American Life in Poetry: Column 228

I don’t often mention literary forms, but of this lovely poem

by Cecilia Woloch I want to suggest that the form, a

villanelle, which uses a pattern of repetition, adds to the

enchantment I feel in reading it. It has a kind of layering,

like memory itself. Woloch lives and teaches in southern




My Mother’s Pillow


My mother sleeps with the Bible open on her pillow;

she reads herself to sleep and wakens startled.

She listens for her heart: each breath is shallow.


For years her hands were quick with thread and needle.

She used to sew all night when we were little;

now she sleeps with the Bible on her pillow


and believes that Jesus understands her sorrow:

her children grown, their father frail and brittle;

she stitches in her heart, her breathing shallow.


Once she “even slept fast,” rushed tomorrow,

mornings full of sunlight, sons and daughters.

Now she sleeps alone with the Bible on her pillow


and wakes alone and feels the house is hollow,

though my father in his blue room stirs and mutters;

she listens to him breathe: each breath is shallow.


I flutter down the darkened hallway, shadow

between their dreams, my mother and my father,

asleep in rooms I pass, my breathing shallow.

I leave the Bible open on her pillow.



American Life in Poetry is made possible by The Poetry

Foundation (, publisher of Poetry

magazine. It is also supported by the Department of English at

the University of Nebraska, Lincoln. Poem copyright ©2003 by

Cecilia Woloch, whose most recent book of poetry is “Narcissus,”

Tupelo Press, 2008. Reprinted from “Late,” by Cecilia Woloch,

published by BOA Editions, Rochester, NY, 2003, by permission

of Cecilia Woloch. Introduction copyright ©2009 by The Poetry

Foundation.  The introduction’s author, Ted Kooser, served as

United States Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library

of Congress from 2004-2006. We do not accept unsolicited