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21 minutes reading time (4265 words)

No. 32: Red Letter Poem: Our rampant fears

UPDATED,, Nov. 6: Steven Ratiner, Arlington’s poet laureate, sought submissions in February 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.

Steven RatinerSteven Ratiner / David Andrews photo 

Adults and students were invited to submit one to two poems -- no longer than 20 lines each -- they’d most like to share with potentially thousands of their Arlington neighbors.

The Red Letter Poem Project

The Red Letters 2.0: When I was first appointed as poet laureate for Arlington, one of my goals was to help bring the strength and delight of poetry into unexpected settings. The Red Letter Poems Project was going to be a novel way of sharing Arlington’s poetic voices, sent off in bright red envelopes, a one-off mass mailing intended to surprise and delight. 


Globe takes notice >>

But when the Corona crisis struck, and families everywhere were suffering a fearful uncertainty in enforced isolation, I converted the idea into an e-version which has gone out weekly ever since. Because of the partnership I forged with seven organizations, mainstays of our community, the poems have been able to reach tens of thousands of readers, throughout Arlington and far beyond its borders. 

I hope you too are grateful that these groups stepped up and reached out: The Arlington Commission for Arts and CultureThe Arlington Center for the ArtsThe Arlington Public LibraryThe Arlington International Film Festival, Arlington Community Education, The Council on Aging, and YourArlington.com – each of which distributes or posts the new Red Letter installments and, in many cases, provide a space where all the poems of this evolving anthology continue to be available.  

But now we are experiencing a triple pandemic: the rapid spread of the Covid virus, which then created an economic catastrophe, and served to further expose our long-standing crises around race and social justice.  My hope is to have the Red Letters continue as a forum for poetic voices – from Arlington and all our neighboring communities – that will help us gain perspective on where we are at this crucial moment and how we envision a healing to emerge.  

So please: pass the word, submit new poems, continue sharing the installments with your own e-lists and social media sites (#RedLetterPoems, #ArlingtonPoetLaureate, #SeeingBeyondCorona), and help further the conversation.  Art-making has always been the way we human beings reflect on what is around us, work to alter our circumstances, and dream of what may still be possible.  In its own small way, the Red Letters intends to draw upon our deepest voices to promote just such a healing and share our enduring hope for something better.    

If you would like to receive these poems every Friday in your in-box plus notices about future poetry events, send an e-mail to: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. with the subject line ‘mailing list.’

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.

                                 – Steven Ratiner         

Red Letter Poem #32

O say can you see…? – and, to my mind, our country’s present situation bears some painful resemblance to what was experienced by this lawyer/poet in 1814.  Francis Scott Key, under guard by the British in Chesapeake Bay, watched the assault on Fort McHenry.  He spent the long night wondering whether, come morning, our flag would signal that our fragile Republic had survived. 

And as I write this, the votes for our 2020 election have been cast, the counting underway – all beneath a metaphorical bombardment of epic proportions.  Many have called this the most consequential election of our lifetimes – perhaps the most dire since the start of the Civil War – and the fate of our still-fragile democracy may hang in the balance.

But the most striking difference between Key’s poem and that of today’s Red Letter from Susan Donnelly, one of Arlington’s finest poets: This time, the threatening adversary is none other than ourselves – or, more specifically, our intransigence, our rampant fears and tribal prejudices, undermining the very principles by which this country was founded.  To be able to ask honest questions – of ourselves, of our countrymen – would seem to be the very lifeblood of a democracy.  Instead, we’ve replaced that with a cannonade of sound bites and vitriol. 

As Susan writes, “it’s nearly all questions,” this anthem of ours.  In waiting for answers in the hours (days? months?) to come, I’ll return to Susan’s potent little lyric to strengthen my resolve. What will our new American reality be like?  Whose voices will be included in that narrative?

Susan Donnelly made an appearance early on in the Red Letters.  Her first book, Eve Names the Animals was awarded the Morse Poetry Prize.  A prolific and masterful poet, two other full-length collections followed as well as six chapbooks, the most recent being The Finding Day from Every Other Thursday Press.   

Anthem Call 

Today I hear its big questions
(it’s nearly all questions)

like the calls and responses
at a demonstration. Say,

can you see it? Not back then. Now.
Does it still wave? If so, how?

“No Justice, No Peace!”
Who is free? Who are the brave?

                    –– Susan Donnelly 

Red Letter Poem #31

Not the least of poetry’s strengths (and delights) is its ability to allow us access to another reality: to stand for a few moments in someone else’s shoes, viewing the day through a surprising sensibility, our thoughts informed by a radically different sense of history.  This is one of the first things that attracted me to the poetry of Adnan Onart.

 I will never experience the pain inflicted on Crimean Tatars as their country suffered invasions – vivid still in the long memories of his Turkish family – though some of his poems provide me with a mouthful of that anguish.  Nor can I feel those American eyes at my back in some street or market – in this, our post-9/11 circumstance – triggered only by the accent of my voice; but Adnan’s poetry has made me imagine what that tremor must be like. 

Poetry confirms what most of us have long suspected: that our lives are dramatically different from each other and, paradoxically, utterly alike.  So it is with “Morning Prayer” – a poem that somehow reminded me of voices as disparate as that of Yehuda Amichai and Wislawa Szymborska: when the young protagonist is instructed in the ways of prayer, I found something of my eight-year-old self awakened, and I remembered what I first yearned for in the world.  And when the much older speaker (an immigrant now in Boston) repeats that same gesture, I suddenly felt how sweet and unpredictable is the nature of our answered prayers.

Adnan lives in Boston, and his work has appeared in a number of journals, including Prairie SchoonerColere Magazine, Red Wheel Barrow and The Massachusetts Review. ”Morning Prayer” was published in his first poetry collection, The Passport You Asked For (The Aeolos Press), coupled with Kenneth Rosen’s Cyprus’ Bad Period He earned an honorable mention in the New England Poetry Club’s Erika Mumford Award, and was one of the winners of the 2011 Nazim Hikmet Poetry Competition.  Discouraged from poetry as a young man in Turkey, he has now begun to find an appreciative audience in his adoptive land.  Talk about paradoxes.

Morning Prayer

In a poor Istanbul neighborhood, 
at the ground floor of our house, 
my great-grandmother says: 
It is time for morning prayer. 

If you pray, she says, pure as a child, 
from this corner of the room, 
an angel will appear.

I am five years old closing my eyes. 
Allahü Ekber. 

Essallamü alleyküm ve rahmetullah. 
I am fifty opening my eyes.

In Boston, Massachusetts, 
in a not so poor neighborhood 
at the top floor of our house 
praying my morning prayer.

From that corner of the room, 
my great-grandmother appears.

                    ­­–– Adnan Adam Onart

Red Letter Poem #30

Lloyd Schwartz navigates his roles as poet, scholar and critic with such ease, an observer can easily believe a single impulse, a unified language informs them all.  His forthcoming Who’s on First? New and Selected Poems (University of Chicago Press) will be his sixth collection.  He is the Frederick S.Troy Professor of English Emeritus at UMass Boston, and his voice is familiar to many as the longtime classical music critic for NPR’s Fresh Air.  I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention that he is also the Poet Laureate for neighboring Somerville.

A noted scholar and editor of the work of Elizabeth Bishop, he was invited to Brazil to offer some lectures celebrating the first Portuguese edition of her poetry.  When the doorman of the hotel at which he was staying learned the reason for his trip, he told Lloyd: “We love poetry in Brazil – we even have poetry on our money!”  Pulling out a 50 Cruzados note — as common as a dollar bill – he showed the visitor the lovely engraving of Brazil’s national poet, Carlos Drummond de Andrade working thoughtfully at his desk.  And beside it, in brown ink, was the text of “Canção Amiga,” one of his most beloved poems.  How can American poets feel anything but awe and admiration for a country where its poets are so highly regarded?  Lloyd, just learning Portuguese, began working on a translation of the piece that very evening.

Born in Itabira, a mining village in Minas Gerais in southeastern Brazil, de Andrade’s parents were farmers of Portuguese ancestry.  Trained to be a pharmacist, he ended up working in government service, eventually becoming the Director of History for the National Historical and Artistic Heritage Service.  Despite (or perhaps because of) the large family into which he was born, de Andrade developed an inwardness and a profound quiet which permeated his poems, balanced with wit, elegance, and a Whitman-like sense of the vibrant spirit of his people.  “Friendly Song” seems a perfect antidote to the troubled times we find ourselves in – and, as in Lloyd’s graceful translation, what could we wish for right now more necessary than a song that rouses men and women from their discordant lives while lulling the children to their rest? 

Friendly Song / Canção Amiga 

    I’m working on a song  in
which my own mother sees her image,
       everyone’s mother sees her image,
  and it speaks, it speaks just like two eyes.

         I’m traveling along a roadway
     that winds through many countries.
    My old friends—if they don’t see me,
      I see them, I see and salute them.

            I am giving away a secret
     like someone who loves, or smiles.
              In the most natural way
        two caresses reach each other.

          My whole life, all of our lives
            make up a single diamond.
       I’ve learned a few new phrases—
           and to make others better.

              I’m working on a song
                that wakes men up
             and lets children sleep. 

                                    ­­­–– Carlos Drummond de Andrade

                                         (Translated by Lloyd Schwartz)

Red Letter Poem #29

“How deserted lies the city,/ once so full of people!/ How like a widow is she,/ who once was great among the nations!”  Teresa Cader’s poem, too, is a lamentation, a word that calls up its biblical roots.  But it doesn’t take a poet to know that great loss is indeed possible, that the temple of our peaceful days can quickly be turned into rubble.

We all remember when the pandemic struck; overnight, our towns became desolate and fear, too, was contagion.  And now, as the year draws to a close, such dark forces have been unleashed in our nation that many despair for democracy’s very survival. Perhaps that’s where a poet’s skill is required: in refocusing what we know to reveal the deepest resonance, to expose the dizzying implications.  I think Teresa’s poem possesses a devastating beauty because it takes what is close at hand and suddenly, with a dramatic shift in reference, gives us a god’s-eye view of our moment together on this planet.

Without resorting to polemics, she quietly reminds us that our decisions matter, shape our fate: what we owe to each other – to our community, commonwealth, country – in small and great moments of choice, will write the next verse of our lives.  If her poem is a quiet Jeremiad, it speaks, not as a prophet, but another compassionate citizen shopping in the same marketplace as we do, struggling with the same challenges, resting nearby (but at a ‘social distance’) in our neighborhood park.  Perhaps that’s poetry’s most enigmatic quality: in operating within the most personal and specific it achieves a universality where every reader can recognize their reflection.

I introduced Teresa’s work in Red Letter #4, mentioning her three poetry collections -- History of HurricanesThe Paper Wasp, and Guests – and her numerous awards, including The Norma Farber First Book Award, The Journal Charles B. Wheeler Poetry Prize, and fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Bunting Institute at Radcliffe, and more.  I can add here that “The Season…”, which appeared recently in Passengers Journal, is part of a sequence of poems responding to our current crisis; she is also at work on a memoir.

The Season of Our Sundering 

Under locust trees, in the blossoming park by Town Hall,
masked and unmasked walkers dip hands in the fountain pool,

cool on this hot day, a limbic throwback to summers
at Walden or Long Pond, a day’s release from work.

Near a young pear tree, I sit on a stone bench in noon sun,
watch my country divide. She that was great among the nations, 

Jeremiah grieved, and princess among the provinces, how is she
become tributary! She weepeth sore in the night. Our resident ER doc

posts to the town Facebook list: help us save lives, help us
flatten…Jeremiah was thrown into a cistern of mud, despised,

imprisoned. And whatever prayer is, I pray for the mocked
and the deniers. My breathlessness is easing. I can walk up stairs,

stroll here like the others. I have no God to talk to, though I try.

                                                      ­­­–– Teresa Cader

Red Letter Poem #28

The list poem is part of an ancient and honorable tradition. A cataloging of images, names, or events, you find the technique used to great effect in the Bible and Homer; Walt Whitman often used his unreeling litanies to make the diverse conglomeration of his America sing! onto the page.  So, in honor of Alice Kociemba’s Red Letter contribution, a list:

*  How fortifying, to read Alice’s words of gratitude when the daily news is driving us to distraction.

*  How sly of the poet to make her phrasing seem so casual and off-handed, even as its rhythms carefully build and release, plucking at the strings of our own taut nerves.

*  How generous, to remind us that the inconsequential moments of our days are still our days!  And may actually reveal quiet depths of feeling.

*  And why does the heart plummet, just a bit, when she mentions “a single cup”?

*  And when she risks addressing that “someone” who might be “taking care," I began wondering what my someone was like – and how desperate the night would feel to a person who suspected no one accompanied them toward that dawn.

*  And I must offer my thanks to her for bringing this “Thank you” poem to a close with a startling image that feels both lavish and utterly true.

*  And I should let you know that Alice is the author of Bourne Bridge (Turning Point) and the chapbook Death of Teaticket Hardware.  She’s published widely in literary journals and anthologies.

*  And I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention that she is the founding director of Calliope Poetry which hosts poetry readings and writing workshops on Cape Cod, where she works tirelessly to keep their mission as her guide: Appreciate. Create. Celebrate.

Thank you

for today, for reminding me at midnight
to put the laundry in the washer
and for no bad dreams,
and for waking me up at 3 AM to put those clothes in the dryer,
and for breathing,
and for a quick return to dreamless sleep
and for waking me up before the alarm,
and for remembering to set the timer on the coffee pot the night before,
and for having enough Mind Body Soul to make a single cup
and for that feeling that someone,
even the ghost of me,
is taking care of me
and for dawn when sudden snow outlined the limbs of trees
and for silence, which is white
before it sputters gray,
and for being stuck behind the sander,
doing 20 down Woods Hole Road,
and for not hurrying, not worrying,
not pressuring myself to be on time.
And thank you for taking that crown of thorns I’ve fashioned
from my barbed attempts at perfection
and turning it into a tiara of stars—

                                -- Alice Kociemba

      Red Letter Poem #27

When our family was young, we called it apple weather – those crisp, sun-skimmed days of early October – and immediately began making plans for an excursion west to visit an orchard.  More than just the apple-picking, we loved having time together, wandering the green aisles, climbing rickety ladders into the tangled branches to select that perfect specimen, sun’s fickle kindness on our upturned faces even as the cold breeze skirmished at our backs.  

Jessie Brown’s lovely poem imbues apple weather into every bracing line – but also something more, something that I think is especially ingrained in the consciousness of New Englanders: the inseparable connection between the dazzle of autumn days and the intimation of winter’s dark approach, the savor of late beauty magnified by the knowledge of impending loss.  Perhaps, behind the urge to press the harvest into cider, is our wish that it can endure beyond that of each fragile fruit – even though every sweet sip exacts (if only in dreams, in poems) its mortal price.  But knowing all this, we can begin to take some responsibility for the green revival, and for what will await the generations that follow ours.

Jessie is the author of two short collections, What We Don’t Know We Know (Finishing Line Press) and Lucky (Anabiosis Press). Her poems and translations have appeared in local and national journals like The Comstock Review, New Madrid, Full Bleed, Minerva Rising, and the American Poetry Review – and her work has earned her a prize from the American Academy of Poets.  She leads independent poetry workshops for adults and serves as a poet-in-residence in schools and libraries around Massachusetts.  But Jessie also works to stretch the ways poetry and other art forms interact; her collaborations with artist Adria Arch have been exhibited along Arlington's Minuteman Bikeway and in other communities.  She is also a founding member of the Alewife Poets, a group that has endured for decades.   

Reviving the Orchard

When the apples tumble, when they rot,
call them sweet.  When they fill the basket, 

marvel.  Learn this rootstock you didn’t plant.  
When the windfalls soften, slide, when they 

perfume your hands as you bend to the barrel, 
lean closer.  Breathe.  This is your inheritance.  

When the soft pulp slicks your wrists. 
When it fills the creases of your nails.

The press wakes, clatter and spurt;  
wheels grind.  The offskim

stinks in the sun.  Wasps clamber 
on the lips of jars.

Let them drink.  Dip the ladle,
lift it to your mouth.  Let them sting.  

                              –– Jessie Brown

Red Letter Poem #26

What Thou Lovest Well, Remains American.  It’s the title of a poetry collection by the late great Richard Hugo – and it sprang instantly to mind when Somerville poet Michael T. Steffen offered his poem “Walleye” to the Red Letters, though I wasn’t quite sure why.  Certainly there’s walleye and pike swimming throughout Hugo’s poetry, as he writes about fishing in Montana and the Pacific Northwest, but that’s merely the superficial.

In Steffen’s poem, set in his childhood home of Norfolk, Nebraska, he elevates the quietly significant dramas of small-town life until they fill memory’s spot-lit stage (and certainly Hugo would smile upon that.)  Especially for a young person, these glimpses of how grownups live, what they value, how their small gestures end up assuming an outsized significance – these are part of our essential education.  The poem is filled with contrasts and transformations: the neighbor changing from the besuited businessman, governed by his banker’s hours, into the “scruffy” and perhaps more thoroughly-satisfied fisherman; those delectable smells of fish frying turning into the “stubborn stink” that’s left behind; and even the hazy weather that rewards the fisherman’s patience compared to the bright blue Monday morning that drives fish to hide in the shadows.  Steffen’s restrained imagery and sometimes darting syntax require a similar patience if readers are to reel in what’s moving there beneath the surface – which, to my mind, includes the sort of elusive but well-loved experiences that feels quintessentially American.

Steffen’s poetry has appeared in venues such as Another Chicago MagazineThe Boston GlobeHarvard Review OnlineIbbetson Street, and Taos Journal. His first book, Partner, Orchard, Day Moon, was published in 2014.  A new collection, On Earth As It Is, is forthcoming from Cervena Barva Press and from which today’s poem is taken.  I, for one, am grateful to be the beneficiary of this poet’s bountiful catch.

Walleye

In the gray areas, at dawn or dusk,
or in the “chop” of lakes on windy days
walleye feed only where they’re advantaged
by the vision of their eye which in fact

protrudes as though beaming at a wall.
My friend’s father, a banker, would leave
his banker’s hours some weekends
to come home late Sunday afternoon

scruffy, haggard and smelly, a banker’s
opposite, with coolers full of crushed ice
and gutted walleye with the heads—
like pike toothed agape in token menace,

like perch with fanned double back fins.
Only like themselves agog in either
genuine remorse or resentment, god knew.
Our homes that took in the sportsman’s

generosity were at first aromatized hazily
by herbs and the crumbly flesh sautéed in butter—
that finally left a stubborn stink.
Slept, shaven, in his suit and tie again

he’d drive back off for his desk at the bank
with his windshield glinting under the sun
and blue sky that drove the walleye
away from the shoreline back to the deep end.

                                    –– Michael T. Steffen

Red Letter Poem #25

Back in 1969, when we were sending our first men to the moon, I heard this lament on many news broadcasts: “if only we could send a poet along with the crew….” Being a young writer at the time, the notion was a source of pride: that we all might be able to grasp unimaginable situations via the leap of a poet’s imagination.

I recalled this thought while reading Dorian Brooks’ poem “Unlatch.”  I am not a woman; I will never understand how a mother feels for that little being born from her own body.  And even after many news reports, it is difficult to fully imagine the plight of an immigrant parent, desperate for asylum, whose family’s survival hangs in the balance.  But Dorian’s poem offers readers a vital, almost physical intimation of what exists beyond the headlines.  And somewhere, in the tension between the beautiful restriction of the sonnet and the unbound emotionality of the subject matter, our hearts too are launched.

Born  and raised in Connecticut, Dorian has made Arlington her home since 1985.  Her poems have been collected in two books: A Pause in the Light (Holy Cow! Press) and The Wren's Cry (Ibbetson Street Press), and have appeared in numerous literary journals.  (“Unlatch” first appeared in Ibbetson Street magazine last fall in an earlier form.)  Dorian writes: “Poetry, for me, is a way of trying to make emotional sense of the world and our place in it, through form, metaphor, and imagination” – and this poem is a perfect example.  An activist, she cofounded with Anna Watson the group Solidarity with American Indians to raise awareness of attitudes toward Native peoples as reflected in the media and popular culture; and she is a past president of the Lexington-area chapter of NOW. 

Unlatch

A woman from Honduras recalled how officials
took away her baby while she was breastfeeding.
­                —The Guardian, June 16, 2018  

I wonder, when they came to take away
babies from nursing mothers, did they snatch
them off, or let the mothers finish, the way
midwives and manuals taught them – to unlatch 

as naturally as breathing?  Carefully
crook your pinky finger and slip it into
your baby’s mouth.  Turn your finger slowly
to break the suction, ease it nearer you  

a little bit, then rest.  I like to think 
at least a few officials had the heart
to let a mother linger – giving one last drink

to her child – before they pulled the pair apart
  and neither one knew where the other went,

  an empty sky, their nourishment.

—  Dorian Brooks


See poems from No. 15 to No. 24 here >>


This poetic outreach was updated Oct. 30, 2020.

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