My Mother Pieced Quilts
they were just meant as covers
against pounding january winds
but it was just that every morning I awoke to these
october ripened canvases
passed my hand across their cloth faces
and began to wonder how you pieced
all these together
these strips of gentle communion cotton and
how you shaped patterns square and oblong and round
then cemented them
with your thread
a steel needle
how the thread darted in and out
galloping along the frayed edges, tucking them in
as you did us at night
oh how you stretched and turned and rearranged
your michigan spring faded curtain pieces
my father’s santa fe workshirt
the summer denims, the tweeds of fall
in the evening you sat at your canvas
—our cracked linoleum floor the drawing board
me lounging on your arm
and you staking out the plan:
whether to put the lilac purple of easter against the
red plaid of winter-going-into-spring
whether to mix a yellow with a blue and white and paint
the corpus christi noon when my father held your hand
whether to shape a five-point star from the
somber black silk you wore to grandmother’s funeral
you were the river current
carrying the roaring notes
forming them into pictures of a little boy reclining
a swallow flying
you were the caravan master at the reins
driving your threaded needle artillery across the mosaic cloth bridges
delivering yourself in separate testimonies
oh mother you plunged me sobbing and laughing
into our past
into the river crossing at five
into the spinach fields
into the plainview cotton rows
into tuberculosis wards
into braids and muslin dresses
sewn hard and taut to withstand the thrashings of twenty-five years
stretched out they lay
armed / ready / shouting / celebrating
knotted with love
the quilts sing on
Look at this "FRACTIONS" style analysis.
Acosta begins the poem at the most literal level, introducing the quilts and how they were used: for warmth against winter chill. Using a metaphor, she describes the quilts as “weapons” against “pounding january winds,” perhaps the way a young child would imagine them during the coldest of winter nights.
Here the speaker of the poem explains the daily routine of waking up as a child under the colorful quilts. By describing them as “october ripened,” Acosta might be referring to those colors most associated with autumn—red, brown, and orange. The speaker begins to remember how the cloth felt under hand; the sense of touch is one of the strongest triggers for memory. Note the word “faces” to describe the individual frames of cloth, the speaker is beginning to personify, or “give life” to, the inanimate quilt.
Once the speaker of the poem remembers touching the covers, she also remembers wondering how the mother was able to make the quilt, a single fabric woven of many smaller pieces. These loose strips of fabric came from many different sources, each with its own nostalgic significance— communion dresses, wedding gowns, nightclothes and “dime store velvets.” On a literal level, the quilt is sewn together from these many separate strips. Metaphorically, the speaker of the poem begins to suggest that the memories of those events are woven into the fabric as well.
Lines 13–15 focus on the difficult process the mother took trying to take many mismatched and oddly shaped pieces and arrange them in a coherent pattern, much like a puzzle. Note the way the poem’s speaker describes how the mother “positioned / balanced” each piece, and Acosta herself uses one-word lines like individual pieces constructing a longer sentence, each line “balanced” atop the other.
Once the pieces were arranged, the mother wove them together with needle and thread, a thimble over her finger to avoid sticking herself. The verb-choice “cemented” perhaps adds a sense of permanence to the image that another, weaker, verb would not have.
Here the speaker focuses the details even further until the reader can see the individual thread being woven, the needle’s action reminding the speaker of a horse “galloping.” By remembering how the loose edges of fabric were tucked in by the mother’s careful needle, the speaker also remembers how the mother would tuck in the kids before bed.
Lines 23–26 return to specific descriptions of the individual fabric pieces, the mother working hard to make them fit together. Every scrap seems to tell its own story, from curtains in a house in Michigan, to a “santa fe work shirt.” Each piece even reminds the speaker of the season he or she wore them. By relating these associations, the speaker might be commenting on how memory itself is pieced together, ragged scraps arranged together.
Here the mother is compared to a painter at a canvas, using the square patterns of the kitchen floor as a model. For the first time the reader sees the speaker as a child “lounging” on the mother’s arm, watching the slow weaving. The young child is perhaps too young to sew, but the mother is still instructing him or her, “staking out the plan.” This scene’s example perhaps emphasizes the importance of mother-daughter bonding from the poet’s own childhood.
With so many scraps of fabric to choose from, the mother had to decide not only what colors might fit well together, but the seasons and events with which each piece is associated as well. The Easter purple might clash with the red plaid, but the holiday fits well with the “winter-going-into-spring” season, for example.
In each square of fabric, it seems, the mother would even paint tiny scenes, the quilt a combination of many colors and shapes. “Corpus Christi” is Latin for “body of Christ”; the Roman Catholic holy day of Corpus Christi occurs in late May or early June, several weeks after Easter. The mother has to decide whether to include a patch in honor of some occasion associated with that time of year— perhaps her wedding day. (The stress being placed on a simple event— “my father held your hand”—suggests that it has some greater significance; the gesture, the time of year, and the religious associations all subtly imply a marriage ceremony.)
In contrast to the fairly pleasant memories introduced thus far, in these lines the mother has to decide whether to include a scrap of a funeral dress in the quilt as well, shaping it into a black star. By mentioning the good memories as well as the painful, perhaps the speaker is reminding the reader that all memory and experience is a combined weaving of lights and darks, good times and bad.
Here the speaker moves from close description of the quilting process to more figurative language, helping lift the mother from her everyday hobby to something greater. The speaker calls the mother “the river current,” comparing her to a great force of nature able to shape mountains and valleys with its roaring water. Note, too, how the previous scenes that the mother sewed, though fairly simple in construction, are now quite intricate and difficult to craft: a boy reclining, a flying swallow. This implies the mother was very good at what she did, spending many hours perfecting her art.
Continuing to invent analogies for the mother, in these lines the speaker describes her as the master of an army of needles, charging across the cloth battlefield with her hands at the reins. Images like this perhaps help give power to a woman who really just made quilts in her kitchen, perhaps looked upon by many as just a simple hobby. To the child who grew up to be the speaker of the poem, though, this was a wonderful and important task, equal to that of masters and generals. A “mosaic,” as mentioned in line 44, is a design composed of many smaller pieces, much like a quilt.
Here the speaker’s tone seems to turn, the emotion almost overflowing. The speaker tells the mother how those quilts evoke so many painful and joyous occasions. The speaker lists many specific memories. The “list” form that the poem takes here is close to that of litany or prayer, a repeated word “into” contrasted by varying details— “spinach fields,” “cotton rows,” “tuberculosis wards,” etc. Notice, again, the wide variety of memories, each a mere fragment or scrap of a larger whole experience, each ranging in emotional impact.
After listing six or more disjointed memory fragments, here the speaker “ties them together” with this single line, the way the mother would sew together individual fabric scraps into a quilt with such careful threading it could withstand the “thrashings of twenty-five years.” This is the first time that the speaker gives the reader a sense of how much time has passed between those childhood memories and the present. By taking so much time to describe the process of quilt-making throughout the poem, perhaps the speaker is emphasizing how even the weakest shred of clothes, if woven carefully by skilled hands, can help create a complete and lasting whole quilt.
Here the perspective changes, the speaker seeming to “pan the camera back” until the reader can see several quilts laid out. Listing several adjectives in order to describe them, the speaker uses words normally reserved to describe people—in this way, the quilts are charged with life, making them “ready” for whatever bad might happen, making them celebrate the good. As each smaller patch of the quilt might tell its own story, the entire cover seems to be “shouting” with so many voices talking at once. Note the odd slashes between words, the punctuation itself perhaps reminding the reader of cross-stitching.
In these last lines, the reader learns what’s holding all these scattered memories and fabric scraps together: love. Much like the speaker of the poem describing the mother’s careful craft throughout in order to lift her from the mundane “hobbyist” to the powerful and wide-ranging force of a river current or army general, by the end of the poem, the quilts themselves “sing on” in their chorus of voices and experiences.