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September 1, 2012

When the Circle Breaks Open

Many readers of this blog will have heard the old gospel tune, "May the Circle Be Unbroken." And many of this blog's readers have lived through the tearing apart of our sacred circles. This experience is, I believe, particularly recognizable in the loss of a sibling. Ann Ritter's poem does a remarkable job of capturing that moment when siblings confront the breaking of that circle. Her artistry with the language brings "salve" to the moment and its pain. I've paired her poem with Jeff Damron's photo, "White Chair." When I asked Jeff's permission to post the photo, I learned that the white chair pictured is "keeping watch" in his brother's yard. He took the photo of the chair just a few months before his brother Steve died in 2011.

White Chair by Jeff Damron. All rights reserved.

Miriam’s Wake
by Ann Ritter
Five white chairs wait in a circle
around a perfect green watermelon
and a knife, for the brothers, who,
plus one cousin, will carry her coffin.

Tonight when crickets sing, William,
the eldest, will cut the sweet fruit,
pass slices to John, Wendall, Kenny,
baby Ralph. And stories will run
like juice from their lips.

They will remember the strained summer         
of polio—how the grass grew long
in their parents’ absence from home
and Miriam’s damp hair tangled so
in her hospital bed that it had to be cut off.
In the yard, rust stained her waiting bicycle,
because no one wanted to touch it.
They will remember how her crooked hips
showed in two graduation photos and
through the lace of her wedding dress.

One brother will compare to spider web
the shatter imprint on the windshield
made by Miriam’s head. Another
will repeat the patrolman’s report
of the dozing man whose car struck hers,
who lived for a time on the stretcher to say,
“I killed her; I know that poor lady died.”

As they cinch chairs a bit tighter, knit over
the hole in the family that was Miriam,
silence will fall on the circle, will be broken
only by black seeds shot
like torpedoes
into the sand behind them in the dark.


Poem copyright Ann Ritter, all rights reserved.
Read Ann Ritter's bio at the end of the previous post.
Learn about Jeff Damron's work at Better in Black and White.


  1. Never mind the moving experience the poem recounts, it would be difficult to find a poem technically better than this. Tough to read on a Sunday morning but very moving, as much for the mention of polio as for the accident.

    As someone who was a child in Chicago when polio invaded our neighborhood and took its toll in more than one child, this poem has an extra meaning for me. Thank you for writing it and thank you for posting it.

  2. Donal, always great to see your insightful comments. I agree with you. Ann's poem is a technical masterpiece, with the technique supporting the content, meaning, and emotion every inch of the way.