The best things are bright, yellow, and fizzing. They arrive in the middle of summer, packaged in a hazed holographic parcel, shining silver and purple and green. The best things are soft and quiet in their heartbreak. The best things make you wait, as they begin and end with waiting.
London based Pema Monaghan’s The Last Word on Mum is a poem, a pamphlet, the tender reckoning of a daughter to have the last word. Riso printed and hand bound with thread, the skin of the pamphlet is mango yellow, but inside the flesh is white and red—both the words themselves, and the accompanying brush and ink illustrations: sisters, fruit, hands at work.
Monaghan muses on the impossibility of being the daughter of a volatile woman—all at once you are one who is birthed, fed, kissed, but also one who is abandoned, berated.
The poem opens in a lilac room, waiting with a mother who cooked and cleaned and “gave up her nursing career and her country” for her daughters. Memory is a funny thing, or not a thing at all, as we merely remember the last time we remembered, but that first page is saturated with the haze of memory: books, packed lunches, kisses, braids. Maybe it’s these memories that prompt that forever guilt of grown children:
“I feel bad for her.
But also, do I have to be the one to take care of her if she gets a really bad disease?”
It made me reel, at first, the thought of a child who is resistant to care, to assumed responsibility, but the poem peels back the years as we see our narrator grow up and apart from her mother until the mother’s judgement is cast over the phone:
“Tibetan girls do not do things like you do them.
You are a bad girl”
“Seven years later” the call is mirrored—the mother calls (again) to speak to her sisters (again), but this time the daughter speaks on her own terms. Grown now she states, “If you cannot talk to me nicely, we will not say anything to each other ever again.” On the following page we are told, “And we didn’t, so / The jury is still out on if I am a bad, or good, or any sort of Tibetan girl at all.”
Motherhood, much explored in prose and poetry, is flipped and found with new eyes as we have here instead a poem of daughterhood. Much like Ocean Vuong’s On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous, Monaghan uses space allowed on the page to explore what it means to be a child, a child of an immigrant parent, a child who’s life is dictated and distanced by their mother. I wonder if the mother will ever read this poem, published with the risk that she might, but the title itself—The Last Word on Mum—suggests this is the end, the very end, of a conversation that may never be picked up again.
Writing is a way to let form ferment and allow fragments of memory to rest in, maybe not stone, but at least paper: paper can burn, can rip, can bloat and bleed in water, but it is reproducible. And Takeaway Press has reproduced a moment of memory that now written, cannot change. Monaghan leaves us on the final page with just this, a meditation on forgiveness (do we always need to?) and forgetting that memory allows. We return to the lilac bedroom, waiting “for mum to come and find us”, and a gentle reminder that what we “can think of” when we remember a parent is not what we “do think of”. Memory is a choice and a salvation, a tool to write our own stories, to forge our own identities beyond the realm of what it means to be a daughter to a mother who she wishes she had dreamt.