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22 minutes reading time (4309 words)

No. 116: Red Letter Poems 3.0: Ambivalent winds

UPDATED June 24: 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!

Steven RatinerSteven Ratiner / David Andrews photo 

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 #116

Summer arrives freighted with expectation. Maybe that’s because so many of us were conditioned by the long school year where, at that June goal line, we’d be set free into a two-sided paradise: freedom/boredom. Or perhaps it’s just a sense of relief that sun and warmth bring – especially for those of us dwelling in the northern hemisphere – after the endurance we mustered to face an interminable winter. And, unavoidably, each new summer reminds us that time is indeed passing, and we’ve no guarantees about how many seasons we are to be granted.

“One must have a mind of winter,” wrote Wallace Stevens in “The Snow Man,” to regard that cold unfolding. Perhaps that’s true for summer as well – a mind geared, not just for the grand moments (the dazzling display of Fourth of July rockets or the reward of those exotic of vacation locales,) but for the slow-motion flowering and decline of the garden; the symphonic layers of birdsong, cicada drone and wind-stirred oaks; and (my personal Elysium) the riotous mouthful of the season’s first ripe tomato. Or, in the case of poet Alan Feldman, the quiet captivation of stellar light . . . when accompanied, especially, by a like-minded loved one. Ambivalent winds blow quietly through his new poem: expectation and disappointment; memory and presence.  I find much in the speaker’s meditation that resonates with my own summer thinking. Perhaps it will spur your own, now that the season has officially taken hold.

I’m happy to have Alan make his second Red Letter appearance with this new poem. He’s the author of four poetry collections, the most recent of which – The Golden Coin (University of Wisconsin Press) – was awarded the Four Lakes Poetry Prize.  For many years, 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. He and his wife, Nan, a painter whose work, I’m sure, sharpens her husband’s eye, divide their time between Florida and the Commonwealth.

Indeed, summer comes to us, burdened by our pent-up desires and unbridled anticipation.  (You can say the same, I guess, about poetry, art, life itself.)  But, every now and then – if we’ve developed a mind and a heart for it – it delivers. 

Starbathing 

Question:  If we enter a dark hallway 
will the past shine behind us, so we won’t 
feel so lost?  Remember Lieutenant Island?
Remember the cottage with the cupola that swayed
in the night wind?  But we’re outside starbathing.
We’d just been making love inside our Plymouth
so the kids wouldn’t hear us.  No ambient light.
Stars sharp as lasers.  Copious.  Like outer space.
Our forearms on the aluminum armrests of the deckchairs.
This is the summer I’ll write my children’s book,
our daughter asking for nightly chapters. And our son
had a kind playmate, Dave, who will move to North Carolina 
and became a homicide detective.  The lovely past!
And the night sky, whose lights come from there.

                                     Alan Feldman

Red Letter Poem #115

In the opening assembly for my poetry residency with local fifth-grade students, I posed this question: How many of you have driver’s licenses? Puzzled looks, side to side and, of course, no hands rise. So you’re all "back-seat people" then, I tell them – as are most kids, as I was once. And there are certain benefits to being a "back-seat person": You can read or daydream out the window or even nap, secure in the knowledge that some grown-up is being the responsible "front-seat person," safely guiding you to your destination. I see my students nodding their approval.

But then I go on, reminding them that Covid changed all that. Suddenly, we all felt we were back-seat people – even your moms and dads, and I was no exception. We were praying that someone was in the front seat with their hands firmly on the wheel – some confident mind with enough wisdom and wherewithal to get us where we needed to go.  Can you remember those early days? No one could relax; our very thoughts felt out of control. We adults tried to occupy our minds and soothe our fears with things like eating, drinking and binging on Netflix – but the anxiety was stubborn and sometimes overwhelmed us.

So here I am today, making the case for poetry being a way to take a little bit of control of our own minds. Poems help us become "front-seat people" for our own lives – at least for the few minutes in which we are immersed in reading and thinking about a poem. And, if you’re willing to make a creative leap of faith, it can have that effect for the hour (or many hours) you spend in the composition a new poem. I could, with all honesty, declare to my students that if I hadn’t available to me the daily retreat from pandemic anxiety into the oasis of words, I don’t know how I’d have survived.

In Joyce Peseroff’s fine new poem, we get a hint of that front-seat/back-seat duality. We can feel the “fluid mystery” in which our lives travel – and, well into the third year of this global pandemic (with new variants still popping up each week like sparks in a sun-parched field), we find ourselves gazing up the road ahead, hunting warily for unexpected dangers. Reading her poem, I smiled and winced at the same time; but, without even realizing it at first, I took strength in recognizing myself in both the parental and childlike roles. I was not alone in my concerns – nor in my anticipation of a time when all this darkness would be in our rearview, and we could celebrate with family once again.

As the sun seemed to hold still above us, centering our year, I too wanted to ask: Are we there yet? Petition (published in 2020 in the Carnegie Mellon University Press Poetry Series) was Joyce’s sixth book of poems and was named a “must-read” by the Massachusetts Book Award. She is also the editor of Robert Bly: When Sleepers Awake, The Ploughshares Poetry Reader, and Simply Lasting: Writers on Jane Kenyon. She’s been awarded grants from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Mass. Cultural Council. She directed and taught in UMass Boston's MFA Program in its early years where she helped young writers to learn to steer inside their own creations and to understand the undeniable value of empowered language – for writer and reader alike.

At the Summer Solstice 

Rain had sluiced the budding
cones from tips of pines
and in the dark, our headlights
took them for a fall mulch
of brown, tire-shredded leaves.

We thought another season
had gone AWOL, like spring
in its isolation bubble—no friend
given in marriage, or fitted
for a graduation gown, or standing

over thawed ground to bury
winter’s dead. Perhaps summer
too had passed without goodbyes
whispered face-to-face,
a crush kissed in a canoe,

or license plates tallied on
the holiday drive to Mama’s
Colorado cousins. Are we there yet?
kids ask a mile from home—
space and time a fluid mystery.

                           Joyce Peseroff

Red Letter Poem #114

I’m no theologian, but if I were searching the Bible for an iconic moment to symbolize the ‘fall of humankind,’ it couldn’t possibly be that of a woman (or man) so desirous of knowledge that they indulge in the fruit of God’s creation. It seems apparent that the mind inherently needs to know, that it’s a part of its very design (divine or otherwise.) No, the symbol for me would be that of one brother so angered by the other’s good fortune, he would murder his sibling out of jealousy. From envy and violence, all darkness arises, and what was once a garden is made barren.

So in reading Yuliya Musakovska’s new poem, I couldn’t help but see the brutal aggression of one brother-nation toward its neighbor in almost biblical terms – especially today, as Russia’s unprovoked invasion of Ukraine has just surpassed its 100th day. But in corresponding with Yuliya, she cautioned me in my metaphor. “There has not been any brotherhood or even friendship between Russia and Ukraine. Through the centuries, Russia was trying to colonize [my homeland], to destroy its identity.” She went on to describe how Russia has long been painting the picture of a weaker, rural, culturally-backward ‘younger brother’ nation, which cannot exist without the older one's patronage. This version attempts to negate Ukraine’s ancient cultural legacy and its aspirations to become part of a modern European Union. “And this deceitful narrative sounds especially cruel through the lens of today's events . . . so my address to the "older brother" [in the poem] is, of course, bitter and sarcastic.”

Musakovska is an award-winning Ukrainian poet and translator. The author of five poetry collections, the most recent of which – The God of Freedom (Old Lion Publishing House, 2021) – is where “Garden of Bones” first appeared. This English translation, done by Olena Jennings and the author herself, is making its debut in the Red Letters. Yuliya’s own poems are quite well-traveled, having been translated into numerous languages, from English and German, to Bulgarian, Hebrew, Chinese and more. Among her many honors in Ukraine, she is the recipient of the Krok Publishing House’s DICTUM Prize, the Smoloskyp Poetry Award for young authors and the Ostroh Academy Vytoky Award. Yuliya makes her home in Lviv, and, in addition to her literary endeavors, works in Ukraine’s tech industry. She has been drawing on her expertise in both poetry and technology in her efforts to help her nation survive this terrible conflict.

In this poem, a new mythology is taking shape, repurposing the biblical seeds and attempting to grow something that will prove enduring, where even the buried bones give rise to some future sweetness. I was introduced to Yuliya by an organizer of one of the numerous readings in support of Ukraine. I loved her work and asked if I might publish one of the new poems here. In conversation, we remarked (rather ruefully) on a term someone mentioned at that event – ‘Ukraine fatigue.’ It's undeniable that, here in America – where life is bountiful even in the worst of times (at least compared to much of humanity) – our generosity is substantial and our hearts do go out during a time of crisis. But I needed to acknowledge that, as crises continue to mount, our interest tends to wane, and we are drawn to the next drama unfolding elsewhere. Yet another simple appeal from that poetry event has also stayed with me: “Please don’t forget us.” 

In Genesis, the Lord asks "Where is Abel, your brother?” and Cain replies: "I do not know – am I my brother's keeper?" That question has haunted humanity since its inception. From the skies, God proclaims: “Listen! Your brother's blood cries out to me from the soil.” Indeed, haven’t we all arisen from the same garden? Don’t we share the same joys – and comprehend, as well, the weight of suffering and loss?  All the wanton death and destruction taking place. All my sisters and brothers. How can we allow ourselves to forget? 

Garden of Bones

What's rattling in the bag?
Bones.
My bones, but not all of them.
My brother stole three bones,
he sold two of them at the market
and buried one in his garden.

An apple tree will grow from that bone.
Each apple with my face
will speak to my brother.
           – Why did you do this, older brother?
           What did you kill me for,
           taking the bones from my body,
           sewing it shut with a coarse thread,
           put me into a bag,
           not letting them bury me for three days.

          – It is because your wife is prettier,
          your song is louder,
          your soil is richer,
          the apple tree in your garden is taller.
          Give me your wife,
          your land,
          tie your song
          in a knot in your throat.

You're not a brother to me,
not an honest enemy,
not a man,
not a beast.
A bag full of bones.

Your wife will come outside
and take a bite of an apple.
She will fall dead.
Your children will come out.
They will take a bite
and fall, lifeless.
The sun will rise
and burn your house to the ground,
sowing the land with ashes.

What's rattling in the bag?
Apples.
So very sweet. 

 – Yuliya Musakovska

Red Letter Poem #113 

Stasis: “the state of equilibrium or inactivity caused by opposing equal forces.” Like that brief pause between the back-and-forth of a housepainter’s brush.  Like that childhood urge to climb higher, countered by the unrelenting pull of gravity, leaving you temporarily transfixed on your perch.  Like the need of a conscious mind to hold the world in abeyance at times – even while the poet’s temperament would opt for opening the floodgates and letting thought and emotion come rushing in.

So, in order to claim a moment’s quiet, the speaker in Christopher Jane Corkery’s poem observes the painter at work – not even the whole painter, but that portion visible through the frame of her window. And the mind is stilled by the simple beauty of perception, by that lifelong practice that allows words to coalesce into a clear picture, brimming with possibility. “Yet briefly, no one is sick, and fate/ declines for this half-hour to announce a thing” – and suddenly the emotional valence is multiplied. At the time, the poet’s household had experienced its share of calamities, and this thought, this poem, provided something of a respite. And though this piece – taken from Christopher’s last book (Love Took the Words; Slant Books) – predates the pandemic, doesn’t it resonate with something most of us have been feeling, and far-too-often: a desperate need to make it all stop, just long enough so we can catch our breath?

Christopher has the ability to craft poems that pulse with color, action, subterranean streams of emotion while, at the same time, helping the mind to achieve a moment of stasis where it can reflect on that mysterious confluence – observation, memory and dream – forces that we instantly recognize as human (not to mention the workings of the mind’s own ineluctable machinery.) She published her first poem in Southern Poetry Review in 1977 and has appeared widely in journals ever since. She’s been awarded a Pushcart Prize and fellowships from the Ingram Merrill Foundation, the St. Botolph Club Foundation, and the MA Artists Foundation. She’s currently at work on her third collection, begun at the American Academy in Rome, where she was a visiting artist in early 2020 before the pandemic drove us all into seclusion.  In addition to being a poet, she's also a doting grandmother and a sculler who has competed numerous times in the Head of the Charles Regatta.

I love how there is often a still point inside my favorite poems, hovering between what we know and what is unknowable – the carefully crafted language helping us toward a greater acceptance of that decidedly human predicament. And the emblems of that awareness – two roads diverging in an autumn New England wood; the pale Parisian faces rising from the dark of the Metro; or even a painter’s well-turned ankle glimpsed on a hot summer day – they seem to remain inside our consciousness, almost as they were our own creation. And now, reading silently, they are. 

Painter on Scaffolding in Summer 

Inside the house, all I can see
are the painter’s legs from waist down.
And I am struck by his delicate ankles;
it is August, and hot, and he wears no socks.
On his feet old lace-up oxfords --
the elegance of it! Strong legs, and the barest
horizontal motions in the torso
as he edges clapboards. Back. Forth.

Why this seems hopeful I do not know.
Yet briefly, no one is sick, and fate
declines for this half-hour to announce a thing.
And I remember you standing at ease
after a race, the center of your chest moving,
not seeming to move.

                         Christopher Jane Corkery 

Red Letter Poem #112

The Little Book of Cheerful Thoughts.  I’m desperate for this now, crave it – some solidity, reassurance, balm. And oh, wouldn’t it be wonderful if it came between the covers of a small book, a little packet of hope I might slip into my pocket, return to in quiet moments, an all-purpose anodyne always within reach. After the heartbreaking news about the shooting at the elementary school in Uvalde, Texas. After that hate-fueled massacre in that grocery store in Buffalo, N.Y. After America has reached that grim milestone of a million lives snuffed out by Covid (not to mention the countless losses globally), while reports keep popping up like sparks about new variants on the rise. After we turn toward our leaders in government, in faith communities, in the arts, hoping for some voice that will guide us and restore our belief in – if not humanity’s ultimate goodness – then at least its impulse toward self-preservation. And like the children we once were (and ultimately remain) – trusting that some wise parent is steering the car, so we can safely daydream in the back seat – we wait for a sign.

Jeffrey Harrison’s poem reflects that desire which, I’m betting, most of you share with me, especially when the week’s dark headlines pile up in drifts. There actually was such a book displayed by the cash register at Bob Slate Stationer in Harvard Square, one day when the poet was shopping and, for a few dollars, seemed to be offering that promise. Jeffrey, though, is an honest enough poet to temper that innocent desire with a wry dose of reality. Because (and you don’t need me to remind you of this) it’s our hands gripping the wheel, navigating the traffic, choosing the way forward. And our hearts we feel hanging in the balance. Sometimes we just need to steer ourselves away from the maddening tumult, to create our own quiet clearing, the sanctuary within a single slow breath . . . so we can restore a sense of balance, strengthen our resolve, recognize those faces around us as individuals much like ourselves, acknowledge them with a smile.

Jeffrey is the author of seven collections of poetry, the most recent of which is Between Lakes published by Four Way Books. There seems to be a quietude within the very fabric of his verse as his sly narratives maneuver between grief, joy and the quiet astonishment of our daily awakening. He reminds me how fortunate I feel that I have a more encompassing resource to draw upon: three millennia of texts from similarly astute observers, whose poems remind me that – no matter the circumstance – what I am facing is not unique, nor am I alone in what I feel.

Drawing a little strength from those words, it makes me want to work harder to right the course of my own life, to demand more from the folk who have assumed the mantle of leadership, and to be a little kinder to all those whose paths I intersect. “For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you,” declares Walt Whitman, reminding us that to sing a song of praise for what is, in all its challenging complexity, somehow seems to restore, replenish, reaffirm the human community. And in those instances when the day simply overwhelms, perhaps it wouldn’t be a bad idea to soak in a warm bath, companioned with a good book. And if you do receive a sign, be sure to let the rest of us know.

The Little Book of Cheerful Thoughts

Small enough to fit
in your shirt pocket
so you could take it out
in a moment of distress
to ingest a happy
maxim or just stare
a while at its orange
and yellow cover
(so cheerful in itself
you need go no further),
this little booklet
wouldn’t stop a bullet
aimed at your heart

and seems a flimsy
shield against despair,
whatever its contents.
But there it is
by the cash register,
so I pick it up
as I wait in line and
come to a sentence
saying ‘there are few
things that can’t be
cured by a hot bath’
above the name
Sylvia Plath.

I rest my case,
placing the booklet
back by its petite
companions Sweet Nothings
and Simple Wisdom …
but not The Book of Sorrows,
a multivolume set
like the old Britannica
that each of us receives
in installments
of unpredictable
heft and frequency
over a lifetime.

                         Jeffrey Harrison

                                                (first published in Poem-a-Day,
                                      by the Academy of American Poets)


See poems from No. 105 through 111 here >>


This poetic outreach was updated June 24, 2022.

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