UPDATED May 20: 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 #111
It’s as American as apple pie, as baseball, as Fourth of July: racism. Isn’t it mind-boggling that a nation conceived by beleaguered people seeking a better world – whose founding document states unequivocally that all men are created equal – can have braided within its history some of the most glorious and egregious moments imaginable? Perhaps it’s the very contradiction of the human soul – that we contain the voices of those ‘better angels’ and well as the snarl of bitterness that sometimes erupts when confronting the other (when constructing the idea that the other actually exists, and needs to be feared, attacked.) That some people would like to forbid us from even examining and learning from our past – are, in fact, too consumed by fear to allow their children to risk being exposed to the truth – as I said, the mind reels. But does not retreat. Perhaps that’s what poets are for.
Case in point: Martín Espada who, over the course of four decades, has become an indispensable American voice bringing us – in 15 collections of poetry, not to mention translations, essays and anthologies – the hard truths, the hard-fought struggles, and the enduring beauty of our national experience. The list of Martín’s honors unscrolls like a cash register slip from CVS: the Academy of American Poets Fellowship, the Shelley Memorial Award, the American Book Award, the 2018 Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize for a lifetime’s achievement.
So we should not be surprised that his most recent collection, Floaters (from W. W. Norton & Co. and which, I’m happy to report, was just released in paperback this week), was the winner of the 2021 National Book Award. I interviewed Martín many decades ago when he was just starting out and, ever since, his poetry readings are among the ones I seek out repeatedly for the chance to be challenged and revitalized by his Whitmanesque imagination. This is what signifies to me the career of a great poet: how often he or she forces you to reevaluate your favorite book choice among their oeuvre.
Floaters – with its harrowing poems about immigration and class struggle, its devastating lyrics about love, friendship, and the way fathers carve out a mountain-sized place in our consciousness – has just claimed that top spot. And so I’m pleased the poet has allowed me to share another from that collection with our Red Letter readers. This selection seems at first not to be one of his grand societal broadsides; instead, it has the quiet voice, the vulnerable heart of, well, a child.
But thinking back to my own boyhood, what is, in fact, more monumental than discovering the delight of the body via sport; than first falling in love; than discovering the world may not be as you thought (imagined? desired?) it would be? And yet there is something honest and vital within such heartache; something valuable in posing unanswerable questions; and certainly something worth savoring when we speak out (as poets do) and affirm that we are not alone in all this.
“Asking Questions of the Moon” contains both a sucker punch and a caress. Reading it, you may feel yourself alone in the vast field watching the baseball (or the spring moon, or the heart of a poet) plummeting toward your upraised glove. Trying to catch what the world offers us – the best and, yes, the worst; being willing to face the hard facts of existence, and survive with our hearts intact. What’s more American than that?
Asking Questions of the Moon
Some blind girls
ask questions of the moon
and spirals of weeping
rise through the air.
––Federico García Lorca
As a boy, I stood guard in right field, lazily punching my glove,
keeping watch over the ballgame and the moon as it rose
from the infield, asking questions of the moon about the girl
with long blonde hair in the back of my classroom, who sat with me
when no one else would, who talked to me when no one else would,
who laughed at my jokes when no one else would, until the day
her friend sat beside us and whispered to her behind that long hair,
and the girl asked me, as softly as she could: Are you a spic?
And I, with a hive of words in my head, could only think to say:
Yes, I am. She never spoke to me again, and as I thought of her
in the outfield the moon fell from the sky, tore through the webbing
of my glove, and smacked me in the eye. Blinded, I wept, kicked
the moon at my feet, and loudly blamed the webbing of my glove.
– Martín Espada
Red Letter Poem #110
This is one of the things I love most about poetry: There isn’t a single rule, aesthetic stricture, established formulation, honored tradition – no matter how critically revered or widely practiced – for which I can’t offer you an example of a poet who violated said rule in order to achieve a successful poem. Perhaps that is poetry’s "prime directive": Once a new poem begins to announce itself inside your consciousness, do anything – no matter how devilishly subtle or lavishly irregular – if (and I must stress that sense of necessity) it helps you to bring that dynamic vision, that singular music to the page.
One of those "best practices" young poets learn in writing classes: Don’t beat around the bush. You should move directly into the heart of the subject; don’t sacrifice clarity or economy of expression by allowing the poem’s attention to wander. After all, how can you expect a reader to be moved if the poem indulges in detour or distraction? Well, tell that to acclaimed poets like Frank O’Hara or Ruth Stone, Philip Levine or Wislawa Szymborska – who each seemed to make detours into an art form, creating a new experience of consciousness within poetry by mimicking the way our minds often meander, subvert and, seemingly, stumble upon a more meaningful destination than the conventional one sighted at the outset.
Jennifer Garfield – another fine poet making Arlington her home – has her own version of such anomalous behavior, often second-guessing herself within the poem, challenging her own perceptions, only to offer at the end some realization, some unexpected clarity made more satisfying for the circuitous route that brought us there. If I tell you a poem titled “Spring” contains baby bunnies and tulips, I’m sure you have some immediate and Hallmark-like expectations about the piece in question. But this poet continually undercuts our assumptions and, in doing so, reminds us of our own doubts and insecurities, our often-formless craving for clear emotional resolutions in a world where such things are, at the least, problematic if not downright impossible.
Jennifer has published poetry in such journals as The Threepenny Review, Frontier Poetry, Sugarhouse Review and Salamander and was recently featured in Mass Poetry’s Hard Work of Hope series. She’s also the recipient of The Martha's Vineyard Institute for Creative Writing Parent-Writer Fellowship. She’s one of those poets whose voice and vision seem desultory and eccentric – and then, after a few readings, inevitable and strangely trustworthy.
So if spring is a time of rebirth and renewal, shouldn’t a spring poem take Ezra Pound’s directive to heart – “make it new!” – and uncover what unimagined moments might be blooming inside even everyday consciousness? And if new poems seem to sprout each May, attempting to honor both the season and, of course, Mother’s Day, I’d gladly help myself to ones as mysterious and honestly self-reflective as Jennifer’s. Her “Spring” produces both a smile and a wince, and makes me grateful to have endured another winter.
There are baby bunnies in our neighbor’s yard
hiding behind an old ladder. I watch them
while doing dishes and think to show my own kids
the miracle of spring, but I don’t. You are a bad mother,
the voice in my head says. It sounds a lot like
my own mother. I turn her words into statues
and arrange them in the garden. Bunnies hop
over syllables, unbothered by their tone and history.
Can I not be wild without strumming my list
of failures? Let me admire someone else’s flowers,
not mine, I don’t know how to make things grow.
Yet somehow the kids keep sprouting,
even when I keep the bunnies to myself
for reasons I can’t explain, and don’t you see?
Spring really is meant for poetry. Or poetry
is meant for spring. Or I’ve been stuck inside
too long and willing to mistake any damn season
for spring. I forgot to mention the tulips
and the pink blossoms
on our tree, opening their hearts
to no one but the sky.
– Jennifer Garfield
Red Letter Poem #109
Recently, I mentioned to a friend that I’d spent all morning “working my way through a poem” – and I could actually see him bristle. Was this, perhaps, an involuntary response? A telltale vestige from years of American schooling – an experience that convinced him poetry was indeed work (and often tedious work at that), a daunting undertaking, utterly fruitless?
For many, poetry is something the curriculum required of teachers who, often, were themselves scarred by their own early introduction to the artform? Over the years, I’ve had others confide in me that they felt poetry was used like an intelligence test “to separate the smart kids from the rest of us” – the very antithesis of an activity (reading poetry, let alone writing it) that deepened understanding, broke down cultural barriers, provided delight. Having done residencies at several hundred elementary and secondary schools, I am happy to report that the skill-level of today’s teachers is far advanced from those of my childhood; they’re much more comfortable with all sorts of art endeavors. Perhaps this has been one of the most important lessons we’ve derived from contemporary poetry and art: a willingness to be surprised – and that, through the upsurge of the creative act (in words or colors or sounds, no matter how other-worldly or matter-of-fact), the actuality of our human experience becomes manifest. And, as Robert Frost noted, “The fact is the sweetest dream that labor knows” – work worthy of our precious time.
So I explained to my friend that I hadn’t even left bed that morning before I felt something launched inside me, like a boat. The prow was a single line that appeared out of nowhere, and the craft began to assemble itself around that possibility. I felt myself both passenger and crew. I steered and was steered, trusting in the currents. It all felt confounding, thrilling, thoroughly unexpected – and slowly, the far shore came into view. In the end: twenty lines; ink on paper; a thought-contraption I’d combed through, read aloud, rewritten again and again, and felt grateful to have received. Such neural clarity; such a retreat from the demands of the busy day! Then I stretched, dressed and entered (reentered?) the morning.
A poem like Chloé Firetto-Toomey’s “Images” does make some demands on our attention, requires a bit of work – but then it rewards us with a marvelous sense of arrival when we finally stand before her symbolic mirror. The prow of her vessel was, as she explained to me, a collection of “lost lines from failed poems”, resurrected and given a new form. She’s led me to think about how we receive (and alter) images as the external world joins with the inner.
I must say, I’ll never read mirror again without noticing that pair of reflective r’s at the heart of the word. Chloé is a British-American poet and essayist living in Miami Beach. She earned an MFA degree from Florida International University and went on to teach Creative Nonfiction and Poetry at FIU and at Everglades Correctional Institution with the nonprofit Exchange for Change. Having studied with the acclaimed poet Richard Blanco, she currently works as his assistant. Her most recent chapbook of poems, Little Cauliflower, was published in 2019 by Dancing Girl Press. A Pushcart Prize nominee, and winner of the Scotti Merrill Memorial Award in Poetry, her poetry career is off to an auspicious start. I’m happy to welcome her voice to the Red Letter conversation.
As though no
were a landscape
in the mirror
stood before it
with a single inquiry—
I know nothing.
All images are mirages.
Every day, I pass a man selling white roses
from a green bucket. He haunts
the halted traffic in the winnowing heat
and I think of all the snipped roses,
gasping; his face unclear in the shadow
of his wide-brimmed hat.
If images are mirages—r buds between letters, sprouts above the water
through a crack in the concrete bridge. I admire it from my canoe:
green bud, blue bridge, roots dangling like snagged mermaid hairs.
two women prod luminous green bulbs
with metal pipes, arms raised to the highest branches.
I like their voices, bright saris,
the sounds of the fruit falling,
clipping leaves, the inevitable thump.
Mirrors hold bodies
of unanswered questions,
as do eyes and windows,
smooth as gyroscopes.
All images are mirages, the r makes us mirrors.
– Chloé Firetto-Toomey
Red Letter Poem #108
The unthinkable . . . the unspeakable – and the gulf between. It seems that, during these times in which we live, very little still remains beneath that first category. On display daily is every form of brutality, greed and madness – flooding media, conversation and even our nightmares – so that nothing seems beyond the realm of possibility.
But how do we speak, how can we confront and process such abundant suffering without destroying our own sense of purpose or turning our hearts to stone? The most recent instance is, of course, the monstrous invasion of Ukraine. Perhaps you’re feeling as I do: that, faced with the magnitude of this carnage, speaking out begins to feel futile or, worse, almost impossible. I’ve heard from so many poets who say they’ve tried and failed to maintain any clarity of thought or to find words commensurate with the horror of the moment.
Bonnie Bishop was experiencing precisely that when reports appeared about the wanton torture and murder that was carried out by the Russian forces retreating from the town of Bucha. It was as if these troops were hellbent on leaving nothing but bitterness and grief in their wake. So, on impulse, Bonnie found herself creating what’s come to be called an 'erasure' poem, desperately trying to keep her attention from simply turning away, her heart from withdrawing into the shadows.
An ‘erasure’ poem is a poetic technique that’s become quite popular in recent years, especially in school settings – but the form has its roots as far back as Tom Phillips’ A Humument from 1980, and reflects as well the influence of William Burroughs’ ‘cut-up’ constructions from even earlier. In this technique, the writer starts out with a preexisting text of some sort which she or he begins to efface by crossing out or erasing words and phrases. As the piece develops, new linkages between images are discovered, and the unconscious mind is freed to radically reshape the material simply by carving away language and revealing a new structure from what remains. Bonnie’s starting point was a front-page New York Times article by Carlotta Gall and Andrew E. Kramer detailing the rampant murder and torture being documented. Perhaps she felt she had no choice but to pay attention to the reportage and allow it to impact her thoughts and emotions.
It goes without saying that the erasure in her title carries with it an abundance of meanings, extending far beyond that of the poetic endeavor. What, I’m wondering, needed to be erased during their military training so that these young soldiers could so easily engage in an act of ethnic cleansing? What has been extinguished within the Ukrainian people, as they go through Putin’s attempt to obliterate a nation, and what might grow in its place? What is required of us as witnesses if we are to fill in the voids in a poem such as this? And what, too, has been sacrificed in the consciousness of the entire world as we discover, much to our distress, that we have not learned the awful lessons of the last brutal war, or the one before that?
Bonnie’s most recent collection is River Jazz (Every Other Thursday Press), which is brimming with the ebullient jazz and easy kindness of her beloved New Orleans. Perhaps that is the lesson we are being challenged to learn now: that even in the most devastating circumstances, we have to maintain our reservoir of joy, if for no other reason than to navigate a course out of darkness – joy, that I choose to regard as ineradicable, though this world seems determined to test that belief.
Bucha, April 4, 2022
wooden gate and fence
of her daughter in the garden
covered as best
in bright blue fleece slumped over
without electricity for
old toothless in
arranged with backhoe operator
dozen yards long, two wide
shoes and an arm protruding,
late in the day snow dusted
– Bonnie Bishop
Red Letter Poem #107
Crowded and complex, nerve-wracking and utterly fascinating: the city. The experience of population density creates a curious (some would say thrilling) sense of anonymity, which, at any given moment, has the potential for startling revelation and human discovery. It’s almost as if we were alien worlds, each only an arm’s length in the distance, orbiting the same invisible sun.
Day by day we go about our separate untranslatable lives – until, unexpectedly: interaction, conversation, an eruption of understanding (brief but significant). And then, altered in some indefinable way, we speed apart. I, myself, grew up in what is often thought of as the Ur-city of the modern world, New York (though I’m sure Parisians, Romans and Londoners might have something to say about that – not to mention the citizens of Cairo, Mexico City, Shanghai and, of course, Boston). Since then, I’ve lived in much smaller urban settings and, when I return to The City (no additional designation required), I feel like the proverbial country mouse, dazzled and overwhelmed as I struggle to make my way.
Sometimes (shifting metaphors), I think that the city feeling is a bit like browsing a poetry anthology of innumerable pages, each composed in a unique foreign language. We can’t help being both intrigued and intimidated by the indecipherable script – until some Rosetta Stone-moment seizes us and, with sudden insight, the text opens to us and we read (and feel ourselves read by) one life’s quiet unfolding. In Denise Bergman’s lovely poem, set on a crowded F train in Manhattan, the key is a simple glimpse of someone else’s cell phone as he scrolls through his picture album, savoring memory. And then that revelatory gesture that’s become emblematic of our modern age: thumb and forefinger lightly touching a screen, effortlessly expanding our vision. Suddenly, we understand – even if just a little – each other and ourselves.
Denise explained to me this is what she’s always loved about city life. Born in Jersey City, she became a Cantabrigian way back in 1976. She’s the author of five poetry collections, the most recent of which is The Shape of the Keyhole (Black Lawrence Press), formed (as are many of her collections) around a single historical figure or incident – in this case, one week in the year 1650 as a falsely accused woman awaits her hanging. Denise is also the editor of the fine anthology City River of Voices, which revolves around the small universe that is Cambridge, Mass., her adoptive home.
What I enjoy about her poetry is the tension between what is said and what, unspoken, slowly blooms in the reader’s own consciousness. Reading this new poem of hers brought to mind a recent visit to a playground with my grandson, not all that far from where Denise makes her home. That afternoon, I overheard no fewer than seven different languages being spoken. But this is what made me smile: engrossed in play, the children suffered none of the awkwardness we grown-ups often do. Delight is a common tongue and requires no translation; it reminds us we’re human. As do poets like Denise – before we race away inside the bustling day.
Close Is Far and Figured
We pull away, the subway platform an erased slate.
Beside me he sits
elbows on knees, that familiar poring-over position—
a young man, his father square in his palm.
Father, far and farther,
in a toe-length kanzu, tilted kofia on his head.
Then a boy slides into his hand, a backlit boy in a bowtie.
Then mother in a flowered puff-sleeve gomesi
and father sitting in a carved oak chair.
Then the boy again, bowtie loose,
then father with could-be his father.
Then mother in a skirt and blouse, stirring a large pot.
Then father, embroidered collar fiercely detailed,
and mother's red lips, red-streaked eyes,
boy’s wet cheeks.
The speeding F train lurches, empties, fills.
He steadies the distance in his hand.
I pretend not to peek but he glances, posture unfolds,
arm slightly nudges mine.
He’s seen I see, and to show me
swipes quickly past boy, father, kitchen, garden, dog,
cousins, wedding—to mother
plucking a pomegranate from a tree,
enlarging between his forefinger and thumb.
– Denise Bergman
Red Letter Poem #106
It’s National Poetry Month – and Phil Lewis’s Red Letter poem affords me the opportunity to think about this artform, which is enjoying a resurgence in public interest. But poet Gary Snyder reminds us that “Of all the streams of civilized tradition with roots in the paleolithic, poetry is one of the few that can realistically claim an unchanged function and a relevance which will outlast most of the activities that surround us today.”
I’m thinking now of how composing a poem seems to transform the day in its entirety; of how reading a good poem transports the consciousness to a wholly unexpected destination; and how, sitting at a poetry reading, some stranger’s voice can seize an audience with his or her measured lines and make us aware of those precious materials we humans hold in common. I am imagining also a set of eyes a thousand years in the future reading a poem from our time (just as I read favorite poems from ancient Athens or Song Dynasty China) and wondering for a moment what our days were like.
When, on occasion, young poets ask me for advice about where to publish and how to amass an audience, I’m afraid the counsel I offer them is often not what they’re looking for: I plead for diligent practice, for patience, for deepened attention, for mastering one’s craft and honestly exploring why you have the desire to compose these inky constructions in the first place (let alone committing to them as a career.) I’m advocating for a poetry that is a vital activity in an individual’s life, as close at hand (and as essential) as breathing – something that will sustain them throughout their years, whether their job title is doctor, lawyer, farmer, carpenter, teacher or perhaps poet.
Phil’s life presents a wonderful example: He remembers first writing poems as a freshman at Dartmouth, describing to me the powerful influence of faculty members like Sidney Cox and poets like Robert Frost and Philip Booth, both frequently present on campus. A stint in the Navy silenced the Muse but later, while pursuing an advanced degree at Harvard and teaching high school mathematics and computer science, he returned to writing. Even today, when Phil reads one of his artful sonnets to the Beehive group at the local library (one of the few enumerated responsibilities of Arlington’s laureate is to lead this monthly workshop), I can recognize the flinty rhythms and softened vowels of Frost’s reading style. Phil is a clear-eyed observer and a diligent craftsman who subtly maneuvers us through the grammatical twists until we, too, grasp the matter at hand and feel the ah! rising within us.
At this time – when the spring holidays of Easter, Passover and Ramadan converge – here is a poem of quiet abundance. It hints at the way absence can become a generative presence in our lives – even as what is present is made more precious by the knowledge of its inevitable loss. Taken from what we imagine must have been a ruined church, this statue of Mary now reaches people in a new way within this museum setting. There is a marvelous fullness conjured by those empty arms, by the dust on the stone.
No, Phil’s exemplary career as an educator and an early innovator in the use of computers to foster mathematical understanding did not include literary prizes or audiences applauding him at the podium – things, I realize, every poet dreams of to a greater or lesser degree. But through all his years, poems have been a constant presence, illuminating the circumstances of his days and offering him deep pleasure. This is a poetry that sustains life. It’s what I wish for every poet, old or young, who takes up the pen. Phil Lewis is approaching the close of his 91st year, and this is his newest poem – only the second one published in a public forum. Yet another reason to celebrate April.
She had, we guess, remained unseen,
except by occasional birds, for centuries
before today, and now exposed
in this eclectic alcove, still cradles
in empty arms her infant son
long gone. She looks down fondly
on where he was –– and, moved,
we wonder if the artisan
who carved for pay, believed before
accepting his task — or only after,
job done, he dusted off the stone.
– Phil Lewis
Red Letter Poem #105
I would like to believe that the signature statement of our age is this one: “the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice” -- taken from Dr. King’s speech at the National Cathedral in 1968. But I fear it will end up being this -- spoken at a crisis meeting of high-ranking Soviet officials focused on what came to be known as the Holodomor famine in the 1930s: “If only one man dies of hunger, that is a tragedy. If millions die, that’s only statistics.”
The speaker was, at the time, the Commissar of Munitions – but Joseph Stalin went on to become the supreme ruler of his nation, operating with that same heartless realpolitik, where power and control trumped all other concerns. It’s a cruel irony that the famine being addressed – and dismissed – at that meeting was taking place in Ukraine, another nation whose people had been swallowed up by the Soviet empire. It seems that, today, Vladimir Putin must be using Stalin’s statement as a political guide as he wages his remorseless war on the cities and towns of a neighboring country that refuses to bend to his will.
So I especially appreciate the reminder that poets provide – voices representing the ordinary and the marvelous within our shared existence: that enmeshed in the sweeping forces of history, ours is the living and dying at stake. Ours, too, the dreams we inherited from our parents – whose transmission to our own children is both a sacred duty and our deepest hope. And, of course, ours, this very conversation which despots have tried to control since the earliest human civilizations, hammering it down with darkness and brutality, but which somehow keeps managing to find some small path back into daylight.
Ukrainian writer Oksana Zabuzhko made her poetry debut at the age of 12, but, because her parents had been blacklisted during the Soviet purges of the 1970s, it took another dozen years and the advent of perestroika before her first book received publication. Since then, she has authored 20 works of fiction, nonfiction, poetry, literary and social analysis, which have been translated into a score of foreign languages.
Today’s Red Letter piece is taken from her Selected Poems, translated by Lisa Sapinkopf and published by Boston’s own Arrowsmith Press. Oksana has been called “without doubt the most influential literary figure in Ukraine of the last half century”; one of her novels occupied a spot on her country’s best-seller list for a full decade. Her honors – in her native land and beyond – include MacArthur and Fulbright Fellowships, as well as the Antonovych International Foundation Prize, the Shevchenko National Prize of Ukraine, and the Order of Princess Olha.
In early March, she addressed the European Parliament about the threats to Ukrainian sovereignty and the dire situation especially for the women there. But for decades even before this crisis, her writing has borne witness to the myriad ways totalitarian regimes practice suppression in order to separate beleaguered people from their cultural inheritance and their imaginative freedom. And now, away from her beloved home and friends in Kyiv, she is doing everything within her powers to support her country’s resistance to the Russian onslaught. In a sense, she is testing something of an Archimedean principle: with the heart as the fulcrum and a lever of fervid language, is it possible to move the world?
A Kingdom of Fallen Statues
Just as children scrawl self-portraits
With two figures, mom and dad,
Grasping them with unsteady stick-hands,
I’m drawing on the windowpane
A kingdom of fallen statues —
And the outlines, delicate, are quivering.
In the kingdom of fallen statues all gates hang open,
And even marauders no longer tread grass
That was overgrown in an instant.
And yes, vanished dramas —
But how real, O God, how alive they are...
Gilding and lapis flake like skin
From the leprous faces of princes and saints.
And, seated on tombstones or perhaps on column stumps,
Black-hooded gravediggers roll cigarettes in yellowed verse.
Don Quixote’s shield lies somewhere,
Somewhere Casanova’s cloak has been tossed,
Somewhere stands the tent where Khmelnytsky
Hosted Europe’s envoys.
In the kingdom of fallen statues you can hear a language
Of words still warm but learned no longer.
I’m drawing it all: everything that’s ever vanished, or will;
I peer into my picture as into rippling water:
Triumphant Nike’s head
Lies somewhere in the grass.
I’ll draw it — and then
I’ll end it with a period.
– Oksana Zabuzhko
This poetic outreach was updated May 20, 2022.