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No. 62: Red Letter Poems: Uncharted waters
UPDATED, June 4: 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.
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 Culture, The Arlington Center for the Arts, The Arlington Public Library, The 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.
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 #62
“One doesn’t discover new lands without consenting to lose sight of the shore for a very long time.” This formulation by Andre Gide – Nobel laureate and, perhaps, modern France’s greatest man of letters – seems as good a rationale as any for the generalization that poetic genius tends to be expressed quite early in a writer’s career (think Keats or Rimbaud.) Perhaps the young poet has less commitment to the comfort and stability of our settled land-locked existence, and is thus more willing to venture out beyond even the safe limits.
Or perhaps – from a different perspective – the young tend to possess a sense of their own invulnerability; daring experimentation, then, is just another way of testing imaginative capabilities and taking one’s bearings. It’s my impression, from the poems I’ve read of Yim Tan Wong, that this writer is comfortable sailing out into uncharted waters, pursuing – if not the promise of achieving something new – then at least the possibility. Her shifting tones of voice and unpredictable bursts of imagery often make for a wild ride. But there is nothing frivolous about the passage each poem invites us to share; clearly the poet’s heart is both compass and ballast.
Born in Kowloon, Hong Kong, Yim Tan grew up in the mill town of Fall River, Mass. She is a Kundiman Emerging Asian American Poets Fellow and holds an MFA from Hollins University. Her first poetry collection has been a finalist for Four Way Books’ Levis Prize as well as the Alice James Books/Kundiman Poetry Prize. I’ve read her work in a number of literary journals and am not alone in anticipating her book’s publication. White Noise, making its debut here, seems to reflect the cerebral static we’ve all been experiencing for the year-and-a-half of our Covid existence. But is its voice the sort of broadcast babble we have a hard time escaping – or our own inner narrator trying to cut through the dissonance of our torrential fears?
As the poem’s no-nonsense speaker barks out her cryptic commands, I for one could feel my own “possibility machine” shifting into gear. Speaking for the multitude of no-longer-young poets (or readers of poems, for that matter), I’m happy for Yim Tan’s reminder: that even the willingness to venture into undiscovered territory cannot help but add wind to our sails. And, of course, there have been numerous gray poets who kept on dazzling us well into old age (think Szymborska or Ruth Stone.) “I practice at walking the void,” wrote Theodore Roethke – a poet who grew more daring with the years. Yim Tan Wong’s poem salutes that spirit.
Turn the television off
The stereo too
All appliances and lights
Cut the ignition to your worrying machine
Resist the furniture
Resist what you have been told
Comfort, safety and reason are
Cut the ignition to your confusion machine
Stop guessing the future
And don’t let the past
Tell you who you are
Don’t let the past
Talk that way to you
Make demands of the modern, convenient,
urban, suburban, urbane jungle
Noisy overthinking inflames the swollen tentacles of delusion
Stop barking up invisible trees
Dress the part of someone escaping
The worry machine
Put on this shirt made of garden-fresh
Sink your fingers into the muck just because
You don’t know what hides there
Leave every window open
Let in the night sounds
Let in the cold, let in fireflies,
Let in the fire
Let the waters rise around you
So you become a new
With its own flowers, trees, its own four-leggeds,
Finned ones and winged ones,
Its own pandemic poisons and cures
Its own anti-viral loaded memory
to your possibility machine
–– Yim Tan Wong
Red Letter Poem #61
I love this story: A father, José Ruiz, is an accomplished painter but a poorly paid teacher at the local art school in Málaga. He begins offering art instruction to his young, willful, but obviously gifted son. As time passes, the boy’s abilities seem to develop with uncanny speed. Eventually, examining one of his child’s efforts, the parent is so deeply moved he leaves the room and returns with his own set of paints and brushes and gives them to young Pablo, aged 13 – and Picasso the Elder retires from painting.
The anecdote can be seen as an example of the deep humility any teacher must bring to the enterprise of developing young minds. But it is also illustrative of the pain – the glorious, soul-shaking self-examination – every good teacher must face if they are to enable those same students to eventually break free and carve out their own path in the world, perhaps to even eclipse the very teacher who first spurred them on.
Something of that dynamic is taking place inside Steven Cramer’s marvelously edgy poem “Justice,” an homage to the esteemed poet and educator Donald Justice, who taught Steven at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. In fact, Justice’s reputation as a gifted teacher at times surpassed his stature as a poet – though, in a wonderful essay written after his mentor’s passing in 2004, Steven makes clear his high regard for each of Justice’s twin devotions.
And yet, there is that moment of breaking away, of wresting control from even the memory of one’s teacher – the hard but necessary step every one of us must take if we’re to make our best efforts resolutely our own. The poem skates along that knife’s edge: how to turn away from and yet maintain deep affection for those who helped form our impressionable selves. And for those of us not lucky enough to have had a teacher like Justice, I recommend the collection Compendium, assembled by two of his former students; they brought together all of the poet’s pedagogical materials on the art of prosody – the form and musicality that distinguishes poems from all other writing.
It’s hardly a coincidence that Steven has authored six highly regarded collections of poetry, while also becoming a talented and rigorous teacher at Lesley University (where he was the founding director of their MFA program.) Here, in the heart of commencement season, it’s good to be reminded that such work honors those teachers that inspired our own growth, even as we in turn cultivate the minds of young students just beginning to rise – the truest form of poetic justice.
While corks popped, I led you up
through flickers, then swells, of applause.
Your lectern was a cairn of books, mine
risen from the base of yours.
You bowed. Not unlike, I thought, that bum
rummaging through trash near the hotel vestibule.
“Vestibule, in a poem,” you said, “undoes
everything I taught you. Still, keep trash.”
Peering out, you winced, as when you’d tear
your glasses off and hold
our mimeo-blue bones up to the light.
Once, I swear, I saw you sniff.
“Now, now, if ever, love opening your eyes,”
you began, the line not yours but Weldon Kees—
yet done such justice, everyone
longed to be you being him . . . except me,
sorry. I’m keeping vestibule,
glad you liked trash. Though I can’t defend the bum,
he stays. Afterwards, we allowed
one hug, as we’d never done
in a world where acids yellow
the signatures of your perfect-bound
debut, shelved between József and Juvenal.
The heat of that hug; the Bentons we shared; our smoke.
–– Steven Cramer
(from: Listen – MadHat Press)
Red Letter Poem #60
Just a short time ago, I was sitting on my son’s back porch playing with his toddler son. Little George would call to me: “Baw, baw!” And when I rolled the ball to him, he’d snatch at it with both hands and then applaud at the marvel of it all: he simply speaks a word, and Papa understands precisely what he needs. It seems a few weeks have passed, and George is about to turn 5, a precocious boy who is prone to lecture me on the difference between a tower crane and a gantry crane at the construction site – or why referring to that long-necked creature in the picture book as a brontosaurus is no longer deemed correct; “paleontologists now call him a brachiosaurus, Papa,” and he gives me a bemused look. What a privilege: to witness a small being acquiring that most astonishing of tools, language, with which we each come to believe we might chart the vast distances between one thought and another – or, even more mind-boggling, between one galaxy (mine), and the one you inhabit, sitting there across the room.
And Jenny Barber – whose poems seem to alternate between those quiet reaches within our hearts and the breathtakingly-mutable world without – reminds us that there is yet an even greater level of complexity involved when we attempt to rocket a probe into the deep space between one language and another. But the impulse propelling us is not so very different from George’s: by what name can I conjure that object of desire; and how can I ever know if my signal has reached you?
Jenny has a new book of poetry, The Sliding Boat Our Bodies Made, that will appear from The Word Works in 2022. Her earlier collections include Works on Paper (also from The Word Works) and Given Away (Kore Press, 2012) from which today’s Red Letter is taken. Equally impressive to me is the fact that, in 1992, Jenny founded the literary journal Salamander, serving as its editor in chief through 2018 and patiently nurturing its evolution. Hers was a commitment to create a space where the voices of young and diverse talents could test the powers of their own language experiments and launch them in our direction. The journal has become one of the most vital in New England and is now centered at Suffolk University in Boston.
In the Hebrew Primer
A man. A woman. A road.
Nouns like mountain and gate,
water and famine,
wind and wilderness
arrange themselves in two
columns on the page.
The verbs are
remember and guard;
the verbs are
give birth to and glean.
The eye picks its way
through letters like
torches and doors, like scythes.
The harvest, the dust.
The day calls, the night sings
from the threshing floor.
A woman, a man:
I was, you were, we were.
–– Jennifer Barber
Red Letter Poem #59
Paradisal, don’t you think? Those images on television commercials or older programs where people approach – in a cafe, on the street – and just talk to each other! Sometimes even with strangers! And in some instances – I tremble just to think of it – they embrace! Fifteen months ago, such ordinary contact would not have earned our attention, let alone our rejoicing. But now, after our long isolation and the gradual arrival of Covid vaccines, we’ve begun a process people are calling re-entry – slowly feeling our way back into the shared world. But much has happened in the interim – aside from the pandemic – and it’s not quite the same place we retreated from all those months ago.
Adnan Onart’s poem comes from those before-times, when our human instinct for connection, conversation, kinship could be given easy expression. Beginning with the title, his poem adopts a playful tone, gently defies expectations, leads us in unanticipated directions: how those few narrative details begin to build a small portrait of this chance meeting between strangers; how their simple fellowship is based on ties to their religious tradition, and the uneasy place that earns them in American society.
When the poem takes a darker turn, I found myself wondering about the nature of my own re-entry: how was I going to be more aware of difference, the role it plays in even casual interaction, and my own unexamined biases? Since we’ve all been forced to undergo a collective awakening – concerning issues like race, political ideology, and our suddenly palpable mortality – will we be able to put into practice what we’ve learned about our country, about ourselves, or simply slip back into old patterns of behavior? For me, poems like Adnan’s become a marker by which I can (hopefully) navigate.
Adnan was introduced to Red Letter readers with his wonderful poem “Morning Prayer” (RLP #31), one of the most popular pieces I’ve featured. His work has appeared in a number of journals including Prairie Schooner, Colere Magazine, Red Wheel Barrow, and The Massachusetts Review. His first poetry collection was The Passport You Asked For (The Aeolos Press) – and he is also a talented street photographer, roaming Boston neighborhoods in search of images that illuminate this, his adoptive home. I believe that’s a central theme in all his creative work: what we share – and how that very notion of we comes about in the first place.
Ramadan in Dunkin Donuts
From his asking about the time
and double-checking his watch,
he was about to break his fast.
Selamün Aleyküm, I said,
the only Arabic I knew
for all practical purposes.
Aleyküm Selam, he replied.
He was setting his table:
two donuts, one Chocolate Glazed,
the other Boston Kreme
and a thick lentil soup
he had apparently brought
from the grocery store
across the street.
Do you want to sit down
I thanked him, no.
Aren’t you fasting?
my high blood pressure,
He pointed to one of the donuts:
Still, he said, let’s share.
The collapsing Twin Towers,
the beheaded hostages,
and the jumpy look on people’s faces
hearing my name.
We already do, I said.
–– Adnan Adam Onart
Red Letter Poem #58
I stared at the headline on Yahoo News, convinced I must have misread the startling bold face: “The 50 Richest Americans Are Worth as Much as the Poorest 165 Million.” Drawing on data from a comprehensive U. S. Federal Reserve study examining how income inequality had been exacerbated during the Covid crisis, they charted how dire the situation had become. Inconceivable, isn’t it: a balance scale with 50 wealthy individuals standing on one tray and, on the other, fully one half of the entire American population.
This should not come as news to any of us – but this succinct portrayal of how utterly out-of-balance our society has become felt like a blow to the heart. After all, wasn’t this a theme that ran through the last presidential election? And hadn’t economists been raising red flags for several decades now? No less prominent a Cassandra than hedge fund billionaire Ray Dalio trumpeted this very warning in an essay two years back, and it earned him a spot on almost every news outlet. “I was raised with the belief,” he wrote, “that having equal opportunity to have basic care, good education, and employment is what is fair and best for our collective well-being.” And now he feared that “the income/wealth/opportunity gap is leading to dangerous social and political divisions that threaten [society’s] cohesive fabric and capitalism itself.”
He wasn’t just making a critique of capitalism though; he was giving fair warning to his fellow one-percenters that some reformation of the system was in their self-interest – or else the mobs with pitchforks would be coming soon. And now, after the Jan. 6 insurrection, and the social justice protests across the country, and the vastly disproportionate Corona death rate between communities – perhaps his dark prediction is coming to pass.
Not surprisingly, these forces have given rise to art, cinema and poetry that try to offer a vision of another way forward, one that eschews violence and attempts to remind us of ideals that once knitted our lives together. Arlington’s own Grace Solomonoff is just such a poet. She divides her year between the U.S. and Panama, and each living situation sharpens her perspective on the other. Often, her writing centers on the flora and fauna of the tropics and how she imagines our human place in this environment.
But sometimes her poems are playful, full of mythic and even phantasmagoric imagination, as she nudges readers back to that dreamscape we all once had access to – a place where broad humanist ideals weighed as heavily on the mind’s scale as profit margin. A writer of varied interests, she’s had poems appear in such journals as Prairie Schooner and Mother Jones, and received awards from the Poetry Society of America; but she also co-authored a book on marionettes and articles about artificial intelligence. Hers is a curious mind that wants to savor the full contents of this existence. Perhaps, following her lead, we can step away from our monetary concerns, even for a moment, and remember what led us to dance in the first place. That sort of freedom harms none, rewards the multitudes.
How I Spent My Day at the Bank of America
As the days grew like the money,
stacked up, flat, identical,
we secretaries said, "What can we do?"
From the top floor we danced down
among green confetti.
"Arrest them!" they cried
and we kept dancing.
"Straitjackets!" they cried
and we showered them with silver.
Suddenly the mail boys hip-hopped out
dancing with the finance advisers,
then tellers, waltzing,
corporate executives in a swan lake ballet.
We did the mambo through the hallways,
discoed down the great front steps,
brought silver ingots to the subways
gold pieces in the tenements.
Everywhere we scattered little suns
and the bank was an empty fort,
and we gave all the money away,
and we set the days free.
–– Grace Solomonoff
Red Letter Poem #57
“A strange art – music,” wrote the 19th-century short story master Guy de Maupassant; “— the most poetic and precise of all the arts, vague as dream and precise as algebra.” This won’t come as news to Rita Dove – writer, educator and, more importantly, one of America’s most celebrated poets. She began studying the cello at age 10 and added the viola da gamba in her 20s – but gradually her musical allegiance shifted from the bow to the pen; and the rest, as they say, is history.
Her 1986 breakthrough collection, Thomas and Beulah, was inspired by the lives of her maternal grandparents and the ‘Great Migration’ that resulted in so many Black families resettling in the North. The book was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry, making her only the second African American at the time to be so honored. Since then, a stream of impressive books has followed – and a thorough accounting of the accolades from her lifetime in letters would require much more space than I have at my disposal, but let me mention just two: in 1993, she was appointed as the U.S. Poet Laureate; and in 2011, President Barack Obama hung the prestigious National Medal of Arts around her neck.
But reading through the poetry, it’s clear that her musical training still holds sway. The rhythmical structure, for example, is never merely a support for the language of her poems; it is, in and of itself, a meaning-making instrument by which the poet sounds the reader's emotional depths and helps them navigate uncharted waters. This is especially true in “Testimony: 1968,” the poem I selected for this week’s Red Letter. It will appear in Rita’s forthcoming Playlist for the Apocalypse, her 11th collection, to be released this summer from W. W. Norton (and used with the kind permission of the poet.)
Here, she steps away from the improvisational riffs of free verse to return to the villanelle, a centuries-old ballad-like verse form from the French. Like music, such poems are mechanisms for measuring time: progressions and delays; repetitions and sudden shifts; perfections and (painfully) the all-too-human imperfections within our lives. When I read Rita’s poem, my first reaction was: still?! How can such a dirge still be au courant, a half-century from the events she’s calling to mind? How can it be that we’ve learned nothing from our troubled history? As the poet seems to both speed up and slow down time’s passage, the poem does indeed take on the vague malaise of bad dreams but also the exacting algebra of our recent racial reckoning: who and what resides on either side of the American equal sign? Rita Dove offers no easy assurances. We readers are left to solve for X.
Who comforts you now that the wheel has broken?
No more princes for the poor. Loss whittling you thin.
Grief is the constant now, hope the last word spoken.
In a dance of two elegies, which circles the drain? A token
year with its daisies and carbines is where we begin.
Who comforts you now? That the wheel has broken
is Mechanics 101; to keep dreaming when the joke’s on
you? Well, crazier legends have been written.
Grief is the constant now; hope, the last word spoken
on a motel balcony, shouted in a hotel kitchen. No kin
can make this journey for you. The route’s locked in.
Who comforts you now that the wheel has broken
the bodies of its makers? Beyond the smoke and
ashes, what you hear rising is nothing but the wind.
Who comforts you? Now that the wheel has broken,
grief is the constant. Hope: the last word spoken.
–– Rita Dove
Red Letter Poem #56
Elizabeth Bishop – one of America’s great poets – remained deeply skeptical of the very artform to which she devoted her life. She feared its tendency toward pretense, posturing, imaginative self-deception. In an essay, she declared: “Writing poetry is an unnatural act. It takes great skill to make it seem natural ….“
I think, then, she’d have been intrigued and heartened by the work of Chen Chen, a young poet who is making literary waves. His debut collection, When I Grow Up I Want to Be a List of Further Possibilities (BOA Editions), won the A. Poulin, Jr. Poetry Prize and the Thom Gunn Award; and his writing has brought him fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Kundiman and Saltonstall Foundations, and Lambda Literary. A scion of Frank O’Hara and his ‘walking around poems,’ Chen Chen invites the reader onto the emotional roller-coaster ride that is his inner monologue.
Written in a kind of fevered vernacular, the poems are by turns playful, puzzling, startling and always wildly imaginative. The poet himself has commented in interviews that “I forget how sad some of my poems are because people tend to point out the humor.” But we are so much more willing to take those emotional plunges because of the bracing momentum he’s created, his unspoken belief that the ride is far from over and more breathless surprises await.
Chen Chen was born in Xiamen, China, and grew up in Massachusetts. He teaches at Brandeis University as the Jacob Ziskind Poet-in-Residence. In his poetry, he writes about family – both the one he was born into and that sense of the familial he endeavors to create. Poems touch on the cross-cultural riptides of being a gay Asian male in a society not always hospitable to those qualities. But above all, I think Chen Chen’s work is about joy, in all its manifestations: those all-too-rare skyfuls of fireworks and the diminutive sparkle of the everyday. In his poem “Spell to Find Family,” he writes: “My job is to trick// myself into believing/ there are new ways/ to find impossible honey.” And he performs this trick with deftness and aplomb. Ms. Bishop would approve.
Self-Portrait as So Much Potential
Dreaming of one day being as fearless as a mango.
As friendly as a tomato. Merciless to chin & shirtfront.
Realizing I hate the word “sip.”
But that’s all I do.
I drink. So slowly.
& say I’m tasting it. When I’m just bad at taking in liquid.
I’m no mango or tomato. I’m a rusty yawn in a rumored year. I’m an arctic attic.
Come amble & ampersand in the slippery polar clutter.
I am not the heterosexual neat freak my mother raised me to be.
I am a gay sipper, & my mother has placed what’s left of her hope on my brothers.
She wants them to gulp up the world, spit out solid degrees, responsible grandchildren ready to gobble.
They will be better than mangoes, my brothers.
Though I have trouble imagining what that could be.
Flying mangoes, perhaps. Flying mango-tomato hybrids. Beautiful sons.
–– Chen Chen
This poetic outreach was updated June 4, 2021.
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