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Ray Young Bear (1950- )

if i were to see 
her shape from a mile away
i'd know so quickly 
that it would be her.
the purple scarf
and the plastic
shopping bag.

if i felt
hands on my head
i'd know that those were her hands 
warm and damp
with the smell
of roots.

if i heard
a voice
coming from 
a rock
i'd know 
and her words
would flow inside me 
like the light
of someone
stirring ashes
from a sleeping fire
at night.

Notes and References:
stirring (v): moving slightly 

Grandmother, written by American- Indian poet Ray Young Bear, is a recollection of poet's profound love for his grandmother. The poet draws the unique picture of his grandmother - all loving and all inspiring- through the use of images. The poet figure out cultural identity of American Indian or Mesquaki people. Metaphorically, the poem ‘Grandmother’ has connection with Mesquaki tribe and the identity of the poet. The poet also reveals the socio-economic status of Mesquaki tribe which he belongs.

The poet expresses his attachment and intimacy with his grandmother. Though his grandmother is no more with him, her image with the purple scarf and the plastic shopping bag, her impression and behaviour take him to the past bygone days. The image, at present moment appears to be as vivid and afresh as earlier. He still loves her so much because she is all loving and inspiring. As the poet was closely associated with his grandmother, her image is evergreen and afresh in his mind. 

If the poet saw his grandmother from a far distance he would instantly recognise her because of her purple scarf around her neck and plastic shopping bag in her hand. If the grandmother touches his head, he would instantly know they belonged to his grandmother's because of its warmth and moist with smell of roots. This indicates poet’s poor financial situation that made his grandmother work in the field despite her old age. If the poet heard a voice coming from the rock, he would instantly recognise it to be of his grandmother as it would blow inside him like a light. The uttered words of his grandmother were all inspiring for him as they would activate his inner feeling creating the loving memory of his grandmother evergreen and very fresh.

The poet is successful in drawing the picture of his grandmother which is appealing to our senses. Deviating (going away) from usual grammatical rules and rules of the poetry, the poet has used small letters in the entire poem to draw the attention to the readers. The poet also reveals the socio-economic status of ‘Mesquaki’ tribe to which he belongs.

Metaphorically, the poem is Ray Young Bear’s attempt to reflect the vanishing native roots of the Native American tribes, specially the Mesquaki tribe. Metaphorically, ‘Grandmother’ is the representative of Mesquaki tribe and its culture's values and traditions. The rituals, culture and traditions of Native Americans are being overtaken by the white people and the natives have been marginalized. ‘The smell of roots’ refers to the vanishing ancestral (hereditary) culture and tradition lying dead in the grave. ‘A voice coming from the rock’ suggests that his grandmother has died now so her words are coming from the tombstone. Similarly, ‘sleeping fire’ refers to the vanishing Red Indian culture as well as poor financial condition of the poet in Mesquaki tribe. Overall, the poem gives a metaphorical expression of the painful awareness of the identity loss.

The poem in a sense deals with the images that appear to our different senses. For instance, the images of purple scarf plastic shopping bag, sleeping fire and night appeal to our sense of sight. The smell of roots refers to our sense of smell. Similarly, the voice coming from the rock and her words appeals to our sense of sound. ‘Warm and damp hands’ appeals to our sense of touch.  

Questions for Practice:

What are the four things that Ray Young Bear remembers about his grandmother?
What is the main idea of the poem?
What impression of grandmother does the speaker give in the poem 'Grandmother'?

What images do you find in this poem written by a member of the Sauk and Fox (Mesquaki) Indian tribe of North America? To what senses do these images appeal? 

Ans: The poet has used images to discover two intertwined themes - recollection of his grandmother at one level and search for identity at another level. The images like 'purple scarf', 'plastic shopping bag', 'the light ... at night ' appeal to our sense of sight. These images also have symbolic link to the Indian culture. 'Plastic shopping bag' indicates the poverty of Indian tribe. 'The light .... at night' associates that the spirituality of Indian culture guides him in the modern corrupt American society. The images like 'smell of root' appeal to our sense of smell. It indicates the work ethic of Indian tribe and his grandmother. They are near to nature and are good farmers. 'Warm and damp hands' appeal to our sense of touch. It also shows how his grandmother and Indian tribes work in fields with pleasure and sense of duty. ‘A voice' and 'her words' appeal to our sense of hearing. This indicates how the teachings and philosophy of Indian culture enlightens his spirits. Thus by the use of images, the poet has symbolically linked his grandmother to the lost culture of Indian tribe.


  1. What is the relevance of grammatical distortion in the poem “The Grandmother”?


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