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20 minutes reading time (3978 words)

No. 123: Red Letter Poems 3.0: Pointed lyric

UPDATED Aug. 12: 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 #123

Rereading the poems in The Low Passions – the debut collection by Anders Carlson-Wee (published by W. W. Norton)  – I kept noticing how, circling inside my head, brutal and beautiful were chiming responses; how some of the most physically and psychically challenging situations he describes seem also to quietly simmer with an unmistakable love. If Walt Whitman had somehow been born in the bleak stretches of the upper Midwest, with the dawn of the 21st century just beginning to gleam on the horizon; had he engaged in daredevil skateboarding escapades with his brother to fill dark winter days; twice pedaled across the country, relying on his own wilderness skills and the kindness of strangers to survive; and later hopped freight trains in order to explore the hardscrabble lives common today across these dis-United States – he, too, might have sung of the America captured in these pages.

Having grown up in a household filled with sisters but devoid of even one male sibling, I was instantly intrigued and astonished by the no-holds-barred combat Anders and his brother Kai engaged in (depicted graphically in poems like “Polaroid”). And yet, despite the litany of wounds, the boys seemed to share an unbreakable bond. 

And so I was not shocked to learn that both grew up to become poets; co-authored two chapbooks together; and jointly directed an award-winning film, Riding the Highline – a freight-hopping odyssey-slash-poetry vision-quest.  It made me consider how we often engage in the bloodiest battles with those closest to our hearts.  As America’s own caustic sibling rivalry escalates toward what’s begun to feel like an undeclared civil war, I have to say I took a small measure of hope from Anders’ poems.  He depicts the poorest and most alienated circumstances in our country that, somehow, still end up producing acts of kindness and moments of spectacular beauty.

Granted, this is in no small part due to Anders considerable lyrical gifts and a careful eye that zooms-in cinematically on the telling detail – things Whitman also would have admired. The Low Passions was chosen as a New York Public Library Book Group Selection; in addition, Anders was awarded the 2017 Poetry International Prize, and has received fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, Poets & Writers, Bread Loaf, Sewanee and the Napa Valley Writers’ Conference. 

And even now, with a certain celebrity achieved from his artistic endeavors, Anders describes himself as living closer to the bone than most would find comfortable: “I dumpster dive for most of my food and live a humble life. I piece together an income from touring, publishing, teaching, awards, grants” and, yes, the kindness of people he meets along his travels. His poems make us, too, want to look “just beyond the lens” to discover what’s out there, waiting for our attention. 

Polaroid

 A loose flap of skin passes just below
his eye. Bruises ride the bridge of my nose.
The dark ropes of handprints grip
both our necks. Our fresh buzzcuts
lumpy with goose eggs. It's easy to forget
we were trying to kill each other.
Or at least I was. But what I wonder now
is why our father shot the photo before
he bandaged the hole where the nail
went in, stuffed my raw mouth with gauze.
We stand side by side against the garage,
eyes focused just beyond the lens,
each pointing at what we did to the other.

                        –– Anders Carlson-Wee

         Red Letter Poem #122

If perhaps poets have "origin stories" (like those heroes and heroines in adventure movies), they too will often revolve around an old magical-looking text the young protagonist stumbles upon on some dusty shelf. But often, in these cases, the magical designation embossed on the cover will read: Webster’s (that was true in my case) – or, for poet Alice Kociemba, the even-more-formidable Oxford English.

Most likely we nascent poets already have a propensity for language, but these early deep-dives into the dictionary tend to yield much more than curious words. They offer a sense of enormity – that every thing we might ever glimpse, every thought we might entertain, has attached to it a word (or a trove of verbiage) to signify its presence. Within a dictionary (and within our lives, though we often forget), words carry history, genealogy, and the resonance of familial ties.

They remind us that billions of mouths, that existed long before ours, spoke these very words, trying to grasp the meaning of their days – as we are doing now. And that idea affirms – in a manner that is both comforting and humbling – others have gone through and felt what we do at this moment (though we upstart poets surely believe that no one has ever made words feel what we are about to make them feel, as we reach for our pen.)

Alice, I am happy to say, is still reaching – and her efforts have resulted in the poetry collection Bourne Bridge (Turning Point Press), and the chapbook Death of Teaticket Hardware. She’s also published widely in literary journals and anthologies. As the founding director of Calliope, Alice has hosted readings, writing workshops, and a poetry appreciation group at the Falmouth Public Library, supporting other dictionary-navigators and poetry-explorers. Calliope’s latest project – in partnership with Bass River Press (an imprint of the Cultural Center of Cape Cod) – is the recently published anthology, From the Farther Shore: Discovering Cape Cod and the Islands Through Poetry; and what better guide than poems to explore both this outer and inner geography.

Calliope’s mission is listed as three words: Appreciate. Create. Celebrate. But, more than simply words, these are lodestars (beacons, balefires, trail markers – sorry, I couldn’t help myself) Alice has employed to guide her own life’s progress; or, as in the case of this poem, to backtrack into memory in order to rescue what, if not for the uncanny power of words, would forever remain beyond her reach. 

Words Have Their Own Stories

After school, she takes the Oxford English Dictionary
off its stand, settles into the library’s  window seat.
Takes her glasses off, puts her chin close to the page.

She’ll be quizzed tomorrow. Today’s word is passage.

But her finger stops at Pass. From the Old French, passer,
to the Vulgar Latin, passare, to the Latin, passus.
To step, to set a pace, to go away, to depart.

To die. As in “pass on.”

Use it in a sentence.

Your father passed last night, unexpected. 

In fading light, she senses him
hovering outside the window like a butterfly

that floats
                 then stills
                                 before it disappears.

                                                  –– Alice Kociemba 

Red Letter Poem #121

                                                      meditation—
                                                      my same old thoughts
                                                      now in italics

                                                                  ––Brad Bennett

The measure of a moment is, I’m sure you’ll agree, a variable thing. I remember watching the rickety wall clock in our elementary school classroom on the final day before summer vacation.The device had no second hand – and the minute hand would tremble interminably, emitting a dry ratchety sound as we stared, before it suddenly leaped ahead. I could feel my life aging between one minute and the next. Of course, all I have to do now is bring to mind any experience of great joy – playing with our grandson at the beach, for example, watching the waves marching endlessly toward shore – and the hours seem to speed past much quicker than those old schoolroom minutes.

Perhaps the manipulation of time is an essential purpose for all poems, but surely it’s at the core of the Japanese haiku, the world’s most popular form of poetry – as well as the Korean sijo, which preceded it by a few centuries, and of course the grandfather of all short-form poems, the Chinese jintishi, which was born a thousand years earlier. To keep a moment from escaping, even if only temporarily. To stretch a minute’s worth of living so wide, our minds are able to play inside it, explore its borders, savor the way meaning feels inextricably wedded to the sense-impressions flickering around us.

To begin comprehending how powerfully our mindset alters the experience of even the most mundane of events – which leads us to realize how much beauty we routinely overlook. These are the tasks of the haiku devotee. Through deep study, diligent practice, and decades of commitment to exploring that relationship between mind and moment, Brad Bennett has made himself a haiku master (though, more modestly, he’d likely call himself simply a student of the art form).

For years, Brad taught third grade and – as is the tradition in Japan – ably demonstrated that you can never start too young in exploring this art form.  As for himself, he began writing haiku in college but, over the last two decades, 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 Modern Haiku, Akitsu Quarterly and Acorn, 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. In the summer of 2021, he was the Artist in Residence at Acadia National Park, and was recently appointed as haiku and senryu editor for Frogpond magazine.

Here, as our own summer is racing past (and a part of the New England mind is already contemplating the arrival of a first frost), it’s an appropriate time to slow the clock down for a bit, to appreciate what is actually taking place around us. Brad’s poems tick past quicker than a minute hand, but linger in the mind all day.

 Summer Haiku

 the noise
that quiet requires
wren song

still lake…
a trout’s split
second

midnight swim
our bodies
mostly water

woulda coulda shoulda…
an ebb tide tugs
at the shore

terns
chasing terns
the perpetual surf

vacation over
pulling out of a driveway
of broken shells

            –– Brad Bennett

 

           Red Letter Poem #120

This virus, I’m happy to report. is stunningly potent and highly transmissible: the creative spark. And it’s capable of infecting you – not only from close contact with your contemporaries (sometimes, these days, I have a hard time reading more than three or four poems in a journal before I’m seized by that quiet voice prompting the opening line of a new poem), but also from long-dormant strains still circulating in the cultural landscape.  Whitman, Li Bai, Sappho, Mayakovsky, Mirabai all remain highly contagious, even after centuries, producing fever, tremors and bouts of euphoria.

Of all the wildly creative strains with whom I’ve personally come into contact, the one named William Stafford was likely the most endemic and enduring. I am never surprised when other writers mention this acclaimed poet’s work as a source of inspiration; or his essays on the art of writing, and how his daily practice influenced their own; or (for those fortunate enough to have studied with him) the effect his very presence had on their creative approach and on their long-term emotional lives.

I was delighted to have interviewed him in 1991, not long before his death, for my collection Giving Their Word – and I can’t tell you how many ways his influence continues with me today. Here’s just one example that I think anyone engaged in a creative endeavor will appreciate. Early on, he wrote a poem titled “Traveling through the Dark,” about coming across a deer on a country road who had been hit by a car. Touching the belly of the doe, the speaker feels the still-warm fawn inside the dead mother.

When Stafford first shared the piece with poet-friends, he described how they reacted to the unexpected (and rather jarring) closing lines. “‘No, no, Bill, you can't end it like this! You can't end it pushing the deer over the edge into the river.’ And right away, I thought, ‘Oh, I can't, eh?’” Stafford’s was a notoriously independent mind, and he was neither swayed by social expectations nor literary fashion. The poem, he explained to me, garnered dozens of rejections before one magazine’s acceptance letter arrived in his mailbox. It would eventually become the title poem in his National Book Award-winning second collection and one of his most anthologized pieces in a long and storied career. That persistence, that trust of the self’s inner compass, might serve us all well. Here’s one of the exchanges with Bill that comes to mind almost on a weekly basis: “The editor says in his [rejection] note, 'Sorry, this is not for us . . .'.  Should I assume it is indeed 'not for us?' I don't recognize it. I think: I've got to find a better editor.”

Bruce Bond – a gifted poet and educator whose prolific tendencies rival those of Stafford’s – is the author of over 30 poetry collections, the most recent being Liberation of Dissonance (Nicholas Schaffner Award for Literature in Music), and the forthcoming Choreomania (from MadHat), which should be out any day now. His work has been selected for seven editions of the annual Best American Poetry. He’s Regents Emeritus Professor of English at the University of North Texas.

The spirit of this new poem debuting here, is inextricably linked to “Traveling through the Dark.” Stafford’s piece – near its conclusion, and as he wrestles with the right course of action – says: “I could hear the wilderness listen.” It is listening still in the vicinity of Bruce’s opened notebook – though I wonder whether the speaker in “Wilderness” is indeed the natural world, or the long-dead poet, or the inky phantom of the fateful deer. But the “no one” being given voice here addresses the trembling we all feel within our mortal journey which, I’m sure you’ll agree, is traveled mostly through an unfathomable darkness. For brief but exhilarating moments, we sometimes find we are able to truly see where we are – by the beam of Stafford’s headlights, perhaps; or Bruce Bond’s “good star”; or by the candlewick of a poem. Sometimes it’s one you’ve chanced upon in a journal or book, inflaming the imagination; other times, it’s one as-of-yet unwritten, making the head throb and the heart race; and the only cure is fresh ink on an unmarked page. 

Wilderness

To you, if you are listening,

                    I am no one
and so hear things that no one hears.

If a deer leaps from nowhere
            to the road, what it leaves

of the many bleeds into one.
            And for a moment I hear less,

as no one hears.  Minus one.
            But know the river is a road

we walk together.  We must.
            It crackles with a good star

that burns the name we give it.
            If I come upon your body

in my path, know I will not, cannot,
            leave.  Although I travel on.

                         –– Bruce Bond

    Red Letter Poem #119

It was a hand-stitched sampler depicting an English pastoral scene. Well, not an actual sampler – a photo reproduction; and it hung on my bedroom wall when I was a young child. For all I know, it was a print that came with the picture frame, and perhaps my mother just liked the look of it. But cross-stitched within the (visual) field was the first real poem I ever read: a Romantic piece by Robert Browning consisting of two quatrains. And I remember reading it quietly inside my head each day upon waking, watching as the images took shape. I have a memory as well of one certain morning, and the burst of excitement that erupted when my mind recognized at last what my ear had been savoring all along: At the poem’s core was pattern. The endings of each line in the first stanza, I was shocked to discover, rhymed with the corresponding line of the second. “The year’s at the spring/ and the day’s at the morn./ Morning’s at seven./ The hillside’s dew-pearled.” When stanza two begins, each line chimes into place with its counterpart, forming a sort of estranged couplet: “The lark’s on the wing/ and the snail’s in the thorn./ God’s in His heaven./ All’s right with the world.” What a concept for a troubled child to discover: that the broken world might somehow be healed – at least momentarily – by something as ephemeral as carefully formed words. I tell my students today (only half in jest) that this sampler may be the reason I became a poet.

Even as infants, we seek out the comfort and reassurance of pattern. And as the mind evolves, how satisfied, how empowered we feel when we suddenly deduce some regularity within the world around us where, moments earlier, there seemed only chaos: that certain click of footsteps now comes to mean that, in a moment, mother’s smiling face will appear in the doorway. Miraculous! In Michael Steffen’s gorgeous new poem, he relishes both the satisfaction – and possible heartache – that is embedded within our patterned lives. Michael is the recipient of a Massachusetts Cultural Council Fellowship and an Ibbetson Street Press Poetry Award. His poems have appeared in numerous venues, including The Boston Globe, E-Verse Radio, The Lyric, The Dark Horse and The Concord Saunterer. His second collection, On Earth As It Is, was recently published by Cervena Barva Press; the work is rich with imagery and musical nuance, bracing for both heart and mind. 

In today’s Red Letter contribution, he describes this most mundane of objects – flowered wallpaper – and we feel in its composition a consciousness trying to keep its own understanding of the world from unraveling. I fear saying too much about the patterning the poet quietly invests within his two-verse universe (after all, how much more satisfying when the ear uncovers its own surprise); but I will pass along something the poet told me about his piece: In his mind, it’s like the first two stanzas of a sestina. And the missing four stanzas? I imagine them appearing, with some variation, extending invisibly beyond the buds of that closing ellipsis – like wallpaper lilies, like heartbeats unspooling.

Décor

How little you suspected the wallpaper.
Its deliberate use of repetition and pattern
to forge them as givens, icons, those lilies.
When you went away, they made a connection
to our afternoons over tea, a world
of things to talk about, relieving the focus

of work and woe as your smile came into focus
and the sky tone breathed its blue from the wallpaper.
The day sometimes catches me: What in the world
am I thinking, resuming the old pattern
of setting out two cups? The eclipsed connection
of the empty one, a vase of water where lilies …

                                       –– Michael Steffen


See poems from No. 112 through 118 here >>


This poetic outreach was updated July 15, 2022.

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