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21 minutes reading time (4252 words)

No. 137: Red Letter Poems 3.0: 'You have been paid for'

UPDATED Nov. 25: 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 #137 

It’s an obligatory moment at many holiday gatherings: taking turns around the dinner table, each one coaxed to mention something you’re thankful for. Many of us are so fortunate, we have a long list to choose from – but for me, the place of abundance always begins with the people in my life, the friends and family who are the source of such confounding joy, such a compelling sense of purpose and meaning. If you’re especially lucky, those very faces are arrayed around the table at which you sit.

But there are others scattered across memory (those distant or vanished completely) upon whose love the foundation of your life, your growth, was built – and perhaps they too must be summoned to this occasion. I remember, years ago, hearing the famed writer Maya Angelou speaking at a local college. She began with a sentence intended to startle us: "You have been paid for.” It required no explanation to grasp how volatile a statement that was, especially coming from a person of color. “Each of you, Black, White, Brown, Yellow, Red . . . has been paid for. But for the sacrifices made by some of your ancestors, you would not be here; they have paid for you.  So, when you enter a challenging situation, bring them on the stage with you; let their distant voices add timbre and strength to your words. For it is your job to pay for those who are yet to come."

And so in today’s Red Letter, we are introduced to “Miss Lutie,”courtesy of poet, storyteller and singer CD Collins. Kentucky-born, she now makes her home in the Boston area, having transplanted her Southern musical and storytelling roots into our flinty New England soil. She’s the author of Blue Land (short stories, published by Polyho Press); the poetry collection Self-Portrait With Severed Head (from Ibbetson Street); a novel (Afterheat – issued by Empty City); and five spoken word/music recordings (the first, Kentucky Stories, was chosen as Best Spoken Word album at the Boston Poetry Awards.) In this new poem, she places herself once again in that tiny kindergarten classroom of her childhood Mt. Sterling community, remembering Miss Lutie Quisenberry, a teacher whose outsized effect on her life has extended through the decades. 

A masterful storyteller, CD understands how the specificity of sense-impressions are capable of situating a reader in a new circumstance so they might vicariously take part in the moment unfolding. That “mineral breath,” that whiff of the Fryolater, the glimmering dime-sized droplets of rain – they help us inhabit the mind of this precocious four-year-old (yes, four! Her working parents needed to find some sort of childcare for their young daughter and lied about her age.)

We are witnessing here a poetic consciousness beginning to emerge – and thank goodness she had that generous soul, Miss Lutie, as her spirit-guide. Educators rarely know what sort of lasting effect they are having on their students’ lives. Teaching is both a profession and act of faith. And whether we know it or not, we are all constantly being taught and teaching others in turn. Ms. Angelou added: “We are braver and wiser because they existed, those strong women and strong men ... We are who we are because they were who they were. It's wise to know where you come from, who called your name.” Miss Lutie called this child’s name. As a matured talent, this poet is now calling ours. Grateful that others “paid” for her life, CD is now paying it forward – “for those who are yet to come.” I’ll give thanks for all the poets and wordsmiths, singers and dancers, who helped make a place for me at this table.

Miss Lutie 

This woman with the mineral breath knows
you still speak to the forest animals,
that you once tried to make fireworks with flowers and precious sand,
thought you could walk off the chicken coop and fly.

She will hold all of you tenderly at your little desks,
will free you as often as she can,
because your body craves tearing through the playground,
sliding into third base, gathering as much dust as possible,
because you thrive in the dirt you’re made of.
She knows you need to stride to the pencil sharpener
just to relieve that spring inside you.

Her breath is silver with the frost of the mountain,
she has climbed down from,
to teach you letters and numbers,
which sacks have seeds you can plant,
which ones are too heavy a burden for your small bones to bear.
She will teach you that it’s not important to count the polished dimes
in the storm you got caught in,
but to watch them flashing from the sky,
under whatever shelter you can find. 
She will show you how to decipher letters and words
so that you can learn the stories of other children,
their small hands in the fur of the creatures that walk beside them.

Once, she dissolved a tiny square of paper in her mouth, 
ate breakfast at dawn in the diner,
scented with the seductive oils of the Fryolater.
Saw the towers spring up and down like accordions,
The birds in the trees outside the library chattered excitedly;
she understood them.

And may divine you, too, if you allow her.
Miss Ludie’s eyes are the blue of the hyacinths
she brought in one day,
setting the vase on her oak table.
Gaze into her eyes, that unfathomable blue.
The color of the sea under a shimmering dome of sky.
You’ve never seen a blue like that before. 

                                    –– CD Collins

Red Letter Poem #136

"It's a beautiful day for a ballgame.  Let's play two!"

– Ernie Banks, Hall of Fame shortstop, the Chicago Cubs

Now that we’ve just emerged from two of America’s tumultuous cultural rituals – baseball’s World Series, and our electoral trial by fire – I thought it a perfect time to invite poet E. Ethelbert Miller to reframe the conversation with work from his new collection How I Found Love Behind the Catcher’s Mask (City Point Press). It’s the third volume in a trilogy that uses baseball as a window into the American landscape of the 20th century and our nascent 21st.  But this is no simple homage to the sport he loves and its famed practitioners; it’s a deep examination of the psychic forces that help make us American or, in other cases, attempt to unmake us.  And, in Ethelbert’s mind, baseball is inextricably braided with jazz, poetry, race relations, and our often-thwarted hunger for love, for a sense of belonging.

Taken all together, he’s now created a magnificent sequence of more than 150 poems where the language of baseball – it’s diction, mindset, rich history – become a springboard for the poet to examine the odyssey of his own life and that of his contemporaries (though Odysseus, now that I think of it, would have a hell of a time fielding pop flies while tied to his ship’s mast). The poems are rich in metaphor, redolent with baseball slang and lore; they offer us the long arc of memory, as thrilling as any homerun swing. 

Following Ernie’s dictum, here’s a doubleheader of short poems from Ethelbert’s collection. I love the way disparate trains of thought interweave in his work, one context throwing light upon the other. But listen, as well, to the rhythmic invention running through his poems – the litany of we’s in the first piece, standing perhaps against the wave of divisiveness we’ve been suffering in recent times. And my heart fluttered just a bit (like trumpet keys? like a knuckleball?) with that closing cascade of d’s in the Ellington piece, eye and ear equally engaged.

It would be impossible to fit all of Ethelbert’s stats and honors within this baseball-card-sized introduction. So let me simply say he’s a poet, teacher and self-appointed "literary activist" based in Washington D.C. (though the mayor of Baltimore made him an honorary citizen – hoping, perhaps, he might wear two insignias on his cap when he’s finally inducted into the poet’s Hall of Fame).

He’s the author of numerous poetry collections, a pair of stirring memoirs and is the editor of two anthologies, including the seminal In Search of Color Everywhere – “a chronicle of the African-American experience and the making of America.” Since 1974, he’s served as director of the African American Studies Resource Center at Howard University; he’s also the editor of Poet Lore, the oldest continuously published literary journal in America, which once featured the likes of Rilke, Verlaine and Emma Lazarus in its pages. And if you’ll permit me to go into extra innings, I found out just now that Ethelbert was nominated for a 2023 Grammy Award for Best Spoken Word Album – and if that doesn’t deserve an exclamation point (that little baseball bat balanced atop a ball), I don’t know what does!  Now, if the poet can only handle the curve . . . 

Trapped Inside the Glove:

The American Pitch

We almost took a hard fast one to the head.
We stumbled out of voting booths as if we had seen a curve.
We avoided the sliders as if they were lies.
We knew what cutters did to our rights.
We lived with the crazy knuckleballs of history.
We kept swinging at the flutter, the rotation of freedom.

 

Sophisticated Lady

Why did Ellington say music was his mistress
and not baseball?

Somewhere between swing and bebop
Satchel Paige took the mound.

Fingering the keys is as beautiful
as fingering the ball.

Cool Papa Bell believed he was cooler than jazz.
Turn out the lights and grab the bass by the bed.

Did Dizzy Dean ever wear a beret?
Dizzy did.

                                    –– E. Ethelbert Miller

 

Red Letter Poem #135

It’s a phrase that’s always intrigued me: native tongue. Of course, it simply refers to that earliest of languages we inherit: from our mother’s morning table talk with her sister, perhaps, while our own little mouth was awash with milk. Or from our father arguing sports and politics with his friends, our eager ears entranced by the give-and-take rhythms.

It’s that primary dialect which connects each of us to home, homeland and – as we only later discover – to the fog-wreathed province of the self. I love how the term reminds us of the physicality of utterance: what the tongue is trained to do, writhing in the dark of the mouth’s cavern, shaping syllables. And all the while, thought somehow manages to follow an invisible thread from the brain down to the throat and finally out into the shared world.  It’s this lingual practice that, as children, we took as almost an act of faith – yet something, perhaps we intuited, that might lead us out from the baffled labyrinth (what some of the grownups were calling the soul) and back into sunlight.

In so much of George Kalogeris’ writing, both the English and Greek tongues of his childhood experience interweave. In today’s new poem, we meet once again a member of his family and discover how she helped imbue a young poet’s developing diction with the energy of two worlds, not to mention that most bittersweet of mysteries. From the first time I read this piece, his description of that “tight little skein of vowels” threw open the doors of my own heart and gave voice to the complex familial inheritance I believe each of us carries, though we rarely stop to appreciate. 

This poet certainly does – and the poem that results is heartbreakingly beautiful. Poet, scholar, educator and translator – recipient of the James Dickey Prize and the Meringoff Prize for Poetry – George is currently an associate professor at Suffolk University in Boston. Winthropos, (Louisiana State University) not only creates an Old World/New World mythology from his coastal North Shore town, it reminds us with dozens of utterly intriguing poems of the gift/burden of our own legacy (our shifting assessment influenced, I’m sure, by mood, weather, and the day of the week). He’s the sort of humanist thinker that reaffirms the intellectual endowment of ancient Peloponnesia as essential in both our cultural tradition and contemporary discourse.   

The Three Fates making an appearance in this poem (who also, according to myth, had a hand in creating the alphabet), convey one sort of knowledge about existence; but the poet’s Greek aunt provides a very different understanding about the preciousness – and fragility – inherent in what the heart claims and is claimed by. Love, it becomes clear, is George’s native tongue.

 Aunt Leuco and the Fates

“Our thread is cut like that.”  My loose translation
Gets the clipped expression, and even implies
The scissors-motion of fingers—but renders nothing

Remotely like the eerie sound of the Greek.
Just listen to how its tight little skein of vowels
Unspools: ée skeenée mas éenai léegee.

It’s what I heard, as a child, when my grandfather died.
Though I wasn’t allowed to the wake, or the funeral,
No open casket was ever more starkly real

Than the level way my aunt intoned, to none
Of us in particular, that scary line—
The one that said our thread is cut like that.

Let Clotho spin, Lachesis allot, and prompt
Atropos sever all she wants—for me
It’s terse Aunt Leuco, my mother’s youngest sister,

Keening ée skeenée mas éenai léegee.

                                    –– George Kalogeris

Red Letter Poem #134

Years ago, when I had the good fortune to interview one of America’s most esteemed poets, William Stafford, I took the opportunity to ask about several of my favorite poems.  I was wondering whether they were – as they’d appeared to me – all based on actual events. Some were, it turns out – and others were cut from the whole cloth of deep imagination. I remember being quite pleased, though, to learn that “Bess” was based on a real librarian who walked the streets of the poet’s Lake Oswego – but why should that be the case? Wasn’t it enough that she, again and again, patrolled the streets of my consciousness? Would knowing Bess had been flesh-and-blood make her somehow more substantial than the figure conjured by rhythmic syllables and with which Stafford had seized my heart? 

This memory came to mind when Charles Coe sent me a new prose poem about his father. If I was a betting man, I’d wager that the incident depicted – in an Indiana town, a half-century ago – actually occurred. But the truth of the situation exists here on the page – and in the rippling pages of my imagination – wholly separate from Charles’s family history. I trust his voice; I experience this scene, almost as if I were standing right behind him in line at the drugstore. And I find myself feeling like that lyrical son, looking back on a moment irretrievable except through the power of language.

These days, in the age of George Floyd (not to mention the countless other verifiable incidents), a poet does us a great service if he or she allows us to stand in someone else’s shoes for even a moment, to feel the truth of what goes on – whether or not it’s gone on in our own days, and whether or not the poet has captured or concocted that truth from one incident or a thousand from their personal experience. The poem is a vehicle, and we travel inside it to a destination we must, in the end, substantiate – from what the poem gives us, from the baggage we were carrying all along.

Coe is a poet, prose writer, teacher of writing and musician. Born and raised in Indianapolis, Ind., he’s made his home in the Boston area since 1975. He published his third collection of verse, Memento Mori (Leapfrog Press) in 2019; he also authored Spin Cycles, a novella issued by Gemma Media. Among his honors was a 2017 appointment as artist-in-residence for the City of Boston. An adjunct professor of English at Salve Regina University in Newport, R.I., he teaches in their MFA program, helping students to achieve their own authenticity. “We all know that Art is not truth,” wrote Pablo Picasso; “Art is a lie that makes us realize truth, at least the truth that is given us to understand.” Charles’s poem helps me realize what my own days contain. My bet is that it will do something similar for you as well. 

IWish I’d Held My Father’s Hand

My father put what he wanted to buy on the drugstore counter and said a polite “Good Afternoon” to the young white clerk, who didn’t return the greeting or meet his eye, just stared at the items a long moment, as if Father had dumped a bucket of kitchen scraps, and then with exquisite slowness that dripped contempt, began to ring them up.

It was just an ordinary day in Indiana in the early sixties. Everywhere a black man went he had to bite his tongue. Looking back over the years, I wish I could go back to that afternoon when my father stood quiet and still, as this young punk tried to put him in his place. I wish I could have caught his eye, delivered the silent message that I understood what he had to go through every day to keep the peace, to raise his family.

I wish I’d held my father’s hand.

                                                         –– Charles Coe

Red Letter Poem #133

“The Way that can be told in words is not the true Way.” So begins (paradoxically) Lao Tsu’s seminal Taoist text, Tao Te Ching – penned six centuries before (what a Christian scholar might refer to as) "the Common Era." In Judaism, Adonai or Hashem are not the true (and unknowable) names of God – they are placeholders marking an entry point into mystery. It is, in fact, a common element in many mystical traditions: that what one sees directly may not represent the essential spirit of the matter; and perhaps, looking away, some ineffable hint of knowing begins to take hold. 

Jack Stewart is a talented poet with a keen interest in stories, both ancient and modern, religious and secular. His poems often begin with a received narrative – whether biblical, artistic, historical or personal; but he only indirectly explores this subject matter, trying to find out instead something about what the story has left out, obscured, or could never  grasp in the first place. 

But even in his poems with overtly religious themes, he has little interest in arriving at easy formulations or established truths. If there is anything doctrinal in his writing, it appears to be his faith in clear images as a window into both the surrounding landscape and the mind’s enigmatic terrain. But, of course, the pleasure lies in the journey, not the arrival – and in poems such as today’s installment, the poet clearly situates us within his scene and, at the same time, prompts us to long for what is quietly felt as absence or (though the term is overused) the possibility of transcendence.

Jack published his first collection in 2020 -- No Reason, from the Poeima Poetry Series. He’s had work appear in fine journals like Poetry, Iowa Review and New York Quarterly – but also appeared in places where you might not expect a poet to venture: the Journal of the American Medical AssociationMilitary Experience and the Arts and The Perch (Yale Program for Recovery and Mental Health) – all signs of a peripatetic intelligence uneasy with boundaries. Educated at the University of Alabama and Emory University, he became a Brittain Fellow at the Georgia Institute of Technology. He now directs the Talented Writers Program at Pine Crest School in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. Of course, these biographical details are easily blown aside to be replaced by the clear-eyed observations and subtle musicality within his “Eclipse” – something I trust will be worth remembering in the end.

Eclipse: What You See When You Look Away

The rocks along the shoreline
sun themselves like gray crabs.
The thin sheets of ice that held them
down last winter,
that broke when stepped on,
are gone. The waves imitate
the see-saw of breathing.

Sometime between one and one thirty,
the sun will deepen into
a knot of wood round and dark
as an oracle. At that moment,
the light we have no color for
will still, and I can almost forget
the faces I wish I could touch again.

Down the beach, a small gray moth
of people might gather,
not looking up at what we are told
would be dangerous to see. Another age
might call that holy, something you want
to but can’t see. Something that
cannot be named satisfactorily.

Tonight, everyone will tell
how they were witnesses
to something they were turned away from.
Yellow lights dot the hills above
the beach. Inside, people pass plates,
knowing how rare it is to encounter
anything worth remembering.

                            –– Jack Stewart


See poems from No. 126 through 132 here >>


This poetic outreach was updated Nov. 4, 2022.

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