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No. 76: Red Letter Poems 3.0: '$5 words'
UPDATED, Sept. 10: 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 #76
Gyre. Anemone. Colonnade. Crevasse. It’s a little like following footsteps in the sand: reading words. They lead us back to all the people whose minds once savored their meanings, all those in whose mouths these syllables once rested. For a moment, midsentence, you might have a sense of yourself on the long human caravan where, during the lonely nights, you can take your bearings by all those stellar words spoken before you even existed. And if you are of the inclination to put words to paper, you may even have an intimation of the linguistic markers you yourself are setting down which some other traveler may come across, sometime in the future.
When words are used especially well, they become imbued with personality, resonance, mystery – not only those rare beauties (what my high school English teacher referred to as “five dollar words”), but even those blunt and serviceable nouns we use to convey apple to waiting hand. Poets often leave their mark on words in an especially indelible way that survives long after their mortal existence. Most readers of poetry cannot come across a word like gyre without the uneasy feeling of chaos erupting while the shadow of Yeats’ falcon falls across our path. Anemone, and I’m standing in Dr. Williams’ white field. Colonnade, and I’m waking in April, Eliot’s cruelest of months. And when I hear crevasse, I can’t help but find myself searching along with Lucille Clifton for the garden of delight, “certain only of the syllables.“ After reading today’s Red Letter, I suspect Deborah Melone’s psithurism will always have a bit of her voice attached (to say nothing of apricity.) Her poem is reminding us of that elemental joy when we discover that there are, in fact, words for that desire just taking shape inside us – ones that can make us feel we do, in fact, belong in this world.
In her earlier Red Letter appearances, I’ve praised Deborah’s collection Farmers’ Market and her lovely chapbook The Wheel of the Year (Every Other Thursday Press) – but today’s installment is a brand new poem that charmed me the moment I heard it, and I hope it will work the same magic on you. It prompted me to recall a conversation I had many years back with the great poet William Stafford for my interview collection. Speaking of language, Stafford declared: “The words that occur to me come out of my relation to the language which is developing even as I am using it. . .I am not learning definitions as established in even the latest dictionary. I'm not a dictionary-maker. I'm a person a dictionary-maker has to contend with. . .”. Ms. Melone as well.
Psithurism, the sound of the wind in the trees.
Who would think there’s a word for that? But there is.
From the ancient Greek, psithuros—whispering, slanderous,
a little like susurrus, a rustling sound.
To me it suggests a murmuring of bees
as they search through leaves for sources of honey.
The words for things we never knew the words for:
apricity—the warmth of the winter sun;
petrichor—the earthy smell after rain.
Blending together, rising into song
Like hakòmè grass, a graceful, cascading mound
of leaves that ripple in the slightest breeze,
cloaking us in odor, texture, savor,
drawing us into the world, where we belong.
— Deborah Melone
Red Letter Poem #75
I’d just moved to California in 1973 and was working in a bookstore when I came across a debut poetry collection titled Golden State. How could a newcomer not pick it up? But the poems within those covers were nothing like what I’d expected – nothing, in fact, like the work my college teachers had lectured about. These voices were unusual but wholly mesmerizing; they possessed a musical charge that was akin to touching an uninsulated wire. I’ve been following Frank Bidart’s poetry ever since.
Across a half-century of writing, he is perhaps most famous for a number of extended (and wildly inventive) dramatic monologues, featuring such disparate voices as “Ellen West” (who suffered from anorexia and body dysmorphia); “Herbert White” (a psychopathic killer); and the great Russian dancer Vaslav Nijinsky. But even in the shorter and more personal lyrics, his poems feel to me like the recitativo of a sprawling opera in which the singer is simultaneously hidden away in his inner sanctum and also spotlighted on the dark stage before a vast audience.
In other words: the predicament of human consciousness.One could argue that central to Bidart’s body of work is the notion of syntax – though I don’t mean the grammarian’s preoccupation with the rules of well-turned sentences. Since it’s believed that language is innate in our species, then this poet’s work can be seen as a series of portraits revealing the intimate thought-structures that come to light in minds working their way into self-consciousness – in the author’s mind as well as a host of personas. We find the bold assertions and sly deflections, the feints and false starts, eviscerating despair and the resurgent hope that holds our days together. And each has its effect on how words interact. Frank’s is the rich and complex music of our inner voices tangling and untangling what we believe is happening to us. And within us. And all around us.
It would be impossible to overstate how highly regarded this poet’s work is, especially among other poets. An exhaustive list of his awards and honors would require more space than I have, but some of the highlights include: the Pulitzer Prize, the Bollingen Prize, the National Book Award, and the Lifetime Recognition Award from the Griffin Trust for Excellence in Poetry. Today’s poem comes from Frank’s 11th collection, Against Silence (Farrar, Straus and Giroux), which will be published next month. Here too, we are presented with a monologue, seemingly intended for one certain listener – the sort that occupies that singular place which love alone carves out inside us and which nothing else, across the long decades, can hope to fill. He borrows the Persian phrase to marks that bittersweet absence. And encroaching silence is pushed back yet again.
On My Seventy-Eighth
There will be just two at
though to accommodate all those who have
and still so matter in my life, the table will be
though empty. I say to you, Jaya
Your place is empty! Your place at my table
for you. I tried to construct in my soul
grave (because you were dead/because you were
concentrated on your soul, too often you were
as I shoveled dirt onto your body, the dirt refused,
cling. Those who torment because you know you
refuse to remain buried. Is anything ever forgotten,
Shovel in hand, I saw how little I had
Tonight, I abjure the wisdom, the illusion of
give up silence. Intolerable the fiction
is silence. To the dead, to the living:
–– Frank Bidart
Red Letter Poem #74
There are no words. It’s a phrase people resort to in moments of overwhelming emotion – sometimes in response to joy but, more commonly, grief. Even at our best, we’re aware of how words cannot match the utter complexity of the lived moment nor fully represent the depth of our response. And yet we feel the need for words nonetheless. Perhaps that’s because language, when fully empowered, forms – not a mirror – but a second self within our experience, a companion that exists both independently but also in a sort of harmony with what we call (for lack of a better term) our real lives. And this is not only true for the author but for we readers as well who may discover, entering this shadow-realm, a new sense of what actually matters in our sunlit days.
Such is the case for poet Doug Holder who, in today’s installment, is allowing us to be one of the “treasured guests” to visit with his wife, Dianne, before she was recently lost to cancer. It was not the artfulness of this poem that drew me in but its astonishing intimacy. There is no doubt about the actuality behind this scene – and yet, in its poetic incarnation, we feel we are receiving a privileged understanding of these three beings, there on the verge of an overwhelming grief. Doug told me Dianne, the gentlest of souls, was a long-time nurse who also wrote poetry and published a chapbook. But her personal paradise might be the couple’s "cocktail hour” where she’d be “reading, listening to Chet Baker and writing in her journal.”
It is not at all surprising to come across poets willing to dedicate vast amounts of time and vital energy toward exploring their own writing and career. Far less common is an individual who will offer that sort of dedication to promoting the work of other poets, toward enhancing the vitality of the very artform. But that is certainly true of Doug: founder of Ibbetson Street Press, creative writing teacher at Endicott College, and publisher of a host of popular blogs that feature poetry and interviews with diverse writers from Massachusetts and beyond. His ‘Poet to Poet, Writer to Writer’ cable program (dougholder.blogspot.com) is a tremendous resource of literary insight and delight. I feel honored to debut this beautiful elegy in the Red Letters.
And yes: there are no words. Yet they are so utterly necessary, we reach for them anyway. And our day is deepened because they were shared.
Dianne At Sleep
(for my wife Dianne Robitaille)
As she lays in bed
splashes of muted color
her tousled head.
some B movie script
cat consumes her,
his green eyes,
We both lay
and sleep in
–– Doug Holder
Red Letter Poem #73
Summertime and the livin’ is . . . well yes, easy (though perhaps for only moments at a time) – and then desperate, intoxicating, frantic, beguiling, maddeningly boring, drenched in tears and punctuated by (if you’re lucky) bouts of laughter that erupt like fireworks. It’s not just the long stretch of hot days and lush foliage that propel our moods to their extremes. I believe we’ve been conditioned by years of the school calendar to spend nine months longing for the unreasonable promise of summer, only to be confronted by the fitful and all-too-ordinary reality. Needless to say, the entertainment industry helps to compound the anticipation, plying us with frothy summer pop tunes and Hollywood confections that make us crave those fantasies about love and adventure all the more. And as the Buddha has taught us, expectation is the source of all suffering – and so summer provides that too, often in generous doses.
Chen Chen’s poem plays off those summer tropes, though the expectations he’s wrestling with are familial, societal and even poetical. But by intensifying the feverish turns of the imagination, he seems to be concocting his escape plan. Or is he? Is that fantasy of ‘falling in love midair,’ hinting at how flights of the imagination can somehow rescue us – poet and reader alike – or only another catchy top-40 chorus in search of a guitar riff?
But what I’m much more convinced of – reading Chen Chen’s highly-acclaimed inaugural collection, When I Grow Up I Want to Be a List of Further Possibilities (BOA Editions) – is that this poet has found inventive ways to intensify language while defying assumptions about how a poem must sound. Chen Chen creates seemingly playful vignettes that dazzle the imagination and break the heart, often at the same time. Born in Xiamen, China, he grew up in Massachusetts, and sometimes his writing attempts to surf the riptides between cultures. Recipient of the A. Poulin, Jr. Poetry Prize and the Thom Gunn Award, Chen Chen currently teaches at Brandeis University as the Jacob Ziskind Poet-in-Residence.
And so, before the new school year rolls around, I’m humming a summer tune under my breath and thinking: one of these mornings, I’m gonna rise up singing . . . not just because the Gershwin lyric promised us that, but because of magic tricks like the one Chen Chen has pulled off with such aplomb. Perhaps, as August wanes, I really will spread my wings and take to the sky. This poet almost makes it look easy.
Summer Was Forever
Time dripped from the faucet like a magician’s botched trick.
I did not want to applaud it. I stood to one side & thought,
What it’s time for is a garden. Or a croissant factory. What kind
of work do I need to be doing? My parents said: Doctor,
married to lawyer. The faucet said: Drip, drop,
your life sucks. But sometimes no one said anything & I saw
him, the local paper boy on his route. His beanstalk frame
& fragile bicycle. & I knew: we would be so terribly
happy. Our work would be simple. Our kissing would rhyme
with cardiac arrest. Birds would overthrow the cathedral towers.
I would have a magician’s hair, full of sleeves & saws,
unashamed to tell the whole town our first date was
in a leaky faucet factory. How we fell in love during jumps
on his tragic uncle’s trampoline. We fell in love in midair.
–– Chen Chen
Red Letter Poem #72
“He who has a why to live can bear almost any how.” The aphorism comes from Friedrich Nietzsche’s Maxims and Arrows and strikes me as being particularly appropriate for the grand societal experiment we’ve all been (rather unwillingly) engaged in these past 18 months. Stripped of some freedom and mobility, distanced from loved ones, often estranged from work (or, in the worst cases, lacking work altogether) – and with the emotional valence magnified by a sense of constant but invisible threat – through what purpose do we carry on our lives? Spurred on by what sense of necessity, or joy?
Some of us have spent the time exhausting the Netflix catalog or devouring every mystery book we could order. Others learned to bake bread or play the ukulele. Thousands of miles were walked through country lanes or city streets strangely thinned of traffic. And many people, who had been living what they once thought were formidable lives, found themselves waking each day to despair. When the sweet habitual of our daily lives is suddenly interrupted, we begin an investigation into what truly keeps us going. For poets – who, through writer’s block, may be forced into such emptiness and doubt for extended periods of time – the expectancy of the next poem is an almost palpable force.
And that’s where we find the protagonist of bg Thurston’s poem “Gratitude”: returning home from a yoga class, attending to the household chores, waiting for the first musical sensation that will signal the arrival of a poem’s opening line. After a career in computers and finance, the poet now lives on a sheep farm in Warwick, MA. But poetry was always the spark that lit the lamp that lighted the way forward. Her first collection, Saving the Lamb (Finishing Line Press) received special recommendation by the Massachusetts Book Awards. Her forthcoming book, Cathouse Farm, is centered on the 18th century farmhouse she now calls home. Certainly every writer longs for publication, but it’s those quiet hours working inside the notebook, watching the page fill up with our own glorious scribble – that sustains us and reconfirms the reason for it all.
As a result of this virus, more than 600,000 families in America alone have suffered the incalculable pain of loss. So how are we survivors to feel as we wait for our cherished why to flourish again in our lives? For the chance to embrace distant relatives or friends? Or to splurge on a return visit to that canal-side campiello in Venice? Or to make that familiar commute to school or office, seeing how much has changed in our absence? Or to invite those much-loved faces to join us around our dining room table?
On the morning when the joy returns, the phone rings, the project is completed, the poem arrives: gratitude. And on those darker days when nightmares linger, the headlines are awful, loneliness overflows, and the skies feel barren: gratitude.
After an hour of down dog
and forward fold, we drive
the narrow road home, sun
sinking in a molten sky
where strips of clouds stretch
and wrap around the horizon.
You wonder about squirrels
digging acorns under road salt.
I wonder whether poetry
will ever come back to me.
After the barn chores, feeding
the crew of cats and dogs
I sit waiting, a zazen of hope,
legs crossed and mind open
watching each breath rise
then fall back into the world
which is dark now, but I hear
the muses, quiet, then question
their single syllable that calls
out into the still and cold night.
–– bg Thurston
(from: Smoky Quartz – fall, 2019)
Red Letter Poem #71
I’m thinking now of those often-quoted lines from William Carlos Williams: “It is difficult/ to get the news from poems/ yet men die miserably every day/ for lack/ of what is found there.” But when I was a young writer just coming of age, the war in Vietnam was raging and all manner of social protest drew attention to the diverse challenges facing society. Our work seemed to contradict the first part of the great poet’s premise. Many of us were producing verse that boldly confronted the news of the day and helped spread the word to readers hungry for more authentic perspectives than what they were finding in mainstream media.
Later, and for successive decades, such timely broadsides fell out of fashion and poetry became a much more interior practice. But young poets today have revived this poetry of engagement – and that is clearly the case with Alexandra Huynh, who was recently appointed as the new U.S. Youth Poet Laureate. Her poetry is fierce, lyrically innovative, and not at all shy about broadcasting her startling takes on the issues of the day. Amanda Gorman – Alex’s predecessor in this position – has dramatically raised the profile of this generation of poets; they feel it is their responsibility to express, not only their more personal visions, but the pent-up energies of their contemporaries who fear their voices may never be heard.
And so I’m pleased to share Alex’s bracing long poem “It Does Not Matter …” (which first appeared in The Washington Post.) Timely? Just yesterday, watching a strange burnt-orange sunset – and feeling how hard it was to simply draw a deep breath – I learned that our atmosphere in Boston was congested by the smoke from the wildfires raging on the other side of the continent. But those headlines were already being trumpeted in Ms. Huynh’s poem. Raised in Sacramento in a Vietnamese-American family, Alex began writing song lyrics at an early age. Now, an incoming freshman at Stanford University, Alex still thinks of herself as a soft-spoken introvert – but all that changes when she is on-stage performing her poems. Then she is powered by a pure passion and a sense of the utter necessity involved in shaping thought into language.
It’s clear to me that such art-making does indeed affirm the second part of Mr. Williams’ proposition: that men and women suffer greatly when such revelatory expressions – of joy as well as righteous anger and grief – are not readily available to all sorts of readers. When we feel so exhausted by work, or numbed by the roar of partisan media, that we can hardly hear our own self thinking, we each desperately require a sort of clearing amid the dense woods. Often a poem can provide just such a mind-space. And comforted, fortified, perhaps spurred to action, we are heartened by the reminder that we’re not alone in this morass – no matter where on the planet we might live.
IT DOES NOT MATTER ANY LONGER WHERE YOU LIVE
from news reports on the fires in California and the floods in Vietnam.
I. THEY WAITED FOR THE ANSWERS THEY DIDN’T WANT TO HEAR
BUT KNEW WERE REALITY
from my living room
i watch as tiny yellow men
march into the worst darkness
& pretend not to hear
when they have names
witness an unprecedented use
of the word unprecedented
—the state of California
has swallowed Connecticut
a scorched footprint
the shape of neglect—
there are streetlights in the forest now;
the forest is a city
with wildfire for veins
& a steady churn of smog
vehicles spill onto highways
to escape the color of death, but
even the lucky ones
wake up to smudged sun
defend your honor
reduce the brown people to
this is the work
of a century’s suppression
of a creature that feeds
on its own dead
when there is nothing
left to breathe, you produce
the opposite of oxygen
don’t need a crystal ball
return the trees
to their cradles
burn the land
clean of history
do not slow, do not slow
let them see
the inferno they created.
II. LOCAL RESIDENTS NOW LIVE IN A WAY THAT IS PREPARED FOR
in the country my mother loves
in its naked heart
into starving hands
drawing anything with mass
into wet embrace
include the slippers:
whose tattered pockets
kept our feet from catching wind
& the plastic:
collected to prove
include the caution tape,
the bamboo, the dining tables,
the books, the altars, the rice,
the fields they grow in,
the ao dai, the photos
& the children:
who have now found mothers
in this soft earth.
they say it sounds like a bomb
when the mountain
that is not actually a mountain
& it weeps burials
for the willowed bodies
who watch water rise
to fool their conscience
who recite Buddha’s name until
synonymous with mosquito hum
who hold real hands
in the dark of electricity
while millions of hummingbirds
crash into sheet-metal roof
& herds of baby elephant
swarm at the ankles
which, of course,
will call rainfall
& the parents
will call temporary,
will call home.
III. THEIR ONLY DESIRE WAS TO BE TOGETHER IN THE HOME
the structures are empty now
either because the people fled
or endured baptism by flame/flood
an elderly couple is found
in the charcoal of their farm
a boy recognized
under comic shop sludge
the men on the news
say climate change isahoax
i talk back:
hold the objects they inhabit
— Alexandra Huynh
Red Letter Poem #70
It’s one of the basic human dichotomies: rooted or rootless. I am often astonished by what lengths some people will go to ensure that their lives remain rooted in place – attached to a certain locality in a manner that speaks of permanence (or whatever approximation of immutability this life permits us to enjoy.) But I’m equally impressed by how far others will go to preserve a sort of rootlessness which they believe is somehow the equivalent of freedom. Where do you fall in this spectrum? And how has your life been enhanced (or hobbled) by that predilection?
In Jenny Xie’s first appearance in the Red Letters (RLP # 45), her poem “Naturalization” spoke of the immigrant’s and outsider’s hunger to belong. Her award-winning debut collection, Eye Level (Graywolf Press, 2018) had that as one axis around which the poems revolved. But the second pole was certainly that of the poet’s need to remain distanced, distinct, so that one’s individuality not be compromised by the powerful gravity of belonging.
In “Rootless,”even the seasoned traveler finds she cannot (or will not) allow the world to get too close. But through that distance, the elemental landscape is thrown into sharp relief. Only the outsider would register the astonishment in seeing that hog strapped to the seat of a motorbike (making its way to farm? To slaughter?) Or notice the almost abstract beauty of the rice fields and simple dwellings. Passing through the world, we sometimes forget that the world is passing through us as well, mapping out our own emotional terrain.
Having spent too many months rooted to one landscape (or perhaps to nothing more than a few familiar rooms), aren’t we all craving the bracing challenge that travel can present? Our mouths too want to spend the only foreign words we own, to sever ourselves from the routine and measure our lives against a wider existence. Of course, there is also the issue of when rootlessness is not a choice but a condition forced upon people – or when belonging is not an option our personalities can manage – how does that alter the picture?
These questions are among the things I most admired as I traveled through Jenny’s book: as a reader, I got the chance to try on all of these situations and to, vicariously, discover what my heart was longing for. Because sometimes we might find ourselves feeling rooted only to the territory of the imagination, a citizen of the written word – in which case returning home takes on a whole new dimension.
Between Hanoi and Sapa there are clean slabs of rice fields
and no two brick houses in a row.
I mean, no three—
See, counting’s hard in half-sleep, and the rain pulls a sheet
over the sugar palms and their untroubled leaves.
Hours ago, I crossed a motorbike with a hog strapped to its seat,
the size of a date pit from a distance.
Can this solitude be rootless, unhooked from the ground?
No matter. The mind resides both inside and out.
It can think itself and think itself into existence.
I sponge off the eyes, no worse for wear.
My frugal mouth spends the only foreign words it owns.
At present, on this sleeper train, there’s nowhere to arrive.
Me? I’m just here in my traveler’s clothes, trying on each
passing town for size.
–– Jenny Xie
This poetic outreach was updated Sept. 10, 2021.
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