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No. 47: Red Letter Poem: Host of voices

UPDATED, Feb. 19: 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. 

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 #47

If you’re not familiar with the work of Afaa Michael Weaver – award-winning poet, fiction writer, educator and soon-to-be memoirist – you might want to dive right in to the three books of his monumental verse achievement, Plum Flower Trilogy. But when he offered me a Red Letter contribution, my mind went immediately to a modest-looking 13-poem chapbook, A Hard Summation, published by Central Square Press in Cambridge, MA.  

Hard? I’d have said nearly impossible – because Afaa set himself the challenge of weaving together 400 years of the African-American experience in this brief sequence – stretching from the Middle Passage to the Great Migration and up into our contemporary city landscapes.  He conjures a host of voices and scenarios, clothed in dictions that range from the rural South to the patois of Northern urban streets – inflected, at times, by Gospel chant, the formal stance of the sonnet, or his own style of musically charged free verse.  As our country, at last, begins to wrestle with its troubled racial history, A Hard Summation should be an essential resource in the deepening conversation.

Throughout the sequence, we’re introduced to a litany of names and voices: from children listed on a slave ship manifest, to cultural and civil rights figures, to those anonymous men and women just trying to make it through another day.  In this, the closing poem of the collection, we feel the presence of Heaven Sutton, a seven-year-old girl shot and killed in her West Side Chicago neighborhood, the collateral damage of gang violence. 

 As in all the poems here, the losses, the fleeting joys are individual, intimate, rich with the sort of visceral impressions that history books often fail to document.  Afaa’s writing offers us (as the poem says) “a respite from history,” the chance to be moved by the music and emotional valence of these thoughts, so that we might begin to make our own peace with what we’re carrying within us.

On the Passing of Heaven Sutton

In the year the Mayans said our world ends,
I sit in my basement apartment, The Cave,
my neighbors from lives different from mine.

It is a most peculiar way to be sixty, up here
from down south, no way to know where up is,
what up is or should be, only what it used to be.

Winters in Boston go inside my bones until
I feel the center of nothing, where people 
grow old singing Shine on Me in a capella.

It is the center of alien coldness, hearts naked
to ice, to a blank sun, a nakedness that says it is 
the only choice, one that owns love’s essence.

I am black because I enter that space, people
see I am the door to what they ache to know,
the long corridors and rooms of our freedom,

a place where I refuse to be told I cannot dream
my own dreams, a place where people like me
agree to offer love from an uneasy forgiveness.

Nights become deep stillness, I do a soul dance
with ancestors building a respite from history,
arguing against the hard summation of slavery,

the truth of our black wish for humanity, a seed
made from resistance, bright moments where
we teach America the song of our right to live.

                           –– Afaa Michael Weaver 

  

Red Letter Poem #46

s e x, of course – the ever-present siren-song of our physicality, that’s one element.  Love, absolutely – our need for deep connection, in all its wildly inventive incarnations.  And it involves the act of reaching out – embracing another’s loneliness; risking the surrender of all the artful barriers we’ve devised to safeguard our own.  But in the end, we’re won over, seduced by that dreamed-of possibility: we – ours – knowing – and home.

I’ve been thinking about art-making, and it seems to me it too is a kind of valentine. This is especially true of Sarah Bennett’s delightful poem, selected to celebrate the hearts-and-flowers holiday.  In fact, isn’t language itself a form of seduction, whispering its sweet nothings into our eager ears until we no longer resist and partner in its brief dance?

“Phasmids” comes from Sarah’s beguiling collection, The Fisher Cat (Dytiscid Press) in which her lyrics are, by turns, veiled or unexpectedly exposed, spurred by the poet’s nimble inventiveness.  She is (by her own description) a book designer, gardener, clarinet player and appreciator of the natural world. Way back in the 1980s, before the current trend, she was selected as the poet laureate of Worcester, MA.

Out of nothing – signs, sounds – words construct an ephemeral something that feels as tangible as the chair we’re sitting in, the page beneath our fingertips.  In “Phasmids,” every element of the poem is designed to invite the mind’s participation – even that caesura (a pregnant pause?) between that quiet “unnoticed” and the startling “Show me…”.  Tell me: How can anyone resist this delightful will-you-be-mind?

Phasmids

Two walking sticks in love
were leaning against
the shingled shed.
Gravity has a special force
between two like objects and
he wrapped his secret stem around
her twig tighter
than a morning glory.
Eggs dropped onto the ground,
unnoticed.      Show me
any more enthralled
by desire than those
two sticks.

                –– Sarah Bennett

Red Letter Poem #45

“We’re considered blow-ins,” my Irish friend once explained (the image being that of dried leaves carried in on a random breeze), “because we’ve only lived in Sligo for forty years.”  It took me a moment to let that sink in.  “But our children, who were born here – perhaps they’ll be thought of as locals.  If not, then certainly our children’s children.”  By such a calculation, almost all of us are blow-ins, conveyed by winds of history, politics, economics, or unbridled dreams.  We’ve arrived upon some untested territory, hoping to establish a new life – and wondering, all the while, how the locals will receive us.

Jenny Xie was born in China’s Anhui province but resettled with her family in Piscataway, N.J., where she spent her school years.  Later, studying at Princeton – and writing in her second language, no less – she began garnering attention and winning prizes for her poetry. 

To say her debut collection, Eye Level (Graywolf Press, 2018) was well-received is quite the understatement; among the cascade of honors it received was the Walt Whitman Award from the Academy of American Poets, and it was chosen as a finalist for the National Book Award.  What I find remarkable in her writing is the unflinching way she explores the sense of native and foreign within every individual. 

While her poems possess a marvelous specificity concerning the immigrant experience, they reach far beyond that.  Between those dark stations from which we each arrive and eventually depart this life, there are the diverse landscapes we travel through, each making as much of a claim upon us as we do on them.  In a time when the very word immigrant has been cast by some Americans to be a sign of threat, Jenny’s poems helped me to better feel the ground beneath my own feet.  It’s clear to me her passport (like the ones we are all issued at birth) is from the province of Self.  And when we meet one another like this, eye to eye, our new visas are validated.

Naturalization

His tongue shorn, father confuses
snacks for snakeskitchen for chicken.
It is 1992. Weekends, we paw at cheap
silverware at yard sales. I am told by mother
to keep our telephone number close,
my beaded coin purse closer. I do this.
The years are slow to pass, heavy-footed.
Because the visits are frequent, we memorize
shame’s numbing stench. I nurse nosebleeds,
run up and down stairways, chew the wind.
Such were the times. All of us nearsighted.
Grandmother prays for fortune
to keep us around and on a short leash.
The new country is ill-fitting, lined
with cheap polyester, soiled at the sleeves.

                            ––  Jenny Xie

Red Letter Poem #44

Because Covid has consumed nearly all our public health bandwidth, it may be hard to remember there had been, before its onset, another serious crisis ravaging our nation: an epidemic of drug addiction and overdoses affecting nearly every community.  Lee Varon found herself writing numerous poems about the subject – not out of some sociological concern but because "substance use disorder" (as it’s called) had taken its toll on her son. 

When a mother fears that an illness threatens the lives of her family, there are no limits to which she won’t go in trying to protect them – but in addition to medical interventions and family support groups, she found that writing gave her additional strength to endure.  Birds as symbols – as 'psychic messengers" – seemed to make frequent appearances in the poems and so a manuscript began taking shape, now titled Birds of Addiction. 

What I appreciate about Lee’s poems is the way a sense of foreboding – a quiet siege of the heart – seems to color all her language and imagery until we, too, begin to feel how pervasive this illness really is – not just for those suffering from it but all who love them.  She really did notice those winter harbingers on the day of that ER visit, but of course the bird’s name hints at doubled meanings – especially when phrased as: “Dusky juncos/arrive like a relapse.”

Then there is that “torn shirt”. . .and the interminable wait. . ..  Suddenly my heart too felt endangered – even while trying (as the poet explained to me) “to search for glimmers of hope and healing.”  Faced with such a crisis, perhaps I’d also find myself imagining (as some spiritual texts have it) that juncos can represent our will to survive even the most terrible of challenges.  But without a doubt I believe in that act of undaunted art-making that compels a poet to, not only document such struggles, but share those texts publicly: as witness, as encouragement. 

The fact that her son is now in recovery is the sort of triumph others can draw strength from.  Lee’s two previous collections are Shot in the Head (Sunshot Press), and Letters to a Pedophile (Encircle Publications) – and she is at work on a book for children addressing the opioid epidemic so that this topic will not remain another of society’s unspeakables.     

Juncos at the ER 

Hummingbirds
have departed.

Dusky juncos
arrive like a relapse.
Life is more
than euphoric desolation.

I want to grab your torn shirt
your trembling hands …

It takes forever for the nurses to come…
They have heart attacks, strokes, maybe a Covid Case.

Juncos show up as spirit guides when:
You need to be able to survive in every situation. 

                                      –– Lee Varon

Red Letter Poem #43

Like most of you, I watched history "turn a page" this week as a new president was inaugurated.  And I’m thinking of how that literary metaphor carries with it visions of a blank expanse upon which anything might now be written, an eruption of pure possibility.  But equally precious is the reassurance that the deep knowledge in all those preceding pages will still remain available to us, helping to guide our next steps.  It’s one of the reasons that, at even so auspicious a ceremony as this, some of our presidents have called on poets to join their elevated language with that of the political and the prayerful. Such well-crafted words are capable of embodying spirit, conveying vision from one mind to another, rekindling belief.  They form so powerful a signifier, we shouldn’t be surprised when, at moments of great joy or humbling grief, we find ourselves returning to poems.

And, sadly, the opposite is also true: When the desire is to subjugate a people, one of the things most tyrants do is to suppress the native language and the treasure house of symbols stored in its cultural memory. Several years back, Moira Linehan began a long journey toward researching the lives of her four paternal great-grandparents and reclaiming some of her own personal history.  Her efforts were rewarded with writing residencies at the Cill Rialaig Project in Co. Kerry and the Tyrone Guthrie Centre in Co. Monaghan.

In her strong and quietly mysterious poems, she reminds us of how the British attempted to wipe away Gaelic from Ireland’s populace, though they were never wholly successful.  In “Toward,” the title poem of her new collection from Slant Books, she seems willing to risk losing herself in the exploration in order to come upon some hard-won sense of what really matters.  And that is often poetry’s true subject: what lies beyond words but may be conjured through its music.  What more could a person (or a country) desire than a taste of what is true and the freedom to follow where it leads?  I hope we possess some of Moira’s determination and can join her in saying that’s where we’re headed now. 

Toward 

               (Tyrone Guthrie Centre, Co. Monaghan)

I walk a mile down the road to Newbliss,
walk a mile away, walk the wooded path
along the lake and out onto the lane
winding between muddy green hills. I’m nowhere
but among mournful cows, their eyes bottomless 
wells that know a soul’s dark nights. All their lives
cows stay put. One foot to the next I keep
moving, an end point always in mind: village,
next hillock, rounding the lake’s loop. On I walk
without being able to say why I must.
The language here has been lost, words like woods
cut down, hauled off or abandoned. Yet
something remains of those who spoke it. What
has always been beyond words, even when
they had their own. That’s where I’m headed.

                                       –– Moira Linehan

Red Letter Poem #42

In praise of fathers and mothers.  No, not the ones we are born to – I’d hope we need no reminder for that gratitude.  I mean those cultural/spiritual/societal patriarchs and matriarchs who materialized somewhere in our lives and helped, by their example, form who we are.  There are individuals whom we might never have met in the flesh and yet are beholden to just the same.  I’d need more hands than I possess to count the number of poets and artists whose lives and works I so admired they catalyzed something in me that I might not have otherwise trusted – might not even have believed was there.

Bonnie Bishop, a poet of deep feeling, can list as many of these honored forebears in the musical world as she does in the realm of letters.  It’s one of the reasons she and her husband spend so much time down in New Orleans, so they can be close to many of the jazz performers they love. Case in point: the ‘Ellis’ of her poem is, of course, Ellis Marsalis Jr.: gifted jazz pianist, educator, and patriarch of the famed Marsalis family, who died this past April at the age of 85, yet another light snuffed out by Covid-19.  Not only did Ellis teach jazz improvisation to generations of young musicians, he made his home into something of a cultural salon and music academy for neighborhood kids – and along the way launched four of his sons into prominent musical careers of their own.  But his focus was never solely on the sounds coming out from the instruments but on the excitement emanating from young hearts.

And I think the lesson here is that we, in every generation, need to honor what we’ve been given by making sure we too have offered such gifts to other, more recent arrivals.  To recognize those influences we carry within us is to comprehend more fully the constellation of energies we call a life.  But to pass on some of that energy, in whatever form we are capable of shaping and focusing it, is to rebuff the atomized vision of contemporary existence and know we are interconnected in barely-imaginable ways.  Lacking a musical instrument, Bonnie here uses careful observation and lyrical phrasing to invite us to tune in to a vast composition of which Mr. Marsalis’ songs were one small part. 

Ellis 

From the balcony of Snug,
I peer past his shoulders:
gold wedding band, watch-
face slightly canted, hands
broad, brown as the river.
His fingers sluice over

white keys, black keys
and unlock history
of blues, bop, gospel,
deliver familiar passages
while silting old spillways,
inscribing new ones. 

          – Bonnie Bishop 

                                (from: River Jazz,

            Every Other Thursday Press)      

Red Letter Poem #41

The first thing to know about literary ‘translation’: It’s an impossibility – especially when it comes to poetry. Not only are there rarely direct equivalencies between languages; there’s the matter of those inestimable mysteries: musical intonation, cultural memory and the subtle connotations only a native speaker would detect. That’s why Steven Cramer refers to his poetic carry-overs as versions, so that a reader will be aware that he’s not aiming at an exact lexical replica but a poem that might create, inside the mind of a reader of English, something close to the effect the original had on its own audience. After all, what good would it be to recreate, feather by feather, a bird seemingly identical to its model from a foreign land if yours can neither sing nor fly?

So why do poets like Cramer attempt this impossible task – often having to partner with linguists or build upon numerous earlier attempts, all in search of a version with true vitality?  I think it begins in the aspirations for his own poetry. He’s the author of six collections, the most recent being Listen (MadHat Press), from which today’s piece is taken. His writing has such keen emotional nuance and imaginative daring that he knows how much faith a poet must place in the art form, what his/her years of effort hope to embody.  And so it’s literally painful to read a poor translation from an admired figure, feeling the poet’s creation crushed beneath the weight of awkward or (worse) unimpassioned verbiage. 

Osip Mandelstam – a native of Poland, transplanted to St. Petersburg with his family when he was still a boy – became arguably modern Russia’s greatest lyric poet. He too understood what it meant to contend with a new language and its obstacles. And later, under Stalin’s brutal regime, he saw how a poem might become the purest expression of freedom – even as it cost him his home, his life.

In Cramer’s version, I experience a sort of winter-inwardness that feels most appropriate in our own hard season (both the one marked by the calendar, and those of our health and political crises – all those dark cubicles we wake to each day, stretching endlessly into the distance.)  How can an American poet not make an effort to provide his countrymen and women (who, sadly, tend to dwell inside a single language) with at least a taste of other songs, possible worlds – so we too might avail ourselves of that wider sky. 

from Three Versions of Mandelstam 

1909

What should I do with this body?
I’m it and it’s me.  Who do I thank

for the quiet luck of breath, for being
alive: please tell me.  I’m very good

at gardening and flowering.  I’m
my own companion in the world’s

solitary. Breathing on the window
of infinity, I can see a pattern

in the warm haze left on the glass,
a sign I hadn’t recognized till now:

it condenses, gone; but the design
I love can’t be effaced.  That stays.

                                –– Steven Cramer

Red Letter Poem #40

The new, for better or worse, is perhaps the most prized quality in art-making: the cutting-edge creative style, voice or subject matter.  But in truth all creation, even the most radical, has a bond with all that came before.  What else could we fashion new work from – or rebel against – but the world we’ve inherited?  Our lives, our efforts are links in a chain – in a tangled multiplicity of chains – that join us to sources often obscured in time’s vast seas.

Red Letter #37 was Lloyd Schwartz’s lovely poem “Song.”  Of course, we can never know where a poem finds its genesis, but I was fascinated by this early memory Lloyd recounted: his mother reciting Coleridge’s "Kubla Khan" aloud to him when he was too young to read.  I believe there is always a sound-signature that great poems leave on us.  And though they might not have been consciously in mind, Lloyd mentioned Frost’s “Fire and Ice”and Elizabeth Bishop’s “Sonnet” as part of his poem’s musical ancestry.

Deborah Melone (the author of Farmers’ Market and The Wheel of the Year from Every Other Thursday Press) read Lloyd’s poem and was enthralled by its music – so much so that, after a few days, a new poem began taking shape in her notebook, one trying to recapture how that music had catalyzed something inside her.  I love how the sound of her poem chimes along with a certain regularity – even as the imagery in each stanza twists and tugs to retain its freedom.  And now, reading Deborah’s poem, who knows: maybe some of you, dear readers, will fall under Deborah’s melodic spell and be surprised by a new voice rising up in your own mind. 

Ch’eng T’ang, the first king of the Shang Dynasty, seeking a formula for happiness, had these words inscribed on his washbasin (nearly four millennia before Ezra Pound turned the Chinese phrase into a Modernist manifesto): Make it new, and again make it new.  So as 2021 makes its debut, and we attempt to put the old awful year behind us, I’ll offer this wish: may we wash ourselves each morning in that ancient aspiration and rejuvenate possibility.  But in doing so, may we also be mindful of all those hands that came before us, and all those yet to come: how every individual cups the same cool waters, dreaming of renewal.

Sense/Nonsense

I cook with my nose
When the toast burns
I snatch it out with tongs

I hear with my eyes
When the cat yearns
I recognize her songs

I taste with my ears
When the meat sears
I hear the flavor’s wrong

I know with my hands
When the pain churns
I jolt if it’s too strong

I see with my heart
When things come apart
I learn where they belong

                 — Deborah Melone


See poems from No. 33 to No. 39 here >>


This poetic outreach was updated Feb. 19, 2021.

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