UPDATED Dec. 23: Steven Ratiner, Arlington’s poet laureate, sought submissions in February 2020 from Arlington residents to contribute to "a rather unconventional, utterly delightful way to inject poetry into the everyday." It was to remain secret until its debut during April’s National Poetry Month. Then the coronavirus hit. In June 2021, he offers Red Letters 3.0.
PUBLISHED: I was asked to write an essay for Askold Melnyczuk’s Arrowsmith Journal about what I learned from the first year of the Red Letter Project. It also became a meditation about the relationship between poet and reader. If you’d like to take a look, here is a link – arrowsmithpress.com/community-of-voices -- and you’ll also be able to check out the variety of marvelous literary projects that appear under Askold’s Arrowsmith imprint. Enjoy!
The Red Letter Poem Project
The Red Letters 3.0: A New Beginning (Perhaps)
At the outset of the Covid pandemic, when fear was at its highest, the Red Letter Project was intended to remind us of community: that, even isolated in our separate homes, we could still face this challenge together. As Arlington’s Poet Laureate, I began sending out a poem of comfort each Friday, featuring the fine talents from our town and its neighbors. Because I enlisted the partnership of seven local arts and community organizations, distribution of the poems spread quickly – and, with subscribers sharing and re-posting the installments, soon we had readers, not only throughout the Commonwealth, but across the country. And I delighted in the weekly e-mails I’d receive with praise for the poets; as one reader recently commented: “You give me the gift of a quiet, contemplative break—with something to take away and reflect on.”
Then our circumstance changed dramatically again: following the murder of George Floyd, the massive social and political unrest, and the national economic catastrophe, the distress of the pandemic was magnified. Red Letter 2.0 announced that I would seek out as diverse a set of voices as I could find – from Massachusetts and beyond – so that their poems might inspire, challenge, deepen the conversation we were, by necessity, engaged in.
Now, with widespread vaccination, an economic rebound, and a shift in the political landscape, I intend to help this forum continue to evolve – Red Letter 3.0. For the last 15 months, I’ve heard one question again and again: when will we get back our old lives? It may pain us to admit it, but that is little more than a fantasy. Our lives have been altered irrevocably – not only our understanding of how thoroughly interdependent we are, both locally and globally, but how fragile and utterly precious is all that we love. Weren’t you bowled over recently by how good it felt just to hug a friend or family member? Or to walk unmasked through a grocery, noticing all the faces?
So I think the question we must wrestle with is this: Knowing what we know, how will we begin shaping our new life? Will we quickly forget how grateful we felt that strangers put themselves at risk, every day, so that we might purchase milk and bread, ride the bus to work, or be cared for by a doctor or nurse? Will we slip back into our old drowse and look away from the pain so many are forced to endure – in this, the wealthiest nation on the planet? Will we stop noticing those simple beauties all around us?
The poet Mary Oliver said it plainly: “Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?” I will continue to offer RLP readers the work of poets who are engaged in these questions, hoping their voices will fortify all of ours.
Two of our partner sites will continue reposting each Red Letter weekly: at YourArlington and the Boston Area Small Press and Poetry Scene. If you would like to receive these poems every Friday in your own in-box – or would like to write in with comments or submissions – send correspondence to: steven.arlingtonlaureate at gmail.com.
In ancient Rome, feast days were indicated on the calendar by red letters. To my mind, all poetry and art serves as a reminder that every day we wake together beneath the sun is a red-letter day.
Red Letter Poem #90
Ashen winter skies, bare black branches . . . and abundance. Gail Mazur’s piece is born from this breathtakingly beautiful contradiction. It is one of the finest poems about trees that I’ve ever read (though immediately a voice in my mind contradicts that statement: not trees – daughters! – one of the most loving portrayals of the mother-daughter relationship I’ve ever encountered.) And perhaps that, too, is part of the poem’s allure: it’s not about one or the other – and nothing so simple as metaphor; I experience it like a projection, through language, of a moment in a woman’s mind as she looks out at the world, her world. I can almost feel those neural branches that bear the fruit of memory, that foster the weather of emotional impulse and imagination, throwing their shadows across the snowy page. And because of that, I move along through these tercets in a kind of a winter hush, in an intimate engagement with this woman’s inner voice.
And the speaker is undoubtedly a woman – though the poem made me pray that such generative power might be part of my being as well. But if you place this poem side-by-side with another hibernal ‘tree’ poem, also written in three-line stanzas – Wallace Stevens’ “The Snow Man” – I think you’ll sense something of the yin and yang of human consciousness. If, at this time of the year, you and I are rediscovering our “mind(s) of winter,”it may help us endure the cold season if we traverse the broad expanse and find our own place in the landscape.
Poet and educator, Gail Mazur has authored eight poetry collections, the most recent being Land’s End: New and Selected Poems (University of Chicago Press), and from which today’s Red Letter installment is drawn. Among her many honors, Gail was finalist for the National Book Award, and recipient of numerous fellowships. The venerable Blacksmith Poetry Series in Cambridge, Mass. – held near the spot of Longfellow’s fabled “village smithy” and (yet another ‘tree’ poem) that “spreading chestnut-tree” – which Gail created nearly fifty years ago, is still going strong. It’s one more thing we can be grateful for as we cross another winter solstice.
Young Apple Tree, December
What you want for it you'd want
for a child: that she take hold;
that her roots find home in stony
winter soil; that she take seasons
in stride, seasons that shape and
reshape her; that like a dancer's,
her limbs grow pliant, graceful
and surprising; that she know,
in her branchings, to seek balance;
that she know when to flower, when
to wait for the returns; that she turn
to a giving sun; that she know
fruit as it ripens; that what's lost
to her will be replaced; that early
summer afternoons, a full blossoming
tree, she cast lacy shadows; that change
not frighten her, rather that change
meet her embrace; that remembering
her small history, she find her place
in an orchard; that she be her own
orchard; that she outlast you;
that she prepare for the hungry world
(the fallen world, the loony world)
something shapely, useful, new, delicious.
–– Gail Mazur
Red Letter Poem #89
It’s too long a list – all of Rita Dove’s flourishing accomplishments – but let me boil them down to three: recipient of a Pulitzer Prize for poetry, former U.S. poet laureate and, currently, the Henry Hoyns Professor of Creative Writing at the University of Virginia (representing her life as a private poet, public artist and committed educator.) Back when she gave me permission to print a poem from her then-forthcoming collection, Playlist for the Apocalypse (W. W. Norton), as Red Letter #57, I asked if I might follow it up a few months later with a ‘golden oldie’ – one of her signature pieces, and long a favorite of mine: “American Smooth.”
It was the title poem from her 2004 collection, a sort of rhapsody centered around a couple dancing together in the dark. I always thought the piece operated on two distinct levels: first, as a love poem about that moment when the self-consciousness inherent in our public gestures is somehow surpassed – if momentarily – and we feel our hearts and minds rise into something like the sublime. But I also took it to be a kind of ars poetica about the years of diligent practice an artist must commit to if she or he is to develop genuine craftsmanship – all so that, at the crucial moment, what might have simply been a workmanlike effort actually elevates both the poet and poem into those rarefied heights to which all art aspires.
But then Playlist… appeared and, after reading through a long section – The Little Book of Woe – I turned to the back of the collection to a group of lengthy notes the poet included. In one entry, I (and all Rita’s devoted readers) received some rather startling news. Those shocking bits of sentences still echo: “On December 7, 1997…stepped in the shower, and discovered…numb from the chest down…diagnosis…Relapsing-Remitting Multiple Sclerosis.”
This can be a devastating illness and, especially at the time, treatments were not particularly effective. She explained that, in struggling to comprehend her situation – but “first and foremost, to spare my aging parents” – she decided not to make the news public. . .until now. She also told how her husband scoured the Internet and came upon an experimental drug for MS that was having promising results. Eventually the treatment was able to reduce the loss of muscular control and provided tremendous relief. But my mind leaped when I read how she relearned to walk steadily through, of all things, ballroom dancing “which taught me how numb toes could gauge balance by how much pressure was exerted on the floor.”
Now, in rereading “American Smooth,” I’m engaged by an inescapable third dimension of the poem: of course love is still central in the piece, as is the reflection on all sorts of art-making endeavors. But I also experience the poem as a very intimate document, a sort of radical declaration of hope. It strikes me as the sort of transmission the subconscious mind conveys directly to the hand, and which it may take the intermediary mind of the poet months or years to fully comprehend.
Perhaps, when the poem was published, the third set of meanings was only intended for two sets of eyes – her husband’s and her own – buoyed by this swelling music. But this continued practice helped Rita’s body stabilize its place in the material world so that other dances, other poems might follow – and for that I am grateful. Decades after that initial shock, this fine writer continues to partner with us across the imagined dancefloor that is each printed page. Our mortal reprieves, our escapes from gravity are – by their very nature – only temporary affairs. But at that surprising elevation a fine poem sometimes achieves, we can better understand the larger patterns we’re enmeshed in; and perhaps we return to the dance with just a little more life in our step.
We were dancing—it must have
been a foxtrot or a waltz,
something romantic but
rise and fall, precise
execution as we moved
into the next song without
stopping, two chests heaving
above a seven-league
stride—such perfect agony,
one learns to smile through,
being the sine qua non
of American Smooth.
And because I was distracted
by the effort of
keeping my frame
(the leftward lean, head turned
just enough to gaze out
past your ear and always
I didn’t notice
how still you’d become until
we had done it
(for two measures?
that swift and serene
before the earth
remembered who we were
and brought us down.
Red Letter Poem #88
Like many Americans, my experience of the world is, regrettably, a narrow one. Situated on this huge and resource-rich continent – and bracketed by two oceans – our nation’s isolation has been both a blessing (offering a measure of protection) as well as a curse (allowing us the false impression that all we needed to survive might be found within our borders.) Granted, I’ve learned a fair amount about the few other countries I’ve actually visited; and friends from foreign lands have opened my eyes to ways the world works that are nothing like my own. Still, when another poet suggested I send some of my work to QLRS (Quarterly Literary Review Singapore), I realized that I only possessed two impressions about that island-republic: it was an extremely wealthy society; and one governed by a strict (some might say harshly enforced) network of rules. So I set out to learn more.
Of all the things I’ve since come to understand, these two are the facts that impressed me the most: first, almost-entirely lacking in rich natural resources, Singapore somehow became one of the original Asian Tigers by mastering the art of trade and international affairs, earning it one of the highest per capita GDPs in the world. And, since it also possessed the second greatest population density on the planet, it enshrined multiracialism and multiculturalism in its constitution, recognizing how interdependent their society needed to be. Singapore boasts four official languages; how many others can claim that? Since my own country these days seems to be experiencing a never-ending cascade of sectarian battles, I enjoyed the reminder that getting along (as a survival skill) brings with it a host of rewards. But then I’d think about the inflexibility of those rules . . .
Maybe that’s where poetry comes in – its irrepressible need to break free of restraints, to reinvent the ways an individual’s imagination can shape his or her own experience. And, as it turns out, I had a very good guide in the person of Toh Hsien Min, a marvelously accomplished poet and the founding editor of QLRS. He received his literature education at Oxford and ended up as president of the University Poetry Society there. In 2010, he won the Young Artist Award from the National Arts Council of Singapore. Poems from his four collections have been translated into five European and Scandinavian languages, bolstering his credentials as one of poetry’s global citizens.
But in our correspondence, I encountered an agile and inquisitive mind eager to keep stretching his boundaries. Quite an adept formalist, you’ll see in Hsien Min’s new poem how his modernist sensibility has refashioned an element of the national character into something more, shall we say, unbridled. Singapore is a small island archipelago – but as we’ve learned from images of Earth taken from outer space, our whole planet is a small blue-green island afloat in darkness. It seems to me that we’d all better come to a clearer understanding about which rules actually safeguard our survival and which seem to be only used to batter each other into submission. “Go where your courage fails you” – one of Hsien Min’s rules; that’s one I will endeavor to follow.
Zest lemons. Set your alarm early for the pleasure of hitting the snooze button.
Walk off the map. Find your own secluded beach. Slip out of your shoes.
Smile for no reason. Cross at the lights, just not always when they are green.
Bake fresh cookies. Turn on a dime when you have a dime to turn around.
Pretend to be serious. Assume other people have different points of view.
Take the other road, it really is shorter. Do favours for those you don't like.
Dress like you mean it. Amble in the rain without opening your umbrella.
Taste every wild berry you find. Lift your hands off the handlebars.
Run through the pigeons. Wear French cuffs with a button-down collar.
Turn off your mobile phone. Make no promises your heart can't keep.
Refuse the second cigar. Gaze out the porthole during the safety film.
Shave only when you want to. Shop in a foreign supermarket.
Laugh out loud in the library. Know that you know that you don't know.
Eat the fat off a suckling pig. Live next to birdsong, not to crickets.
Talk with the man next to you. Have a spin on the merry-go-round.
Go where your courage fails you. Yawn in public but sneeze in private.
Pretend to pretend to be serious. Summon snow angels in your best suit.
Let the sun wake you. Give up falling in love the instant you catch her eye.
–– Toh Hsien Min
Red Letter Poem #87
We are approaching the anniversary of that “date which will live in infamy” – that is, if we still remember. And if the memory still contains substance. If our understanding extends beyond a few textbook bullet points. If it’s bolstered, perhaps, by something personal, familial, or a thoroughly fleshed-out imagination. For those too young to have had the chance to ask a veteran about his or her experience in the Second World War– or those who did but lacked, at the time, the urgency to take advantage of the opportunity – we must resort to what remains with us in language, imagery, artifact. And there we might learn that the infamy – of this or any prolonged war – was not confined to one single terrible day nor attributable to only one particular flag or ideology. It lies in the very nature of armed conflict and has roots in our darkest and most primitive origins. Those truths are inscribed upon the psyches of returning soldiers (much to their detriment) and across the extended families of those who did not return.
Sadly, I think our more recent history demonstrates that this country’s collective memory has become dangerously shallow, easily influenced, often misguided or just plain wrong. A mere three-quarters of a century has passed since that awful Dec. 7th morning, and it seems the lessons of that war – not to mention the national unity it generated – have all but evaporated from our culture, leaving us incapable of learning history’s lessons and therefore (as the philosopher George Santayana observed) doomed to repeat even its most egregious errors.
In the 1990s, poet Michael Steffen spent a long while teaching in France. In a year in Normandy, he had the opportunity to meet several veterans – both French and resettled Americans. But he was cognizant enough to bear witness to the oral history being shared. The experience generated a long sequence of poems from which today‘s Red Letter is taken. To my mind, the strongest quality of the piece is its willingness to simply listen, and then record those observations so we too might feel ourselves seated in their company. Michael has been the recipient of a Massachusetts Cultural Council Fellowship, and his poetry has recently appeared in journals like The Lyric, The Dark Horse, Ibbetson Street and Constellations. His second book, On Earth As It Is, will be out in early 2022 from Cervena Barva Press, whose appearance I’ll look forward to.
And that little trail of red wine spilled on the table . . .
The veteran of World War II
whose brother drowned on fire at Dunkirk,
who himself had crawled from the collapsed home
of his in-laws in Coventry under the blitzkrieg
had parachuted on D-Day
in a chaotic drop, off their target
and landed through enemy flares and fire
in the woods right there—
he nodded at the maples beyond his garden
from the table where we sat 50 years later,
his wife, three of his children,
six of his grandchildren
and me the English teacher on a fellowship
in the boarding school nearby in Ranville.
All that afternoon the sun shone,
birds chattered from the neighboring woods
that had once rung and stuttered with rifles,
and always, as I knew him,
a gentle smile of gratitude glowed
from the age-carved face of Lou Moreau
tipping the bottles to our glasses
if you could forgive him the lapse
of a moment’s clenched jaw and glare—
where we had it out all day with the Krauts …
forgetting the bottle, having spilled
back into his smile.
—O la la, he can fight the great battle
but he can’t pour a little glass of wine.
–– Michael T. Steffen
Red Letter Poem #86
“Istanbul does not have a color of its own other than gray. Concrete is the predominant tone, massed shapes overwhelming and pressing down upon the individual. I carry within me this immense longing for empty lots, deserted areas yet to be seized by commercial intruders. Slivers in the grid where my fellow poets and I can express ourselves freely, breaking away from the oppressive apparatus of social normativity and the surveillance state.”
So begins poet Efe Murad’s The Pleasures of Empty Lots: Scenes of Istanbul 2015–2016, recently published by Bored Wolves Press. It’s a sort of memoir/aesthetic panorama/and red-alert warning concerning the effect totalitarianism has on poets in his country and the citizenry in general. Reading about the internecine poetry conflicts in Turkey between rival schools of thought – made all the more intense because the state has clamped down so dramatically on all freedom of expression – I experienced a growing uneasiness, though it took a few moments to figure out why.
At first, I thought it was simply the shock of contrast: In recent years, American poets have enjoyed extraordinary freedom, mainly because we’re so marginalized in society, no government would feel the need to attack us – privilege undermined by the fear of irrelevance. But Efe’s account made me realized how our situation, too, has changed. The forces of suppression in our country, though, have become decentralized, the result of a confluence of societal riptides: battling mass media outlets; campaigns of political disinformation; storms of social media opinion; and our own fearful self-censoring impulses in response to these culture wars. A poet like Efe reminds me of how precious and utterly vital are our open gathering spaces – the virtual and cerebral ones as well as those boisterous cafes and verdant public commons where anyone can retreat for either fellowship or solitude, as is needed.
A well-known writer in Turkey, Efe’s first gathering of poems translated into English is a sequence entitled Encirclings, part of an anthology of Mediterranean poets edited by Irena Eden and Stijn Lernout (published by Schlebrügge.Editor.) In each untitled segment, he explores a more avant-garde approach, undercutting the sentimentality of older Turkish poems with a ‘selfless’ vision – devoid of pronouns, adjectives, and the feel of ‘agency’. He is just offering the world as he finds it, inviting us to simply plunge inside (as the boy in the poem does into the Sea of Marmara.) Such poetry trusts readers and writers alike to make their own way through experience, and to so highly prize such simple human moments, we’d never allow anyone to take them from us – not via tweet, edict, force of arms, nor our own lavish disregard. I, for one, will give thanks for the reminder.
transparency arrives from above.
skies shadow salt water.
as the angle changes,
in the cloudy water, limpid cove.
the weave of the surface is honeycombed, as the boy
climbs the rock.
his eyes in dreams – the surface of the water, the boy jumpin’.
splashing against the water, eyes in the water and cloudy shadow.
the boy’s entangled in the cloud of salt, the salt water in the mouth,
invisible water creature.
what we haven’t lived’re our mistakes
our lives can’t change
–– Efe Murad
Red Letter Poem #85
Years back, I had the great good fortune of engaging in conversation with Nobel Prize-winning poet Seamus Heaney for an interview collection I was putting together. I’d long admired the rich musicality of his writing, and the uncanny way he could make us feel the confluence of history, memory and the magic of the natural world as undercurrents beneath each compelling line.
“But this isn't peculiar to me,” he said, deflecting my praise. “This belongs to the language [itself.] I think everybody, whether or not they're conscious of it, responds to these things . . . we do have certain associations with certain sounds. And what a poet is doing is unconsciously working with that.”
Reminding me of T. S. Eliot’s idea of the "auditory imagination," he added: “Eliot talks about the feeling for syllable and rhythm reaching below the conscious levels, uniting the most ancient and most civilized mentality. I feel that about the word "culvert." It's got a kind of dark-hole-under-the-ground within it. And stored in the system, in the big archive of every ear, there is a memory of hearing a very thin trickle of water in a big, echoey under-place . . . The collusion between the verbal thing and the human store in the ear, I mean, that's the mysterious nub of the matter.”
And so it is with Sarah Bennett’s new poem “My New Word.” Written early on in the pandemic when the news was generally bleak and we were concerned whether ‘essential workers’ would continue putting their health and well-being on the line, just so we’d be able to purchase chicken breasts, cheddar cheese, and a supply of toilet paper. Sarah’s choice of ‘anti-anxiety medication’ was a large supply of mystery novels which she devoured nightly. It pleased her that a character like Nero Wolfe, the portly detective, was as fond of good food and fanciful language as he was of solving mysteries. Sarah found herself keeping a running list of his words she wished to investigate: thaumaturge, minatory, casuistry, rodomontade. Of course, even when we require Webster’s assistance, that does not mean we haven’t grasped, via poetic intuition, something about what freight might be carried within these words, what exploits they’ve had and what nuances of meaning acquired as they’ve passed through thousands of mouths.
Having read Sarah’s first poetry collection, The Fisher Cat (Dytiscid Press), I understood how language was a sea her mind navigated continually; but in this poem, she allows us to wade in beside her, feeling the riptides tugging at our thought. She sent me a little essay she wrote about reading these Rex Stout who-dunnits while the dark headlines of the Covid crisis swirled as a backdrop. I guess detective stories do remind us that we are capable of working through problems, and order may yet be restored (even while fear and the death toll continue to rise.) It’s a situation that calls for a word like minatory, don’t you think? Sarah's piece concludes: “We need Nero Wolfe to come down from his orchid rooms and solve this mess. We need a thaumaturge.” Even before you look it up, tell me you don’t already half-believe in the magic that might be contained there.
My New Word
for distraction I have been reading
Nero Wolfe detective stories
one after another
fast as I can
and came upon a word I did not know: helot
which sounded something between a hellion
and a zealot.
A glance at the news
says Tyson must remain open
despite the plague:
the humans shoulder to shoulder
at the refrigerated slab
one after another
fast as they can.
Something between a citizen and a slave.
–– Sarah Bennett
Red Letter Poem #84
It’s an old expression, offered up to pregnant women: You’re eating for two now. It came to mind recently, but with a rather strange twist: I feel like I’m seeing for two now. Two months back, my cousin Lenny died – suddenly, far too young, and just as he was about to open a whole new chapter in his life. The shock has not worn off.
Growing up together, he was the closest thing I ever had to a brother. And since that loss, it’s my impression that I’ve been seeing extra – or at least trying to – in order to keep Lenny in mind. Sometimes I’ll intentionally slow down thought in order to savor the small pleasures of the day: the smell of fresh coffee brewing; the dogwood trees in the garden going bronze; the happy cacophony as our grandson comes storming in for a visit. And I’ll invite my cousin’s memory to participate in the moment, because such things are beyond him now. Seeing for two . . . or three . . . or four – how many loved ones lost in recent years! How many visions that remain thoroughly entwined with my own!
I think that is much the case with this new piece by Miriam Levine – author of five fine poetry collections, and Arlington’s first poet laureate. The ‘Melissa’ of the title is Melissa Shook, an accomplished and deeply-empathetic photographer/artist/poet who died in 2020 from a brain tumor.
Miriam’s tribute to her dear friend is perhaps the greatest sort one artist can offer to another: to make sure Melissa’s unique slant on things, her delight in the physicality of this earthly experience, remains in the world for others to discover – and enduringly present in her own days. Miriam’s poem is quietly gravid, with memory and imagery that bind her to both friendship and art-making (ah, the mallard’s orange feet! that horse’s liquid gaze!)
Perhaps this is part of the job description of every poet: to work at refreshing the language in which we speak and think, and to hone the art of perception – so that the resulting creation becomes, paradoxically, both a unique expression of the author but also a companionable presence for the reader. And through this, we all may experience a richer and more diverse vantage on our passing moment – simply because of what others have known. Walt Whitman wrote: “I contain multitudes” – as do we all (though often we forget.) My hope is that we each try to speak our lives, our dreams into such a fine clarity that others around us will be able to embrace, to contain what we’ve discovered, weaving it into their own – something that will last, even when we exist only in absentia.
All last night I searched for you in my dream
but when at last I found our old meeting place
it was flooded completely, the soft sandy shore
where we had walked deep, deep under water.
The river did what it wanted, and mallards
flashed, already a lip of ice forming to seal
the grass. Then mallards poked the weeds,
heads down, bottoms up. You would have
been interested in the dangling orange feet,
as you were in the horse’s liquid and seeming-
sympathetic eye, your daughter’s dance,
the shadow of a hand—photos in museums now.
You would laugh at notions of an afterlife,
though in Eden you would have a Shi Tzu
in your lap; and, with your camera face down,
listen for hours to friends who told you secrets.
–– Miriam Levine
This poetic outreach was updated Dec. 23, 2021.