The narrator's mother becomes the child in her illness which has emaciated her body to look like a "childish skeleton." The son cares for the mother in every way: bathing her, carrying her, feeding her with a spoon. But this is caregiving with a twist--the mother is likened to a weakened enemy and the luck of caring for her is the luck of having finally gained power over an ancient enemy.

So although the physical acts of caring are done well--lowering her gently into a warm bath and soaping her withered body, sitting by her bed, feeding her ice cream--the thoughts behind such acts are less than pure. At one point, the son holds his wet mother in midair between bath and wheelchair until she begs him to put her down, an act which he recognizes as cruel and also an "ancient irresistible rejoicing / of power over weakness." The poem concludes on a more positive note--affirming the bond between mother and son and realizing that enemy or no, to feed someone ice cream is still an act of nurturing: "sweet is sweet in any language."


This is an outstanding and deeply unsettling poem. The burden of caring for an ill family member is usually thought of in terms of time, energy, disruption in the lives of the rest of the family, and financial costs. However, deep-seated emotions, both positive and negative, between parents and their adult children are sure to resurface as the parent becomes ill and dependent.

Fruitful comparisons can be made between this poem and Marvin's Room (play and film) by Scott McPherson (see annotation of the play). Poems in Sharon Olds's collection, The Father, express the bitterness, love, and search for love that characterized her relationship with her cold, dying father. For example, Beyond Harm and The Waiting consider the complexity of her father-daughter relationship. An interesting comparison is with The Pull--Olds feeds her father a spoonful of heavy cream at the end of that poem. (See this database for annotations of these works by Olds.)

Primary Source

Donkey Gospel



Place Published

St. Paul, Minn.