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The sound of ringing hand bells and laughter.

Around a corner in the Rijksmuseum,

with as many twists as a licorice rope,

a tall woman stands in an apron and floppy hat.

Her hand points there.  A clutch of seated

children wearing gold paper crowns raise their bells.

Her foot points here and the ones in front ring away.

Next door, brother Theo’s collection of Vincent’s

late paintings are hung, each canvas striped with,

slashed with, swirled with paint, thick as ripe

and hairy sunflowers stalks in mid-August,

petals dripping sunshine, grotesque and grasping

pinwheels, scary to someone whose ears

still hum with chimes of innocence.


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Of Heaven and Earth



Beauty.  A Rhinoceros or an Italian painting from the Late Middle Ages and Renaissance?

I attended an exhibit of 500 years of Italian painting from Glasgow Museums at the Milwaukee Art Museum (MAM) last week.  It was a great romp through art history – who was influenced by whom and who were the influencers.  The images selected for the MAM website are the best ones, I think.

One of the centerpiece works in the exhibition is a painting of the Annunciation by Sandro Botticelli.  Mary’s expression is what interests me when I see paintings of The Annunciation.  How does she react when the Angel Gabriel appears to tell her she is about to be with child.  Therefore, I was especially fond of Botticelli’s version from Glasgow Museums, painted 1490-95.  Botticelli uses sparkling gold lines to symbolize the Holy Spirit piercing Mary, a symbol used by Medieval artists.  On the other hand, he is almost severe in the depiction of the interior arches and columns that separate Gabriel and Mary, exploring the early Renaissance of perspective drawing.

Botticelli painted other versions of the Annunciation.  One, from 1485, is in the Metropolitan Museum in New York City is similar to the Glasgow painting.

There is another Botticelli Annunciation in the Uffizi Gallery in Florence from 1489-90 that places Gabriel directly in front of Mary. Here, Botticelli emphasizes the use of perspective as the eye follows out the window to the countryside beyond.,_annunciazione_di_cestello_02.jpg

In all of the Botticelli versions, Mary looks serene and thoughtful, but in other artists’ hands she can look startled, shocked, disbelieving and even dismayed.  Or she can look most pleased and delighted.

Imagine a virgin rhino

Visited by an angel

Touched by the Holy Spirit

The pleasure spreading

Over the tough hide

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St. Petersburg, Russia

SPb:  St. Petersburg


The Russians and Germans at war, bombing

each other’s treasures:  palaces, churches,

town squares and bridges blown up and exposed

to the elements and looters.  Always,


this is the way of conflict.  And later,

people, the ones who survived, pick away

at the rubble for some small thing they might

recognize:  a photo or mother’s broach.


Our guide says the Germans destroyed Catherine’s

Palace.  But volunteers restored the rooms

and added the gold leaf, each stroke putting

distance against the memory of war.

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In Helsinki, Finland, I visited the Ateneum Art Museum where there was a special exhibit celebrating the 150th anniversary of the birth of Helen Schjerfbeck, an important Nordic artist.  The museum’s website has excellent information about the exhibit and the artist, but seeing the original works in the country of her birth was amazing.

Scandinavian women artists were very active in the 19th and early 20th centuries.  Americans mostly think of Mary Cassatt as one of the only female artists working at the time, but women like Schjerfbeck and the Danish artist Anna Archer, traveled in Scandinavia and Europe and lived and studied in Paris as well.  They produced bodies of work that uniquely drew upon their experiences as Nordic women. 

 On Viewing the Art of Helene Schjerfbeck in Helsinki


 Finland:  cold dark forests and reindeer.

Abstract music ascends from sea foam.

Dream works of glass and stone designed by

ripples of North wind that inspire,

absent sentiment.  Colors washed by

sun’s edges:  cool grey and sea-glass green.


Portraits :  the artist’s mother – focused

silent pose.  Without models to draw,

self-portraits record development,

influence of the region.  Her hand

draws the trees and their shadows at dusk.

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I am starting a series of poems that use heteronyms in the title.  Heteronyms are words that are spelled the same but are pronounced differently when the meaning changes.  For instance, tear.  A tear fell from my eye when I heard the fabric of my dress tear. 

Some words are homophones, like knight and night.  They sound the same but mean something different.  Heteronyms are more interesting because their pronunciation changes as well as their meaning.  Of course, this can pose a challenge for readers if the word is used in an ambiguous way such as in the title of a poem:   Tear is not a Simple Word

Last Saturday I was at the Art Institute of Chicago.  From small town to big city in three hours.  Just point your car toward the Southeast and soon enough, there is O’Hare International Airport – ORD – one of the largest in the country in terms of moving huge numbers of passengers and waylaying luggage (mine, April 2011). 

And then there’s that cluster of skyscrapers in the distance – John Hancock is my favorite.  I love the two antennas that stick up off its roof like they are signaling to space aliens.  By now my heart is really humming.  Then suddenly we are off the freeway and into a funky neighborhood heading East on Ohio toward Michigan Avenue and there is Millennium Park and, ta dah, the Art Institute of Chicago. 

Inside, I snagged a docent tour of Ab X art – abstract expressionists – starting with Jackson Pollock.  Toward the end of the tour the docent showed us Andy Warhol’s gigantic silkscreen print of Mao Zedong.  It’s fabulous.  There is Mao in his grey jacket emerging from great swatches of paint and he’s made up in drag with pink cheeks and blue eye shadow.  And it is huge.  No small life size portrait like Warhol’s multiple Marilyns.  Mao’s dimensions are 176 ½ inches by 136 ½ inches.  That’s over 14 feet tall.  Powerful.

When I got home, I asked my husband how he would pronounce MOW.  He said, mmm – ow, which rhymes with cow.  It could be pronounced mmm-o, like the word low (long o sound), as in, “Please mow the lawn.”  But we call our cat MOW when he’s being noisy and making those loud, demanding MOW sounds.  His name is Rio (rhymes with chee-o), which is a heteronym for the town of Rio, Wisconsin (long i sound like ri-ot).   

So for us, Mao and Mow are homophones, words that sound the same but with different meanings.  Sadly, however, not everyone recognizes the Mow that rhymes with cow.  There is a website called Rhymer at  When I entered Mow, all of the words that are listed rhyme with JELLO.

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The Three Perfections: Chinese Painting, Poetry and Calligraphy



Chinese paintings have writing on them.  Sometimes it is the artist’s name and personal seal.  But the writing can be a philosophical treatise or a kind of journal entry about the painting – the style, the occasion, the artist’s feelings at the time, or relationships with friends or patrons.  Michael Sullivan, in his book, The Three Perfections:  Chinese Painting, Poetry and Calligraphy, says that “…the idea that writing and painting belong together is a very ancient one in China.”

The inscriptions may be distinguished as follows:  those written by the painter, those written by friends, and later comments by collectors or connoisseurs.    Sullivan says, “Needless to say, no one would, or should, dare to write on a painting unless his handwriting were accomplished, and the sentiments, however conventional, were elegantly expressed.” 

Friends might add a bit of social history about the painter and the painting, but comments by great critics or connoisseurs would add to the value of the painting.  The Chinese do not see the painting as a complete artistic statement, but “…as a living body, an accretion of qualities, imaginative, literary, historical, personal, that grows with time, putting on an ever-richer dress of meaning, commentary and association with the years.”  Of course, imperial inscriptions were in a class by themselves, sometimes commonplace and sometimes beautiful poems.

Sullivan writes about the interplay between poetry and painting.  A Sung poet wrote that the writings of a famous poet are paintings without form; and a famous painter’s work is a poem without words.  According to Sullivan, “Painting was often called ‘silent poetry,’…and thought of as a way of release of feelings that need not, or sometimes could not, be put into words.” 

During periods of political repression, a painter/poet could not express his opposition in words.  Sullivan sites an example of a painter who expressed his feelings about the Mongol invasion by painting uprooted orchids and adding a very neutral sounding inscription.  Later, scholars added inscriptions interpreting the painting more explicitly than the painter could express himself.

When they could express themselves, painters felt that a landscape without a poem would be without interest.  The painting must be “…developed as it were, like a photographic image, by the poems, before the viewer can become aware of it,” Sullivan writes.  “When painting and poem appear together, the one reinforces the other, taking the idea far beyond the visual or verbal images, and meaning and feeling vibrate in some mysterious way between the two.”

A philosopher may write about truth that is obtained through his experience of the world and especially nature.  A painting, by evoking the images he experienced, is a symbol of his spiritual journey.

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Winter Mmmmusings

We finally have snow, a little, at least.  But better yet, there’s fog.  Nice romantic fog… ‘mmmm.

M – along with L, N and R – is a liquid letter because of the fluency of its sound.  I know this because Mary Oliver in her book, A Poetry Handbook, describes the sounds of letters as liquid, aspirant or mute.  She is quoting from an 1860 book of grammar by Goold Brown, called  Brown’s Grammar, Improved

M is my favorite letter, not least because it’s the first letter of my first name.   A few years ago I was interested in fractals and learned about the Mandelbrot Set or M-Set, which describes the fractal shape mathematically.  I wrote a Haiku:

I am an M-Set:

expand to infinity,

or shrink to nothing.

Being a Mary, I have a special fondness for the Virgin Mary.  I believe she is my namesake, after all.  Actually, Mary was an extremely popular name when I was born, so it’s a very common name among women of a certain age.   I am more interested in the idea of the Virgin Mary:  I am entranced by paintings of the Annunciation, when the archangel Gabriel came to Mary and told her she was going to give birth.  Her expression varies from sweat serenity to shock or dismay. 

I have dozens of postcards from museums and photos from art galleries of the Annunciation.  My favorites are the very reverential ones done by Fra Angelico, the one by Leonardo in the Uffizi in Florence, and the one in the Tate by Dante Gabriel Rosetti from 1849-50 that is quite modern and very haunting.  Mary and Gabriel are dressed in white and the walls of the room and the bedding are white.  Mary looks like she just woke up and she recoils at the news.  This is perhaps one of the more realistic versions of the Annunciation.

However, tonight, New Year’s Eve, I will sign off not as a Mary, but in honor of Rio, the cat in the photo:

In the Chinese way,

I will sign my name as


Happy New Year!!



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