UPDATED Nov. 5: 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 #83
Oh! First cousin to ah! – and, I have to believe, a distant relation to that Sanskrit (and more spiritual) exclamation om! All are preceded by a quiet in-rush of energy – as we allow the world to pry our eyes open just a bit, to delight the somnolent mind – followed by that drawn-out breath blossoming on the vowel sound. As in: Oh … now I can see it! Then: Ah … that’s so beautiful. Or perhaps – when chaos threatens to overwhelm, or the emotional storm engulfs our day and needs to be quelled – a measured breath that fills and then empties us: om!
Fundamentally, Jane Hirshfield is a poet of praise. That’s not to say there isn’t darkness, pain, moments of despair in her writing – after all, she’s a conscientious and clear-eyed observer of the world. But across nine volumes of poetry, three collections of literary essays, award-winning translations, and a busy schedule as a speaker and educator, I believe this is the signature expression unifying them all: awe – a sense of delight in being. And I’m not just referring to the experience of human being (with all its fragile beauty and ephemeral joy,) but the very nature of existence itself into which, upon birth, our consciousness is thrust.
Unlike many in the arts, her poetic mind is not sequestered from her sense of scientific inquiry, nor from her historical and anthropological curiosity. It makes for imaginative expression that intentionally crosses boundaries. (Where else but in Jane’s collections would you find the notation for orders of magnitude included in a poem!) This is what she’s chosen as her subject matter: what is – that, and the whirlwind of the mind in pursuit of understanding, coupled with an appraisal of the heart when (as it so often happens) that pursuit leads us to the experience of loss.
When Jane gave the Red Letters permission to feature a poem from her new collection Ledger (Knopf, 2020) – appearing as RLP #63 – I asked if I might share, later on, an older poem that’s one of my favorites. “First Light Edging Cirrus” is a mini-ontological treatise. How, it wonders – in the midst of this material creation – does something as astonishing as consciousness erupt? And how can we grasp – right now and even on a rudimentary level – the gorgeous complexity we so often take for granted? I read this short poem every now and again, and find myself imagining for days that “face to face” moment, gazing out on the world. For a split second there is an inkling of comprehension (oh!), a startling and satisfying clarity (ah!) before my rational mind barges back in to try explaining it all to me. But it seems to me that the longer I can hold off that explanation, the happier I am.
First Light Edging Cirrus
to call woodthrush or apple.
A hummingbird, fewer.
A wristwatch: 1024.
An alphabet’s molecules,
tasting of honey, iron, and salt,
cannot be counted —
as some strings, untouched,
sound when a near one is speaking.
As it was when love slipped inside you.
It looked out face to face in every direction.
Then it was inside the tree, the rock, the cloud.
–– Jane Hirshfield
Red Letter Poem #82
Before I say anything else, let me first offer a warning: today’s Red Letter poem is about violence – and the response to violence by even the most innocent among us. Yet to my mind this poem, matter-of-fact in its cruelty, still conjures a shadow of hope (oh, the spirit of that little boy!) But the primary reason I’m offering it for your consideration: I think it’s very nearly a perfect poem – and by that, I simply mean that not a word seems extraneous, no gesture wasted nor phrase that could better be positioned elsewhere. It moves with utter necessity and carries us to places we likely won’t expect. Authenticity in art is capable of transforming even the most painful situations into moments of human discovery.
John Pijewski has labored for years on a book-length sequence of poems titled Collected Father. They depict, with nightmarish intensity, the household he and his brother grew up in, its emotional climate was always dominated by their father’s propensity for violence and abuse of alcohol. But, long before, the father’s own heart had been transformed when, as a young man, he was forced into a Nazi labor camp during World War II – a brutal and dehumanizing experience from which he never recovered. If it is a truism that violence begets violence, then the real question is: how may that cycle be broken?
It’s a problem John has wrestled with all his life. His first book, Dinner With Uncle Jozef (Wesleyan University Press), tackled this material, often with a surrealistic approach – but this manuscript presents an even more anguished reckoning. I’m struck by what economical technique he employs here. The title alone not only portrays the dramatic (quasi-religious?) intensity of the circumstance, but also it’s normalization within the household. How, I wonder, will you react to the many twists and reversals, even in so brief a poem? And what in your own life will the poet’s memory provoke? I first read this poem in manuscript quite some time ago and found the imagery has never left me.
Once, during a heated conversation, I said this to my wife: “I know exactly what your problem is” – but don’t worry, gentle reader, it was not criticism I was offering (as she might have thought) but acceptance. “You were raised by imperfect humans. Who had been raised by imperfect humans. And so on down the generations – as were we all.”
Our parents’ trauma and confusion can’t help but be visited upon us in turn. But now I’m thinking: Weren’t my mother and father able to offer me more attention, more emotional acceptance than their immigrant parents, caught up in their struggles to simply survive? And haven’t my wife and I found ways to be more embracing of our son and his life? And he and his wife, more loving and engaged with their own son? Might we be slowly unbending the warped beam of long human suffering? After spending hours with this poem, it still seems a possibility. I’m hoping you too may find yourself considering what sort of effect you’ve had – or may yet have – on the young people in your life.
My father would enter my bedroom
swinging his black leather belt.
When he was finished with me
I hugged him until he stopped crying.
Then I guided him, holding his hand,
back to his room down the darkened hallway,
tucked him into his bed
of broken glass.
–– John Pijewski
Red Letter Poem #81
Immersion. Most artists – most people, in fact, who make anything requiring both skill and patience – will describe this as one of the great motivating elements in what can often be a formidable and isolating labor. Years back, I interviewed the poet Donald Hall, who described waking often in the night and checking the clock to see how many hours he had to force himself to sleep before he could have the great pleasure of waking to another day of writing. “Curiously, or frustratingly,” he said of such work, “the greatest happiness is not to know you are happy, is not to know what time it is, is to be lost in the hour.“
It’s a concept I first encountered as a young man in my exploration of ancient Chinese verse. In one of his famous quatrains, the Tang poet Li Bai depicts a moment at his retreat cottage high in the Ching-t’ing Mountains. After giving himself over to a prolonged and open-hearted contemplation of his surroundings – a meditative practice that many here have borrowed from the East – he finds himself watching evening fall as the birds suddenly vanish, sensing the approach of winter. Li Bai concludes the brief poem: “We sit together, the mountain and me,/ until only the mountain remains.”
I think of Jenny Barber as a poet of quiet immersions. Focusing on subjects that range from the mundane to those dramatic life-changing alterations that appear suddenly like storms, her poems provide a sort of gradual absorption that lures readers into participating in the moment’s unfolding. Today’s piece, debuting here, will appear in 2022 in her new collection The Sliding Boat Our Bodies Made from The Word Works. Jenny was the founder and long-time editor of the literary journal Salamander and – I am happy to report – has recently been appointed as Poet Laureate for neighboring Brookline.
Today’s Red Letter is about both a literal and figurative immersion in the natural world where (as Li Bai reminds us) the borders between ourselves and our surroundings can become quite blurred, and something unexpected may be experienced. Located at the spot where Germany, Austria and Switzerland converge, the actual Lake Constance is one of Europe’s largest freshwater bodies – fortuitously named, it seems, to remind us that such experiences are everywhere present; it’s only our deep attention that is fleeting. Here, though, Jenny’s Constance seems to be both literary and emotional as well as geographic – a place, I hope, located not very far from any of our front doors.
Sunlight in the water streaming from
my arms, the bubbles of my mouth.
No one else around. “I’m here
between the heavens and you,
the edge of sky and the tops of trees,”
an angel says, “between
the burning world and flooded world,
the first day and the last,”
and his words take on the sound
of waves mumbling onshore,
July drought mixed with August rain,
patches of blue among the clouds
falling to the water like dropped leaves,
their shadows gliding over fish,
breathing through them, into them.
No: not an angel, not the words,
but the lake cradling my limbs
in ripples striated with light.
–– Jennifer Barber
Red Letter Poem #80
As I was thinking about Yim Tan Wong’s poem, “Angelfish,” I found myself bumping into odd bits of reality that seemed to coalesce in my mind. One was a quote from the eminent physicist Stephen Hawking from The Grand Design: “A few years ago, the city council of Monza, Italy, barred pet owners from keeping goldfish in curved bowls ... saying that it is cruel … because, gazing out, the fish would have a distorted view of reality. But how do we know we have the true, undistorted picture of reality?”
Indeed – especially when we seemingly spend much of our own existence in self-constructed fish bowls designed to keep us feeling safe within our own private distortions. Meanwhile, in Congress, a furious debate was taking place about the power of Facebook and other social-media companies to shape our understanding of the world. Following the testimony of a whistleblower, we were all getting a peek behind the curtain into how their algorithms were engineered to monopolize our attention – no matter how destructive the effects on our political and social relationships, and even our most intimate self-awareness – all in order to maximize profits.
If we never hear anything that provides us with a new perspective – or challenges the unexamined truths of our own – we might find ourselves living and dying without ever fully grasping what our lives were about. So then I took Mary Oliver’s New and Selected Poems off the shelf and turned to the wonderful poem “When Death Comes”: “When it's over, I want to say all my life/ I was a bride married to amazement./ I was the bridegroom, taking the world into my arms.” The poem concludes with what I’ve always considered a dire warning: “I don't want to end up simply having visited this world.”
Yim Tan’s sly imagination coaxes us, not only to shift our point of view, but to consider the very medium of consciousness in which we swim. There is both a childlike joy and quiet menace mixing just below the surface; it made me feel that thin layer of glass between me and, well, everything – and I wondered whether it might possibly give way.
Born in Kowloon, Hong Kong, Yim Tan spent her formative years in Fall River – and so her mind had no choice but to learn to negotiate the crosscurrents of her circumstance. That she attained an MFA from Hollins University, became a Kundiman Emerging Asian American Poets Fellow and began placing poems in numerous literary journals attests to her mastery of those challenges. Her first poetry collection has been a finalist for poetry prizes from both Four Way Books and Alice James Press – and it’s only a matter of time before we all will get to enjoy more of her work.
On the radio now, I’m hearing Phoebe Bridgers’ plaintive voice singing: “When I grow up, I’m gonna look up from my phone and see my life.” Our fishbowls can only contain us for so long – if we truly desire more. Yim Tan’s poem makes me want to leap free, no matter what I find on the outside.
Do they believe the world
undulates beyond artificial
vegetation, fins, and algae?
Do they trust bite-sized food
drifts from a Greater Above?
Ahoy from Upper Here,
I say, and tap the glass.
Fogging their view,
I introduce myself, as
God, water, weather.
Then, they surge and heave
their bodies over the wall
to feel my palms ignite their skin,
each scale a small factory
manufacturing mirrors and prayer.
–– Yim Tan Wong
Red Letter Poem #79
when they strike the bell
these gingko leaves are falling –
–– Soseki Natsume
Do you, too, wait for them each year: a thousand yellowy fans fluttering from wide branches? But the gingko biloba tree is more than just a treat for the eye; it’s referred to as a "living fossil" and its history runs back 270 million years. One of the most honored trees in art and poetry – especially throughout Asia, where it had its origins – it’s praised for its elegance and strength as well as its medicinal qualities. Every autumn, for example, tourists flock to Xi’an in China – not only to view the Terracotta Warriors, but to visit a 1,400-year-old ginkgo tree at the Gu Guanyin Buddhist temple as it bathes the courtyard in gold. Now Lawrence Kessenich is adding his poem to a long and honorable tradition: viewing the beauty – and brevity – of our human existence beside this timekeeper of eternity.
Lawrence certainly deserves to be called a man of letters; a prize-winning poet, novelist, playwright, essayist and one of the managing editors of the journal Ibbetson Street – he has devoted much of his adult life toward helping nourish our literary endowment. To my mind, what he’s offering with this new poem is really a praise-song to that beleaguered emotional territory we each must contend with: our fragile sense of hope. It portrays, in microcosm, an aspect of the continuity that’s sustained our species, our planet – even through the darkest of eras when survival seemed most threatened.
I’m reminded of the great poets from Song Dynasty China like Ouyang Xiu (who, incidentally, also wrote a series of poems about the gingko tree); they championed the idea that our most commonplace moments were worthy of poetry – a literary concept we normally attribute to modernity. When we practice deepening our attention, we find instances of beauty that are plentiful and close-at-hand. And likely that feeling is accompanied by the thought – the hope – that such beauty will remain available for our grandchildren’s eyes, and for their grandchildren as well.
Emily Dickinson wrote that “Hope is the thing with feathers/ That perches in the soul.” Then again, it may be a yellow fan-shaped leaf that falls lightly onto the path we’re walking. Or the urgency of any moment that holds us still, compelled to truly register one vivid impression of a day that might otherwise go unnoticed. This is not the province of poets and painters alone, but of all of us aging children who are capable of – dare I say it – wide-eyed joy. Yes, even in these bleak times – at least I hope so.
Ginkgo in Fall
It hemorrhages glowing yellow leaves,
which pool at its base like preternatural
honey, a circle of surrealist sunlight
on still green grass under a cloudy sky.
If I were a painter, I’d break out
the cadmium yellow, then raise a black stalk
of tree and dab bits of color on its branches,
a filigree of falling leaves beneath them.
The tree is Michael the angel, from the movie,
releasing feathers like snowfall as his life
begins to ebb. It’s hard to look at trees
losing their leaves and not think of death,
but I’ve learned that it’s the buds—new life—
that push the leaves into their fatal fall, buds
that will endure the frigid blasts of winter,
produce the next generation of tiny suns.
–– Lawrence Kessenich
Red Letter Poem #78
In his essay "A Defence of Poetry," Percy Bysshe Shelley wrote that "poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world." Award-winning author Martha Collins might just be the sort of poet he had in mind. Shelley was not advocating that poets ought to control the levers of government; but he hoped the clarity of their thought, the power of their moral suasion might provide the sort of wise leadership a people could rely upon.
Many writers have become self-appointed ministers-without-portfolio, taking on the vital social and political issues of their time – and Martha is a perfect example. After discovering that her father had witnessed a racial lynching as a young boy in Cairo, Ill., she “became obsessed with thinking about what that experience might have meant to him.” Like a one-person legislative committee, she began a far-ranging investigation of the ways our concepts about race are embedded, often invisibly, in our individual and collective imaginations. It was clear to her that no political solution could effect any real change unless these ideas and images were untangled first.
The result was, not one, but three complete poetry collections published across a decade: the first, Blue Front, was issued by Graywolf Press; the next two, White Papers (where today’s Red Letter selection first appeared) and Admit One, under the imprint of the University of Pittsburgh Press. Employing original source material from her extensive research, her poems interweave the fragmentary strands of consciousness – the sort that might be spoken in public as well as the private monologues we might never dare give voice to, not even within the walls of our own homes. Hers are more potent than any congressional ‘white paper’ in that they are documents of psychic intimacy in whose presence we too may come clean to ourselves about what we actually feel.
Because she is quiet and self-effacing, I suspect Martha might bristle at my use of the Shelley quotation. So I’ll say that she’s, if not legislator, then certainly educator-at-large – because this poet has assigned herself this intensive exploration in order to come to grips with the emotional material she herself was carrying. Martha’s work makes the facts of our American condition manifest and inescapable. But like any good teacher, she knows these tools might then become of use to all the rest of us who’ve come to understand – especially in the age of Trayvon Martin, George Floyd, Philando Castile, Breonna Taylor – how much we’ve yet to learn.
White Papers #1
Because my father said Yes
but not in our lifetimes Because
my mother said I know my daughter
would never want to marry...
But mostly because they rarely spoke
of or noticed or even whispered
about and did not of course ...
Because magazines rarely TV
rarely textbooks rarely or not
at all except for figures like
George Washington Carver
who'd lived in our state
Because among the crayons
there was one called Flesh
Because paintings rarely or never
until because books from the library
never until because college literature
not at all the American lit anthology
had only Gwendolyn Brooks
who was not assigned
Because a few years after Brown
v. Board of Education I wrote a paper
that took the position Yes but not yet
–– Martha Collins
Red Letter Poem #77
Shopping in the vegetable aisle of Trader Joe’s, comparing the relative merits of two tomatoes, I heard someone behind me cough. And turning, I noticed that I was not the only pair of eyes searching out the culprit. That look we shared: Was it concern? Fear?
It strikes me that, just a few years back, such an incident would have been so unremarkable as to have passed unnoticed. And a poem like Susan Donnelly’s “Mortality” might have seemed merely wry, quizzical, with only the slightest hint of menace. What a life-lesson we’ve all been forced to undergo in the past year-and-a-half! The fragility of our lives – which, as adults, we certainly understood before this, at least intellectually – was now a visceral presence, never all that distant from our thoughts.
But what Susan employs in her poetry, to masterful effect, is that slight disconnect between the nature of our inner discourse and the way we nonchalantly face the daily travail. She can modulate tone of voice in order to reap the maximum effect from seemingly simple statements. That muted threat (“Remember me?”); the quiet entitlement (“to my credit surely”); and that quick hint of self-satisfaction (“and a prayer or two/ behind my hands at church”): because we can’t help but identify with her speakers, we’re gently eased into a new awareness. Susan is the author of six poetry chapbooks and four full-length collections, the newest being The Maureen Papers and Other Poems (Every Other Thursday Press) whose title poem was co-winner of the Samuel Washington Allen Award from the New England Poetry Club.
Having made my selection, I brought the tomato close to my nose: if sunshine had a smell …! I paid attention to the redness, to the silkiness of the skin. And for a moment I considered the weight of such simple earthly pleasures – magnified by the stunningly clear notion that I would, one day, have to relinquish them all.
strode in one day and said
Remember me? I hadn’t really.
Figured, if I thought at all,
that he was occupied with others.
Felt kind of smug about that.
It was to my credit surely
that years had passed
without my being sick?
I sympathized, of course,
sent Get Well notes,
murmured a prayer or two
behind my hands at church.
Yet here he was, a bailiff
who took things off
my shelves, my bureau,
suggesting, not so subtly,
Get your affairs in order,
accompanied by my wheeze
and piercing cough.
–– Susan Donnelly
This poetic outreach was updated Nov. 5, 2021.