Rachel Cohen

If you think of each act, Pissarro

If you think of each act Pissarro

Camille Pissarro, Landscape with Flooded Field (at Saint-Ouen l'Aumone), 1873. Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art, Hartford. Detail photos Rachel Cohen.

If you think of each act. I mean, every time a person comes into contact with someone else or a living being, or the life of the world. Every time she talks to the cashier as she pays for groceries at the store, or calls the pharmacy about a prescription, every time she does or doesn’t nod to a person she passes as she’s out walking, every time she puts out bird seed or chases away a rat who has come to eat the bird seed, or decides to bring in the bird feeder for now and moves a dry leaf so a fern can struggle on. Every time she answers the children with a laugh, and every time she answers sharply, impatiently, every time she writes a note back, every time she doesn’t.

If you think of each act as a drop of rain. Then every life would have millions. Millions and millions of tiny acts. A vast ramifying sky of rain pouring down.

This morning it is raining torrentially. Rain is pouring in cataracts across our windows, and seeping in the back basement door to run down the cement floor, rain is pounding on the windows and the roof.

My old friend’s mother has died. Not of coronavirus, of other long illnesses. He and his siblings couldn’t go to her. She died in the night of May 12th becoming May 13th. I never met her, but my friend is a kind, insightful, brilliantly perceptive person, formed in the rain of thousands upon thousands of her tiny acts, kind and unkind, and so I know something of the weather she carried.

When my father died, seven years ago, the weather was so present to me. It was in storms that I felt he was closest again. I looked to the sky for signs.

Rembrandt – Somber

Rembrandt Three Trees

Rembrandt van Rijn, Three Trees, etching, 1643. Metropolitan Museum of Art. Detail photos Rachel Cohen.

Today three different messages of death reached me. A colleague’s father has died, from a long illness, not the coronavirus. It is very complicated for the son to go; he will have to quarantine away from his family on his return.

At noon, I gave a virtual reading with another colleague, who lives on a block one block away from me. Both of us read about memorialization. After the reading, my colleague said that five households on his block - I can see the backs of these houses through my study window as I write this – have lost or are losing someone of the grandparents’ generation.

And I received an email from a cherished friend that his mother is dying in a nursing facility, also not of coronavirus, and no one, not even her husband, can go to be with her.


I first saw Rembrandt’s Three Trees (1643) in the first art history course I took in college – which was the last class taught by the wonderful Seymour Slive before his retirement. As a special present to him, the Fogg Art Museum held a show of Rembrandt etchings that coincided with the class. My dormitory was on the same block at the museum, and I went so often and stood so long that going to see the etchings became like going home.

Ever since, for nearly thirty years, every Rembrandt etching I see in person is like a kind of embrace. Even the light-hearted ones have a solemnity to them, and a softness. Ink was gentled on his etching plates, as a great rider brings horses into their full expressiveness.

The Metropolitan Museum of Art has an etching of Rembrandt’s Three Trees that I just happened to pass one day when I was visiting New York after long being away. I took a few pictures. Today, I was so glad to find them. Just look at the ink and the illumination.

The text on the Met’s website says that the “unusual cloud formations left of center” may be because Rembrandt had initially sketched another subject on the plate, one for The Death of the Virgin, which he ended up needing a larger plate to complete. I didn’t know, but I might as well have, because the landscape is suffused with ideas of eternity.

for Peter Helm