In Their Own Words

Hannah Brooks-Motl's “Of Friendship”

Hannah Brooks Motl author photo

Of Friendship

"My ability doesn't go far enough to undertake a rich, polished picture"

So I doodled around her, "a lovely woman

Tapering off to a fish"

She flapped to the corner and wrote there

Have you noticed her empty

How a better hand waves

Then I try


From the apartment we flattened paths to the trees

Sunlight on the quiet between us

I gathered up our inclinations

Returned to my description

How seldom we all are I felt wearing her coat—

"Because it was she, because it was I"

And then by the years I held her in fabulous net

Wearing her jacket we shook from the winter

"Embraced each other by our names"

And danced in the regular rooms

In loving, in play

I have shirked


"Walk in those other friendships bridle in hand, not so well tied"

Go where the action is clean, in passion

To learn "the secret to reveal to no other man"

Even doubled my soul

"Nothing bitter or stinging about it"

We plunged the mixture of us

Walking free


And at the edge of the plot

It required many names

It sat up on the couch

It entered the singing

With shy mouth it belonged there

From M (Song Cave, 2015). All rights reserved. Reprinted with the permission of the author.

On "Of Friendship"

I'm going to start outside this poem, outside the book it comes from, and begin with that book's cover. My oldest and best friend, the artist Stacy Jo Scott, had been doing these strange spectral line drawings for a year or so before I asked her if I could use one for M. This is her process note:

"I drew a single shape, a loop, and repeated it at regular intervals by copying and pasting that original shape. I ran this file through software that translated it to instructions for a CNC (computer numerically controlled) router. The machine followed those instructions to create the line. CNC routers are commonly used with a high-speed spindle and router bit to cut into wood and other materials. Instead I mounted it with a tool to hold a graphite pencil. Instead of routing through wood, the machine traced the lines in graphite onto paper. The graphite line changed as the material was used up and from barely perceptible changes in the paper itself."

I like all those "insteads"; I like that a single shape, copied and pasted, routed through wrong materials, multiply translated into and out of numerical code, created an image that looks, kinda indisputably, like an "m." And I like that, months and months later, and without talking to her about it, I decided to call my book M. I like that my friendship with Stacy Jo, which is almost 30 years old, may have conjured both her art and my poems into being.

M itself is made from those technologies most often connected to acts of reading and writing: printing, binding, Microsoft Word & publishing platforms, bar codes & libraries, even more basic stuff like notebooks and pens. In fact handwriting, that ancient techne, is central to these poems, since I copied passages from Montaigne by hand, started the poems by hand, and felt, as I went along, that some haptic magic was occurring in the act of transcription. Stacy Jo's note echoes here: tracing lines on paper; the lines changed as the material was used up; there were barely perceptible changes.

"Of Friendship" is run through or cut from one of Montaigne's most devastating essays. Written after the death of his close friend Etienne de la Boétie, Montaigne's essay is full of painful acknowledgements that true friendship exists beyond rationale, explanation, or even social understanding—it's a coincidence that takes centuries. "A single dominant friendship dissolves all other obligations," Montaigne writes. And in famous French: Par ce que c'estoit luy; par ce que c'estoit moy. That line—Because it was he; because it was I—went awry through my router and came out feminine. Montaigne can be ungenerous toward women, as his time was ungenerous, as most times are. In this essay, for example, he says women don't seem to have the soul to sustain "so tight and durable a knot" as true friendship requires.

These days, female friendship is often represented as too tight a knot, too many moments of soul sharing, a little needy, a little funny; it's a long-running sitcom. My own friendships, beginning with Stacy Jo and continuing through an extraordinary gathering of women ('it required many names"), are in this poem not as farce but as patience, longing, watching, joy. I read, traced, and routed Montaigne into and through my own purposes, and M is made from this wrongness, misuse, and selective attention. But this poem, which is assuredly about my women friends, is also, indisputably, about Montaigne. All the poems in M explore the kind of reading and thinking he encouraged in me, across the centuries, his machine making lines I was following—"the mixture of us," was it friendship? my "shy mouth" was asking.

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