No. 14: Red Letter Poem
UPDATED, June 26: Steven Ratiner, Arlington’s poet laureate, sought submissions in February 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.
Adults and students were invited to submit one to two poems -- no longer than 20 lines each -- they’d most like to share with potentially thousands of their Arlington neighbors.
The Red Letter Poem Project
The Red Letters 2.0: When I was first appointed as poet laureate for Arlington, one of my goals was to help bring the strength and delight of poetry into unexpected settings. The Red Letter Poems Project was going to be a novel way of sharing Arlington’s poetic voices, sent off in bright red envelopes, a one-off mass mailing intended to surprise and delight.
But when the Corona crisis struck, and families everywhere were suffering a fearful uncertainty in enforced isolation, I converted the idea into an e-version which has gone out weekly ever since. Because of the partnership I forged with seven organizations, mainstays of our community, the poems have been able to reach tens of thousands of readers, throughout Arlington and far beyond its borders.
I hope you too are grateful that these groups stepped up and reached out: The Arlington Commission for Arts and Culture, The Arlington Center for the Arts, The Arlington Public Library, The Arlington International Film Festival, Arlington Community Education, The Council on Aging, and YourArlington.com – each of which distributes or posts the new Red Letter installments and, in many cases, provide a space where all the poems of this evolving anthology continue to be available.
But now we are experiencing a triple pandemic: the rapid spread of the Covid virus, which then created an economic catastrophe, and served to further expose our long-standing crises around race and social justice. My hope is to have the Red Letters continue as a forum for poetic voices – from Arlington and all our neighboring communities – that will help us gain perspective on where we are at this crucial moment and how we envision a healing to emerge.
So please: pass the word, submit new poems, continue sharing the installments with your own e-lists and social media sites (#RedLetterPoems, #ArlingtonPoetLaureate, #SeeingBeyondCorona), and help further the conversation. Art-making has always been the way we human beings reflect on what is around us, work to alter our circumstances, and dream of what may still be possible. In its own small way, the Red Letters intends to draw upon our deepest voices to promote just such a healing and share our enduring hope for something better.
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 #14
You know the old tri-part formulation: There’s what you know; and what you don’t know; and – most problematic – those things you don’t know you don’t know. But there are more dangerous possibilities to consider: how about what you won’t know? What you, consciously or unconsciously, refuse to make visible within one’s understanding – all so that the days will seem more peaceful, the nights undisturbed? The balm of such amnesia is certainly not a privilege everyone can enjoy.
Especially now – when the world is offering up so many cruel reminders. Of course, even beginning to know takes work: it’s unsettling, overturns the norm, requires action, demands that we both see with clear eyes and imagine possibilities beyond our reach. I think the Covid crisis requires such an awakening. Not to mention the economic meltdown, skyrocketing unemployment, continuing political antagonisms. And then there’s George Floyd. And the long list of other names before and after his death. And the streets full of demonstrations demanding that, somehow, we not allow ourselves to slip back asleep.
But in the speech he delivered at the Berklee College of Music’s commencement in May, singer/songwriter John Legend reminded us that, throughout American history, times of great crisis often allowed us to make dramatic changes to repair our nation. “I hope, years from now, when we look back on this unprecedented time, that we remember not the moments we lost but the way we rose up, together, to imagine a better future in which we defined ourselves by love, hope, resilience and community.” Amen.
Cats, Momma explained. You know how they yowl
in summer heat. I was unconvinced. Or brakes
squealing from the late buses up on Merrick.
But I was sure I’d heard wailing, someone’
mammoth grief, off in the distance, splitting the skin
of these black August skies and gouging open
a five-year-old’s sleep. Only bad dreams, she said –
as if that might comfort. But neither she nor I
made any connection to the news we’d been watching
on the basement Philco, those fierce black-and-while clips:
police dogs, fire hoses, the crack of gun shots and,
in Mississippi, flames devouring a tiny white-
clapboard church with – Walter Cronkite’s quiet eyes –
some parishioners trapped inside.
The youngest of the dead: a girl of five.
I remember counting out years on my closed fist –
one-two-three-four-five – watching each finger
stand to attention. A handful of emptiness.
It was probably crows – a kiss on my forehead –
that rowdy bunch camped out in Reilly’s pine.
I believed her then. I wanted to believe.
Returned to my bed and slept. And went on sleeping.
– Steven Ratiner
Red Letter Poem #13
Unlike the previous Red Letter poets I’ve featured here, you’ll find no publication credits or literary awards in my introduction of Camille Maxwell – but that’s not terribly surprising considering she’s only recently completed the 10th grade at Arlington High School. But I will not be at all surprised if we check back in a few years and find all that changed. Here is a young woman who developed a deep love of language at an early age and for whom the allure of its music, its conjuring power is irresistible.
I’m sure that playing violin (“and a little guitar”, she is quick to add) has reinforced in her the feeling that large moments can suddenly appear, right there at your fingertips – if one is attentive enough to seize them. She hopes to one day become a cardiac physician so I can imagine her – like William Carlos Williams – quickly jotting down a few lines of poetry between patients. In “Sunshine”, something as small as the aroma of a cup of tea (“I’m very picky about good quality tea!”), and the invitation of an open window, are enough to transport her mind…well, let’s just say beyond.
Though Camille is the first student writer to appear in the Red Letters, I certainly hope this will serve as an invitation for other young poets to consider taking that bold step and offering work to the community-at-large. We certainly need to hear from you.
The small noises of a guitar
And the drums that pepper and brush my eardrums
The scent of lemon and ginger, heating and swirling honey,
The cold of an open window, yellow leaves shimmering
Gold and green, values increased by opulent rays of light
What looks warm sways in biting air, crisp and clear
I feel far away from where I am, from where I sit
My eyes stretch my soul and mind
I’m pulled into fractals and waves
Bouncing off surfaces, revealing color in visions
I am seraphim in the sunlight and wind
-- Camille Maxwell
Red Letter Poem #12
Reading Polly Brown’s poems, I find a more permeable membrane between human nature and the natural world than is common in contemporary writing. Goat, goose, barn swallow; apple, catalpa, spruce – they each share the spotlight in her poems like much-loved family members, and are just as astutely observed. And grandparent, parent, child, grandchild seem to be elemental parts of the landscape, entwined with all that green urgency – and subject to sun, rain and all the varieties of mortal weather.
But the effect of Polly’s approach is often a remarkable sense of at-homeness in the world, a feeling many of us will realize we’ve forgotten somewhere along the way into adulthood. And thus the poems comfort even as they challenge.After two lovely chapbooks, she’s recently published a full-length collection – Pebble Leaf Feather Knife – from which this poem is taken.
Polly has received awards from the Massachusetts Artists Foundation and the Worcester County Poetry Association, and has been a member of the Every Other Thursday poetry group for more than three decades. A lifelong writer and educator – each skill nurturing the other – Polly is in the process of moving back to her mother’s farm house in New Sharon, Maine, a place where many generations of her family had rooted their lives.
Dvorak and My Grandfather
My grandfather was six years old
when Dvorak discovered America,
but I can’t be sure
this music ever reached him.
Instead, he had the cows, wide and slow,
carrying their cargo of darkness
under a blue Maine sky;
ferns and white pines, the river;
the bride who didn’t abandon him
when all the wealth of his barns burned down
a week before their wedding. Listen:
here’s the quick-fingered mischief
of their sons. Maybe the cello is what we take
from love into the city, to help us
breathe there. Or maybe the sorrows
that made him weep and look away, every goodbye,
could have been soothed by the sound
in the night, later, of a cello.
-- Polly Brown
(from: Pebble Leaf Feather Knife
Cherry Grove Collections)
Red Letter Poem #11
“Staying In” – Miriam Levine’s poem seems a somewhat prescient take on self-isolation. Granted, it’s only a rain storm that drives the speaker indoors, not an invisible contagion that swept across the planet. And she is describing a day’s quarantine, not the interminable condition through which we’ve all been suffering. And yet, metaphorically, the piece suggests there will always be external forces that upend our expectations, drive us inward. When our view of the horizon is blotted out, how will we navigate a new reality? It is in what we choose to focus our attention, and how we arrive at some form of acceptance, that the tenor of our lives is revealed.
Not just this poem, but in much of Miriam’s work her end-point contains a quiet feeling of celebration – even when describing dark days and deep sadness. Hers is a matter-of-fact beauty that I find immensely appealing. Throughout her five poetry collections – of which Saving Daylight is the newest – Miriam operates by the dictum of another woman poet who wrote “Tell all the truth but tell it slant,” helping us too to feel our way through uncertain circumstances. Though now she divides her time between New Hampshire and Florida, Arlington had previously been her home – and where she served as the town’s first poet laureate. The storm will eventually pass – this poem reminds us. And how will we choose to celebrate?
I kiss the rain for washing away choices.
Why rush out to listen to another writer
when I can watch the horizon disappear?
Sun, rain, day, night –
any way –
the line between ocean and sky doesn’t exist.
A white-out storm brings down birds and blows supple
I’ll bend too.
There’s enough wind to rip flags and knock
the yoke from my shoulders.
I’ve done enough chores to last a lifetime.
My scrubbed blouse hangs dripping from the rack,
my soaked socks slung over the rail.
An enormous palm frond floats in the flooded gutter.
I have no job except to praise.
– Miriam Levine
(from: The Dark Opens, Autumn House Press)
Red Letter Poem #10
Are you having them too? Vivid, startling, wholly-unbridled dreams? They’ve become so common in this time of crisis that people on-line have dubbed them: ‘Covid dreams.’
Perhaps it’s because we’re all experiencing the same psychic weather: mortal anxieties and trivial concerns (often in the same moment) coupled with the often-surreal news reports and the capriciousness of what comes next. But it’s a poet’s job to raise one’s antennae, to be available to what’s traveling across the emotional airwaves and take the measure of our circumstance; Ellen Steinbaum does that as well as anyone.
When she first showed me this piece it was under the heading “Quarantine poem 13,”which hints at her extensive exploration of what we’ve been going through, together alone. In fact, it’s the emotional intelligence coupled with an exquisite sense of restraint that makes her poems so alluring – strange and familiar all at once.
Ellen has published four fine poetry collections (the most recent of which is This Next Tenderness) and a one-person play. Her poems have appeared in anthologies like Garrison Keillor’s Good Poems American Places. An award-winning journalist and former Boston Globe columnist, Ellen writes a blog with the irresistible title, “Reading and Writing and the Occasional Recipe” (www.ellensteinbaum.com).
Maybe monsters, but
more likely a long lost
aunt, uncle, former neighbor,
or the girl who sat behind you
in third grade -- this new parade
of unexpected guests. And they
do not disappear at dawn
but stay, pull up a chair,
want coffee. They are tired
of themselves, irritable,
bewildered at being
summoned here so often.
Last night in Atlanta,
and wearing shockingly
high heels, I sat at a picnic table
preparing for an interview
for a job I was sure to get, and,
though I asked, no one could
tell me company, interviewer,
nature of job. I had to find
my way to a city office building,
careful not to catch my heels
between boardwalk boards;
while, beside me, he was
dreaming (he reported
in the morning) that he was
called upon to sort out
who was and who was not “essential.”
I want to see my grandmother,
keep asking her to come, but
lovingly and with regret
she shakes her head,
says I was here for
the Twentieth Century,
saw so much of it, so much.
Wasn’t that enough?
— Ellen Steinbaum
Red Letter Poem #9
“Style is the feather in the arrow, not the feather in the cap.” So writes the literary scholar George Sampson – and I see that idea at work in Andy Oram’s poetry. His occupation is that of a writer and editor in the computer field; sometimes I wonder whether his poetry-mind is an escape from or an extension of his tech-mind – but the results are fascinating.
He coaxes a reader to pivot, shift gears, dart – so that we discover both the poem’s target and the source of our own feeling simultaneously. What I found most interesting here was the poet’s aim: After writing a number of dark and distressing poems, colored by the pandemic and social isolation, he consciously set out to create a series of calming places, a mindscape he could visit to restore some balance.
Remembering a long ago visit to a Japanese temple, he leads us here on a precarious path toward a place where we too can rest, observe, replenish ourselves for the hard work still ahead. Another poet once wrote that “Hope is the thing with feathers…”; Andy’s poem is fledged with that same delicate material.
This new poem is unpublished and I’m happy to have its debut with the Red Letters – but Andy’s poetry can be found in places like Ají, Arlington Literary Journal, DASH, Soul-Lit, and Speckled Trout Review.
Garden of Thought
Waiting for a soul’s call
the swirls in the pebbles
the ripples in the lake
the heartbeats of the crane
at rest you echo
your steps slow on the incline
and on entering the balcony at the third story of the pagoda
the woods nod and wake
the stone lamp sentinels
the pagoda oversees
gardeners are busy from daybreak to twilight
the monk arrives just before new moon
– Andy Oram
Red Letter Poem #8
Cathie Desjardins: It’s always pleased me that her name and her passionate interest coincide. Her poetry has often been of the gardens, and no more so than in her recent collection Buddha in the Garden, which uses the year’s path through the seasons as the archetypical journey within all of our lives, the vines of beauty and mortality braided inextricably.
When I asked her how this became so important to her, she recalls Michael Pollan’s idea: “The garden suggests there might be a place where we can meet nature halfway” – and that she does: The garden as classroom where life-lessons are acquired with earth-stained hands; garden as laboratory where commitment and patience are tested, and one’s avid eye and attentive mind often blossom into mystery.
A lifelong literacy teacher and writing specialist, she’s taught in many elementary and secondary schools in Massachusetts as well as colleges and writing centers, helping the power of language to take root in thousands of students. Her writing has appeared in numerous journals – and, closer to home, she served as Arlington’s second poet laureate, 2017 to 2019.
One day after the eternal winter,
the scilla gush out of the ground
in a tide that laps
at the sidewalk. Cold wind
rakes them into ripples
so they make a lake on the lawn.
This blue shimmering with violet
makes the sky seem pale.
You can find it across centuries
in beads, ribbons, velvet,
concocted on the palettes
of Gauguin and Van Gogh,
favored by the Fauves,
those wild beasts of art.
A blue that makes you pause
as if listening for music;
maybe you could
wish on it
-- Cathie Desjardins
from: Buddha in the Garden
Red Letter Poem #7
Haiku is the most-popular, least-understood poetic form in the world. In Japan, its birthplace, it’s not simply a writing style but a way of life. Yet in some American schools, it’s taught as if it were merely a pretty little nature snapshot, a syllabic puzzle. To my mind, a haiku is more like the experience of a skipped stone crossing a wide pond – yet only touching the surface a few times, those few precise images. And when the momentum ceases and the stone disappears from view, suddenly we too become aware of how far the mind has traveled, the wealth of implication, and the watery depths there beneath our feet.
Brad Bennett is a third-grade teacher who began writing haiku in college but, over the last fifteen years, has developed real mastery in the form, making its practice central to his daily life. His poems have appeared in most of the important haiku journals like Presence, Akitsu Quarterly and Modern Haiku, and have been awarded honors too numerous to mention. He’s published two collections – a drop of pond (which won a 2016 Touchstone Distinguished Book Award from The Haiku Foundation) and a turn in the river – both published by Red Moon Press – where most of these poems appear.
light on the pond
a hundred different
the lighter hue
after the fighter
a goldfinch recaptures
a first grader whistles
— Brad Bennett
Red Letter Poem #6
The ties that bind. As we all know, there’s a bit of the double-edged blade contained in the phrase – and Jean Flanagan has spent much of her writing life exploring the ways ancestry and cultural history both bind us to past circumstances and offer meaning and cohesion in our present days. Focusing on Ireland and the Irish diaspora, her books Ibbetson Street and Black Lightning, portray a variety of familial relationships, from the utterly tragic to the joyous.
A poem like “Clap Your Hands…” feels to me like the sort of benediction you might have heard from your Irish grandmother (had you been blessed with one.) Jean teaches in a variety of educational settings including an alternative sentencing program called “Changing Lives Through Literature.” She is also one of the founders of the Arlington Center for the Arts – a linchpin of our cultural community and a physical manifestation of the ways our lives are inextricably bound.
Clap Your Hands and Dance
Trace the lines
on your palms
you want to go
feel those grooves
the life line
the marriage line
that line that starts
at your wrist
feel no boundaries
in your fingertips
— Jean Flanagan
from: Black Lightning (Cedar Hill Books)
Red Letter Poem #5
To Seamus Heaney’s way of thinking, poetry was about providing that “extra voltage in the language, the intensity, the self-consciousness” that raises thought to another level. Often, we experience that intensity through its sounds, its musicality – and this is true even in contemporary poems that sometimes pose as normal speech.
So it didn’t surprise me to learn that, when Thomas DeFreitas was 15 and he heard the great Irish poet read at Boston College, the event became a catalyst for him and helped make his love for poetry “all-consuming and irreversible.” An emerging talent at work on his first full-length manuscript, Thomas’ writing has appeared in a number of journals like Dappled Things, Ibbetson Street, Muddy River Poetry Review and Plainsongs. His desire for the richness and complexity of experience that words can bring to us is abundantly on display in this boisterous fanfare of a poem – the lingua franca, perhaps, with which all our roving hearts converse.
My language languishes:
it neither scampers nor frisks;
it executes no back-flips,
no handstands, no moonwalks;
it does not somersault; it does not pirouette;
it neither pounces like the cobra
nor springs like the yearling lamb.
I want that lithe and limber idiom,
that sassy brassy palaver,
that red-stiletto dialect,
with the salted rim,
slang with a bang;
I want blab, blurt, yawp, yelp,
hoot, howl, holler,
the lingua franca
of bump and tussle and nudge.
— Thomas DeFreitas
Red Letter Poem #4
Let’s admit it: Some mornings, the walls of our own homes seem to be closing in and it’s hard to draw a deep breath. We feel the urge to take a sledge to the locked door and dash for the open road.
Fear not, I can help: Teresa Cader’s poems do not tolerate hard boundaries; they seem to slip past restrictions with the ease (and sly exuberance) of an April breeze. No need for the sledge, though – Teresa’s language is equipped with the delicate picklocks and pliers to set us loose.
Even if you didn’t already know that ‘boneshaker’ was a term applied to the early bicycle, the poet has us mounted up and peddling, gusts whipping our hair, as we glimpse the sorts of moments we might have missed in our old fast-paced existence. Teresa’s career was launched when Guests won the Norma Farber First Book Award from the Poetry Society of America; and the two collections that followed were equally acclaimed, bringing her a slew of prestigious honors. But what is most relevant here is that the poems themselves have the ability to transfer that gorgeous momentum to us as readers, powering dreams of our own beautiful escapes.
Not to need a horse, or have to wait for a carriage,
To slip away, jut away, pedal off
On a whim or in a fury, without permission or charge,
With nothing but wind and pebbles,
Cumulus dust or a heckle of driven rain,
In knickers or barn bibs—and one day, bloomers—
Out of the sweltering clan, fetid farmhouse,
Loose on a lane of poplars upright as gendarmes,
Churning rutted roads speckled with poppies,
Grazed by pheasant or hare,
Into night, if need be, or dawn’s lavender light
Before anyone checks the beds,
Out of the argument, or the sermon,
To the spokes and wheels, the steering bar and column,
The wooden seat searing the tailbone,
The spinal S a serpentine lash
In a field of raspberries unglimpsed from trains,
Something idiosyncratic, shaped by will
And fueled by muscle, a boneshaker
Taking its rider away—there!—or anywhere.
-- Teresa Cader
History of Hurricanes
(Northwestern University Press)
Red Letter Poem #3
What I find most remarkable in Susan Donnelly’s poems is how rarely the situations she portrays seem so. She writes about the ordinary days every one of us inhabits; but somehow, burnished by her subtle music and modulated tone of voice, she elevates our shared moments into something worthy of quiet astonishment.
In “Chanson…”, she depicts the sort of isolation most of us assume as a given – even when in the midst of crowds. The piece makes me wonder whether, once “social distancing” becomes a thing of the past, we will have learned to relish even our casual interactions -- with or without the intercession of music or poetry.
Susan’s first book, Eve Names the Animals was awarded the Morse Poetry Prize; two other full-length collections followed as well as six chapbooks, the most recent of which is The Finding Day. Perhaps, right now, there is singing close by that will transform our beleaguered day.
Chanson on the Red Line
The heart opens
in such unlikely places:
a subway platform, muffled in February,
the train late, no one looking
at anyone else. Then a song begins:
“Parlez moi d’amour”
like a pink ribbon unwinding
from the young black man with guitar
whose throat trembles, who holds
his head back, eyes half-closed.
We each look down
into our own longings,
familiar as the stations we daily travel,
pressed up against strangers.
Slowly we come forward
to drop our thanks into his open case.
We are shy. We don’t want
to be noticed wanting so much.
But who are we?
Let me tell the truth for once.
I walked here quickly
through the dark street—
a middle-aged woman carrying two bags.
I wore a black-and-white cloak
that smoked like dry ice.
I am waiting here, fresh
from that swift and peopled solitude.
I can love anyone.
-- Susan Donnelly
from: Transit (Iris Press)
Red Letter Poem #2
Back in the ’60s, as a young poet learning his craft, I was drawn to visionaries with a flare for seeing beyond: Hart Crane whose “Stars scribble on our eyes…”; and Jimi Hendrix, guitar chords shooting off like rockets as he sang “Excuse me while I kiss the sky.”
But I learned that even poems focused on the transcendent need to be grounded in the here-and-now of our shared world: a sip of coffee, mourning doves piping in the dogwood tree, the ones we love within arm’s reach. Before our enforced isolation, our grandson George had become my daily guru, teaching me how to appreciate the little mysteries erupting, well, everywhere.
Perhaps right now you’re thinking of a young face in your life who has reshaped your view of the world. I think this crisis challenges our understanding about what is really within our grasp. And so I thought this poem might be worth sharing now.
Not the fat mandala the meteorologists
were touting on the news but
a dime-sized jewel floating beneath us
in the pond’s black skies which
my grandson, nearly two, snatches up
in his small fist. Opening it slowly –
convinced of what he possesses,
and by what he’s possessed –
he offers me his wet palm.
I kiss the moon there.
-- Steven Ratiner
Red Letter Poem #1
Our area is blessed with many extraordinary poets, but I return to the work of Fred Marchant most often, especially when I’m needing a clear and deeply humane voice, one that both comforts and surprises. From his first book -- Tipping Point (which won the 1993 Washington Prize) – to his most recent, Said Not Said (Greywolf Press), which was an "Honors Book" in the 2017 Massachusetts Book Awards, Fred’s work demonstrates how language connects us to all that’s brought us to this point, even as it awakes us to what’s coming next.
--for James Carroll
A view from the crest down to the river—
a walk and my friend stopping to say that
for three weeks each year
and beginning tomorrow
this will be the most
beautiful place in the city—
our respite in brick-faced buildings
blushing in sunlight,
in star magnolias swelling,
about to burst into bright badges,
medallions of tangible life and light
all the way down to the water—
the shook “foil” Hopkins wrote about—
the minutes we have of grandeur, hope, gratitude.
from: The Looking House (Graywolf Press)
This poetic outreach was published Thursday, March 26, and updated June 19.
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