In an excerpt from his new collection of poetry and short stories, THE POETRY OF STRANGERS, Brian Sonia-Wallace writes about the weekend before Mother’s Day at Macy’s from a hired poet’s perspective, capturing complexities of the mother-child relationship as credit cards are swiped.
THE POETRY OF STRANGERS
from the chapter “The Story of Us”
I’m lost in Macy’s. It’s 2018 and I’m riding the elevator up and down between the boy’s section and home necessities, trying to find my place. Earlier that day I’d thrown my typewriter in the car to drive two hours north of LA, to where they’ve buried half of a suburban shopping mall underground in the Valley heat. My contact, Camilla, had told me, “Go to handbags and cosmetics on the second floor.” That’s where the poetry lives today.
It’s the weekend before Mother’s Day, and in the roped-off event area a striking young black man presides over a legion of pink champagne flutes. Two dour-looking señoras gossip in Spanish while they organize cosmetics, and, opposite them, a fresh-faced young woman has a faraway look next to a heap of pastel macarons capped with a miniature Eiffel tower.
The first thing Camilla says when I walk up with my typewriter case is, “So, do you need a power outlet?” She asks two more times if I need electricity, as I set up my typewriter on the glass table over a fuzzy pink rug in front of a framed stock photo of roses. Camilla is a short, businesslike woman in bright red lipstick. She proudly shows me the pink polaroid camera she’s brought from home to take pictures of everyone who gets a poem. Picture and poem both go in a card that says, “The Story of Us,” with an ornate flower border.
Only customers who have made a purchase in handbags or cosmetics are allowed to enter our roped-off area. They are led over by their sales reps to recline in a chair for a full facial (I assume—I don’t really know what a full facial is) and then take a stool to get their makeup done. From there, they’re presented with a pink champagne flute, filled with what I learn, to my disappointment, is just sparkling cider. But after their spa day treatment, they come to talk to me at the typewriter to have a poem written.
Almost everyone I speak with is an immigrant mom, a mix of Asian and Latina women with their American daughters, who range in age from six to forty-six. My poems play across English and Spanish, and I have to pause every few minutes to look up from my typewriter so I can double-check a word or an accent on my iPhone. The American dream of the suburban shopping mall is still alive, it seems, if only for recent immigrants relishing the decadence of American consumerism, bringing their kids to educate them in the native culture of this brave new world.
I write for an adorable six-year-old in a sequined watermelon backpack and her mother, very blond and very Mexican. I read them their poem, as Camilla watches covertly, and the mother dissolves into tears. The water streaks her fresh makeup. I feel guilty for ruining her professionally done face, but also sigh a little in relief —I will be invited back. Camilla asks the mother-daughter pair if she can take a photo, proof for the higher ups that at least one mom has been genuinely affected by this experience.
I can’t help but think of my mom, who didn’t even own makeup, waking me up early before she went to work to read to me in hushed tones, nestled on the couch. My Macy’s clients were doing the same thing with shopping, in a way, finding an excuse to be close to one another. They always say reading to your kid is a positive, but in my case, it backfired because I was so scared my mom would stop reading to me that I refused to learn to do it myself. How else was I going to know that she still cared? Finally they put me in remedial reading classes, at which point I rolled my bratty little kid eyes and read the entire Lord of the Rings trilogy in a summer, just to prove that I could.
My reverie is cut short when a woman and her elderly father come up to me. “It’ll be your gift for Mom,” the woman says to her dad, and asks for a poem for her mother, his wife. The man can only respond when his daughter prompts him. His wife is his caretaker, and from the narrative his daughter puts in his mouth for him to agree with, his wife is a saint. But then I ask the daughter about her memories of the woman, she opens up instantly. “I came to town at the beginning of the year and haven’t left,” she tells, me, exasperated. Her dad’s condition is worse than she thought, and her mom is always frustrated and shouting at him. She hadn’t meant to stay here, but she did. She had to. She has nothing nice to say about her mother this Mother’s Day. She can’t find a card that expresses her emotions. This is from her dad, not from her. “Don’t put any of this in the poem.”
That poem is a hard one to write:
The leaves fall from the trees
But the branches are still
We look out our window
and everything that came before
try to remember to celebrate
this is what care looks like—
Whose leaves can be green or yellow,
strong or fallen,
But whose branches carry
The weight of the sky
with such grace.
The old man nods and smiles, and I can’t tell if he’s understood what I said or if this is just his default reaction at this point. His daughter takes the poem and thanks me, her brain already whirring on to the next issue at hand, the next responsibility that she knew would fall to her.
Brian Sonia-Wallace’s books include The Poetry of Strangers (Harper Collins, 2020) and I sold these poems, now I want them back (Yak Press, 2016). His writing has been published in The Guardian and Rolling Stone, and he teaches creative writing through the UCLA Extension Writers’ Program and Get Lit-Words Ignite. He is the founder of RENT Poet, bringing poets on typewriters to events, and has been the Writer in Residence for Amtrak and the Mall of America. His favorite animal is the three-toed sloth. Learn more about Brian at briansoniawallace.com.