UPDATED Feb. 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. 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 #97
I’ve received this idea through the most circuitous of means: from the philosophy of Schopenhauer, filtered through the composer Wagner (more specifically, his opera Tristan and Isolde), then interpreted and staged by the Lyric Opera of Chicago, and finally embedded (permanently, it seems) in the memory of my dear friend Michael who speaks often of how that performance, back in 2009, solidified his thinking about longing and love.
He was swayed by an idea crystalized at the heart of the piece that regarded longing as love’s truest embodiment – which, according to the philosopher’s way of thinking, will always be more satisfying and intense than when the dreamed-of experience is realized. Sitting in that darkened theater, thrilled by the opera’s unresolved opening chords, Michael began to appreciate anew how nostalgia and distance operated within his own life. Of course, today I wonder how the majority of soon-to-be holiday celebrants, plotting their perfect romantic evenings, would feel about this idea? Or, for that matter, couples committed to long marriages?
And where would poet Scott Ruescher come down within this debate? Or, if not Scott exactly, then the unidentified speaker in his recent poem “Traffic Jam,” making its debut here as an atmospheric valentine-Red Letter installment? He is musing about love, aloneness, and the sort of long-distance desire that Tristan might easily embrace.
I like the poem’s long Whitmanesque lines and eye for street-level detail creating scenes that feel immediate and genuine. In the course of three eight-line stanzas, this cinematic poem takes us, via long tracking shots: from the speaker’s own perspective on love and isolation; then drifting above the streaming traffic (each car containing its own versions of joy or sadness); down toward the hem of the Charles River where geese still huddle together in the cold; and finally, out toward that lonely scholar working late, far away and quite separate from the little dramas taking place below his library window. The poem led me to consider what each of us desire most within this world – and how near or far it might be from our reach.
When asked about his background, Scott offered me this story (which I now convey to you) of a somewhat glamorous start to his writing career: a Teaching/Writing Fellowship to the prestigious Iowa Writers Workshop; publication in prominent magazines; a finalist in the sort of manuscript competitions that can define a poet’s career. But the glorious success did not materialize, and he found himself working at Harvard, where, for 18 years, he administered the Arts in Education program at the Graduate School of Education. He also taught in the Boston University Prison Education Program during that same period – another way of trying to stay true to this art form, even if the muse remained aloof.
And though he continued to write, he felt that deep inspiration had somehow fled from him, his passion rebuffed – until, decades later, he went on a monthlong writing retreat at the Vermont Studio Center, and that deep impulse slowly returned. Even better, he found himself liberated from his older, more derivative style and free to make poems that felt like his truer self. Since then, his career has once again clicked back into gear: poems from his first full-length collection, Waiting for the Light to Change (Prolific Press), won the Write Prize from Able Muse – reaching publication when the poet was in his early '60s.
He also received (two years in a row, I should add!) the Erika Mumford Award from the New England Poetry Club. So, as we approach the celebration of another Valentine’s Day, I make this wish for our Red Letter community: that you use this occasion to give thought to who and what you truly love in this life. And if longing for the ideal feeds your soul, may that only intensify. But if it’s simply a matter of distance that keeps you from what you desire most, may you find a way to surmount the obstacles and cross that bridge.
From the hollow iron railing of a riveted green bridge
High above the river, I could see Mars, red and mad
In the clear black sky in the east above the harbor,
Attempting to appear—on Valentine’s night, without my lover here—
Equidistant to the pregnant white full moon in the sky
(To whom he was about as near as he’s ever allowed in a year)
And the blinking red light on the roof of the university library
That warns planes and cherubs not to enter the atmosphere.
And I could see cars, on both banks of the black river,
With moonlike headlights and Mars-like taillights headed to and fro
The candlelit city, the celestial occupants fresh from thawing out
The ice-white sheets of their beds, dressed, I guessed,
In the red skirts and trousers, the white shirts and pullovers,
That are known to yoke the astral, complementary powers—
Earthbound wooers who’d snared their share of starlight from the sky
Now intent on romantic public restaurant dinners.
Below me I saw a snow-white flock of hand-fed geese
For whom the cold had not quite sealed the river shut just yet
Floating upon a still black pool near the lace collar of white ice
Around a gray granite pylon—and through a window a scholar,
Oblivious, I imagined, to everything but the love story
He was reading in a book, looking, in a library nook, with lonely eyes
On the comings and goings of woman and man, too hurt, too prone
To lamentation, and too shy to participate in the ultimate traffic jam.
–– Scott Ruescher
Red Letter Poem #96
Jennifer Garfield (who, I am happy to report, has become an Arlingtonian in recent years) has published poetry in such journals as The Threepenny Review, Frontier Poetry, Sugarhouse Review and Salamander – and she recently received The Martha's Vineyard Institute for Creative Writing Parent-Writer Fellowship. She is performing one of the vital tasks we depend on from all cherished artists: to cast even the ordinary of our days in sharp relief so that we might feel once again the extraordinary beauty in the simplest of moments. She does this by setting her poem in the most perfunctory of situations (grocery shopping) and framing her cascade of thoughts in fairly unpoetic diction (“Have you ever considered/ how everyone has a face?”)
But as her mind suddenly seems overwhelmed with the simple delight of being a human among her fellow homo sapiens, we begin to find ourselves swept away by her enthusiasm (“Show me any beast// and I will see the prince inside.”) And all it took to prompt this epiphany was . . . two years of a global pandemic and soul-crushing isolation. Mundane . . . workaday . . . humdrum . . . prosaic . . . pedestrian: we’ve an expansive vocabulary for what we take to be the commonplace – most of it tinged with dissatisfaction if not outright disdain. Perhaps it’s human nature: that the daily experiences, even those we once prized, can quickly tarnish beneath habit and disregard . . . unless, that is, some change in our circumstance drives those boring presences out of reach and makes us keenly aware of how sweet the water actually tasted, now that the proverbial well has run dry.
I heard William B. Irvine speaking recently about his book The Stoic Challenge, trying to make the worldview of these old Roman philosophers accessible (and, in fact, vital) for a modern audience. We tend to summarize the Stoics as being people who suppressed their emotions, but Irvine says that couldn’t be further from the truth. It’s only the negative emotions (anger, jealousy, despair) from which this philosophical stance seeks to unburden us, while fully embracing tranquility, contentment, and delight. His rule of thumb: “Do what you can, with what you’ve got, where you are.”
Choose your own life rather than dreaming of a more perfect (and hypothetical) life-to-come. He suggests the technique of “negative visualization” – a brief thought experiment where you imagine your life without one of those ordinary elements in order to have its precious nature instantly burnished again. He reminds us, “Covid-19 is a kind of brutal substitute for negative visualization” because we are all actually experiencing the long months without: a window seat at our favorite café, a crowded dance floor in a local club, a tableful of family or friends laughing over a home-cooked meal – or even the freedom to reach out spontaneously past the shield of a mask and just touch someone else’s face.
I was standing in line the other day at my own local market (while maintaining a respectful distance, of course), and remembered Jennifer’s upcoming Red Letter contribution. I stared hard at all those pairs of eyes hovering just above the mask-line – and I had the urge to . . . well, tell them about this poem I’d just read, to offer them a copy, to remind them how utterly astonishing it is to recall – not what we, at the moment, lack but all that relentless beauty that remains close at hand. And so I have.
I’ve been thinking about all the faces today,
and at Market Basket I had an overwhelming desire
to reach out and touch your face, to feel
your cool skin, your rough unshaven chin,
your fat rouged cheeks. Have you ever considered
how everyone has a face? I am suddenly in love
with all the faces, and isn’t there a phrase –– pimples
and all? That’s where I am today. Show me any beast
and I will see the prince inside. It’s not that difficult
to love a face. Now I am staring in a mirror, but for once
without judgment. I have no regret for my wrinkles, my nose.
Today, pores seem like a miracle. We survive. I like seeing you,
stocking up on chicken broth and chocolate bars, walking
through the picked-over aisles of a world gone mad,
or good. I’d like to keep you safe. I’d like to touch your face.
–– Jennifer Garfield
Red Letter Poem #95
What should I not say about this poem?
Because, when reading the work of Rae Armantrout – author of 10 poetry collections, which have brought her such honors as the Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Critics Circle Award, and a Guggenheim Fellowship – some of the richest moments are triggered by what is not included within the verse yet somehow materializes in the gaps between lines or even in the magnetic zone between two words. In the house that is Rae’s consciousness, it seems the walls are paper-thin; strains of poignant music are interwoven with bits of familial patter, pop culture tidbits, solitary reflection – all bleeding through and interacting on the page. And because of this, her poems can make us feel the current speeding along the skeins of neurons as thoughts leap across various areas of the brain. In an Armantrout poem, creativity is connectivity and, reading our way inside, we thrill to see where the signals will lead us.
Rae was one of the early West Coast practitioners of Language poetry – something of a cross between verse, philosophy and rarified semiotics. But unlike many of her New York counterparts, her poems always possessed a sort of ingrained lyricism, and imagery that was less abstract and more intimately connected to our workaday (and contradictory) selves. As she herself explained, “you can hold the various elements of my poems in your mind at one time, but those elements may be hissing and spitting at one another.”
Today’s poem will appear in her new collection, Finalists, coming from Wesleyan Press early in March. In some of her recent work, those context-shifting sparks have been muted a bit in the service of a deeper emotionality – and yet we still feel ourselves stepping lightly, sensing the tremors beneath our feet. So when she says: “I’ll miss you so much when you’re gone,” does she mean the leaves? The day? The autumn? This thinking-aloud on the page? Or is she seeing right through the page to fix upon our eyes passing over each line, our interaction (our very lives) fleeting? Saying would only still that tuning fork her words have struck; not saying – even to myself – allows me to feel the vibrations rippling out across my inner darkness where thoughts begin to move in sympathy. I have the sense I am continually homing-in; and then, exiting the poem, I can see my own home in sharper relief.
I think this points to what, in the past, our educational system has gotten wrong about the teaching of poetry: It conveyed the idea that there was a right answer concerning a poem – an astute and demonstrably correct interpretation that we too would reach – if only we were smart enough. And who (but those of us already irretrievably addicted to this material) would want to embrace such a calculating intelligence test?
We sons and daughters of Walt Whitman are more likely to believe there are a multiplicity of right answers at work inside any poem containing real power – an overdetermined set of meanings, neither random nor trivial, quietly arising from within the text. Or put another way: there is indeed a right answer for a poem such as “Crescendo,” and it’s the one that poet and reader alike will conceive of – and continually reconceive – according to their evolving hearts and the passing days. This is the sense I get from reading Rae’s poetry: that I can shake free from the habits of mind, even if only for a few minutes, and better understand our human circumstance. In a time when the pandemic has wholly reshaped how we think about our lives, I often feel my mind traversing the suddenly-unstable, then gradually-luminous earth beneath my feet. As the poet Rilke urged, standing beneath Apollo’s vacant gaze: “You must revise your life.” I find the work of poets like Ms. Armantrout helps in that re-envisioning.
The Light 1
Three o’clock, about two hours of light left,
glorious on the ornamental pear,
some leaves grizzled dark red.
The large leaves of what we think is
mock orange— yellow again, as when they first
appeared— and will soon fall.
I’ll miss you so much when you’re gone.
I’d miss you if I looked away
or if a cloud covered the sun.
I miss this momentas it goes on happening.
The Light 2
That little tree,
leaves now grizzled
gold and dark
red, is past
stiff in crescendo,
praising no one.
The gold my people
razed the world for––
cashed out there.
–– Rae Armantrout
Red Letter Poem #94
During an interview I did with the late poet Seamus Heaney, he commented: “…Poetry is born out of the superfluity of language's own resources and energy. It's a kind of over-doing it. Enough is not enough when it comes to poetry…This extraness may be subtle and reticent. Or it may be scandalous and overdone. But it is extra...”. But as Western writers have learned from the sensibility at the core of much Asian poetry, it’s possible to achieve that sense of extra by doing, not more, but less. The poet Aram Saroyan made that principle central in his career. I find it curious that, while he is the award-winning author of numerous works of fiction, biography, memoir, drama and, of course, poetry, he is perhaps most famous for a poem consisting of a single word – a piece that became one of the most controversial poems in history.
Son of the novelist William Saroyan, Aram’s literary education began early and, during the 1960’s – a time of revolutionary experiments in verse – he began exploring minimalism and concrete poetry, influenced by poets like Robert Creeley and Louis Zukofsky. Minimalism aims at achieving the maximum compression of a literary experience – not only making every word count, but every line break, punctuation mark, meaning-making device at the poet’s disposal. The practice of concrete poetry extends far beyond the stereotypical ‘tree poem in the shape of a tree’ some of us remember from school projects; it was concerned with the visual field of the page and how the arrangement of letters and words created different forms of significance. As the poet remembers the occasion of this groundbreaking piece, he had a friend visiting his Manhattan apartment who was anxious to head downtown to Le Metro Café, a spot where avant-garde artists and musicians hung out together. But Aram, whose nimble mind was continually turning over possibilities, had an idea simmering, and could not leave before he’d come to a decision. Once the notion took shape, he sat at his Royal manual and typed this single word in the center of a blank page:
Then they left for the café. Aram was 22 years old at the time; his life was about to be irrevocably changed.
As the poet himself has written: “The difference between “lighght” and another type of poem with more words is that it doesn’t have a reading process…Even a five-word poem has a beginning, middle, and end. A one-word poem doesn’t. You can see it all at once. It’s instant.” In this piece, he crafted an image that is experienced, much like a painting or photograph, rather than decoded. And yet a part of our minds still wants to plumb it for meaning. What did that doubling of the unpronounced gh do to the way we interpret the word? Is there more pulsing radiation? More silence? Something like an elongated sunbeam? Or are those two g’s staring out at us like eyes from a face, bathed in light? Is it, perhaps, simply the sort of exuberant play most had schooled out of us during our so-called educations?
The story might have played out with far less drama except for the convergence of art and politics. The poem was written in 1965, the very year a new federal agency was born: the National Endowment for the Arts. A year or two later, the NEA created its first Literature Program and selected the noted writer/editor George Plimpton to assemble a poetry anthology. At Robert Duncan’s recommendation, Aram’s poem was among the ones he included. Each contributor was awarded $750. – one third going to the magazine that first printed the poem, and the remainder to the poet. But this meant that – to a certain sort of mind – this poet was being paid the princely sum of $500. per word! And that got under the skin of a few conservative Senators like William Scherle and Jesse Helms, and they used this outrageous waste of money as a cudgel for attacking the young arts organization. Years after it was written, Ronald Reagan would still disparage the lighght poem as a symbol of elitist posturing. It seems our culture wars have deeper roots than we may have imagined.
Aram eventually published whole books of minimalist pieces, including many one-word poems. Here are a few favorites of mine:
and I can’t help but see the eyes, the paws of those beasts hiding in the underbrush.
Or this one:
– and this inventive spelling depicts, what? An open eye? A Cubist mouth? A simple refusal to play by the old rules (the very spirit of his famous artist-subject?)
Aram even has a poem that the Guinness Book used to call the shortest poem ever written – but, dear reader, I’ve run into a problem in trying to share it with you here. The image he created is the single letter m except made with three humps. Aram told me he was “doing paste-up work in the mid-Sixties at Academy Typing Service in New York. This was before computers allowed you to correct any mistake digitally. You had to correct a typing error by cutting it out of a typescript and pasting in a correct version. As I remember, a big m was part of a layout and I thought: how would it look if I added an extra hump.” It seems the html code just can’t handle this as an image and issues a blank space in its stead. But here is a link to a wonderful article where you can see the Saroyan m and read more about its significance: https://briefpoems.wordpress.com/tag/aram-saroyan/
This one-letter word-sculpture just tickles me to no end. Am I seeing doorways or mountains? Is this the depiction of the labial sound simply drawn out in pleasure? Or, as one writer suggested, are we witnessing the cellular creation of the alphabet, as primordial m and n first pull apart to create their separate selves?
These are playful experiences, to be sure – but they’re what a painter-friend terms serious play, her definition for all art-making. Their purpose is to stretch the boundaries of how we well-trained humans use language as a window on the world – or as a mirror that reflects the inner workings of our own minds. And, in recent years, after Ugly Duckling Presse and Primary Information released the poet’s Complete Minimal Poems, Aram’s poems began attracting interest from a whole new generation of readers and writers who were, perhaps, less bound by the strictures I inherited from my high school English teachers many years ago. Few creatures on this planet seem to possess complex and systematic language; and none but we humans have created our diverse writing systems for preserving that speech, that burgeoning thought. I love how this poet devised his wholly unexpected ways of reminding us of the extra that Mr. Heaney praised, lurking within even the simplest of words.
Want to feel the very neurons tingling as you wade into and begin to decipher one of Aram’s minimalist pieces? I’ll close with another favorite of mine:
Poem Recognizing Someone on the Street
e y ? h
e ? h e
h e y ! –– Aram Saroyan
Red Letter Poem #93
Freud thought of art-making as a raid on the unconscious – a way to drag parts of our dreamlike (or nightmarish) processes out into the sunlight where they might be, if not fully understood, then at least experienced and, when necessary, defused. And though I also find beauty in simple descriptives, and strength in the straight-forward voice, some of my favorite poems resemble waking dreams replete with images that seize the attention and meanings that are tantalizing but veiled. And so it is with Bruce Bond’s new piece “Redactions. . .” from his forthcoming collection Invention of the Wilderness (Louisiana University Press.) As in a dream, everything at first glance seems strangely connected and navigable – but then the questions erupt and certain phrases detonate (with shock as well as delight), and we keep moving toward what is just out of reach.
When I saw the poem’s title, I wondered whether this referred to the last presidential debates (well, scrums would be a better word) where, curiously, the health of our environment was rarely mentioned. Or is the ‘last debate’ the ongoing conflict between those who fear irrevocable changes to our global climate and those who disbelieve the dire predictions of scientists? Is the ‘blindness’ mentioned in the opening lines literal or metaphoric? An affliction or a self-inflicted wound? (Perhaps, like me, you heard an echo of your mother’s voice, warning you about running with scissors.) Then come those gut-punch images (darkness falling “like a head into a basket”) and those disembodied voices littering the scene – and I begin to intuit the landscape through which I’m traveling. The poem offers no easy answers because, frankly, there are none. But perhaps, emerging from such a waking dream, I will feel inspired to ask better questions – of myself, of those who make decisions in my name.
Bruce is the author of (hold onto your hats, my fellow poets) thirty collections of poetry, including three new ones on the way; beside Invention…, we can look forward to Choreomania (Madhat Press), and Liberation of Dissonance (which received the Nicholas Schaffner Award for Literature in Music). I was not surprised to learn that Bruce is a classical and jazz guitarist which, I assume, can’t help but strengthen both the musicality of his voice and the improvisational quality of his line. He’s the Regents Emeritus Professor of English at the University of North Texas in Denton, and has received awards from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Texas Commission on the Arts.
Redactions from the Last Debate
When I was a child, one eye went blind
and then, in sympathy, the other.
Twins again with their own twin code.
Scissors, with your spectacles, tell me,
are they open or closed. Are you no
less eyeless, the moment you are used.
Was that you at my window, the chirp
of the screw that holds your blades together.
Was it God who said, let there be light,
and darkness fell like a head into a basket.
Like a floe in the arctic with a heap of cellular phones.
I fear we fear the wrong connections.
The earth on the radio blows a plume
of smoke into the room, blackening the ceiling.
The flies in the icecap long to be released.
What is any fly without the open air,
any blade of grass without the pasture.
When I swear that I am here, the field
there, wind everywhere among the shivers,
a slant of light through the window casts
a thousand tiny threads, a thousand hooks.
I see them, cut them, and the oceans rise.
–– Bruce Bond
Red Letter Poem #92
It is a strategy poets have employed since antiquity: to proceed by contraries – and Thomas DeFreitas uses it to bountiful effect in this poem from his first full-length collection, Winter in Halifax (Kelsay Books.) The poem is an eloquent prayer for the most pedestrian of things (the Harvard Square hangouts of his youth.) It uses the formal rhymes and entanglements of the villanelle while ushering us chockablock past the odd shops and cold facts of teenaged street life. It clearly portrays a landscape where a part of the speaker’s heart is anchored – and yet the history and personality of that devotional voice is veiled behind his catalog of landmarks. . .except in those moments when the emotional tenor of the images rises into a higher register (ah, the “ink-sleeves” on those “ghost-white arms”!) And then we may feel, for a moment, a curious kinship: we were all young once; the world was baffling and new; and we cared so passionately for this fragile existence that sometimes we too wished for some intercession, some clarifying force that would offer its blessing.
There is another category under which Thomas’ poem sits in my mind: it hints at the ubi sunt motif. Derived from the Latin phrase: Ubi sunt qui ante nos fuerunt? ("Where are those who were before us?"), it represents a kind of nostalgia for people and places that proved to be (what a shock to our young psyches!) just as susceptible the forces of ephemerality as we. A generation before Thomas inhabited these very streets, I remember hitchhiking up to Cambridge in the summer of 1969, the first stop on a cross-country odyssey. Harvard Square was famous then for its artistic and intellectual scenes, and boasted an array of unique businesses. But this holiday, when I made my annual shopping trip to the Square, I was stunned to see how its gradual transformation had been dramatically accelerated by the economic effects of the pandemic. There were several empty storefronts – an unimaginable occurrence, here in one of the most valuable commercial districts in the Northeast! Parts of whole blocks were being gutted for restoration, and the quaint shops that had been fixtures for decades will be replaced by luxury chains. Even in this college town, the dozen or more bookshops I used to browse endlessly in my younger days had been reduced to a precious few. I experienced a ghostly sense of history being hollowed out and erased – and I stopped to imagine how downtowns all across our nation might be undergoing similar changes.
May the “Mother of winter roses” and that “spare-change Madonna” take pity on us all, and reassure that the future will not think too harshly of us and the choices we’ve made when, in the coming years, some undergrad poet writes his or her own ubi sunt?
Our Lady of Cambridge
Virgin of Harvard Square, gendering grace,
watch over Holyoke Center, the Garage,
Chameleon Tattoos, and the nose-ring place.
Pray for the pink-haired waif of mournful face
and ink-sleeves on both ghost-white arms. Take charge
(Mother of winter roses blushing with grace)
of Raven, Grendel’s, Peet’s; and, just in case,
tend to hungry undergrads at the large
Palace of Pizza near the nose-ring place.
Keep the Yard safe and sage. Make it your space.
Send down, María, pardon from the stars;
expand this city’s heart! Lady of grace,
shelter the sleepers crouched in church doorways
against the cold; protect the crowds in bars,
the punks in the Pit and at the nose-ring place.
Gather us all in your clement embrace;
hasten with healing for our wounds and scars.
Bless Newbury Comics, bless the nose-ring place,
spare-change Madonna, prodigal of grace!
–– Thomas DeFreitas
Red Letter Poem #91
“Should auld acquaintance be forgot,/ and never brought to mind?” It was my mistake: I was too young when I first heard the song to grasp what the Scots poet Robbie Burns was aiming at; perhaps I just couldn’t detect that dangling question mark, requiring a listener’s response. But early on, I thought the word should was prescriptive and tried to make myself believe that moving beyond memory was the path to freedom. It’s an unsurprising reaction; children who’ve experienced early loss are simultaneously burdened by the past and gratefully imprisoned within the bright rooms of memory’s palace. But often kindled within such individuals is a passionate desire to fashion new structures that might safely house all the incomprehensible voices echoing inside the green and permeable self.
Frank Bidart is one of the most acclaimed American poets; his virtual trophy case is burgeoning with prestigious honors, including the Pultizer and Bollingen prizes, and the National Book Award. His 11th collection, Against Silence (Farrar, Straus and Giroux) appeared recently. I’m fairly sure that when Frank first ran across Walt Whitman’s line, “I am large. I contain multitudes,” he instantly nodded in assent; his 50-year body of work is crowded with the voices of people – remembered, imagined – that inhabit the metropolis of his consciousness. These are characters he, by turns, discovered, conjured, nurtured, or preserved – all within his supple lyrics and sprawling monologues.
It seems to me the poems are intended to simultaneously separate himself from and fully embrace the upsurge of these unbridled energies. Reading his work cannot help but make me aware of the many rooms in my own self into which I’ve rarely ventured. So, in 1999, when I directed a massive poetry/music/dance/art project to celebrate the new Millennium, I asked Frank if he’d let me make a video-poem of his “For the Twentieth Century,” to be included with the performances. So generous with his time, he welcomed me and my crew into his Cambridge apartment which, I was surprised to see, was filled floor-to-ceiling with books, video tapes, and audio recordings. It was as if he was the self-appointed archivist of our cultural era, preserving artifacts of the past that formed his imagination so they would always remain accessible to his further explorations.
And so here, his poem celebrates the technology of a century that, while perfecting the most awful war-making machinery, also managed to create the means by which the voices of poets, the performances of musicians, and even the slapstick antics of classic movie comedians, would have lives that extended far beyond that of their mortal selves. Talking with him in his private spaces, hearing his voice bring this poem to life, I began to more fully understand how precious memory really is – how even the simplest moments of our waking day are inextricably wedded to older times, distant voices which our minds sustain (and which sustain us in turn.)
When, later on, I discovered that Burns’s famous song was actually preserving and elaborating upon lyrics that had been fashioned a century earlier, I felt grateful now to be able to offer my own response to the Scotsman: yes – we will preserve and cherish moments of our remembered past, and pass along what we can to the generations that follow. For the sake of our culture and all that makes us human, we’ll happily press the play button, reread a few favorite poems and raise “a cup o’ kindness yet” as another year slips into the rearview and we turn to face the oncoming brights.
For the Twentieth Century
Bound, hungry to pluck again from the thousand
technologies of ecstasy
boundlessness, the world that at a drop of water
rises without boundaries,
I push the PLAY button:—
. . .Callas, Laurel & Hardy, Szigeti
you are alive again,—
the slow movement of K.218
once again no longer
bland, merely pretty, nearly
banal, as it is
in all but Szigeti's hands
Therefore you and I and Mozart
must thank the Twentieth Century, for
it made you pattern, form
repeatability within matter
Malibran. Henry Irving. The young
Joachim. They are lost, a mountain of
newspaper clippings, become words
not their own words. The art of the performer.
–– Frank Bidart
This poetic outreach was updated Feb. 10, 2022.