“All those routines!/And unhappiness can be alike.”
All happy families are alike
but an unhappy family is
unhappy after its own fashion.
It’s a famous opening, often
quoted with a nod of approval
as though incontrovertibly true.
“How profound!” we murmur. “Tolstoy knew.”
Did he? Family happiness, too,
can take such very different forms.
What makes you happy wouldn’t work for us
and vice versa. All those routines!
And unhappiness can be alike.
Ask Coleridge: “A grief without a pang,
void, dark, and drear…” Familiar?
All that tiptoeing on eggshells, tensed
for ambush, anger, blackmail. Those words
the years can never excoriate;
those actions never to be undone.
So, that opening: could it not have been
a reader-tease? A Tolstoyan riddle
only our own living can unravel?.
Harry Ricketts is a poet, biographer, editor, and essayist. Born and brought up in England, he lives in Wellington, Aotearoa, New Zealand, where he taught for many years in the English program at Te Herenga Waka Victoria University of Wellington.