UPDATED April 1: 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 #104
Impossible to know, or very nearly: What bewildering joy; what quietly-throbbing grief; what barely contained wonder – there, behind that paper surgical mask, as we wait on line at the pharmacy or cross paths outside the Italian restaurant waiting for take-out. Sometimes we try to decipher the complex narrative that seems to be unscrolling from those dark eyes sharing the elevator, or monitoring a toddler’s sandbox excavations.
And at other times, let’s be honest, our own tangled storyline feels too overwhelming, and we simply haven’t the bandwidth to pay the necessary attention. But I believe we’ve come to share a visceral understanding during these past two years of multiplying crises: Over there, in someone else’s movie (where we may only be bit players, if we figure in the action at all), hearts hang in the balance – whether we notice or not. And what we do or fail to do – what small gesture of kindness or casual disregard – has the potential to alter someone’s experience: for this hour, this day, within this precarious lifetime.
Maria Lisella’s moving poem “Anointing” reminds us of what may be taking place only an arm’s length or two in the distance. Would I have been able to sense what this woman, across the subway car, was bearing beneath the streets of Manhattan? Probably not. Thank goodness, then, for poems (or paintings or songs) through which we might escape our isolation, even if only for a few moments, and see the world through another’s eyes.
And reading this piece, do you instantly imagine yourself as the one ministering to a loved one’s suffering, or the one being comforted? And which individual in this scene has been more profoundly anointed by love’s attention? Maria, a poet and short story writer, is the current poet laureate for Queens, N.Y., and, as such, was awarded a Laureate Fellowship from the Academy of American Poets. Her third collection, Thieves in the Family (NYQ Books) features some of her strongest work, including poems which were nominated for the Pushcart Prize. She co-curates the Italian American Writers Association poetry readings; and, as an active travel writer, she contributes to diverse publications, such as La Voce di New York and the Jerusalem Post.
Maria’s husband, Gil Fagiani – whose passing is at the heart of today’s elegy – was himself a poet, though he came to the vocation only in midlife after fighting his way free from a heroin addiction. He also became a community organizer, a political radical and the director of a drug rehabilitation center in Brooklyn, where he helped other addicts to rescue their own lives. His last collection, Missing Madonnas, was issued by Bordighera Press in 2018. In print, Gil was sometimes referred to as the Poet Laureate of the Street, a title he wore with pride. Maria is working on a joint collection she began with her late husband – and that, I believe, involves an anointing of another sort.
as the winter sky cools on its way to night.
You ask me “… before you go, can you …” And I do.
Unwilling to go, needing to go, I organize items
on the table, as if anointing them for you, talk you
through the maze of meds, the need to eat something,
anything all day. I swirl and spin the hospital furniture --
the walker, the tables into place. Your prayer books
next to the phone, small laboratory cups of mouth
washes for who remembers why there are three of them.
I make my way to Second Avenue, chase the subway car,
look up to see a woman giggling. I must have missed
a transient, funny incident on the platform. She wants
me to join her, I do, smile back, blink and recall the last thing
you asked. “Would you take a hot cloth, wash my face …”
as my grandmother did on cold mornings knowing
each child would tiptoe on chilled wooden planked floors
as my mother did for me to gentle me into mornings.
I reach my stop and think quite possibly, I forgot
to warm your face as night falls in a place where
the weather never changes, where you live just for me.
– Maria Lisella
Red Letter Poem #103
To salute Women’s History Month, I bring you a poem from Moira Linehan’s latest collection titled & Company (Dos Madres Press) – and its subject matter couldn’t be more timely (even though it’s rooted in fin de siécle Paris and Boston.) While I write this, the first black woman ever nominated to the Supreme Court is undergoing interrogation in Congress by some who still have questions about the nature of women’s work. Moira’s book, though, focuses on history – personal, familial, international – and the ways it becomes a tangible presence in our daily lives.
Situated at the heart of the collection is her maternal grandmother, a dress designer and seamstress who made her way from France to America to start a new and more independent life. But the portal Moira chose, in order to immerse herself in that woman’s experience, was the artwork of the age, specifically the paintings by figures like Cassatt and Morisot, whose works are rich with that granular visual and social detail in which imagination can take root. And, of course, they depict the very sorts of clothes her grandmother might have worn and fashioned. Featuring lyrics, narratives, elegies and ekphrastic poems, her collection is a consideration of the tension between social stricture and freedom as women sought to assume some control of their work lives (dreaming, perhaps, of much more.)
Today’s poem is built around a kind of interwoven repetition of word and idea; we can feel how hemmed in these lives (our lives?) might be. And yet, within this pattern, the spirit that moved these women continually asserted itself, found a way to make from the microcosmic vision of domestic life an opening, a passage into vast possibility. Hard to miss, though, that the piece ends where it began, a warning, perhaps: how fragile our dreams really are – and how resistant to change, actuality. As with the fading of certain pigments, the fraying of textiles, the raveling and unraveling weave of word and sound – artists and poets acknowledge the ephemerality, and yet attempt nevertheless to clothe our ideas and emotions with something more enduring, with a style of our own making.
Moira is the author of four poetry collections and has published widely in journals like Agni, The Georgia Review, Poet Lore and Prairie Schooner. Her poem "Entering the Cill Rialaig Landscape" was chosen as the grand prize winner in Atlanta Review's 2016 International Poetry Competition. Her exploration of her Irish ancestry has led to numerous writing residencies, including ones at the Cill Rialaig Project in County Kerry, Ireland; the Tyrone Guthrie Centre in County Monaghan, Ireland; and the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts. A Connecticut native, she has lived her adult life in the greater Boston area. It is my pleasure to have Moira make a return appearance to the Red Letters.
Before Mary Cassatt and Berthe Morisot
Fugitive, the materials of their art,
art made quickly in small notebooks, on wove paper,
paper that goods might have been wrapped in. In pencil.
Pencil sketch, sometimes pastel, a wash of watercolors.
Colorful little pieces of the confines of home.
Home where they made their art. Never alone. Sisters,
sisters-in-law, female cousins, ever close by.
By sofa, tea table, garden bench. No farther.
Far from boulevard, café, studio. The off-limits.
Limited, every aspect of their lives. Mirrors
mirrored rules for stepping out to dine, to dance. Be seen.
Scenes men painted in oils on large canvases. Framed.
Framework for the holding pattern till they married.
Marriage, or at least the arrival of children, the end,
ending their artwork. Art going, gone fugitive.
–– Moira Linehan
Red Letter Poem #102
L’chaim! If I heard those words as a child, likely at some family celebration, they’d be followed by wine glasses quickly ascending toward the grownups’ smiling lips. I thought little of what the expression meant – to life! But as I got older, I began to appreciate that this foundational idea reflected one of the most beautiful aspects of my religion. It signaled that life was paramount – that contained within life was the manifestation of the divine – and thus our small occasions of happiness were not to be taken lightly. I loved the fact that, during the High Holy Days – when fasting was required of the faithful – the rules would be suspended for someone who was ill or aged; life trumped all stricture.
I think back to one of my first theater experiences – a production of Fiddler on the Roof – and how the budding wordsmith in me paid special attention to Sheldon Harnick’s lyrics. As these poor Russian Jews – under constant threat from the Cossacks – celebrated a young couple’s marriage, suffering was momentarily banished: “Life has a way of confusing us,/ Blessing and bruising us./ Drink, l'chaim, to life!”
All our hearts have been battered and bruised in recent days, and so I’ve felt the need for a poem that saluted the good within even our darkest moments. Fortunately, I had just the thing: “Café Table in the Luberon” – a new poem by a fine writer, Alan Feldman. He’s the author of four poetry collections, the most recent of which – The Golden Coin (University of Wisconsin Press) won the Four Lakes Poetry Prize. Born in New York, for several decades Alan was a professor and later chair of English at Framingham State University. After retiring he continued to teach free drop-in poetry workshops in Framingham and on Cape Cod – so I think the Commonwealth can fairly claim him as one of its own.
He’s been the recipient of many honors, but I’ll highlight one which, I believe, says much about the poet and his vision: one of his pieces was featured in Tony Hoagland’s essay “Twenty Little Poems That Could Save America” – high praise indeed! Today’s Red Letter poem celebrates that rarest of commodities: ordinary joy. A husband and wife visiting the South of France savor a moment, dining together outside, suddenly overfilled with a sense of quiet exultation. But can such feelings be trusted? Alan can’t help but peek beneath the veil of our transitory happiness (an inclination, I’m afraid, we poets are cursed with.) Fortunately, his wife – a painter with, perhaps, a keener trust in the immediacy of the senses – provides some ballast for the poet’s uneasiness. And that’s it: dessert, at a café table, with someone you love – nothing more. War had not ceased to exist; famine was not eradicated; and somewhere in the world, people were oppressed, endangered, afraid. And yet, a sip of wine together . . .
Chief among all the vital duties poets perform are these: we praise and we mourn – and sometimes we must do them both simultaneously. Alan’s poem brought another one to mind, a favorite from Jack Gilbert in which he, first, details the variety of the world’s suffering – but then counters: “If we deny our happiness, resist our satisfaction,/ we lessen the importance of their deprivation . . ./We must risk delight . . . We must have/ the stubbornness to accept our gladness in the ruthless/ furnace of this world.” In his books, Alan certainly acknowledges the presence of brutality – but affirms happiness, nevertheless. Decades ago, my teenage self took note of how, as that high-spirited song from Fiddler drew to a close, the lyrics offered us this reality-check: “And if our good fortune never comes,/ Here's to whatever comes.”
And so, my recommendation now: wherever you are, raise a glass; stare into the eyes of someone you love, someone whose presence gives meaning to your days (and, hopefully, you to theirs) – and toast: l'chaim! Or, in Shanghai, gān bēi! Or in Buenos Aires, saúde! Or in Harare, akubekuhle! And yes, even in an apartment in Kyiv, with the sound of bombardment in the distance: “budmo!” Mindful of human cruelty, of the earth’s fragile beauty, and fully cognizant that joy by its nature is ephemeral – even still: to life!
Cafe Table in the Luberon
Nan is in pink, and we’re sitting close together
as we probably were even before we asked the waiter
to take our photo, overwhelmed by our perfect luck,
a cafe table in such a private corner,
our crepes flooded with raspberry sauce,
the wine in its dewy bucket.
We are interrupting our dessert to put this moment
into a kind of bank, as if the umbrella
over our wrought iron table, green and white,
and advertising a liqueur, could shelter us
from time. And we have nowhere to rush to,
because we are absolutely here.
We are in our happiness. And ambition
is down there somewhere like a rental car.
Down in the wide valley one could find industry
and problems. But up here on this hilltop
we feel we ought to say something grateful,
even as the size and perfection of the moment
is somewhat numbing. “Oh look!” Nan says,
spotting a wicker dovecot with one white bird
as the scent of the lilacs surrounding the terrace
is about to become the memory of something lost
wrapped up in its gift of beauty.
Whenever I’ve been happy, I have to admit
I have to ask if it only looked like happiness
extrinsically, and was more complicated inside.
But for Nan the cafe has become the setting
of a wonderful dream. “It was so real,”
she said, lying in bed beside me this morning.
It was as if she’d suddenly received
an insight about heaven. “I could feel
the cold metal of the wrought iron table.”
“And were you cold?” I asked. “Oh no,” she said
“It was perfect. I was really there.”
–– Alan Feldman
Red Letter Poem #101
“It is difficult to get the news from poems,” wrote William Carlos Williams (who was himself, of course, one of America’s most famous poets) – “… yet men die miserably every day for lack of what is found there.” I must beg to differ (though only with the first half of the assertion; sadly, the second half still seems painfully accurate.) Sometimes the most immediate and heart-wrenching reportage any of us can receive is being broadcast – continually and at great personal cost – from the hearts of poems.
Case in point: this week I attended the virtual poetry reading Voices for Ukraine, organized by PEN America and writers in the United States, Ukraine, and beyond. Hosted by Boston’s own Askold Melnyczuk (novelist, educator, publisher of Arrowsmith Press) and Polina Sadovskaya (PEN’s program director for Eurasia), the event brought together more than two dozen acclaimed authors to raise awareness of the grievous struggle taking place as citizens attempt to defend the Ukrainian homeland from an unprovoked Russian invasion. More than just demonstrating solidarity with the suffering being visited upon that nation, the poems provided context and depth (not to mention, a human face and voice) to bolster the more anonymous suffering in the war footage featured nightly on the news. Each selection that was performed seemed to appear (at least in my mind) beneath an unwritten banner headline: Lives Hang in the Balance – What Are You Prepared to Do About It?
This may well have been the most moving poetry reading I’ve ever experienced. In every contribution, we could feel hearts on the line. But for some of the poets Zooming in from Kyiv and Lviv, life might come to a brutal conclusion at any moment – and still, this is how they chose to spend those precious minutes. It’s a challenge most of us in America will (hopefully) never have to face; but these writers were demonstrating a profound faith: that, while a poem may be incapable of stopping a tank, it can nonetheless be a citadel, a sanctuary in which ten thousand years of human history are still regarded as sacred. If you were not able to be part of this audience, here is a YouTube link where you can view the event belatedly >>
Although Gloria Mindock’s poem “Protected” was not written about the crisis in Ukraine – it appears in her recently published collection Ash (from Glass Lyre Press) – it felt to me as if it reflected the emotional landscape many of us are experiencing, as the news gets darker by the day. I asked the poet if she’d let me pair it with my little meditation about the current crisis, and she graciously agreed. I think of Gloria as a poetry-lifer – not just referring to the longevity of her commitment (which is considerable), but to the central place it occupies in her days. She is the author of six poetry collections and a children’s book; her work has been translated into 11 languages. She is the founder/editor of Červená Barva Press, which features poets from America and abroad, and also one of the U.S. editors for Levure Litteraire (France). Awards and honors abound, but I’ll highlight just one: She was the second poet laureate for Somerville, Mass., where she makes her home.
Sociobiologists tell us that our species has evolved to require community, to crave human connection. Still, sometimes we can simply feel overwhelmed – especially after two years of a global pandemic and a greater degree of isolation than most of us are accustomed to. So I understand the desire to turn away sometimes from the abundance of tragedy, including the coverage of this awful war. Viewing yet another house aflame, there is the implied warning in such reportage: our house could be next. Ezra Pound, though, spoke of literature as the news that remains news. So poems like Gloria’s and Voices for Ukraine trumpet a very different headline, one with far deeper roots: that this burning house is our very own. Now what are we prepared to do about it?
Inside the house was his life,
protected by a roof.
By the time the firemen got there,
it was gone.
He sifts through what remains,
eyes sunk, hands asleep,
brain idle for hours.
The man surfaces his heart.
He carries it away delicately.
It still beats, and he breathes asking
how much sorrow can this heart take?
There is never an answer.
–– Gloria Mindock
Red Letter Poem #100
After all, how long could it last: a month? Six weeks, tops.
That was my thinking when I launched the Red Letter Project back in March of 2020, responding to the Covid pandemic and the first quarantine. At the time, there was a great deal of concern in the air – but hadn’t we seen other health crises come and go without too much disruption? Still, I felt the project was a necessary response, recognizing immediately how isolation only magnified our fears. And since I had been appointed as Arlington’s laureate, I wanted to offer a reminder to my community, in any way I could, that while we might be physically apart, we were not alone. “Men work together, I told him from the heart,/ Whether they work together or apart.” We must embrace the state of mind depicted in Robert Frost’s poem if the balancing act of interconnectedness is to endure. Even in our solitary efforts, we can still keep each other’s home, health, work, dream in mind.
So how has that feeling changed after two years of Covid anxiety? And George Floyd? And Jan. 6th? And the proliferation of climate disasters? And now the Russian tanks rolling toward Kyiv?
I must say all this has only strengthened my resolve: that in pursuing the solitary passions that are central in my life, I must at the same time be mindful of our communal spaces and shared fates. The first – and the most sacred – word in America’s founding document: we, as in we the people. Our country has excelled in exploring the vast frontier of I – the rugged individualism and singular creative impulse (not to mention the mass-produced make-believe "uniqueness" being touted from every screen and advertisement.) But that drive had always been wedded to the idea of we, the common good, a shared humanity. If now we’ve permitted political and economic forces to decouple those counterbalancing forces, our survival will indeed become precarious.
But for the past two years, I’ve experienced a glorious version of that communal impulse. Putting the call out to Arlington, and then Massachusetts poets to allow me to share their work, I received nothing but positive responses. Then as the Red Letters were circulated from friend to friend, I began getting subscribers from across the country and even from abroad (a few readers in Turkey, Singapore, Israel, South Korea.) And soon poets from all over agreed to add their voices to this chorus. Not only was I able to feature the work of up-and-coming talents but some of the most acclaimed figures in poetry today.
I loved how each Friday, as the new installment appeared in inboxes and on partnering websites, letters from readers would begin arriving – praising a poem or bolstering some idea with their personal narratives. I would respond to each and then compile a sampling to share with the featured poet. A real sense of the shared moment developed – that ‘community of voices’ I mention each week – and it reaffirmed all that I’d always hoped for from this medium when I was a young poet just beginning to find my way.
I’ll bet that if you polled 1,000 poets about which author most exemplified that sense of poetry as part of our social connective tissue, the name Seamus Heaney would be a frequent answer. Even before he became a Nobel laureate – and dubbed the most famous poet of his time – both his writing and his manner (with friends and strangers alike) was so ebullient and deeply humane, he made you feel honored to be a part of the same literary guild. Seamus left us nearly a decade ago and far too soon. But I get a similar feeling from the Red Letter poets as well: something of great value was given to them, an ancient tradition; and they feel it is vital that they pass it on to others, that the connections endure, the circle continuing to strengthen and expand. We recognize ourselves in these poems; and we imagine the countless unseen eyes moving across the page.
(for Seamus Heaney)
Three months dead and your poem
appears in the glossy mag. Below
the by-line, your years pried apart
with a paltry black hyphen.
In your honor, I crack a cold one ––
ragged moonlit clouds frothing atop
a pint of midnight –– and toast
to all our fermented spirits, lush
on the summer tongue, our sullen
eloquence, the cold glass weeping
inside the palm, because –– and you’d be
the first to remind me –– you can no longer
see, sip, taste, savor, nor honor with song
this starless June diminuendo.
I can. And do.
–– Steven Ratiner
Red Letter Poem #99
Perhaps our young minds eventually embrace grammar so that thoughts will maintain their integrity, respect boundaries. And perhaps time, as a concept, comes into being so that the flood of perception can be mastered, channeled and savored measure by measure. Yet don’t we all have some vague impression of an early circumstance when that was not the case – when the territories of the body and the world comprised one sovereign frontier; and a sense of was/is/will be swirled around us in waves?
To an infant, each morning brings a constantly surprising storm of the senses, both thrilling and terrifying – though, at the time, it was simply an immersion in the day. And this experience came to us bearing no title nor sense of ownership – that is, until we began to recognize the one our mothers and fathers were attaching to it; and then we embraced those syllables as our given names. Here, in this a brand-new poem from the acclaimed writer Richard Blanco, we are presented with a taste of that childhood domain even as, stanza by stanza, we gradually become aware of those crucial distinctions by which we navigate: who and what we are (and are not); and what must transpire during these moments to make us aware that love is underpinning it all.
Richard’s Cuban family emigrated to Spain, where he was born, but, soon after, resettled in Miami, Fla., where he would spend his formative years. His memoir, The Prince of los Cocuyos (Ecco Press, 2014), offers a compelling account of his childhood and adolescence as he came to terms with his cultural and sexual identities and began to find his voice as a poet. His first collection, City of a Hundred Fires (University of Pittsburgh Press, 1998), received numerous honors including the Agnes Lynch Starrett National Poetry Prize. The books that followed were equally lauded, including: Directions to the Beach of the Dead (University of Arizona Press) which won the 2006 PEN/American Center Beyond Margins Award; and Looking for The Gulf Motel, a recipient of both the Paterson Poetry Prize and the Thom Gunn Award. In 2019, Beacon press brought out his most recent collection How to Love a Country.
Though he’d long been gathering a following, for many readers Richard’s work first entered their awareness on Jan. 21, 2013, when he stood on the steps of the Capitol in Washington, D.C., as the inaugural poet for President Barak Obama’s second term – breaking barriers as the first immigrant, Latinx, and openly gay person to receive such an honor. But it pleases me to say that Richard has used the prominence which came from that experience as a platform, not to advance his career, but to advocate for freedom of expression, and to open poetry up to diverse and underserved audiences. Having taught at many colleges, he is currently an associate professor at Florida International University; and he also carries the distinction of being the first education ambassador for the Academy of American Poets.
In “The Splintering,” the poet reinhabits a boyhood moment when pain and love helped define something essential in his being. I won’t be surprised if you also remember, as I did, certain youthful adventures where life might have gone horribly awry – if not for the devotion of some dear protector. I hope one day, some enterprising anthologist will pair Richard’s poem with Li-Young Lee's "The Gift," a piece about his father extracting a metal splinter from his hand, soothed only by the sound of his parent’s story-telling voice. Taken together, they form a marvelous tribute to mothers and fathers, and the sort of love whose imprint our lives still bear. Perhaps, reading Richard’s poem – when his succession of couplets splinters at the end, and we suddenly reawaken within our own familiar worlds – we’ll find ourselves in the presence of some of the faces that safeguarded our perilous journeys: those close at hand and others unimaginably far.
As a boy I was all body, my body part of all
that was. My ears were the wind my cheeks
heard. My mouth the thunder that roared in
my chest. My face in the face of rain puddles
cupped in my palms. My lips the wet petals
my nose kissed. And I blindly saw the stars
as my eyes luring me that night to climb up
our backyard mango tree, its branches were
my fingers, its splinters mine, needling into
my skin that was its bark. I fell, and fell hard
into the cries of my mother’s terror: Dios mio!
I couldn’t grasp her urgency: why she had to
tenderly soak my hands, as if I was some hurt
animal she had to heal, why the hours spent
pulling out every splinter with her tweezers,
a surgeon operating on me in her housecoat
and terrycloth slippers, why her teary words,
It’s okay. Just a few more. You could’ve died.
Die? I knew nothing of dying. Then she kissed
the last bead of blood on my finger, and said:
I love you. Meaning what she’d love forever
was more than my body, which suddenly split
from me into abstract breaths in the mouth
of my mind, for the first time saying to itself:
Death, joy, loss. Saying: I love you too, mom.
–– Richard Blanco
Red Letter Poem #98
If it can be said there is any upside to the Covid pandemic (and that’s something I do with great trepidation when referring to an illness that has affected a half billion individuals worldwide, and extinguished nearly six million lives), it may be the sort of shift in global consciousness which, sad to say, only disaster seems to be able to quickly accomplish. There’s been something of a broad awakening concerning human mortality and the utter fragility of all we love. And that extends beyond the domain of family and friends, and touches on ideas of community, the environment, planetary survival.
I’m not suggesting it’s universal – and I am in no way minimizing the countervailing forces of power politics and fear. But experiencing the possibility that we might not see our children or grandchildren grow up (or, during some of the darker days we’ve been through, that we’d enjoy even another spring), changes something fundamentally. That knowledge projects a rather harsh spotlight onto how we’re passing through our days and what is it we truly value. I don’t believe I’m being overly optimistic to suggest that, in our new pandemic reality, we might be entertaining more moments of – at least awareness, if not outright compassion – for all those anonymous fellow-travelers whose paths we cross in the supermarket or on the bus heading home, and who are staring back at us with curiosity from above their masks.
Charles Coe is a poet, educator, exuberant baritone, avid blogger, big-hearted individual. In today’s Red Letter, I’m offering one of his poems that predates the pandemic (it’s included in his collection All Sins Forgiven: Poems For My Parents from Leapfrog Press) yet seems to be reflecting what I’ve come to think of as Covid-mind. It takes one of those simple perceptions of the other and makes of it a small portrait of humankind on this troubled blue-green planet.
This is the transformative capability of a well-crafted poem: it can engage within us that cinematic effect of the "slow zoom" – and not simply visually but within the depths of our emotional landscapes. Its approach can either focus in on the fine-detailed microcosm, until even the familiar becomes quietly astonishing; or, as in the case of Charles’s poem, it can begin with the small specific detail and then broaden out to gradually assume something of a godlike perspective.
And from that great distance, I think our hearts feel like they must stretch their boundaries in order to encompass that deep feeling for (how could I not have seen it earlier?!) the rich complexity each individual life contains. “For small creatures such as us,” wrote the planetary scientist Carl Sagan, “the vastness is only bearable through love.” And paying attention – to the great swing of the galaxy, to the modest beauty passing outside the bus window, even to the mole on a girl’s neck (not to mention the poet’s precision as he describes it all in a notebook) – is nothing less than an act of love.
The young woman on the bus
has a mole on her neck.
Perhaps the same mole
in the same place
on some ancient ancestor
itched with sweat as she
crawled on hands and knees
through the king’s garden,
back bent, pulling weeds.
I know someone whose husband
died a month after their baby's birth.
Years later, she had to turn away
when her teenaged son brushed
the hair from his girlfriend's
face with exactly the same gesture
as the father he had never known.
Some mysteries are greater
than the birth of stars;
that sound you hear the moment
before sleep is not the wind, but
your own flesh, in a timeless,
whispered conversation with itself.
–– Charles Coe
This poetic outreach was updated April 1, 2022.