand and could not relate to her mother while she was alive, but she can’t change that. She finally accepts the past and resolves to move on with her life, “let[ing her mother] go” through the burning of the index cards. This eventual tone of resolve comes at a time in her life when she feels she can finally move on.
The poet manages to put forth a large number of thoughts and feelings for the reader, and does so in quite a short number of lines. Satymurti has added strong emotions in this poem, and has used diction very well. The most important aspects however, are the symbolism and the imagery in the poem. Satymurti has many great lines in the poem, which create very vivid images in the mind of the reader. This helps convey the message of moving on of a young girl after a long lifetime of grieving her mother’s death. The daughter at one point is almost obsessed with the cards, what they represent and what they mean. This passes as she realises that her mother did not know everything, and not all the things in the box might be correct or true, she moves on, she accepts the fact that her mother is no longer with her and will never be.