Click on the pictures to see enlarged versions of the images.

Sunday, July 31, 2011

To My Friends

(Birch Trees in Autumn, woodcut by Carl Thiemann,
1881-1966, German artist)

“Life is to be fortified by many friendships. To love and to be loved, is the greatest happiness of existence. I could and would not live if I were alone upon the earth, and cut off from the remembrance of my fellow-creatures. It is not that a man has occasion often to fall back upon the kindness of his friends; perhaps he may never experience the necessity of doing so; but they stand there as a solid and impregnable bulwark against all the evils of life.”

~ Sidney Smith (1771-1845), English essayist


Dear friends, and here I say friends
In the broad sense of the word:
Wife, sister, associates, relatives,
Schoolmates of both sexes,
People seen only once
Or frequented all my life;
Provided that between us, for at least a moment,
A line has been stretched,
A well-defined bond.

I speak for you, companions of a crowded
Road, not without its difficulties,
And for you too, who have lost
Soul, courage, the desire to live;
Or no one, or someone, or perhaps only one person, or you
Who are reading me: remember the time
Before the wax hardened,
When everyone was like a seal.
Each of us bears the imprint
Of a friend met along the way;
In each the trace of each.
For good or evil
In wisdom or in folly
Everyone stamped by everyone.

Now that the time crowds in
And the undertakings are finished,
To all of you the humble wish
That autumn will be long and mild.

~ Primo Levi (1919-1987), Italian chemist and writer and poet, whose many works, especially If This Is a Man, his memoir of his year at Auschwitz, examined man’s struggles to maintain his humanity in the face of great evil

Saturday, July 30, 2011


(On the Beach at Trouville, Normandy by Claude Monet,
1840-1926, French Impressionist painter)

And nothing is lost.


’Tis better to sit here beside the sea,
Here, on the spray-kissed beach,
In silence, that between such friends as we
Is full of deepest speech.

~ Paul Laurence Dunbar (1872-1906), American poet and novelist

Friday, July 29, 2011


(Red Roofs, Corner of the Village, Winter Effect by Camille
Pissarro, 1830-1903, West Indies-born French Impressionist

“Happiness is an activity,” Aristotle tells us in Nicomachean Ethics. “Happiness lies in living and being active, and the good man’s activity is virtuous and pleasant in itself.”

For the good man alone, on his own, life would be difficult. Joined by others, however, he will find his activity to be more continuous and pleasant. “A certain training in virtue also arises from the company of the good. . . . If we look deeper into the nature of things, a virtuous friend seems to be naturally desirable for a virtuous man.”

Happiness requires true friendship.


So early it’s still almost dark out.
I’m near the window with coffee,
and the usual early morning stuff
that passes for thought.

When I see the boy and his friend
walking up the road
to deliver the newspaper.

They wear caps and sweaters,
and one boy has a bag over his shoulder.
They are so happy
they aren’t saying anything, these boys.

I think if they could, they would take
each other’s arm.
It’s early in the morning,
and they are doing this thing together.

They come on, slowly.
The sky is taking on light,
though the moon still hangs pale over the water.

Such beauty that for a minute
death and ambition, even love,
doesn’t enter into this.

Happiness. It comes on
unexpectedly. And goes beyond, really,
any early morning talk about it.

~ Raymond Carver (1938-1998), American short story writer and poet

Thursday, July 28, 2011

The Pleasures of Friendship

(A Path near Sidmouth, watercolor by Beatrix Potter,
1866-1943, English writer, illustrator, sheep breeder,
and conservationist, and creator of Peter Rabbit, among
many others)


The pleasures of friendship are exquisite,
How pleasant to go to a friend on a visit!
I go to my friend, we walk on the grass,
And the hours and moments like minutes pass.

~ Stevie Smith (1902-1971), English novelist and poet

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Friendship — It Is the Awaited Hour

(Study for The Muses by Brice Marden, born 1938, American artist)

The poet is contemplating the unseen power of friendship.


It is the awaited hour
over the table falls
the lamp’s spread hair
Night turns the window to immensity
There is no one here
presence without name surrounds me

~ Octavio Paz (1914-1998), Mexican writer and poet, and winner of the 1990 Nobel Prize in Literature

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

A Time to Talk

(This Joyous World, woodblock print by Frances
Gearhart, 1869-1958, American artist)

“For friendship, in one way or another, penetrates into the lives of us all . . . We should see this most clearly, if it were possible that some god should carry us away from these haunts of men, and place us somewhere in perfect solitude, and then should supply us in abundance with everything necessary to our nature, and yet take from us entirely the opportunity of looking upon a human being. Who could steel himself to endure such a life? Who would not lose in his loneliness the zest for all pleasures?

“And indeed this is the point of the observation of, I think, Archytas of Tarentum. I have it third hand; men who were my seniors told me that their seniors had told them. It was this: ‘If a man could ascend to heaven and get a clear view of the natural order of the universe, and the beauty of the heavenly bodies, that wonderful spectacle would give him small pleasure, though nothing could be conceived more delightful if he had but had some one to whom to tell what he had seen.’

“So true it is that Nature abhors isolation, and ever leans upon something as a stay and support; and this is found in its most pleasing form in our closest friend.”

~ Cicero (106-43 B. C.), Roman philosopher, lawyer, and statesman; from
On Friendship, or Laelius


When a friend calls to me from the road
And slows his horse to a meaning walk,
I don’t stand still and look around
On all the hills I haven’t hoed,
And shout from where I am, What is it?
No, not as there is a time to talk.
I thrust my hoe in the mellow ground,
Blade-end up and five feet tall,
And plod: I go up to the stone wall
For a friendly visit.

~ Robert Frost (1874-1963), American poet

Monday, July 25, 2011

Sitting at Night

(Still Life with Apples by Paul Cézanne, 1839-1906, French
Post-Impressionist painter)

“‘Stay’ is a charming word in a friend’s vocabulary.” ~ Amos Bronson Alcott, father of Louisa May Alcott, the writer of Little Women


A quiet valley with no man’s footprints,
An empty garden lit by the moon.
Suddenly my dog barks and I know
A friend with a bottle is knocking at the gate.

~ Ŏm Ŭi-Gil, seventeenth-century Korean poet

Sunday, July 24, 2011

The Unseen Playmate

(Anne Frank at her desk at home, just before
she and her family went into hiding)

Children have their reasons for creating an imaginary friend.

The excerpt below is an entry from the diary of Anne Frank (1929-1945). It is dated June 20, 1942, sixteen days before she and her family went into hiding to avoid the Nazi roundups of Jews in Holland. On August 4, 1944, they and four other Jews who had joined them in the “secret annex” of an office building in Amsterdam were discovered and then deported to death camps in the East. Only her father survived.

“I don’t intend to show this cardboard-covered notebook, bearing the proud name of ‘diary,’ to anyone, unless I find a real friend, boy or girl, probably no one cares. And now I come to the root of the matter, the reason for my starting a diary. I have no such real friend.

“Let me put it more clearly, since no one will believe that a girl of thirteen feels herself quite alone in the world, nor is it so. I have darling parents and a sister of sixteen. I know about thirty people whom one might call friends — I have strings of boy friends, anxious to catch a glimpse of me and who, failing that, peep at me through mirrors in class. I have relations, aunts and uncles, who are darlings too, a good home, no — I don’t seem to lack anything. But it’s the same with all my friends, just fun and joking, nothing more. I can never bring myself to talk of anything outside the common round. We don’t even seem to be able to get any closer, that is the root of the trouble. Perhaps I lack confidence, but anyway, there it is, a stubborn fact and I don’t seem to be able to do anything about it.

“Hence, this diary. In order to enhance in my mind’s eye the picture of the friend for whom I have waited for so long, I don’t want to set down a series of bald facts in a diary like more people do, but I want this diary itself to be my friend, and I shall call my friend Kitty.”


When children are playing alone on the green,
In comes the playmate that never was seen.
When children are happy and lonely and good,
The Friend of the Children comes out of the wood.

Nobody heard him, and nobody saw,
His is a picture you never could draw,
But he’s sure to be present, abroad or at home,
When children are happy and playing alone.

He lies in the laurels, he runs on the grass,
He sings when you tinkle the musical glass;
Whene’er you are happy and cannot tell why,
The Friend of the Children is sure to be by!

He loves to be little, he hates to be big,
’Tis he that inhabits the caves that you dig;
’Tis he when you play with your soldiers of tin
That sides with the Frenchmen and never can win.

’Tis he, when at night you go off to your bed,
Bids you go to sleep and not trouble your head;
For wherever they’re lying, in cupboard or shelf,
’Tis he will take care of your playthings himself!

~ Robert Louis Stevenson (1850-1894), Scottish poet, novelist, and travel writer; from A Child’s Garden of Verses

Saturday, July 23, 2011


(A quilt by Minnie Sue Coleman, of Gee’s Bend,

“Now we can begin to see the profundity of Aristotle’s notion of full friendship . . . [as a] relationship of mutual good will that is based upon the virtue, or true goodness, of two persons. It is based upon virtue because this kind of relationship can only begin when virtue or goodness is already present. It is also based on virtue inasmuch as virtue or goodness is the main thing that is willed, desired, and sought in the relationship. What does a true friend want most of all — the virtue of the friend: that it be, and increase! This fits with the insight above that a friend wants what is best for his or her friend. . . . [V]irtue is always what is best for a person, period.”

~ John Cuddeback, from
True Friendship: Where Virtue Becomes Happiness


The ancients argued that friendship could never last.
A few old friends, we walk on the mountain’s milder slopes,
Discussing their reasons. The wind lifts our coats.
An hour passes, and we find we are shaking our staffs,
We are out of breath. We must have been quarrelling!
Some prophecies, if you listen to them, come true.
Quickly we drop the topic, open the picnic baskets,
And pour the wine. How sad it would be to drink alone!
Someone recites a poem on the sorrow of separation.
It seems the famous sages were not unfailingly right.

~ Tao Tschung Yu, eighteenth-century Chinese poet

Friday, July 22, 2011

Us Two

(Children, wood engraving by Gwen Raverat,
1885-1957, English artist)

“As the virtuous man is to himself, he is to his friend also, for his friend is another self,” says Aristotle (384-322 B. C.) in Nicomachean Ethics.

In a true friendship — and this is where its beauty lies — you look on your friend as part of the “we of me,” to use Carson McCullers’ words. This occurs even between the young. You can hear that in the conversation between Christopher Robin and his friend, the teddy bear Winnie the Pooh.


Wherever I am, there’s always Pooh,
There’s always Pooh and Me.
Whatever I do, he wants to do,
“Where are you going today?” says Pooh:
“Well, that’s very odd ’cos I was too.
Let’s go together,” says Pooh, says he.
“Let’s go together,” says Pooh.

“What’s twice eleven?” I said to Pooh.
(“Twice what?” said Pooh to Me.)
“I think it ought to be twenty-two.”
“Just what I think myself,” said Pooh.
“It wasn’t an easy sum to do,
But that’s what it is,” said Pooh, said he.
“That’s what it is,” said Pooh.

“Let’s look for dragons,” I said to Pooh.
“Yes, let’s,” said Pooh to Me.
We crossed the river and found a few —
“Yes, those are dragons all right,” said Pooh.
“As soon as I saw their beaks I knew.
That’s what they are,” said Pooh, said he.
“That’s what they are,” said Pooh.

“Let’s frighten the dragons,” I said to Pooh.
“That’s right,” said Pooh to Me.
“I’m not afraid,” I said to Pooh,
And I held his paw and I shouted “Shoo!
Silly old dragons!” — and off they flew.
“I wasn’t afraid,” said Pooh, said he,
“I’m never afraid with you.”

So wherever I am, there’s always Pooh,
There’s always Pooh and Me.
“What would I do?” I said to Pooh,
“If it wasn’t for you,” and Pooh said: “True,
It isn’t much fun for One, but Two
Can stick together,” says Pooh, says he.
“That’s how it is,” says Pooh.

~ A. A. Milne (1882-1956), English poet and writer and father of Christopher Robin; from Now We Are Six

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Inviting Guests

(Jardin du Luxembourg, Paris, 1925, by André Kertész,
1894-1985, Hungarian-born photographer)

“True friends want good conversations and will help one another and draw one another into good conversations. Friends will benefit from the insights of one another, as they constantly share the fruits of their personal meditation and contemplation. And in fact, some truths will be discovered in conversation which each friend would never have discovered separately. There is something irreplaceable about two minds working together, in a context of mutual affection and trust, to uncover the deepest truths.”

~ John Cuddeback, from
True Friendship: Where Virtue Becomes Happiness


I sent out invitations
To summon guests.
I collected together
All my friends.
Loud talk
And simple feasting:
Discussion of philosophy,
Investigation of subtleties.
Tongues loosened
And minds at one.
Hearts refreshed
By discharge of emotion!

~ Ch’eng-Kung Sui, third-century Chinese poet

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

The Arrow and the Song

(Untitled fabric-work by Louise Bourgeois, 1911-2010,
French-born American sculptor and artist, known as
The Spider Woman for her large spider structures and
web-like images)

Any study of friendship must include Charlotte’s Web, the classic tale of the life-and-death drama that unfolds in a barn on the Arable farm. The struggle to rescue Wilbur the Pig involves humans like Fern, the farmer’s little daughter, who wants “to rid the world of injustice.” She is joined by animals like Templeton the rat, who is often out only for himself, and other assorted residents of the farmyard, including the sheep and the geese. The heroine is Charlotte A. Cavatica, a spider who goes into battle with only her wit and a finely woven web.

The book ends with three sentences that form one of the finest tributes bestowed on a friend.

“Mr. Zuckerman took fine care of Wilbur all the rest of his days, and the pig was often visited by friends and admirers, for nobody ever forgot the year of his triumph and the miracle of the web. Life in the barn was very good — night and day, winter and summer, spring and fall, dull days and bright days. It was the best place to be, thought Wilbur, this warm delicious cellar, with the garrulous geese, the changing seasons, the heat of the sun, the passage of swallows, the nearness of rats, the sameness of sheep, the love of spiders, the smell of manure, and the glory of everything.

“Wilbur never forgot Charlotte. Although he loved her children and grandchildren dearly, none of the new spiders ever quite took her place in his heart.

“She was in a class by herself. It is not often that someone comes along who is a true friend and a good writer. Charlotte was both.”

~ E. B. White (1899-1985), American novelist and writer, and co-author, with William Strunk, Jr., of the best guide to writing good prose, The Elements of Style


I shot an arrow into the air,
It fell to earth, I knew not where;
For, so swiftly it flew, the sight
Could not follow it in its flight.

I breathed a song into the air,
It fell to earth, I knew not where;
For who has sight so keen and strong,
That it can follow the flight of song?

Long, long afterward, in an oak
I found the arrow, still unbroke;
And the song, from beginning to end,
I found again in the heart of a friend.

~ Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (1807-1882), American poet

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Nature Notes: Dandelions

(Tares, woodblock print by Gustave Baumann, 1881-1971,
German-born American artist and puppeteer)

Friendship, that “luminous, tranquil, rational world of relationships freely chosen,” is a gift.

“I have no duty,” writes C. S. Lewis in
The Four Loves, “to be anyone’s Friend and no man in the world has a duty to be mine. No claims, no shadows of necessity. Friendship is unnecessary, like philosophy, like art, like the universe itself (for God did not need to create). It has no survival value; rather it is one of those things which give value to survival.”


Incorrigible, brash,
They brightened the cinder path of my childhood.
Unsubtle, the opposite of primroses,
But, unlike primroses, capable
Of growing anywhere, railway track, pierhead,
Like our extrovert friends who never
Make us fall in love, yet fill
The primroseless roseless gaps.

~ Louis MacNeice (1907-1963), Irish poet

Monday, July 18, 2011

Friendship — If You’re Ever in a Jam

(Two Balls by Jasper Johns, born 1930, American

They're not just fair-weather friends.


He: If you’re ever in a jam, here I am.
She: If you ever need a pal, I’m your gal.
He: If you ever feel so happy, you land in jail,
I’m your bail.

Both: It’s friendship, friendship,
Just a perfect blendship.
When other friendships have been forgot,
Ours will be still be hot.

She: If you ever lose your way, come to May.
He: If you ever make a flop, call for Pop.
She: If you ever take a boat and get lost at sea,
Write to me.

Both: It’s friendship, friendship,
Just a perfect blendship.
When other friendships have been forgit,
Ours will still be it.

He: If you’re ever down a well, ring my bell.
She: If you ever catch on fire, send a wire.
He: If you ever lose your teeth, and you’re out to dine,
Borrow mine.

Both: It’s friendship, friendship,
Just a perfect blendship.
When other friendships have ceased to jell,
Ours will still be swell.

She: If they ever black your eyes, put me wise.
He: If they ever cook your goose, turn me loose.
She: If they ever put a bullet through your brain,
I’ll complain.

Both: It’s friendship, friendship,
Just a perfect blendship.
When other friendships go up in smoke,
Ours will still be oke.

He: If you ever lose your mind, I’ll be kind.
She: And if you ever lose your shirt, I’ll be hurt.
He: If you’re ever in a mill and get sawed in half,
I won’t laugh.

Both: It’s friendship, friendship,
Just a perfect blendship.
When other friendships have been forgate,
Ours will still be great.

~ Cole Porter (1891-1964), American composer and lyricist, from the musical Du Barry Was a Lady

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Auld Lang Syne

(Nocturne in Gray and Gold: Westminster Bridge by
James McNeill Whistler, 1834-1903, American artist)

This wistful verse by Robert Burns is one of the best known poems about friendship. People all over the world sing it for “auld lang syne,” as the Scots say, for old time’s sake, at midnight every New Year’s Eve. The tune is a traditional melody.


Should auld acquaintance be forgot,
and never brought to mind?
Should auld acquaintance be forgot,
and days o’ auld lang syne ?

For auld lang syne, my dear,
for auld lang syne,
we'll take a cup o’ kindness yet,
for auld lang syne.

~ Robert Burns (1759-1796), Scottish poet

Saturday, July 16, 2011

Come the Wild, Wild Weather

(Yellow Rose by Pierre-Joseph Redouté,
1759-1840, French botanist and watercolorist)

In the language of flowers, the yellow rose represents friendship.


Time may hold in store for us
Glory or defeat,
Maybe never more for us
Life will seem so sweet.
Time will change so many things,
Tides will ebb and flow,
But wherever fate may lead us
Always shall we know —

Come the wild, wild weather,
Come the wind and the rain,
Come the little joy, come the pain,
We shall still be together
When our life’s journey ends,
For wherever we chance to go
We shall always be friends.

We may find while we’re traveling through the years
Moments of joy and love and happiness,
Reason for grief, reason for tears.
Come the wild, wild weather,
If we’ve lost or we’ve won,
We’ll remember these words we say
Till our story is done.

~ Noël Coward (1899-1973), English composer, playwright, actor, and singer; the lyrics of a song in his play Waiting in the Wings

Friday, July 15, 2011

Nature Assigns the Sun

(Blue Star by Joan Miró, 1893-1983,
Spanish painter, ceramist, and sculptor)

“A wish for friendship may arise quickly,” says Aristotle in Nicomachean Ethics, “but friendship does not.”

You cannot plan or design a friendship.

Nature assigns the Sun —
That — is Astronomy —
Nature cannot enact a Friend —
That — is Astrology

~ Emily Dickinson (1830-1886), American poet

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Friendship — Such Love I Cannot Analyze

(Summer Evening on Skagen’s Southern Beach, 1893
by P. S. Krøyer, 1851-1909, Norwegian-Danish painter)

Yesterday, we finished our study of Storge, or family affection. As we continue to look at love, we go on to Philia, or friendship.


Such love I cannot analyze;
It does not rest in lips or eyes,
Neither in kisses nor caress.
Partly, I know, it’s gentleness

And understanding in one word
Or in brief letters. It’s preserved
By trust and by respect and awe.
These are the words I’m feeling for.

Two people, yes, two lasting friends.
The giving comes, the taking ends.
There is no measure for such things.
For this all Nature slows and sings.

~ Elizabeth Jennings (1926-2001), English poet and librarian

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Mother in a Refugee Camp

(Mother and Child by Henry Moore, 1898-1996,
English sculptor and artist)

In 1967, the south-eastern part of Nigeria tried to break away from the federal government to form the Republic of Biafra. In the brutal civil war that followed, the Nigerian government imposed a blockade around Biafra, and many hundreds of thousands of civilians died of starvation and disease. The secession ended three years later, in 1970, when Nigeria retook control over the rebel area.

Chinua Achebe, a Nigerian poet and novelist, wrote this poem during the hostilities.


No Madonna and Child could touch
Her tenderness for a son
She soon would have to forget. . . .
The air was heavy with odors of diarrhea,
Of unwashed children with washed-out ribs
And dried-up bottoms waddling in labored steps
Behind blown-empty bellies. Other mothers there
Had long ceased to care, but not this one:
She held a ghost-smile between her teeth,
And in her eyes the memory
Of a mother’s pride. . . . She had bathed him
And rubbed him down with bare palms.
She took from their bundle of possessions
A broken comb and combed
The rust-colored hair left on his skull
And then — humming in her eyes — began carefully to part it.
In their former life this was perhaps
A little daily act of no consequence
Before his breakfast and school; now she did it
Like putting flowers on a tiny grave.

~ Chinua Achebe, born 1930, Nigerian poet, novelist, and critic

Tuesday, July 12, 2011


(Celtic crosses in a graveyard)

The lessons about life you learn in the family often take place in unremarkable moments. In his eight elegiac sonnets about his mother, the poet Seamus Heaney recalls how she taught him how to listen.


In memoriam M. K. H., 1911-1984


When all the others were away at Mass
I was all hers as we peeled potatoes,
They broke the silence, let fall one by one
Like solder weeping off the soldering iron.

Her lessons helped him heed the sounds as he stood by his mother’s deathbed.


In the last minutes he said more to her
Almost than in all their life together.
“You’ll be in New Row on Monday night
And I’ll come up for you and you’ll be glad
When I walk in the door . . . Isn’t that right?”
His head was bent down to her propped up head.
She could not hear but we were overjoyed
He called her good and girl. Then she was dead,
The searching for a pulsebeat was abandoned
And we all knew one thing by being there.
The space we stood around had been emptied
Into us to keep, it penetrated
Clearances that suddenly stood open.
High cries were felled and a pure change happened.


I thought of walking round and round a space
Utterly empty, utterly a source
Where the decked chestnut tree had lost its place
In our front hedge above the wallflowers.
The white chips jumped and jumped and skited high.
I heard the hatchet’s differentiated
Accurate cut, the crack, the sigh
And collapse of what luxuriated
Through the shocked tips and wreckage of it all.
Deep-planted and long gone, by coeval
Chestnut from a jam jar in a hole,
Its heft and hush become a bright nowhere,
A soul ramifying and forever
Silent, beyond silence listened for.

~ Seamus Heaney, born 1939, Irish poet and translator, and winner of the 1995 Nobel Prize in Literature

Monday, July 11, 2011

On My First Son

(Untitled, photograph by Vivian Maier, 1926-2009,
American photographer, from a collection of tens of
thousands of photographs she took on the streets of
mid-century Chicago; her work was discovered when
a real estate agent found the negatives in 2007 at an
auction of boxes abandoned in storage lockers)

Ben Jonson wrote this elegy on the death of his eldest son, seven-year-old Benjamin.


Farewell, though child of my right hand, and joy;
My sin was too much hope of thee, lov’d boy;
Seven years thou wert lent to me, and I thee pay,
Exacted by thy fate, on the just day.
O, could I lose all father now! For why
Will lament the state he should envy?
To have so soon ’scaped world’s and flesh’s rage,
And, if no other misery, yet age!
Rest in soft peace, and, asked, say, Here doth lie
Ben Johnson his best piece of poetry,
For whose sake, henceforth all his vows be such,
As what he loves may never like too much.

~ Ben Jonson (1572-1537), playwright and poet of the English Renaissance

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Room for My Father’s Ghost

(White Pine by A. J. Casson, 1898-1992, Canadian artist)

Grief takes its own way in finding comfort.


Now is my father
A traveler, like all the bold men
He talked of, endlessly
And with boundless admiration,
Over the supper table,
Or gazing up from his white pillow —
Book on his lap always, until
Even that grew too heavy to hold.

Now is my father free of all binding fevers.
Now is my father
Traveling where there is no road.

Finally, he could not lift a hand
To cover his eyes.
Now he climbs to the eye of the river,
He strides through the Dakotas,
He disappears into the mountains.
And though he looks
Cold and hungry as any man
At the end of a questing season,

He is one of them now.
He cannot be stopped.

Now is my father
Walking in the wind,
Sniffing the deep Pacific
That begins at the end of the world.

Vanished from us utterly,
Now is my father circling the deepest forest —
Then turning in to the last red campfire burning
In the final hills,

Where chieftains, warriors and heroes
Rise and make him welcome,
Recognizing, under the shambles of his body,
A brother who has walked his thousand miles.

~ Mary Oliver, born 1935, American poet

Saturday, July 9, 2011

Talking to Grief

(Mourning Parents by Käthe Kolwitz, 1867-1945, German sculptor, printmaker, and painter)

Love includes grief. A family must be prepared.


Ah, Grief, I should not treat you
like a homeless dog
who comes to the back door
for a crust, for a meatless bone.
I should trust you.

I should cast you
into the house and give you
your own corner,
a worn mat to lie on,
your own water dish.

You think I don’t know you’ve been living
under my porch.
You long for your real place to be readied
before winter comes. You need
your name,
your collar and tag. You need
the right to warn off intruders,
to consider
my house as your own
and me your person
and yourself
my own dog.

~ Denise Levertov (1923-1977), English-born American poet

Friday, July 8, 2011

Photograph of a Gathering of People Waving

(Market Day by Abner Dubic, born 1948, Haitian artist)

With a family, you’re not alone.

“The arrival of Mma Ramotswe and Mma Makutsi at Mokolodi Game Reserve would normally be an occasion for the barking of dogs and for laughter and the shaking of hands. Mma Ramotswe was known here — her father’s brother, her senior uncle, was also the uncle (by a second marriage) to the workshop supervisor. And if that were not enough, Mr. J. L. B. Matekoni’s cousin’s daughter worked in the kitchen at the restaurant. So it was in Botswana, almost everywhere; ties of kinship, no matter how attenuated by distance or time, linked one person to another, weaving across the country a human blanket of human love and community. And in the fibers of that blanket there were threads of obligation that meant that one could not ignore the claims of others. Nobody should starve; nobody should feel that they were outsiders; nobody should be alone in their sadness.”

~ Alexander McCall Smith,
Blue Shoes and Happiness, one book in the wonderful mystery series about the No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency, operated by the wise and kind Mma Ramotswe, she of “traditional build”


(based on an old photograph bought in a shop at Half Moon Bay, summer, 1999)

No sound, the whole thing.
Unknown folk. People waving from a hillside of ripple grass
to people below in an ongoing meadow.

Side rows of trees waving in a tide of wind,
and because what is moving is not moving,
you catch a state of stasis.

Opposite of this inactivity
you imagine distant music and buzzing and crickets
and that special hot smell of summer.

To the garden past the Bay to the meadow,
cliff sheltered with low clouds, offset by nodding thistle.
Tatter-wort and Stinking Tommy along footpath
worn down by locals. But who and why?

In the photograph itself you’re now looking the other way
to unknown clusters of houses,
Where forces are balanced to near perfection.

Who could live
in such a great swollen silence and solitude?
You hear church bells
from Our Lady’s Tears breaking that silence nicely
but just in the right way so silence continues
as though nothing else matters day after day.

And anyway, each face seems so familiar.

What do you do when you wave back?
You wave vigorously.
You remember your own meadow,
your cliffside and town,
photographs forgotten,
the halfhearted motion of your hand,
your grandmother’s church-folk
gathering on a Sunday afternoon in saintly quietness.

You name the people
whose names are not written on the back.
You forgive them for wrapping themselves in silence.

You enter house after house and open top-floor windows
and you wave down to future generations like this.

~ Clarence Major, born 1936, American poet and novelist, and editor of Juba to Jive: A Dictionary of African-American Slang

Thursday, July 7, 2011

My Grandmother’s Love Letters

(Moonlight, watercolor by Winslow Homer, 1836-1910,
American artist)

Memories in the family can be fragile. Explore them carefully, says the poet.


There are no stars tonight
But those of memory.
Yet how much room for memory there is
In the loose girdle of soft rain.

There is even room enough
For the letters of my mother’s mother,
That have been pressed so long
Into a corner of the roof
That they are brown and soft,
And liable to melt as snow.

Over the greatness of such space
Steps must be gentle.
It is all hung by an invisible white hair.
It trembles as birch limbs webbing the air.

And I ask myself:

“Are your fingers long enough to play
Old keys that are but echoes:
Is the silence strong enough
To carry back the music to its source
And back to you again
As though to her?”

Yet I would lead my grandmother by the hand
Through much of what she would not understand;
And so I stumble. And the rain continues on the roof
With such a sound of gently pitying laughter.

~ Hart Crane (1899-1932), American poet

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

My Grandfather, Dead Long Before I Was Born

(Untitled, photograph by Vivian Maier, 1926-2009,
American photographer, from a collection of tens of
thousands of photographs she took on the streets of
mid-century Chicago; her work was discovered when
a real estate agent found the negatives in 2007 at an
auction of boxes abandoned in storage lockers)

We don’t lose our family connections.


My grandfather, dead long before I was born,
died among strangers; and all the verse he wrote
was lost —
except for what
still speaks through me
as mine.

~ Charles Reznikoff (1894-1976), American poet

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

In Praise of My Sister

(Two Sisters on the Terrace by Pierre-Auguste
Renoir, 1841-1919, French Impressionist painter)

“Children of the same family, the same blood, with the same first associations and habits, have some means of enjoyment in their power, which no subsequent connections can supply.” ~ Jane Austen, Manchester Park


My sister doesn’t write poems
and it’s unlikely that she’ll suddenly start writing poems.
She takes after her mother, who didn’t write poems,
and also her father, who likewise didn’t write poems.
I feel safe beneath my sister’s roof:
my sister’s husband would rather die than write poems.
And, even though this is starting to sound as repetitive as Peter Piper,
the truth is, none of my relatives write poems.

My sister’s desk drawers don’t hold old poems,
and her handbag doesn’t hold new ones.
When my sister asks me over for lunch,
I know she doesn’t want to read me her poems.
Her soups are delicious without ulterior motives.
Her coffee doesn’t spill on manuscripts.

There are many families in which nobody writes poems,
but once it starts up it’s hard to quarantine.
Sometimes poetry cascades down through the generations,
creating fatal whirlpools where family love may flounder.

My sister has tackled oral prose with some success,
but her entire written opus consists of postcards from
whose text is only the same promise every year:
when she comes back, she’ll have
so much
much to tell.

~ Wislawa Szymborska, born 1923, Polish poet and winner of the 1996 Nobel Prize in Literature

Monday, July 4, 2011


(Vincent, Five Years Old, Paris, 1945 by Willy
Ronis, 1910-2009, French photographer)

What can one say? Little brothers can be such pests.


I had a little brother
And I brought him to my mother
And I said I wanted another
Little brother for a change.
But she said don’t be a bother
So I took him to my father
And I said this little bother
Of a brother’s very strange.
But he said one little brother
Is exactly like another
And every little brother
Misbehaves a bit he said.
So I took the little bother
From my mother and my father
And I put the little bother
Of a brother back to bed.

~ Mary Ann Hoberman, born 1930, American poet

Sunday, July 3, 2011

The Holy Child’s Song

A favorite subject for artists has been the image of Mother and Child, with painters and sculptors creating countless variations on this theme.

One particular version, the Madonna and Child, depicting the young Mary and her child Jesus, is the most popular religious image in Christianity, surpassing even the Nativity and the Crucifixion.

The works of art below suggest the variety of artistic approaches to this subject across the centuries.

(Madonna and Child, two of at least thirty such paintings
by Raffaello Sanzio, known as Raphael, 1483-1520; with
Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo, one of the three
shining stars of the High Renaissance)

(Icon of the Enthroned Virgin, sixth century,
located at the Saint Catherine Monastery, Sinai,

(Madonna and Child, Western African
wood figure, nineteenth century, in the
collection of the Museum of Ethnology,
Hamburg, Germany)

(Virgin and Child by Henri Matisse, 1869-1954, French
sculptor, printmaker, and painter)

(Madonna and Child by Henry Moore,
1896-1986, one of half a dozen such
sculptures by the English sculptor and
artist; he also created several sculptures
of the image of Mother and Child)

(Madonna with a Flower by Leonardo
da Vinci, 1452-1519, Italian artist of the
High Renaissance; this most tender and
loving of images is my very favorite)


“And when My Mother, pretty as a church,
Takes Me upon her lap, I laugh with love,
Loving to live in her flesh, which is My house and full of light!
(Because the sky My Spirit enters in at all the windows)
O, then what songs and what incarnate joys
Dance in the brightest rays of My childish voice!

“In winter when the birds put down their flutes
And winds plays sharper than a fife upon the icy rain,
I sit in this crib,
And laugh like fire, and clap My golden hands:
To view my friends the timid beast —
Their great brown flanks, muzzles and milky breath!”

~ Thomas Merton (1915-1968), American Trappist monk, poet, and author of many essays and books

Saturday, July 2, 2011

Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child

(Red on Maroon, Mural Section 4, 1959 by Mark
Rothko, 1903-1970, American artist)

The lines below, from a well-known Negro Spiritual, capture the deepest cruelty of slavery in America. The singer cries out in mournful agony about life as an object, an alien, denied any home anywhere.

The metaphor of a fatherless child would not carry the same meaning. Mothers and fathers give us different gifts.


Sometimes I feel like a motherless child,
Sometimes I feel like a motherless child,
Sometimes I feel like a motherless child,
A long ways from home,
A long ways from home,
True believer,
A long ways from home,
A long ways from home.

Sometimes I feel like I’m almos’ gone,
Sometimes I feel like I’m almos’ gone,
Sometimes I feel like I’m almos’ gone,
Way up in the heav’nly land,
Way up in the heav’nly land,
True believer,
Way up in the heav’nly land,
Way up in the heav’nly land.

Sometimes I feel like a motherless child,
Sometimes I feel like a motherless child,
Sometimes I feel like a motherless child,
A long ways from home,
A long ways from home,
True believer,
There’s praying everywhere,
There’s praying everywhere.

~ American, traditional

To listen to a performance by the great Marian Anderson, go to this link (you may have to cut and paste):

Friday, July 1, 2011

Mother, Summer, I

(Mama by William Kurelek, 1927-1977, Canadian artist
and writer)

After considering a few more poems about storge, the affection within a family, we will spend the rest of July examining philia, or friendship.

Today’s poem is by a poet who usually stands at a distance from his subject. In this case, however, Philip Larkin writes with some tenderness as he thinks of the differences between his mother and him.

“Maternity is a sublime calling, and even though man’s ungrateful heart often forgets his mother’s sufferings to bring him into the world and her endless devotion in order to bring him up, it is well-known that when a man faces death on the battlefield, his last words are often directed to his mother. Dying soldiers scream, ‘Mother.’”

~ Alice von Hildebrand, writer and philosopher, born 1923 in Belgium, from
The Privilege of Being a Woman


My mother, who hates thunderstorms,
Holds up each summer day and shakes
It out suspiciously, lest swarms
Of grape-dark clouds are lurking there;
But when the August weather breaks
And rains begin, and brittle frost
Sharpens the bird-abandoned air,
Her worried summer look is lost.

And I her son, though summer-born
And summer-loving, none the less
Am easier when the leaves are gone;
Too often summer days appear
Emblems of perfect happiness
I can’t confront: I must await
A time less bold, less rich, less clear.
An autumn more appropriate.

~ Philip Larkin (1922-1985), English poet, novelist, and jazz critic