Friday, April 1, 2016

Poetry Friday: Drs. Sora and Swallow

This month's inspiration was provided by Poetry Sister Laura Purdie Salas. She says "These are two parts of a 7-part ceiling fresco at the University of St. Thomas in Minneapolis. I spoke at a children's literature conference there a couple of weeks ago and loved huge, colorful ceiling in Terrence Murphy Hall. The art is by Mark Balma ( and is called The Seven Virtues (it's a Catholic university). I loved the colors, the surrealness of the images, and the fairy tale oddness of them."

Yes, me too, Laura! I was also curious about frescos, so I read up on their construction at the University of St. Thomas website. Then I took a gander at the seven sins, and the seven virtues---especially, Temperance, which is the subject of this fresco, and in the end... eyes were caught by those realistic birds in the corners of each fresco. WTH?

Turns out all the birds depicted in the seven frescos are species who take sustenance from the Mississippi River.

Analysis (expositors of sacred writ to the ignorant*)

Drs. Sora and Swallow
don’t know what to make of it

Neither does Herring Gull
called in to consult

nor Golden Plover
(a solid second opinion)

The birds need the river
to flow wrathfully 

slicing the land before snaking,
sloth-like into silty deltas

They envy those who consume
art; not shad or lice

They lust for full communion, 
not half-bodies, imploring

They cannot eat stones
glutton-fed paint by boar’s hair brushes

What of greed? they pick
at the edges. What of pride?

Every stroke is permanent
What is temperate about that?

---Sara Lewis Holmes (all rights reserved)

*By the way, the title comes from the article on the University site, which explains that ancient fresco makers took their art very seriously, as they were the “expositors of sacred writ to the ignorant, who know not how to read.”

To see what my Poetry Sisters made of this fresco (or the other choice, a fresco about Hope), follow these links:


Poetry Friday is hosted today by Amy at The Poetry Farm.


  1. I think the most surreal thing in these paintings were the birds... just... hanging out. Near water. Being there. Whilst all the other went on. I love that shot of realism, but birds themselves are fairly surreal - I remember when I learned that someone who "ate like a bird" in fact ate TONS and all the time! So much for temperance!

  2. I loved hearing a bit about your research--and isn't it funny how our minds have a mind of their own? We think we're going to write about one kind of thing, and then another thing unexpectedly intrudes in a wonderful way? I especially love the terrific ending and the part about eating stones--gastroliths are amazing. :>)

  3. "expositors of sacred wit to the ignorant" - wow. There are stories upon stories in just this line. Thank you for your poem and for the thinking behind it too - I love that. Happy start to National Poetry Month too! xo

  4. I love the violence in your poem, to be honest. And those birds were the bits of sanity at the corners for me, too.

  5. That grasshopper watching TV was quite surreal, and the rest of it looked like fairy tale creatures coming for the Princess, like minions of the Dark Queen. But the birds were on her side, Disney would have us believe. I love what your poem did with the same picture.

  6. I love this part:

    "The birds need the river
    to flow wrathfully

    slicing the land before snaking,
    sloth-like into silty deltas"

    I'm intrigued (confused, freaked out) by all the figures in this fresco. Can't wait to read the other Poetry Sisters' poems and see what THEY made of it!!

  7. I love how your curiosity and research led into this poem. You've chosen words so carefully, that tell the story and also make music. I can hear those birds picking, imploring and complaining... But this? " The birds need the river
    to flow wrathfully" -Good Lord deliver us! Masterful!

  8. I found this fresco too disturbing to write about, but it was the birds in both that drew me in. I love that you've responded to this temperance piece by including the sins. Well done.


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