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18 minutes reading time (3506 words)

No. 129: Red Letter Poems 3.0: Pressing on

UPDATED Sept. 30: 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 #129

In the weave of Barry Sternlieb’s long work life, there have been three main strands: for three-and-a-half decades he taught English to elementary and middle school students in western Massachusetts; for far longer, he has been an ardent and well-respected poet – the author of four fine chapbooks plus a recent full-length retrospective collection titled Sole Impression issued by Codhill Press. The work was presented with its Pauline Uchmanowicz Award, and was selected recently as a finalist for the Massachusetts Book Award in Poetry.

But around 1986 he discovered a new dimension to what was traditionally called a life in letters, and it developed into a major preoccupation: He became a letterpress printer. For centuries, this was the only way the task of printing was accomplished; but, in our time, computers and digital printing have supplanted the craft of old press work that relied on moveable type formed from lead or steel.  It’s made the art of the letterpress into an arcane practice, largely the province of poetry, art productions, and wedding invitations.  But if you’ve handled a letterpress broadside – one handsomely designed, issued on fine stock, and produced by a talented printer – you’ll know about the unique visual and tactile pleasures it offers.  You can feel the literal imbedding of ink into the paper; you’ll see how light catches on the impress, and the hand-mixed colors shine.  Barry started his own publishing business, Mad River Press, and for decades produced handsome chapbooks and broadsides featuring the work of both emerging poets as well as some of the nation’s premier talents.

So I was not surprised to find several poems in the new collection celebrating this vanishing artform, my favorite being today’s “Letterpress Meditation.” Similar to his approach to printing, Barry’s treated the page here as a paper chase into which he’s skillfully set his lines, quoined his balanced stanzas, and made sure each musical syllable and half-rhyme was artfully arranged to achieve their maximum effect. Continuing my metaphor, the ‘ink’ that then needs to be applied is the human voice and, if you read the poem aloud, you’ll see why I took such pleasure in Barry’s craft. Yet if that was as far as the poem went, it would have only been a lovely and dexterous piece of verse. But, as the poem draws to a close, the mechanics of the press begin to mesmerize like a repeated mantra and – before the printer’s eyes (and ours) – those letters seem to devolve into runic symbols.  The act of printing becomes a feat of magic: spirit becoming thought, becoming sound and image, becoming the invisible bridge between poet and reader, between the poem and the cosmos. 

In the Bible, the universe begins with holy utterance. For the Hindus, the source of creation was simply the first divine sound (the concept of nada brahma.) But for a poet (and printer), the moment that empowered language stirs within, then suddenly erupts onto the page with its inky signs – this becomes an act that connects us to the ancestral legacy every individual possesses.  It represents that first impress of meaning upon matter – and it’s not unlike the face of the metal type pressing ink into the stock. We can read and, in turn, sense ourselves being read by this ephemeral interaction. Some days, it feels as if this is all we have with which to comprehend our lives. And some days, that seems to be sufficient.

Letterpress Meditation

“It is the theory of the word for those
for whom the word is the making of the world …”
–– Wallace Stevens, Description Without Place

 About halfway through the run,
with color even and kinks
worked out, rhythm cuts to the chase
as deckled sheets of Rives face
up to rollers, type form, and ink,
their off-white silence broken

by a hand-set black refrain,
hard lines digging in until letters
turn runic, abstract, each page
a pattern light years away
from meaning, but closer than ever
to the world being made.

                        –– Barry Sternlieb

Red Letter Poem #128

“Politics is the art of the possible” – so wrote Otto von Bismarck, who masterminded the unification of Germany in 1871. In our 21st-century United States, it seems we’re working hard to obliterate both of those ideas – possibility and unity – replacing them with this: politics as the practice of demonizing the other, of making one constituency fear its counterpart through the art of psychological manipulation and bald-faced lies. All that matters is the achievement of power – even if, as a consequence, the very foundations of our democracy are being rotted away.

This week, we’ve witnessed an appalling example of the depths to which politicians are willing to go: a certain Florida governor (with aspirations to one day occupy the White House) used beleaguered asylum-seekers from Venezuela as pawns in a gesture to score points with his followers. Clearly, the suffering of those human beings was completely inconsequential to him. While he’s been roundly condemned for this – even by some members of his own party – if the gesture plays with the base, it will certainly be repeated.

Channeling the spirit of Walt Whitman, Indran Amirthanayagam’s poems try to inspire readers with a sense of new possibility, a more open-hearted and humanist conception of how the disparate energies of our troubled democracy can once again be united. An award-winning poet, essayist, translator, publisher, and diplomat, Indran was born in Colombo, Sri Lanka, but also spent his formative years in London and Honolulu. He writes in English, Spanish, French, Portuguese and Haitian Creole, making him a living example of the way language can construct bridges between people and diverse experiences.

“The Return” is taken from his just-published collection Ten Thousand Steps Against The Tyrant (Broadstone Books.) While many of the poems unapologetically celebrate progressive politics, what is clear throughout is his vision that community and justice must trump political gain. When I asked him about the opening image of this poem, Indran explained to me his “partner in poetry, Sara Cahill Marron, is also a lawyer. When Ruth Bader Ginsberg died, Sara went to the steps of the Supreme Court and left her legal pencil as an offering.” Words matter – and, when wielded with skill and conviction, they possess enormous power. “Ginsberg worked to advance rights for women, for minorities, for all of us. She fought to make our democracy more fitting, more expansive, closer to the ideals that motivated the Founders of the Republic.”   

In his poetic manifesto, “Starting from Paumanok” – appearing in his seminal Leaves of Grass – the bard wrote: “Take my leaves America, take them South and take them North,/ Make welcome for them everywhere, for they are your own off-spring,/ Surround them East and West, for they would surround you …”.   Indran, too, sings of those marvelous possibilities, hoping we might once again embrace what this democracy first engendered and hungers for still.

The Return                                   

The pencil is magic––leaving it in offering on steps of the Court, then the call
from the DA's office for a second interview. There is a hand beyond, outside,
inside at all times circulating, sweeping up worshippers who have given
the spirit his and her due, who have understood that one knows the world
through heart and head, eyes, breath, and with none of these but learned
faith, trusting the call out of the blue, ready to rise, pick up the phone and recite
the right words, healing words, words that will bring children bawling
and smiling into the world, that will give the wronged the chance to escape
the unjust, that will break down the trickery of the desperate purveyors
of privilege. This is the New Deal again, the throwing out of Coolidge,
Ms. Smith going to Washington, returning now to Paumanok to assure that
Walt Whitman's words will be spoken at this time that Jack Hirschman calls
the American Revolution, to which I add, humbly and in the eyes of God,
the re-revolving rolling raising goose hairs and kissing them without the knife,
this vegetarian, wine-free yet wine-respectful non-American, worldwide electric
spinning dial whirling, whirling from Paumanok to Washington to Frisco Bay,
light as a feather rolling on wind streams into my heart and yours. I too
am walking now and about to run. Do you see me light and hope-filled
grateful that the word is in good hands and coming back to the island
from where it walked abroad, coming back strong?

                         –– Indran Amirthanayagam

Red Letter Poem #127

It’s at the heart of every magician’s trick: misdirection – distracting the audience with some feint, some attention-grabbing gesture so that, while their minds are elsewhere, the ‘feat of magic’ can suddenly take place. It’s an act of self-conscious deception designed to provoke wonder in the onlooker. Ta-da! Cue the applause and the appreciative ooh’s and ah’s!

Is that what’s taking place here, in this new poem from Miriam Levine? Not quite. She begins by following her mind’s attention as it wends its way into the world, noticing bits of ordinary beauty (darting birds, blue-veiled Mt. Monadnock) and elements of the modern urban landscape (the half-way house, the cars struggling uphill). And suddenly, the startling news – and nothing seems quite the same after that. While her carefully observed images lead us onward, we’re more than a little shocked when, out of nowhere, the great 19th-century poet of Amherst steps from behind the scrim; and then a closing couplet materializes that is both beautiful and haunting. 

The difference between the magician’s legerdemain and the poet’s conjuring: I think the poet is both performer and audience. I don’t think Miriam set out to lay a trap for our hearts, but, lured on by her own exploring consciousness, was herself caught off-guard. Was she, too, quietly stunned by where those flitting birds eventually settled down – as we were?

The magic within the contemporary poem is the daring (or unbridled curiosity? or intuitive skill?) that allows the writer to travel – not to what she thought, at the outset, was her intended destination, but where the poem (with a mind of its own) was leading her all along. Or maybe I’m wrong, and these were a set of artful moves, designed to unsettle and surprise. That, too, is the great pleasure in such a performance: we can reread a poem again and again and, each time, try to see how the trick was done – or to simply sit back and enjoy what appears out of that sudden flash of light and puff of smoke. 

Making a return appearance to the Red Letters, Miriam is that sort of bracing poet that seems to welcome her readers into the substance of her days, trusting that we will savor both the kinship to our own experience as well as moments extending beyond our reach. In that manner, her work reminds me of Ruth Stone’s – another poet whose writing I prize. The author of five poetry collections – the most recent being Saving Daylight – as well as a novel and a memoir, Miriam was Arlington’s first poet laureate, but now divides her time between New Hampshire and Florida.

Watching Birds                                   

Birds flit low in early morning across School Street
past the half-way house for released convicts

as a lone car strains up the steep hill
toward Monadnock in the blue distance.

And now another car, electric, soundless,
empty except for the obscured driver.

The clear, clean light and scent of lilacs
make the fast-disappearing birds so

piercing now.  Another friend is dead!
He who was supposed to outlive us all.

I think of the verve and flash of robins Dickinson
watched from the edge of her garden,

breathing in the spice of lilacs while the morning
sun found a cold space in her and filled it.

                                  –– Miriam Levine

Red Letter Poem #126

Under Postmodernism, poets often (and gleefully) severed ties with tradition – whether it be cultural, formal or even familial. Their collective aim was toward forging a new language and imagination without antecedents. Certainly, many bracing innovations came about because of those experiments – but also a lot of poetry that, bearing few ties to the shared experience of readers, was often quickly (sometimes disdainfully) forgotten. And that quality of memorability has long been one of the bedrock experiences of poetry – phrasing and imagery that, once read or heard aloud, insinuate themselves into our consciousness as if they were ours in the first place. And then, over time, they become just that.

Thank goodness, poets in recent decades have been reenergized by their connection to family history, poetic lineage, cultural legacy. Case in point: the excellent Boston-area poet George Kalogeris, who always writes as if he were rooted in multiple worlds. There’s the one revolving around his long commitment to contemporary poetry – and not only his own work (for which he was awarded the James Dickey Poetry Prize), but that of the most vital talents in America and abroad. For example: He’s created dynamic English translations of the Greek Nobelist George Seferis, bringing his poetry to new audiences. There’s also George’s life as a scholar and educator; currently an associate professor at Suffolk University, he teaches English, creative writing and classics in translation, while also directing its Poetry Center. This is the proving ground where literature is either rejuvenated, generation after generation or it withers on the sacred vine.   

But a third realm (and perhaps the one most relevant to today’s Red Letter): He is a vessel for the immigrant experience and the varied stories it engenders. As a Greek-American, his imagination has long and tangled roots, extending from contemporary New England back to the ‘old country’ of his family, and then deeper still into the ancient Hellenic tradition which became the rootstock of much of Western civilization.

In his recent collection Winthropos, (Louisiana State University Press), I love his portrayals of relatives and family lore – and how, subtly, all three of his worlds come into play. Today, in a brand new poem, his recollection of visiting for the first time his father’s birthplace, the impoverished village of Akovos, high in the Peloponnese. In this brief narrative, his aunts somehow manage to school him in both the wellsprings of history and poetry while simultaneously puncturing (with good humor) the pretensions of a young man bearing his own poetic aspirations.

Though it’s hard to pin down, there is a quality in much of George’s work that is, I believe, an essential element in what’s best in contemporary poetry: It’s the gravity that comes from what we love and honor in our lives. It may sound naïve – and will certainly ruffle the feathers of some academics – but to me it’s one of the truest measures of the work we create. And what we are most deeply connected to, in turn, connects us to the universal, charges our creative endeavors with more than just our private desires. It’s tantamount to a sacred wellspring for writers and, to my mind, it cannot help but fortify the ink.   

Sisters

Nereidivrisi. “Wellspring of the Nereids.”
At least that’s what it’s called in my father’s village.

Cobblestone shaft whose mossy tremulous darkness
I once looked way down into. Ice-cold water

From melting peaks of the Peloponnese. And me
The shaky balance that tries to keep two buckets

From spilling over as back down the slope I carry
One for witty Evgenikí, the other

For shrewd Yiannoúla, my aunts from Ákovos—
Who never fled their house when Hitler invaded, 

Or during the civil war that was even worse.
My father’s tiny, black-shawled, older sisters,

So eager to know if their young American nephew,
With all those books of poetry in his backpack,

Had seen the lovely ladies swimming up
From the bottom of the well…Before I can answer,

Their elderly elfin kerchiefed heads are already
Bobbing up and down with mischievous laughter.

O murky depths and open upturned faces!
Wrinkled water aglitter in brimming buckets

Whose wire handles carved this line in my palms:
Nereidivrisi. Wellspring of the Nereids.

                                  –– George Kalogeris


See poems from No. 119 through 125 here >>


This poetic outreach was updated Sept. 30, 2022.

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