February 9, 2017 § Leave a comment

Photograph by Autumn E. Monsees


I am holding my grandmother’s diary of 1940, printed by Caxton Press and sold by C. Coomaraswamy Naidu & Sons of 27 Chinnatambi Street, Madras, India. Pages of printed information explain how to treat sunstroke or the bite of a mad dog or when to expect a full moon or how to write a will. But what I most want to know is what my grandmother felt the day my mother boarded the S.S. President Garfield to begin a long and lonely voyage across the world. I turn to Saturday, July 13 and I am stunned to see nothing – not one word. How can this be?

Perhaps my mother and grandmother were worn out from the long journey from the dusty plains of Podili to the bustling wharves of Bombay, too exhausted to talk. And what could they say, what words could they give to each other that could feed the hunger in their hearts?

Three months later a huge cyclone would sweep through the coast of Bombay, uprooting trees, boats, lives.

[Note: This is one section of my essay “Dangerous Archaeology: A Daughter’s Search for Her Mother (and Others) – A Memoir in Fragments” published in Hayden’s Ferry Review #50, Spring/Summer 2012]


February 8, 2017 § Leave a comment

Theodore Volney Witter and Mildred Nasmith Witter, 1912


Every time I look at this photograph, I half expect Butch Cassidy to appear on his bicycle to steal my grandmother away from her beloved to the sounds of Burt Bacharach’s “Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head” playing in the background. I have always thought my grandmother looked like the beautiful and sensuous Katharine Ross who played the Sundance Kid’s lover in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. As I look closer, I see that my grandfather might, if he removed his glasses and smiled just a little, be able to pass as a young Paul Newman himself. They are a handsome couple, however you cut it and, while not the sort to rob banks or trains, they are about to board a steamer, leave family and friends behind, and light out for India where they will remain for the better part of their lives.

Here on This Ridge

December 31, 2016 § 4 Comments

Swinging next to Ronnie's wharf on Hurricane Ridge            (Photograph by Martha Andrews Donovan)
Swinging next to Ronnie’s Wharf on Hurricane Ridge

Here on This Ridge

Children with sparklers illumine the night, a dozen
children with a dozen sparklers racing in circles
around the old well boarded up like a swimming
float in the middle of the field. They spin and careen,
a crazy constellation of legs and laughter and shooting
stars, tiny sparks rising behind them into the dark. We

watch them and remember our own days here on this ridge –
lying with our backs to the solid earth, eyes seeking the shooting
stars that our own parents promised would come, or learning
to dance for the first time at the Fourth of July street dance
in front of Highway Market Number 2, here at the end of this spit
of land, hardly a highway at all this dirt road that tumbled

into the ocean and upon which we danced, or jumping off
Ronnie’s dock at midnight under a full moon shimmering
its light onto the surface of the sea and feeling the coldness
of that water not as something to be feared but as simply
a feeling, a sensation like hunger or sleepiness or maybe
even love. On this July night, we watch our own children

for whom the night holds no fear. There has been no catastrophe
as the news had cautioned, no planes plunging to earth, no
children falling down empty wells, no children drowning in the sea,
no broken legs, no broken hearts, just children running around
like wild children of the forest bearing flowers as gifts for us
for whom even a simple sound has become suspect.

Martha Andrews Donovan

Publication note: “Here on This Ridge” was awarded First Place in the Poetry Society of New Hampshire National Contest for November 2011 and was published in Poets’ Touchstone that year.

The first draft of this poem was written in the summer of 2002 when so many of us – after September 11, 2001 – felt shattered and uncertain. As we enter 2017 – another time of great uncertainty – I hope, perhaps naively but certainly fervently, that we may all find moments of beauty, these unexpected gifts that sometimes appear and surprise us.

The Strangeness of Water

December 23, 2016 § Leave a comment

Sea Smoke Rising off Bass Harbor (Photograph by Martha Andrews Donovan)
Sea Smoke Rising off Bass Harbor

Aphorism #11

Let the sea’s constancy – the strangeness of water – startle you.

Follow the Sea

September 29, 2016 § 2 Comments

Lopaus Point, Mt. Desert Island

Aphorism #10
There are many ways to be lonely and there are many ways to be free –
follow the sea, the rushes of the salt marsh, the curve of a peregrine’s wings.

The Matter of Red

June 13, 2016 § 2 Comments

Ghost Ranch New Mexico August 2015 

Ghost Ranch New Mexico August 2015 

Field Notes from Ghost Ranch, Abiquiu, New Mexico. 13 August 2015.

I went toward a wall of light and then a wall of red – I went to the edge of devastation – the edge where the waters had raged – Attracted by the greens of a sea before a wall of red, I found my way to the edge of the devastation – trees uprooted – leaves lodged, trees lodged in the wedge, the embrace of trees – I stood at the edge of the ravine – This is where I belong ­­– facing the devastation – standing at the precipice and looking down – but I had been given a task – Find red – I didn’t want to leave, yet there was the matter of red – As I shifted my weight, I noticed at my feet flashes of red – and I laughed out loud – there, in this sea of sand and silt – in this heavily eroded arroyo, there at my feet, a delicate flower – the red blossoms like birds caught in flight – barely tethered – just barely attached


Notes on these Field Notes:

In August 2015, I was fortunate to have been chosen to join nearly 120 accomplished women writers from across the United States to spend time musing and writing in the high desert of New Mexico at the A Room of Her Own Foundation’s “Writing Against the Current” Retreat for Women Writers. This was my third consecutive participation in this biennial retreat. While there, I joined a small group of women as part of Bhanu Kapil’s magical “Write Yourself Out of One Life and Into Another.” As part of the pilgrimage we took collectively and individually, we each spent a day wandering in search of the color red.

A flash flood had screamed through the ranch just shortly before our arrival. I found my way to the edge of an arroyo where the devastation of that flood was written in the landscape. I was so focused on the wreckage there that I almost missed the beautiful flower blooming at my feet. As I crouched down to take a photograph of trees wedged in a sea of sand, staring me in the face was the color I had gone seeking. I laughed out loud. I thought of Georgia O’Keeffe: “When one begins to wander around in one’s own thoughts and half-thoughts what one sees is often surprising” (Some Memories of Drawings). After the currents that ravaged there, this flower rose up, reminding me of the power of resilience, the persistence of beauty.

For Me

January 16, 2016 § 2 Comments

Jesup Path, Great Meadow Loop, Acadia National Park,
Mt. Desert Island, Maine

Uncertainty is my new home. I am beginning to love this new home. I am beginning to see the light and the shadows that fall on this earth in the most surprising of ways — the grasses that dance for me.