UPDATED, July 22: 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. Now, 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 #69
In last week’s Red Letter, I posed the question: What’s it going to take? How – as we emerge from the tangle of crises that have bedeviled us for so long – how will communities across our nation make the hard choices to shape what comes next? Well, by chance, I got to experience firsthand just such a response.
The Arlington Commission for Arts & Culture is a largely volunteer organization tasked with invigorating the arts in our municipality. Arlington Heights, on the western end of town, had not been the focus of much recent arts programming; and so Cecily Miller – the curator for public art and engagement, and a masterful community organizer for all sorts of creative enterprise – came up with Heights Haiku, part of her continuing Neighborhood Haiku initiative.
In this case, it was a juried competition of short-form poems with our town as their general subject. The 42 poems that were finally selected (out of nearly 200 entries) would end up being hand-painted onto 29 shop windows along the main avenue, creating a sort of walk-through anthology. Some of the winners were from published poets; others came from individuals who had never tried their hand at poetry before they participated in one of the writing workshops Cecily organized. All were absolutely delighted to have their poems spotlighted in these public spaces.
Adorning the window of the realtor, Elana Grayson’s poem offers a glimpse of the neighborhood. Her contribution is even more impressive when you learn that she has just graduated from the fifth grade:
Homes of gray, blue, white
Kids biking past, hair flying
Grass, shining with dew
Though Emmanuela Maurice has been writing for a while, she used the occasion of the Heights Haiku workshop to sharpen her skills. Her poem is brimming with pure celebration:
Trees dance with the wind
Birds scat like Nina Simone
Breakfast for the soul.
I have to say, I may never regard the aisles of our hardware store quite the same after reading Jessie Brown’s selection:
Sale: nuts, bolts, rakes
extension cords – what tool
Most history buffs know the story of Paul Revere’s ride through our town on his way to alert the Colonial militia about the coming of the British troops. How can you not smile to read John Pijewski’s delightful bit of anachronism:
On the road to Lexington
Paul Revere can stop for
tacos, curry, sushi, pad thai.
Cecily and her team also created a grand ‘opening night’ event that would both celebrate the arts while providing a bit of support for the local businesses suffering through the economic distress triggered by Covid. It included a classical duo playing in a beauty/fashion shop, a jazz duo performing out on the street, and a roving accordionist. There was a guided stroll visiting all the shop windows, to read the poems and admire the presentation (the team of painters worked under the tutelage of famed letter-artist Kenji Nakayama.)
And the heart of the celebration: a two-part poetry reading at the Roasted Granola Café – two sessions, because the crowds were too large to fit in the café at once (and we poets well know that overflow crowds are not one of our usual problems.) At the reading, the atmosphere was absolutely euphoric; then Stewart Ikeda, one of the co-chairs of ACAC, stood up to address the gathering. He explained there had been an ”incident” the night before these festivities. Susan Lloyd McGarry’s poem, painted on the glass door of the café, had been defaced. It was not hard to guess why this one piece had been singled out:
George Floyd, Breonna Taylor...
Too many names to say.
Say them anyway.
It was shocking (though perhaps it shouldn’t have been) to be reminded, in our liberal town west of Boston, that hate respects no geographic boundaries. “I imagine the person who defaced the poem felt it was a powerful act,” said Stewart, his voice somber but forceful. “But it was not – it was a sign of weakness. This is a powerful act: to create something, to make new poems, to come together to celebrate our community. That’s true power.” The event organizers had made sure one of the sign painters returned to restore Susan’s poem that very morning. And then the audience, in one voice, recited the poem aloud: “. . .Say them anyway.”
Some might regard a poem as a rather modest act (though history has taught us the resonance from such things cannot easily be assessed.) To gather together and speak a poem aloud – our voices in unison magnifying each other’s power – I know it would be naïve to think such things reshape the landscape of social conflict. Yet I must say that I left the reading feeling different – hopeful, fortified – not just because of the marvelous poems but inspired by the determination demonstrated by the owners of the café.
No one needed to explain to them that the vandals who defaced the painted haiku might return again, though perhaps this time with a brick – yet still they insisted their shop window would be host to the poem. Rather than intimidating the community, this act only strengthened its resolve. I’ve never been prouder of this town, of the choices great and small being made to alter what our tomorrow might be like. Our tomorrow: the thought is a part of the essential purpose embedded inside all poem-making. Let no bitter soul deface that.
Red Letter Poem #68
How much will it take? After enduring a year-and-a-half of isolation. After being reminded, almost daily, how fragile our mortal beings really are. After learning (the hard way) how much we depend on others in our community – and not just those medical and safety professionals whose work we customarily regard as heroic; but the stocker replenishing supermarket shelves, the cab driver bringing an elderly neighbor to the clinic, the teacher leaving a long division practice sheet on your doorstep, knowing your child was struggling with the Zoom lessons – all those who chose to make their own comfort and safety a secondary concern in order to do what was needed for the rest of us. After all this, will we somehow find the resolve to bend old patterns, to resist those forces trying to turn every decision into a wedge issue, setting neighbor against neighbor? Will we make our own hard choices about what sort of new normal we’ll be establishing in our country?
How much – or how little – will it take? One of the most potent shifts we can make involves simply paying a bit more attention to those other people who live right down the street from us – but whose lives before this moment had remained alien, a mystery. A proffered smile while walking the dog, or the offer of assistance with those heavy groceries, or even the most radical of community-building exercises: Hi, I’m Steven. I’m sorry, but I don’t know your name . . .
Poet Bonnie Bishop is a keen observer of the daily, rendering into words the ordinary beauty we too often overlook. That skill is at the heart of her recent collection River Jazz (Every Other Thursday Press), born from her yearly visits to New Orleans. But she practices this art even in the everyday circumstances of her home town in Nahant where she and her husband are in the habit of taking daily walks around their neighborhood. Often poems erupt (from each of them), triggered by the simplest circumstances. Such is the case here where commonality shows itself through the admiration of a neighbor’s garden, and the discovery of how much others too are hungry for such connection.
A poem is a marker – of a moment more fully experienced, of a path back to what matters to us on a foundational level. Maybe that’s all it takes: to so desire a calmness, a fullness in our days, we will be willing to overturn old habits of thought and extend ourselves in the direction of others. Might a peony do it? A gentle bowing of the head? An unexpected bit of poetry?
Meeting an Old Neighbor for the First Time
I’ll start with the peony blossom,
a ruffled fist, bridal-white,
tinged with magenta,
that she gave us
as we were leaving
after she showed us her kale, chives,
Chinese garlic, peppers, eggplant,
after she tore off a leaf
of lovage, tangy and tender,
after snapping off a last spear
of asparagus to share,
after the reports of Asian women
beaten and kicked at a bus stop –
her bow, her little hand
spread out across her heart
“I come from Taiwan,” she said,
tilting her head back
under the conical straw hat,
puffy smile wrinkles nearly
closing her watery eyes –
after learning that we were poets
(“I love Blake!”) and spreading
her arms wide as she quoted:
He who binds himself to joy
Does the winged life destroy
But he who kisses joy as it flies
Lives in eternity’s sunrise.
–– Bonnie Bishop
Red Letter Poem #67
To my mind, this may be the greatest gift poetry and art have to offer: to make the invisible visible. And I’m not just talking about mystical visions and emotional depths – I mean the profound complexity masked by the dailiness of our existence which we, blinded by habit, most often overlook. And, sadly, that applies to the human beings moving through their own lives in close proximity – whose love or fear, pain or exultation can go unnoticed . . . that is, until some observant eye, some artistic apprehension penetrates the veil.
That’s what Jim Foritano does here in his portrait of Al, a hot dog vendor near New York’s famed citadel of art, the Met. Not only does Jim humanize this gentleman, he hints at the depth of suffering – emotional as well as economic – our current plague has visited upon his reality. I might have been tempted to call Al an antihero, until I came to the poet’s lines: “Al lifts// N.Y.C. hands/ that held arms// in Vietnam” – and then I found myself feeling somewhat abashed at how easily we substitute appearances for the unique quality of our individual experience.
I cannot know all that this man is carrying within him – but close observation, or perhaps a quick conversation over a purchase (two ‘dogs, please, ‘kraut, deli mustard) can allow us a glimpse. I’m anxious to see whether our year-and-a-half of isolation will make us, for example, more appreciative of those fellow commuters packed in beside us on the Red Line; or the clutch of tourists bustling through Boston Garden, begging directions; or even that unnamed neighbor from down the street with whom, before Covid, we exchanged only a slight nod in passing. Jim’s poem put me in mind of the lines spoken by George Bailey, Jimmy Stewart’s character from It’s a Wonderful Life, as he rails against Bedford Falls’ stone-hearted banker: “Just remember this, Mr. Potter, that this rabble you're talking about, they do most of the working and paying and living and dying in this community.” I have the feeling this would not come as news to Al.
J.C. (Jim) Foritano reports that “he was born and grew to some semblance of maturity in Arlington, then moved to Belmont, and is now a proud Cantabridgian.” But as a member of the Beehive poetry group at the Robbins Library, he frequently revisits his Arlingtonian roots. He began writing poetry in the 1960s at Colby College where one of his professors published a chapbook of his work. Throughout a lifetime of teaching (“and learning!”), Jim says that writing poems helps him sharpen his attention and makes himself more available to what’s happening around him.
Plague is Plague
Tell that to the vendor
of ‘dogs by the curb
of the Met. Others
number their dead. Al
numbers his ‘dogs
gone unsold, gone cold,
as the art lovers flock
to shelter. Al lifts
that held arms
in Vietnam, but now
he patrols empt
he can’t meet,
meat he can’t
sell. Two trucks
idle; two shoulders
idle while Al
into an eloquent
shrug: a New York
he can’t fill.
–– J. C. Foritano
Red Letter Poem #66
I first came across the African American spiritual years before I traced the source back to its biblical roots: “Ezekiel saw the wheel,/ Way up in the middle of the air.” The simple but rousing song offered a cosmological vision and was, to my young mind, quite reassuring: There was order in the universe, discernable pattern, and forces far greater than my own to guide its course. “And the little wheel run by Faith;/ And the big wheel run by the Grace of God;/ A wheel in a wheel,/ Way up in the middle of the air.” What does it take to upset our vision of an orderly world? To return us to our childlike fears that chaos, perhaps, lurks at every turn, and the whole beautiful mechanism may come crashing down around us?
I think it may be necessary for us to acknowledge that we’ve all been shaken to the core: by the pandemic itself; by the loss of loved ones, or even just the threat of loss; by the sense that our nation’s traditional structures and foundational beliefs – once thought virtually indestructible – could, without warning, crumble before our eyes. Or worse, might never have existed in the first place – at least in the forms we imagined. But we are not the little children in the back seat of the car, trusting our godlike parents to steer; we are those very adults whose hands control the wheel – and there are children depending on us to navigate safely. Making her second Red Letter appearance, Joyce Peseroff offers a beguiling poem that seems to occupy a space somewhere between innocence and experience, or perhaps both at once.
The speaker is literally positioned in the front seat of a car – but for her, this last year-and-a-half has made the world feel strangely mutable. She entertains the naïve belief that, looking away for a moment, a whole season might have slipped by without warning. And when she offers a litany of all the markers, ceremonies, rites of passage erased by the crisis, I could feel the little boy in me suffering his quiet outrage . . . until the poet conjures the voices of actual children in the back seat – and then I felt my grip tighten on the wheel once again.
And so the small wheel of the poem touches upon the great wheel of the year, turning still, offering us the day of longest sunshine, preparing us for the slow diminuendo ahead. I feel my life located within Joyce’s poem and, for the moment, at peace. “At the Summer Solstice” is making its first appearance in these Red Letters – but if you’d like more of her work, I can recommend Joyce’s newest collection Petition (Carnegie Mellon University Press) for its deeply humanistic vision and bracing voice.
At the Summer Solstice
Rain had sluiced the budding
cones from tips of pines
and in the dark, our headlights
took them for a fall mulch
of brown, tire-shredded leaves.
We thought another season
had gone AWOL, like spring
in its isolation bubble—no friend
given in marriage, or fitted
for a graduation gown, or standing
over thawed ground to bury
winter’s dead. Perhaps summer
too had passed without goodbyes
a crush kissed in a canoe,
or license plates tallied on
the holiday drive to Mama’s
Colorado cousins. Are we there yet?
kids ask a mile from home—
space and time a fluid mystery.
–– Joyce Peseroff
Red Letter Poem #65
Here is the first quatrain of one of my favorite poems by Du Fu, the great Tang Dynasty poet: “A shore of thin reeds in light wind/ a tall boat alone at night/ stars hang over the barren land/ the moon rises out of the Yangtze ….” In the Asian literary tradition, the concept of being adrift does not conjure a notion of aimlessness, or being lost, as it might for us in the West. It hints at a mind at peace, willing to be satisfied within the experience of the moment, entrusting one’s fate to the great currents of the river (a notion prominent in both Taoism and Buddhism.) As a younger man, Con Squires employed his poetic talents in the service of an advertising job. Once, when he was hospitalized with a serious illness, someone gave him a copy of Arthur Waley’s translations from the Chinese. He explained to me that it changed his life. Not only did it alter his poetic approach, it led him to examine how he was living his life at the time.
Fast-forward, and now Con is retired, remarried, content. Poetry, as always, is a main focus in his days – but no more so than his appreciation of family and friends, his attention to the landscape in which he lives, and even the simple pleasures of the daily tasks. As the title makes clear, this poem was composed right in the heart of the pandemic, when fear and uncertainty ravaged most of our thoughts. But using a technique Du Fu would certainly recognize, he began his day by simply paying attention. And as attention deepens, anxiety and regret are replaced by the delight of the senses. Neither the anchor of memory nor the swollen sails of a hoped-for day-to-come have much sway over the mind. There is only the moment, unfolding – and perhaps the appearance of words to ink in that blank scroll. And though the result is quite a simple and straightforward poem, the emotional reserves Con taps into are vast; we readers are glad to accompany him on this little journey.
Here’s how Du Fu’s poem resolves (in this lovely translation by Red Pine): “how could writing ever lead to fame/ I quit my post due to illness and age/ drifting along what am I like/ a solitary gull between Heaven and Earth.” After a time, the powerful Tang empire was riven by civil war, famine, overwhelming loss. Du Fu, retired, sailed East in hopes of returning to his home; he had to reshape his understanding of what would remain central in his life. Sometimes the world is only this: this moment, this feeling, this breath. Con Squires nods in agreement. Considering the trials our country has been suffering through, perhaps we might consider joining them – if only for a moment.
February 25, 2021, 5:48 a.m.: Dawn Begins
(Homage to Du Fu)
Sky is gray-blue mixed with white,
a low dark growl of clouds at the far edge.
Village lights sparkle in a wood,
vagaries of wind among trees.
Our house hums around me,
upstairs my lovely wife sleeps.
We owe nothing, need nothing, do
nothing in particular. No one calls.
My heart is a sailing boat, unguided.
It leaves me far behind.
Below two paintings of urban life
a lamp is reflected in a window.
Winter at the western edge.
So much change in ten minutes.
— Con Squires
Red Letter Poem #64
Context is everything.
When I first read Jeffrey Harrison’s poem “Temporary Blindness” from his collection Into Daylight (Tupelo Press), I marveled at the physicality of his experience of grief. The poem was written after the death of his brother, an event that shook him to the core. Usually, a poem such as this offers readers a vicariousness through which we can explore – until we turn the page and return to the safety of our own lives. But read these same opening lines today – “It lasted a year and a half/ as if grief had closed an inner lid/ between my eyes and brain” – and tell me you’re not shaking your head right now, thinking the poet is describing what we’ve all gone through ever since we were first introduced to those two quietly sinister words: novel coronavirus.
Certainly we’ve experienced a tremendous loss of life – the U. S. total topped 600,000 this week, and the worldwide deaths are approaching four million – but there may be fifty times that number of people whose lives were turned inside out by the illness. And even for families spared such acute pain, haven’t we all been traumatized by this pandemic, our very sense of normalcy (admittedly, a concept built on shaky foundations) forced to undergo a permanent transformation? And what of the last fifteen months that seemed to vanish like mist? Bereft of the solace of family and friends? And the pleasures of communal spaces and shared enjoyments – things that underscore a sense of we in a world increasingly atomized and estranged? And then there are the young children for whom this crisis overshadows most of what they know of life on this planet – masked, distanced, tinged with anxiety – how do we assess this grief? So even as our American cities are reopening for business, it’s not surprising how adrift many of us are feeling today.
And so I wonder: might we be heartened by Jeffrey’s poem, the reminder that healing does occur, though perhaps at a glacial pace? Even more, there’s the suggestion that a certain element of choice may be involved in this process: our determination to sharpen attention – and appreciation – of the simple beauties close at hand. How can we not savor what so many millions have had to relinquish? This thought brought one of Kenneth Patchen’s poem-paintings to mind; he depicts two confetti-colored beings standing beside this epigrammatic line, written in a childlike scrawl: “The One who comes to question himself . . . has cared for mankind.” In our changed existence, what questions are we now willing to entertain?
It lasted a year and a half,
as if grief had closed an inner lid
between my eyes and brain
or slipped a caul over my head.
I spent my days in the black space
inside me, orbiting a dead star.
Now I want to return to earth.
I want to come back from the dead,
to remove the sack from my head
and breathe again,
and let the world in—
here, now, right in front of me—
to be awakened by a lake
glittering through trees.
Red Letter Poem #63
To walk the talk. In the world of business, this phrase of admiration refers to an individual who not only expresses some essential philosophical stance, but turns those concepts into concrete action. In the world of poetry, I know of few who walk the talk more determinedly, with more grace and sheer delight, than Jane Hirshfield. Her literary accomplishments include: nine volumes of poetry; three books of literary essays; a foundational anthology presenting four millennia of global women’s poetry; a much-prized co-translation from the Japanese; and frequent engagements as speaker and educator that carry her around the world. Over her four-decade career, Jane has proven to be a trustworthy reporter on the human condition, reflecting both the beauty and pain inherent in that experience. I’m delighted to see that her path in Alaya, published in 1982, is recognizably the same one traveled today in Ledger, her latest collection.
Of course, there’s been evolution over time: the lush music of her early lyrics has grown more crystalline, restrained. Her uncanny ability – capturing images that reveal the way the societal, material and spiritual experience of being human is, at every moment, interconnected – has become more subtle and refined. In her recent work, we still find the wise regard and depth of feeling we’ve come to expect from Hirshfield poems, but it’s joined with a new fierceness, even anger, at the continuing brutality we inflict on each other and on the planet itself. Her poem "Let Them Not Say," for example, has become something of an anthem in the movement combating climate change. Many poets write today as if the self was the only object worthy of inquiry. But art, music, science and history are braided into Jane’s curiosity and thought. Her exploration encompasses human nature, the natural world, and their interwoven fates. She’s developed a large and devoted readership, among whom I happily count myself.
The footer of Jane’s e-mails holds a quotation from another well-loved poet, Gwendolyn Brooks: “We are each other’s/ business;/ we are each other’s/ harvest;/ we are each other’s/ magnitude and bond.” The business Jane is engaged in is the very one we each should attend to if we are to live without shackling ourselves to blindness and regret: how to love the days we are given, even as they escape us; how to embrace the simple beauties we encounter, though they are fragile and fleeting; and how to honor those same desires in every living being. If we, at times, decline to pursue this enterprise – and in our busy lives, that’s easy to do – rest assured, some 48-point headline will soon come along to trumpet the latest calamity and wake us from our drowse.
Coming upon the shell of a dead cicada, the great Japanese poet Basho wrote: “he sung himself utterly away.” If Jane Hirshfield had to write a job description for the project of her poetry, I think that might come close: to continue singing until there is no more left of the instrument she was given – both voice and heart. Those who love her poetry are grateful she’s employed her talents in that pursuit.
I touch my toes.
When I was a child,
this was difficult.
Now I touch my toes daily.
In 2012, in Sanford, Florida,
someone nearby was touching her toes before bed.
Three weeks ago,
in the Philippines or Myanmar, someone was stretching.
Tomorrow, someone elsewhere will bend
first to one side, then the other.
I also do ten push-ups, morning and evening.
from the knees.
They resemble certain forms of religious bowing.
In place of one, two, four, seven,
I count the names of incomprehension: Sanford, Ferguson,
Aleppo, Sarajevo, Nagasaki.
I never reach: Troy, Ur.
I have done this for years now.
Bystander, listener. One of the lucky.
I do not seem to grow stronger.
–– Jane Hirshfield
(from: Ledger; Alfred A. Knopf)
This poetic outreach was updated July 22, 2021.