The Cataracts of my Grandmother

Somewhere beyond this kitchen and her old eyes
there lies, I think there lies
a country blindly hinted of.
with wise all-seeing hands
she grasps the damp, the give of dough;
the dint of knife that flays the noodles fine;
familiar felt demands
of a coal-burning stove.
If she fumbles: the match-box comes to her.
Peering past shadows she pursues her bee-line
from sink to stoop to cupboard. Show
me your cataracts, grandmother.

Somewhere past these dim walls and welling eyes
there lies, I think there lies
a land of precipices, deeps.
Her fingers grope: dry crumbs.
She feels beneath my dress to know
how thick a petticoat I wear against the chill.
She probes the flannel, plumbs
to flesh, and further keeps
a cracked palm pressing. I dare not stir.
Unspooling wrinkles thread me still.
Her lids glide by, thin quavers. Show
me your cataracts, grandmother.

Here, child, she soothes, offering the open jar:
biscuits, smooth round hard
flat stones haphazard to the brim,
thick as thirst, barely
sweet. Water, water! Let go
the gates! She pours me milk, a cup of foam
from cold high cragged air.
A rock big as a thimble
melts in my throat, mingles to purling
thaws. Floods wrench down, roar darkly home
to pools. O still my parching. Show
me your cataracts, grandmother.

Somewhere rise ridges crystalline, to fall ripe,
crumbling. And who will wipe
the weeping till lit stay, till hurt streams
knit? In sighs she speaks,
in splintered mists, glints, semitones.
I never felt a further stranger song.
Blow, words, and crack your cheeks.
Break wide the jaws of dreams.
Enrage the streets to rivers of pearl.
In mystery rope me along.
Loose me in copious abysses, show
me your cataracts, grandmother.

Somewhere behind blear webbing of her eyes,
an ancient ferment leaps, lies
white. A bun. A floury braid.
Hoary, bleaker than spray,
she hunts dry babble. Sluices flow
old-country cadence through cauls of years:
Of sisters three, two say,
one goes. Only one maid
to market. One lot we share, one skirt,
we sisters. O I beg you, back of the weave of tear:
the frayed worn onetime cover, show
me your cataracts, grandmother.





black and white close-up photograph of poet Norma Farber as a middle-aged woman.Norma Farber (1909-1984) was a classical singer, poet, and children’s book author. Among her most well-known books is As I Was Crossing Boston Common, with illustrations by Arthur Lobel, which was nominated for a National Book Award in 1975.


“The Cataracts of my Grandmother” was originally published in the Spring 1974 issue of The Literary Review, and is retrieved here as part of the Vigil for Mother’s Day 2022