The Red Letter Poems Project

About the Project

When I was first appointed as Poet Laureate for Arlington, MA one of my goals was to help bring the strength and delight of poetry into unexpected settings.  The Red Letter Poems Project was intended to share some of Arlington’s poetic voices in bright red envelopes, sent in a mass mailing to randomly-selected households – a small surprise amid the advertisements and bills.  Before our team could make this happen, Corona struck. But I feel now such an outreach is more important than ever during this time of anxiety and isolation.
So I’ve created this e-version of the Red Letter mailings in grateful partnership with many of our town’s cultural resources: The Arlington Commission for Arts and Culture, The Arlington Center for the Arts, The Arlington Public Library, The Arlington International Film Festival – and our newest partner Arlington Community Education.  We’ll send out a poem from a new poet every week, reaching many thousands of potential readers. Each installment will also be available on the websites from these organizations; and, if you enjoy them, we encourage you to forward them to friends –  in Arlington and beyond –  or to post them on your social media platforms with the hashtags: #RedLetterPoems, #ArlingtonPoetLaureate, #SeeingBeyondCorona – and hopefully we will reach an ever-widening circle of readers who can appreciate a momentary respite from these challenging times. If you want to make sure you receive these poems directly – or to receive notices about future poetry events – send an e-mail to: with the subject line ‘mailing list.’
Looking for an index of poems and authors included in the Red Letter Poems Project, and a gallery of every poem from April 2020-April 2021?

Arlington Poet Laureate Steve Ratiner

“In Ancient Rome, feast days were indicated on the calendar by red letters. To my mind, all poetry and art – and, in truth, even the Corona crisis itself – serves as a reminder that every day we wake together beneath the sun is a red-letter day.”    – Steven Ratiner

Red Letter Poem #55

“We parked in a nearby field.  September; Assisi; bird song; olive trees.  Entering the 13th century Basilica of St. Francis – built not far from the spot the Christian friar established his first tiny stone chapel – eyes can’t help but rise.  Above us, and along both sides of the nave, are Giotto’s famous series of 28 frescos depicting Francis’ life, glowing in Umbrian sunlight filtered through stained glass.  Breathtaking.  At the time they were painted, most worshipers attending this church would have been illiterate – yet walking the central aisle, they could read the life of their beloved saint through the artist’s images, a wordless but entrancing narrative.

Julia Lisella teaches at Regis College and has published a poetry chapbook and two full-length collections; the most recent, Always (WordTech Editions), contains an interwoven set of poems with a double focus: the life of the saint and the death of her father.  Though he was in his mid-eighties, her father was quite a vigorous man and so his cancer diagnosis still came as a shock.  The grief of impending loss silenced the poet and magnified her inner turmoil.  An artist-friend, Adele Travisano, told her about a series of paintings she was working on about the father of the Franciscan order and, desperate for release, Julia’s poems came tumbling out.  When her mother reminded her that Francis was her father’s favorite saint, it felt something like a mission confirmed.  Julia’s writing sometimes feels to me like a series of frescos – fragments of story, vivid images, feathery brushstrokes – as if, like Giotto, she needed to work quickly before the plaster dried.   At times, as we read, we’re not sure which man is the subject of a passage or even which century we’re standing in.  Here, the boundaries between flesh and myth blur as Julia attempts to come to terms with impending loss, depicting the ways our lives alternately veil and then reveal the depth of meaning.

Having lost my own father when I was quite young, perhaps I was especially susceptible to Julia’s materials.  But after many readings, I began to view her poems as if from a distance; as with all successful pieces, the deftness of description and her emotional restraint elevate the personal into a more communal realm, moving them from being hers to ours.  We sit quietly with them.  This year more than most, I believe we can use just such a sanctuary.”  – Steven Ratiner

Red Letter Poem #54

“The Jewish Passover; Christianity’s Easter; Islamic Ramadan; Hindu’s Holi; the Wiccan Ostara; the April festival referred to as Buddha’s Birthday; and countless others.  One aspect of the holiness inherent in these holidays focuses on that most human of experiences: winter has released its grip – the earth is becoming green again.  No matter where you make your home on this planet, there are the hard and fallow seasons of the year, and others where fertility and renewal are ascendant.  The angel of death passes over our community – and then we rejoice at our survival.

America and the world are slowly moving through the cruelest and most unyielding of winters in recent memory; the pandemic drove us indoors to hunker down in isolation, desperate for that invisible storm to finally pass us by.  We are presently going through our second Covid spring – and with vaccinations becoming more widespread, we have reason to pray (however you interpret that word, and whatever your family’s tradition) that spring will bring us reason to celebrate.

Charles Coe’s writing is filled with celebration: of family, memory, history; of the beauty surrounding us and those inner clearings we retreat to for a sense of peace.  Poet, educator, singer, blogger, raconteur, he published his third collection, Memento Mori (Leapfrog Press) in 2019.  Running all through the poet’s work there is praise for endurance, continuity; but the challenge is how can we endure while still keeping our hearts intact in an often-brutal world?  The answer, his poems seem to suggest, involves more than stubborn determination; you have to find a way to love the world despite its failings, despite the obstacles placed in your path.  It’s by no means an easy discipline, but necessary nonetheless.  Sometimes the insight contained in a poem strengthens our resolve.  When I first read Charles’ simple and simply beautiful poem, “Prayer”, in the recent collection, I felt he’d managed to transform the ordinary into a Red Letter day.  Holy.” – Steven Ratiner

Red Letter Poem #53

“The one constant through all the years, Ray, has been baseball.”  And right now, if you’re like me, you’re recalling the smell of movie popcorn and reciting the lines along with the Terrence Mann character from A Field of Dreams.  “America has rolled by like an army of steamrollers. It’s been erased like a blackboard, rebuilt, and erased again. But baseball has marked the time.”  Here, just in time for Opening Day at Fenway Park and stadiums across the country, is a poem to celebrate baseball’s return, marking the true beginning of spring.  Even in this age of sports magnification and acceleration – designed to appeal to generations raised on video-game-extravaganza – baseball, that most American of pastimes, somehow endures in its quietude.

And Gail Mazur’s piece – which appears in her recent collection Land’s End: New and Selected Poems (The University of Chicago Press) – isn’t just about baseball; it moves with the same deliberate pace, carefully considers each signal call and infield shift as the scene evolves.  Both possess a tremendous depth of thought hidden beneath the surface – all before the ball even leaves the pitcher’s hand.  In baseball – and unlike most other sports today – emotion too tends to be subdued, only occasionally bursting into view with breathtaking surprise.  Gail’s poem keeps its heart veiled, but we receive brief and tantalizing glimpses: there’s the “Easter egg” allusion to the cherished John Updike essay, “Hub Fans Bid the Kid Adieu”, about Ted Williams’ final game.  And though it’s surely a Red Sox home game, the Boston team is never mentioned – even as the name of the dreaded opponent appears twice.  I wasn’t surprised by the bitter outburst from the old woman in the stands, wishing utter destruction upon the Yankee player.  But contrast that with the tenderly-observed boy in the Yankees cap sleeping against his father.  Baseball – and poetry – become occasions where our long-standing traditions provide us with the means for checking the score and examining how our lives have changed.

Poet and educator, Gail Mazur is the author of seven poetry collections, finalist for the National Book Award, and recipient of numerous fellowships and honors.  But in my mind, at the top of that list must be her role as the creator of the Blacksmith House Poetry Series in Cambridge, still going strong since 1973; for half a century, it’s been the spiritual hub of our poetry community.  Any long practice that’s built upon deep attention, by its nature, reflects the heart – both that of the maker and spectator.  That famous movie speech concludes: baseball “reminds us of all that once was good, and that could be again. Oh, people will come, Ray. People will most definitely come.”  True for both baseball and poetry. Play ball! ”  – Steven Ratiner

Red Letter Poem #52

“Americans had put on blindfolds when they should have put on masks.”  The bitter quip comes from Nicholas A. Christakis’ recent book Apollo’s Arrow: The Profound and Enduring Impact of Coronavirus on the Way We Live.  We are one year into a new reality, brought about by the collision between the power of the micro-world of viruses and the macro-dangers presented by our poor understanding of global interdependence.

A little over fifty-two weeks ago, the Covid lockdown had been declared and – confined to our houses, unsure how to keep our families safe while still acquiring things like milk, bread, and toilet paper – we were all confused, and terribly fearful.  It only took a week of isolation to convince me that individuals needed to actively seek out ways of supporting each other in those dark times if we were to survive together.  Knowing how poems have always offered me a life preserver in stormy seas, I decided this might be a small way for Arlington’s Laureate to offer comfort to my community.  So the Red Letter Project was born – a virtual version of what was originally intended to be a one-off mailing of actual red envelopes containing poems from local writers.  Drawing on the wealth of poetic talent in Arlington, I began sending out a new poem each Friday – offering a brief oasis amid the week’s troubled news, echoing Frost’s notion that poetry represents “a momentary stay against confusion.”  Partnering with seven arts and community organizations, each week’s installment had a potential readership in the thousands.  Of course, at the time I only expected that the crisis – and thus the need for Red Letters – would last a month, two at the most.  Perhaps we all shared a failure of the imagination.

Then George Floyd was killed; and protests erupted across the nation; and the economy went into meltdown; and the already-rancorous political discourse became even more toxic.  So I began inviting the participation of poets from all across the Commonwealth, while broadening the subjects being addressed, moving from themes of consolation and community to include ones that would challenge, surprise, inspire.  And since the poems were being re-shared and re-posted, we soon found we had readers spanning the country; I recently heard from one reader in Turkey and another in South Korea.  I should never be surprised that poems manage to travel wherever they are needed.

I’ve been thinking a lot about all I’ve learned from this project in the past year: how precious to us are those everyday places and moments we previously took for granted (as in Fred Marchant’s visit to Pinckney Street, RLP #1; Susan Donnelly coming upon music in a Red Line station, #3; Polly Brown’s return to her familial Maine farmhouse in #12.)  And how our worlds can be thoroughly shaken in a single instant (as Ellen Steinbaum’s was by a ‘Covid dream’, RLP #10; or Martín Espada’s after an accident suffered by his wife, #23; or Teresa Cader’s meditation on contagion while sitting in the little garden beside Arlington’s Town Hall, #29.)  I marveled at the many unexpected resources that sustain us during crisis (as Adnan Adam Onart demonstrated, recalling his great-grandmother’s prayers, RLP #31; or Lloyd Schwartz, remembering the sound of rain at Moosehead Lake, #37; or Enzo Silon reflecting on the protective umbrella of community he found during his childhood, #51.)  Some elegiac poems shared personal grief (Jo Pitkin remembering her father, RLP #19; Jenny Xie’s loss of homeland, #45; or Martha Collins’ loss of her spouse, #50) – but then there were poems detailing the myriad ways in which we find the strength to go on (as John Pijewski did, waking to hear bird song at dawn in RLP #17; or Christopher Jane Corkery found, sipping the waters of memory, #48; or Alice Kociemba practiced in #28, making a list of her reasons to be thankful.)

Perhaps I’m making my own list here, a roll call of gratitudes – which, I believe, is the chief lesson we can learn from this pandemic: we must not wait to lose what we love in order to know its value.  I’m mindful that, for well over 500,000 families in our country, the word Covid will forever signify the loss of some beloved presence in their lives; my own extended family is included in that least exclusive of societies.  And yet again and again, even they find ways to be thankful for the love that endures, often extending it with a renewed generosity.   And so I am grateful for all the poets and readers who’ve become a part of this ‘community of voices’, and all the individuals and groups whose continued energies help to widen its borders.  I’ve made the following two sentences a part of every RLP installment since the very first: 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.  This year has only reaffirmed the truth of that declaration.  May we, each day, remove our blindfolds and seek to promote a lasting healing; may we always come across the very poems we are in need of, or else go ahead and write them ourselves; and may tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow continue to bring us Red Letter days.”  – Steven Ratiner

Red Letter Poem #51

“It’s a paradox: every poem is an otherness.  It represents a point-of-view, personal history, approach to language, rhythmic sensibility, dance with despair and embrace of beauty – all of which are wholly distinct from that of the person reading the poem.  And yet, again and again, we find poets whose unique voices somehow resonate with our own, enlarge our boundaries, shine light into parts of our lives we may not have even realized were there.  Walt Whitman, in that revolutionary book Leaves of Grass, begins his poetic accounting of the American experience: “I celebrate myself,/ And what I assume you shall assume,/ For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.”  Centuries later, that declaration, that belief in a radical commonality, still strikes me as being central in determining America’s survival, and humanity’s.

Enzo Silon Surin is certainly a son of Whitman – and the American panorama he surveys is in some respects remarkably different from that of the good gray poet, and in other ways devastatingly unchanged.  Haitian-born, he grew up in Queens, New York City and that experience is a visceral presence in his first full-length collection, When My Body Was A Clinched Fist (Black Lawrence Press, 2020), as well as a brand-new manuscript from which today’s poem is taken, making its debut as a Red Letter.  Enzo is a poet, educator, speaker, and social advocate; as the founding editor and publisher of Central Square Press here in the Boston-area, he’s created a small, independent literary press that publishes thought-provoking and high-quality poetry reflecting a commitment to social justice.  Even when race is not the explicit subject of one of Enzo’s poems, it is a context that illuminates every situation.  I too grew up in Queens; that I did not have to be so acutely aware of such things during my formative years is an essential element of the privilege I’d been afforded.  Reading a poem like “The Block…”, I can’t help thinking of all the wild, stupid, utterly normal moments of my adolescence – and how different they’d have been if suddenly the police – or even the threat of such scrutiny – had been involved.  That Enzo survived that circumstance – in large part due to the way his community embraced its members – and developed from it a creative force that would not be suppressed or co-opted, is something every lover of language can celebrate.”  – Steven Ratiner

Red Letter Poem #50

“The elegy presents us with a curious amalgam: the ascendant eye anchored to the leaden heart; the privacy of grief enacted upon a public stage; an attempt to grasp the evanescent nature of memory using the matter-of-fact instruments of nouns and verbs.  And when the loss is sudden and devastating – like that suffered by the acclaimed poet Martha Collins with the death of her husband – often the easier path is a retreat into silence.  Unless, of course, that voice cannot be silenced.

It did not come as a surprise to hear Martha explain that, when she wrote this sequence of poems – eventually published as Because What Else Could I Do (University of Pittsburgh, 2019) – they were intended solely for herself.  After all (as the title declares), what other hope for comfort does a poet have but the ability to speak.  When friends encouraged her to share these pieces, she eventually took that risk.  Anyone who has experienced loss – anyone who believes in the regenerative force that poetry represents – will be grateful that she did.  Some of the poems in this book present the mind’s complex struggle to even confront the incomprehensible; others are so painful because they are so utterly mundane: “what will I do with my one// spoon and my wide bed”.  Martha’s book is part of a long poetic tradition of such elaborate elegiac creations; Eugenio Montale’s Xenia and Donald Hall’s Without are among the titles I most value.  Hers was eventually awarded the William Carlos Williams Award from the Poetry Society of America.  The poem I selected (#39 – all the poems are simply designated by their number) has a simple interlocking rhythmical structure that reminds me of children’s verse, as the poet leads us into a familiar scene.  Step by step, image by image, we enter the waters of this remembered everydayness, possessing now the knowledge that everything is precious and nothing guaranteed.

I would be doing her a disservice if I left the impression that grief is the only territory that Martha has explored.  A prolific poet, translator, and editor, she has authored nine collections that tackle issues like history, race, memory, and the elliptical nature of thought.  She has been the recipient of numerous fellowships and awards, and was also the founder of the creative writing program at the University of Massachusetts at Boston”  – Steven Ratiner

Red Letter Poem #49

“Sonnet.  To some, the word itself is a pure musicality, conjuring what’s often thought of as the jewel of Western poetry.  To others – who perhaps endured less-than-cherished high school English classes (unlucky souls), where the poetic form was used as an instrument of torment or a cruel measure of intelligence – the word makes the little hairs across the neck stand up stiffly. Yet biologists and anthropologists tell us that the human mind relishes the experience of pattern; it promises security, anticipation, rhythmic pleasure, a sense of resolution.  A sonnet is all that and more.  The form in formal poetry just means there’s a distant music guiding the poet’s ear, and a set of dance steps that have been handed down.  But for contemporary practitioners of the art form, there is a certain pleasure in showing up for the grand ball dressed, not in tux or taffeta, but in comfy jeans and old Nikes. They play against our old expectations by focusing on more down-to-earth subject matter, and adopting a tone of voice more colloquial than Cavalcanti or Shakespeare ever imagined.


So it is with Denise Provost whose collection, Curious Peach (published by Ibbetson Street Press in 2019), is chock-full of sonnets that carry us through the year’s seasonal progression, uncovering beauty in simple events that might normally pass beneath our attention.  To a person for whom snow-shoveling is the least poetic of activities, somehow she reminded me of that marvelous sense of dislocation a storm can bring, as even our own street can be transformed overnight into strange territory.  And then there’s that sense camaraderie a blizzard instills – all of us in it together, dwarfed by the immensity of something as simple as weather, and perhaps humbled by our powerlessness before natural phenomena.  So Denise allows her pentameters to breathe a bit, and uses the matrix of line breaks to make what seems like ordinary speech feel like an intimate meditation.  She has a new collection, City of Stories, set to appear next year from Cervena Barva Press.  And now that she is no longer a State Representative from Somerville, I forecast future blizzards of verse along with New England’s yearly snowfall.”  – Steven Ratiner

Red Letter Poem #48

“When you die, God and the angels will hold you accountable for all the pleasures you were allowed in life that you denied yourself.” My wife cut out this anonymous quote from a magazine and posted it on our fridge.  At the time, I believed (foolish man!) it was meant as justification for her beloved indulgence: shoe shopping. Endlessly frugal, I’d spent most of my life turning denial into a veritable artform. Later, when it came out in conversation that the quote was intended, not for herself, but for me – my tears were extravagant and, over time, transformative.

Christopher Jane Corkery’s poem takes us to a tiny Italian hill town near Florence where she savors what seems the simplest of memories: sun, taste, the generosity of the body, those times in life when we’re able to be blissfully unaware of the price time exacts from us all. Three times she mentions “danger” yet, despite some hints of darkness, she plunges ahead, plumbing memory’s irresistible depths – because, back then, that little coltish spring seemed a symbol of ultimate abundance. But what should we make of that old man she meets, squatting on the boundary between the mundane and the mythological? And his offer/command that she – “Bevi!” – drink?  Do we ever understand what we’ve been given – or fully appreciate what we’ve lost?  Perhaps that’s the poet’s job: to reclaim that lost day – for herself, for her readers – with the gently-inflected music I’ve come to trust in Christopher’s writing. Savoring the poem, we are each, then, left on our own to take account of what beauty our flickering days contain.

My dog-eared copy of her first collection, Blessing (Princeton University Press) remains a favorite of mine.  Christopher’s new book, Love Took the Words (Slant Books, 2020) from which “Il Cavallino…” was taken, carries us to faraway places – Ireland, Mexico, Greece, Italy (much appreciated during these homebound days) – as well as towns a mere stone’s throw from Arlington. Poet, educator, essayist, proud grandmother, Christopher is widely published, richly honored, and determined to continue following wherever her pen leads.”  – Steven Ratiner

Red Letter Poem #47

“If you’re not familiar with the work of Afaa Michael Weaver – award-winning poet, fiction writer, educator, and soon-to-be memoirist – you might want to dive right in to the three books of his monumental verse achievement, Plum Flower Trilogy.  But when he offered me a Red Letter contribution, my mind went immediately to a modest-looking 13-poem chapbook, A Hard Summation, published by Central Square Press in Cambridge, MA.  Hard?  I’d have said nearly impossible – because Afaa set himself the challenge of weaving together 400 years of the African-American experience in this brief sequence – stretching from the Middle Passage to the Great Migration and up into our contemporary city landscapes.  He conjures a host of voices and scenarios, clothed in dictions that range from the rural South to the patois of Northern urban streets – inflected, at times, by Gospel chant, the formal stance of the sonnet, or his own style of musically-charged free verse.  As our country, at last, begins to wrestle with its troubled racial history, A Hard Summation should be an essential resource in the deepening conversation.

Throughout the sequence, we’re introduced to a litany of names and voices: from children listed on a slave ship manifest, to cultural and civil rights figures, to those anonymous men and women just trying to make it through another day.  In this, the closing poem of the collection, we feel the presence of Heaven Sutton, a seven-year-old girl shot and killed in her West Side Chicago neighborhood, the collateral damage of gang violence.  As in all the poems here, the losses, the fleeting joys are individual, intimate, rich with the sort of visceral impressions that history books often fail to document.  Afaa’s writing offers us (as the poem says) “a respite from history”, the chance to be moved by the music and emotional valence of these thoughts, so that we might begin to make our own peace with what we’re carrying within us.”  – Steven Ratiner

Red Letter Poem #46

“s e x, of course – the ever-present siren-song of our physicality, that’s one element.  Love, absolutely – our need for deep connection, in all its wildly-inventive incarnations.  And it involves the act of reaching out – embracing another’s loneliness; risking the surrender of all the artful barriers we’ve devised to safeguard our own.  But in the end, we’re won over, seduced by that dreamed-of possibility: we – ours – knowing – and home.

I’ve been thinking about art-making, and it seems to me it too is a kind of Valentine.  This is especially true of Sarah Bennett’s delightful poem, selected to celebrate the hearts-and-flowers holiday.  In fact, isn’t language itself a form of seduction, whispering its sweet nothings into our eager ears until we no longer resist and partner in its brief dance?  “Phasmids” comes from Sarah’s beguiling collection, The Fisher Cat (Dytiscid Press) in which her lyrics are, by turns, veiled or unexpectedly exposed, spurred by the poet’s nimble inventiveness.  She is (by her own description) a book designer, gardener, clarinet player, and appreciator of the natural world.  Way back in the 1980’s, before the current trend, she was selected as the Poet Laureate of Worcester, MA.  Out of nothing – signs, sounds – words construct an ephemeral something that feels as tangible as the chair we’re sitting in, the page beneath our fingertips.  In “Phasmids”, every element of the poem is designed to invite the mind’s participation – even that caesura (a pregnant pause?) between that quiet “unnoticed” and the startling “Show me…”.  Tell me: how can anyone resist this delightful will-you-be-mind?”  – Steven Ratiner

Red Letter Poem #45

“We’re considered blow-ins,” my Irish friend once explained (the image being that of dried leaves carried in on a random breeze) “because we’ve only lived in Sligo for forty years.”  It took me a moment to let that sink in.  “But our children, who were born here – perhaps they’ll be thought of as locals.  If not, then certainly our children’s children.”  By such a calculation, almost all of us are blow-ins, conveyed by winds of history, politics, economics, or unbridled dreams.  We’ve arrived upon some untested territory, hoping to establish a new life – and wondering, all the while, how the locals will receive us.

Jenny Xie was born in China’s Anhui province but resettled with her family in Piscataway, New Jersey where she spent her school years.  Later, studying at Princeton – and writing in her second language, no less – she began garnering attention and winning prizes for her poetry.  To say her debut collection, Eye Level (Graywolf Press, 2018) was well-received is quite the understatement; among the cascade of honors it received was the Walt Whitman Award from the Academy of American Poets, and it was chosen as a finalist for the National Book Award.  What I find remarkable in her writing is the unflinching way she explores the sense of native and foreign within every individual.  While her poems possess a marvelous specificity concerning the immigrant experience, they reach far beyond that.  Between those dark stations from which we each arrive and eventually depart this life, there are the diverse landscapes we travel through, each making as much of a claim upon us as we do on them.  In a time when the very word immigrant has been cast by some Americans to be a sign of threat, Jenny’s poems helped me to better feel the ground beneath my own feet.  It’s clear to me her passport (like the ones we are all issued at birth) is from the province of Self.  And when we meet one another like this, eye to eye, our new visas are validated.”  – Steven Ratiner

Red Letter Poem #44

“Because Covid has consumed nearly all our public health bandwidth, it may be hard to remember there had been, before its onset, another serious crisis ravaging our nation: an epidemic of drug addiction and overdoses affecting nearly every community.  Lee Varon found herself writing numerous poems about the subject – not out of some sociological concern but because ‘substance use disorder’ (as it’s called) had taken its toll on her son.  When a mother fears that an illness threatens the lives of her family, there are no limits to which she won’t go in trying to protect them – but in addition to medical interventions and family support groups, she found that writing gave her additional strength to endure.  Birds as symbols – as ‘psychic messengers’ – seemed to make frequent appearances in the poems and so a manuscript began taking shape, now titled Birds of Addiction.


What I appreciate about Lee’s poems is the way a sense of foreboding – a quiet siege of the heart – seems to color all her language and imagery until we, too, begin to feel how pervasive this illness really is – not just for those suffering from it but all who love them.  She really did notice those winter harbingers on the day of that ER visit, but of course the bird’s name hints at doubled meanings – especially when phrased as: “Dusky juncos/arrive like a relapse.”  Then there is that “torn shirt”. . .and the interminable wait. . ..  Suddenly my heart too felt endangered – even while trying (as the poet explained to me) “to search for glimmers of hope and healing.”  Faced with such a crisis, perhaps I’d also find myself imagining (as some spiritual texts have it) that juncos can represent our will to survive even the most terrible of challenges.  But without a doubt I believe in that act of undaunted art-making that compels a poet to, not only document such struggles, but share those texts publicly: as witness, as encouragement.  The fact that her son is now in recovery is the sort of triumph others can draw strength from.  Lee’s two previous collections are Shot in the Head (Sunshot Press), and Letters to a Pedophile (Encircle Publications) – and she is at work on a book for children addressing the opioid epidemic so that this topic will not remain another of society’s unspeakables.”  – Steven Ratiner

Red Letter Poem #43

“Like most of you, I watched history ‘turn a page’ this week as a new president was inaugurated.  And I’m thinking of how that literary metaphor carries with it visions of a blank expanse upon which anything might now be written, an eruption of pure possibility.  But equally precious is the reassurance that the deep knowledge in all those preceding pages will still remain available to us, helping to guide our next steps.  It’s one of the reasons that, at even so auspicious a ceremony as this, some of our presidents have called on poets to join their elevated language with that of the political and the prayerful.   Such well-crafted words are capable of embodying spirit, conveying vision from one mind to another, rekindling belief.  They form so powerful a signifier, we shouldn’t be surprised when, at moments of great joy or humbling grief, we find ourselves returning to poems.

And, sadly, the opposite is also true: when the desire is to subjugate a people, one of the things most tyrants do is to suppress the native language and the treasure house of symbols stored in its cultural memory.  Several years back, Moira Linehan began a long journey toward researching the lives of her four paternal great-grandparents and reclaiming some of her own personal history.  Her efforts were rewarded with writing residencies at the Cill Rialaig Project in Co. Kerry and the Tyrone Guthrie Centre in Co. Monaghan.  In her strong and quietly-mysterious poems, she reminds us of how the British attempted to wipe away Gaelic from Ireland’s populace, though they were never wholly successful.  In “Toward”, the title poem of her new collection from Slant Books, she seems willing to risk losing herself in the exploration in order to come upon some hard-won sense of what really matters.  And that is often poetry’s true subject: what lies beyond words but may be conjured through its music.  What more could a person (or a country) desire than a taste of what is true and the freedom to follow where it leads?  I hope we possess some of Moira’s determination and can join her in saying that’s where we’re headed now.”  – Steven Ratiner

Red Letter Poem #42

“In praise of fathers and mothers.  No, not the ones we are born to – I’d hope we need no reminder for that gratitude.  I mean those cultural/spiritual/societal patriarchs and matriarchs that materialized somewhere in our lives and helped, by their example, form who we are.  There are individuals whom we might never have met in the flesh and yet are beholden to just the same.  I’d need more hands than I possess to count the number of poets and artists whose lives and works I so admired they catalyzed something in me that I might not have otherwise trusted – might not even have believed was there.

Bonnie Bishop, a poet of deep feeling, can list as many of these honored forebears in the musical world as she does in the realm of letters.  It’s one of the reasons she and her husband spend so much time down in New Orleans, so they can be close to many of the jazz performers they love.  Case in point: the ‘Ellis’ of her poem is, of course, Ellis Marsalis Jr.: gifted jazz pianist, educator, and patriarch of the famed Marsalis family, who died this past April at the age of 85, yet another light snuffed out by Covid-19.  Not only did Ellis teach jazz improvisation to generations of young musicians, he made his home into something of a cultural salon and music academy for neighborhood kids – and along the way launched four of his sons into prominent musical careers of their own.  But his focus was never solely on the sounds coming out from the instruments but on the excitement emanating from young hearts.  And I think the lesson here is that we, in every generation, need to honor what we’ve been given by making sure we too have offered such gifts to other, more recent arrivals.  To recognize those influences we carry within us is to comprehend more fully the constellation of energies we call a life.  But to pass on some of that energy, in whatever form we are capable of shaping and focusing it, is to rebuff the atomized vision of contemporary existence and know we are interconnected in barely-imaginable ways.  Lacking a musical instrument, Bonnie here uses careful observation and lyrical phrasing to invite us to tune in to a vast composition of which Mr. Marsalis’ songs were one small part.”  – Steven Ratiner

Red Letter Poem #41

“The first thing to know about literary ‘translation’: it’s an impossibility – especially when it comes to poetry.  Not only are there rarely direct equivalencies between languages, there’s the matter of those inestimable mysteries: musical intonation, cultural memory, and the subtle connotations only a native speaker would detect.  That’s why Steven Cramer refers to his poetic carry-overs as versions, so that a reader will be aware that he’s not aiming at an exact lexical replica but a poem that might create, inside the mind of a reader of English, something close to the effect the original had on its own audience.  After all, what good would it be to recreate, feather by feather, a bird seemingly identical to its model from a foreign land if yours can neither sing nor fly?

So why do poets like Cramer attempt this impossible task – often having to partner with linguists or build upon numerous earlier attempts, all in search of a version with true vitality?  I think it begins in the aspirations for his own poetry.  He’s the author of six collections, the most recent being Listen (MadHat Press) from which today’s piece is taken.  His writing has such keen emotional nuance and imaginative daring, he knows how much faith a poet must place in the art form, what his/her years of effort hope to embody.  And so it’s literally painful to read a poor translation from an admired figure, feeling the poet’s creation crushed beneath the weight of awkward or (worse) unimpassioned verbiage.  Osip Mandelstam – a native of Poland, transplanted to St. Petersburg with his family when he was still a boy – became arguably modern Russia’s greatest lyric poet.  He too understood what it meant to contend with a new language and its obstacles.  And later, under Stalin’s brutal regime, he saw how a poem might become the purest expression of freedom – even as it cost him his home, his life.  In Cramer’s version, I experience a sort of winter-inwardness that feels most appropriate in our own hard season (both the one marked by the calendar, and those of our health and political crises – all those dark cubicles we wake to each day, stretching endlessly into the distance.)  How can an American poet not make an effort to provide his countrymen and women (who, sadly, tend to dwell inside a single language) with at least a taste of other songs, possible worlds – so we too might avail ourselves of that wider sky.”  – Steven Ratiner

Red Letter Poem #40

The new, for better or worse, is perhaps the most prized quality in art-making: the cutting-edge creative style, voice, or subject matter.  But in truth all creation, even the most radical, has a bond with all that came before.  What else could we fashion new work from – or rebel against – but the world we’ve inherited?  Our lives, our efforts are links in a chain – in a tangled multiplicity of chains – that join us to sources often obscured in time’s vast seas.

Red Letter #37 was Lloyd Schwartz’s lovely poem “Song.”  Of course, we can never know where a poem finds its genesis, but I was fascinated by this early memory Lloyd recounted: his mother reciting Coleridge’s “Kubla Khan” aloud to him when he was too young to read.  I believe there is always a sound-signature that great poems leave on us.  And though they might not have been consciously in mind, Lloyd mentioned Frost’s “Fire and Ice” and Elizabeth Bishop’s “Sonnet” as part of his poem’s musical ancestry.  Deborah Melone (the author of Farmers’ Market and The Wheel of the Year from Every Other Thursday Press) read Lloyd’s poem and was enthralled by its music – so much so that, after a few days, a new poem began taking shape in her notebook, one trying to recapture how that music had catalyzed something inside her.  I love how the sound of her poem chimes along with a certain regularity – even as the imagery in each stanza twists and tugs to retain its freedom.  And now, reading Deborah’s poem, who knows: maybe some of you, dear readers, will fall under Deborah’s melodic spell and be surprised by a new voice rising up in your own mind.

Ch’eng T’ang, the first king of the Shang Dynasty, seeking a formula for happiness, had these words inscribed on his washbasin (nearly four millennia before Ezra Pound turned the Chinese phrase into a Modernist manifesto): Make it new, and again make it new.  So as 2021 makes its debut, and we attempt to put the old awful year behind us, I’ll offer this wish: may we wash ourselves each morning in that ancient aspiration and rejuvenate possibility.  But in doing so, may we also be mindful of all those hands that came before us, and all those yet to come: how every individual cups the same cool waters, dreaming of renewal.”  – Steven Ratiner

Red Letter Poem #39

“Everyone loves a good ghost story – Charles Dickens understood that – not to mention the dream of second chances.  So when old Mr. Scrooge is visited by his phantom possibilities, we too believe we might reach across time and circumstance – to comprehend our own tangled narrative, to soothe old wounds, and prepare ourselves for what the new morning may offer.  And for that reason I love the matter-of-factness of Jeffrey Harrison’s writing; he offers a counterbalance to the strain of contemporary poems that seek to recreate the universe from the inside out.  He implicitly trusts that the materials of his life (which very much resemble the lives, landscapes, and histories we too inhabit) are sufficient for that most basic of challenges: how to bear the weight of our own past and still enter the new day clear-eyed and open-hearted.  Jeffrey shies away from rhetorical flourishes and works within the bedrock American idiom.  The music of his lines is only slightly heightened from that of earnest conversation or the voice of our internal monologue – and so the situations he presents possess a bracing actuality.

“Double Visitation” – which appeared recently in Between Lakes (Four Way Books), his seventh volume of poetry – is a ghost story inside a ghost story.  And the questions it raises seem especially appropriate today, in the midst of the mid-winter holidays representing so many spiritual traditions.  So I am left wondering: what secret message am I carrying inside me – and whose ears hunger to receive those words, right now, while such an exchange is still possible?”  – Steven Ratiner

Red Letter Poem #38

“People are always creating systems to classify/categorize/pigeonhole individuals, often with little success.  Yet I believe I can neatly divide humanity into two distinct groups: those who collect and those who disperse.  (I’m of the former category, though I don’t think my wife would be so charitable with that characterization; she might suggest pack rat as far more appropriate.)  Still, the dichotomy of these impulses is clear: one contingent is convinced that, at some later time, every one of these cherished items might again be pressed into service, yield new meaning.  Members of the other group (far more practical and clear-eyed) not only know when an object’s utility has passed, they can imagine the clearing in a household such unburdening will create (not to mention the possibilities which arise to fill the void.)  Joyce Peseroff’s fine lyric not only fleshes out these two categories, she draws back the emotional veil on those seemingly simple choices: what are we ever able to hold onto from our past; and what might we gain from a graceful surrender?  Of course, Joyce may well be playing a double game with us: just as she seems to be gently discarding these personal artifacts, she has preserved them in the unroofed attic of a poem.  And it’s we readers who might find ourselves reluctant to part with the recollections she’s coaxed us to unbox.  Sly, these poets!

Joyce herself has been a mainstay of the Massachusetts poetry scene for decades.  Poet, teacher, editor, she’s been awarded grants from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Massachusetts Cultural Council.  Currently she blogs for her website SO I GAVE YOU QUARTZ ( and writes the poetry column for Arrowsmith Press.  “Limmer Boots” is borrowed from Petition (Carnegie Mellon University Press), Joyce’s sixth collection which, I must confess, will not be winnowed from my admittedly-crowded bookshelves.”  – Steven Ratiner

Red Letter Poem #37

“Songs are thoughts, sung out with the breath when people are moved by great forces and ordinary speech no longer suffices…And then…we, who always think we are small, will feel still smaller.  And we will fear to use words.  But it will happen that the words we need will come of themselves.  When the words we want to use shoot up of themselves – we get a new song.”  This description comes from Orpingalik, a Netsilik hunter, shaman and poet, and they represent an experience documented in almost all early cultures: the roots of poetry and song are wholly intertwined.  This proved true of the ancient Greek poets performing with lyre in hand, the Chinese court poets strumming the qin, or African griots plucking the harp-like kora or pounding the djembe drum to recite for the tribe.  It applies right up through Nobel Laureate Bob Dylan’s verses sung over his jangly guitar or Jay-Z’s flow riding a thunderous beat.

Lloyd Schwartz is the Poet Laureate for neighboring Somerville, MA, but that is just one of the many creative ‘hats’ he wears.   Author, scholar and teacher, his voice is familiar as the longtime classical music critic for NPR’s Fresh Air.  For three decades before that, he was the classical music editor of the Boston Phoenix for which he was awarded the Pulitzer Prize.  Most often, the vocal register of his poems is closer to that of colloquial speech, but occasionally he cannot resist pure song.  He was inspired here, he explained, by a trip to Moosehead Lake in northern Maine, and the words arrived unexpectedly in a manner of which, I believe, Orpingalik would heartily approve.  The poem is included in his forthcoming Who’s on First? New and Selected Poems (University of Chicago Press).  I was also delighted to learn that it is part of “Schwartzsongs”, a musical setting of three of Lloyd’s poems by the great composer John Harbison.  Sometimes the Muse simply demands song and any seasoned poet needs to be ready.”  – Steven Ratiner

Red Letter Poem #36

“I’m baffled – let’s start with that.  And often frustrated, angry and, yes, ashamed.  We are forever living – all of us – inside the echo of George Floyd’s pleas for help.  Inside the shadow of Breonna Taylor, Philando Castille, Sandra Bland, Ahmaud Arbery, and an unscrolling list of names that serves as an awful reminder: in the land of all men are created equal, we’ve built durable systems hardwired to guarantee the very opposite.  And each time I think about the magnitude of the challenges we’re facing, thought ties itself in knots.

Which is why I found Ellen Steinbaum’s poem so useful.  Like a Cubist painting, she portrays multiple perspectives at once.  After reading a blog post entitled ‘Resist Numbness’ by David Howse (the Executive Director of Boston’s ArtsEmerson), the poet took an honest first step: she allowed his words to enter her consciousness, to locate her own knots and to begin pulling at the tangle.  Ellen found herself deconstructing one of his lines, forming a prism through which she might examine her own confused feelings.  And we, ours.  I cannot help but believe that such an internal action will spur external ones, perhaps the next time a situation demands that a hard choice be made.  Words matter.  They are not so easily dispersed as, sadly, a breath can be.  After all, our nation’s founding documents used them to solidify a grand promise: that if we as a people continued to envision that more perfect union, our thoughts, our path forward might always bring us closer.

Poet, journalist, blogger, undoer of knots, Ellen is making her second appearance in the Red Letters.  Her most recent collection is This Next Tenderness (CW Books).  “we have no words…” appeared originally in River Heron Review.”  – Steven Ratiner

Red Letter Poem #35

“It’s not the turkey – though symbols and traditions do foster a sense of continuity.  It’s not just the table heaped high with all manner of delicacies – though it’s rare that many are permitted (or permit themselves) an occasion of sheer abundance.  All the loved faces gathered together – of course that comes closer to the heart of the matter even if, this Thanksgiving, much of the gathering must be done via Zoom or through memory.  To my mind, the great gift of the holiday is how we’re ushered into experiencing gratitude – and that has deep transformative power.  Gratitude confirms to the body, to the expansive mind, that what is present is enough.  And even enduring the most difficult circumstances: enough.


In Polly Brown’s lovely poem, Peggy has the courage to step away from safety’s embrace and, even facing the prospect of impending loss, she claims a moment of determination, quiet joy, and gratitude.  The subject of this poem is Peggy Lawler (1929-1966) – an important figure in the modern dance movement, and a great-hearted woman whose friendship and generosity are things for which Polly is forever thankful.  And now, because of this beautiful lyric, so are we.  Peggy on the Hill is making its debut in these electronic pages but, I’m happy to say, Polly’s recent collection, Pebble Leaf Feather Knife (Cherry Grove) contains a wealth of finely-crafted, deeply-felt poems like this one.  And in keeping with the holiday, let me add that, after nine months of the Red Letter project – after having witnessed the generosity of spirit from poets and readers alike – and even as our country struggles mightily to find its way through our devastating challenges – I can say without hesitation: life is, indeed, more than enough.”  – Steven Ratiner

Red Letter Poem #34

“Let’s take a moment, shall we?  And perhaps another moment?

A deceptively simple suggestion, but not all that far from the impetus behind the Japanese haiku.  From the time of Basho onward – and fortified by the Buddhist emphasis on being present within even the simplest of experiences – the haiku became both a method of fully engaging with one’s surroundings and a way of reflecting such moments within a succinct but imaginatively-charged poem.  Rather than explaining the mind’s journey, the three-line poem arranges the sense-impressions to propel a reader along a similar path, allowing the power of implication, juxtaposition, surprise to strike the deepest possible chord.  So right now: after one of the most contentious elections in American history; while the Covid pandemic rages anew and economic uncertainty makes our future feel more than a little tenuous; and even our prospects for a safe Thanksgiving dinner are fraught with genuine concern – Brad Bennett’s fine poems offer the reminder of what is actually ours: this moment.  And then, if we’re fortunate, the one after that.  Not too small a reason for gratitude.

Beside the fact that Brad has made haiku writing a central feature in his life, it pleases me tremendously to know that he’s taught the practice as a regular feature in his third-grade classrooms.  I can only imagine the balm it provides to a young mind – not to mention the ability it develops to better participate in one’s own unfolding life.  Brad’s poems have appeared in dozens of the important haiku publications including Chrysanthemum, New England Letters, and Gratitude in the Time of COVID-19: The Haiku Hecameron (edited by Scott Mason) where some of these poems first appeared. His two collections are: 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.”

– Steven Ratiner

Red Letter Poem #33

“It’s an elemental gesture, the cairn – placing a stone atop a stone. In a Jewish cemetery, stones balanced upon grave markers signify a mourner’s visit, remembrance.  On a mountain climb, rocky piles mark paths, offer direction for travelers.  I often see little precarious towers of beach stones along the shore, and watch other passersby taking pleasure in bolstering them: I too was here.  But in introducing his poem “A Cairn by the Cabin” for an upcoming RED LETTER LIVE video-reading, Fred Marchant focused on the massive cairn being perpetually erected beside the site where Henry David Thoreau’s cabin once stood at Walden – and he takes it as both a sign of gratitude and a commitment toward maintaining the psychic edifice that is our grand democratic experiment – something Thoreau spent so much of his energy fortifying.

The late Congressman John Lewis wrote, in what would become his final message to America: “Democracy is not a state.  It is an act, and each generation must do its part to help build what we called the Beloved Community, a nation and world society at peace with itself.”  Are we capable now of acting in just such a manner – choosing our words, our gestures carefully as if laying a stone upon the existing stones – to establish a marker, to stand before the doorway of Thoreau’s invisible home, believing we can find shelter there, and offer shelter to others?  In light of our contentious election, the Black Lives Matter movement, the rampant fear fanned by the pandemic and economic uncertainty – is such a presumption still viable?  I have no doubt most of the poets who have been featured in these virtual Red Letter pages would answer: yes.  And you reading these words: yes.  Acting for the sake of our children and grandchildren; and our neighbors’ children and grandchildren: indeed yes.  And again tomorrow morning, responding to that face staring back at us from the mirror: we build yes upon yes upon yes.  By this cairn we’ll know we were here, mark our path forward, and offer guidance to those travelers who follow after us.

I’m delighted to feature Fred Marchant’s poetry once again.  Author of five collections including the recent Said Not Said, he is the Emeritus Professor of English at Suffolk University where he founded their Poetry Center.  Fred continues to work tirelessly to develop younger talents and to keep the rootstock of American poetry refreshed.”

– Steven Ratiner

Red Letter Poem #32

O say can you see…? – and, to my mind, our country’s present situation bears some painful resemblance to what was experienced by this lawyer/poet in 1814.  Francis Scott Key, under guard by the British in Chesapeake Bay, watched the assault on Fort McHenry.  He spent the long night wondering whether, come morning, our flag would signal that our fragile Republic had survived.  And as I write this, the votes for our 2020 election have been cast, the counting underway – all beneath a metaphorical bombardment of epic proportions. Many have called this the most consequential election of our lifetimes – perhaps the most dire since the start of the Civil War – and the fate of our still-fragile democracy may hang in the balance.  But the most striking difference between Key’s poem and that of today’s Red Letter from Susan Donnelly, one of Arlington’s finest poets: this time, the threatening adversary is none other than ourselves – or, more specifically, our intransigence, our rampant fears and tribal prejudices, undermining the very principles by which this country was founded. To be able to ask honest questions – of ourselves, of our countrymen – would seem to be the very lifeblood of a democracy.  Instead, we’ve replaced that with a cannonade of sound bites and vitriol. As Susan writes, “it’s nearly all questions”, this anthem of ours.  In waiting for answers in the hours (days? months?) to come, I’ll return to Susan’s potent little lyric to strengthen my resolve. What will our new American reality be like?  Whose voices will be included in that narrative?

Susan Donnelly made an appearance early on in the Red Letters.  Her first book, Eve Names the Animals was awarded the Morse Poetry Prize. A prolific and masterful poet, two other full-length collections followed as well as six chapbooks, the most recent being The Finding Day from Every Other Thursday Press.

– Steven Ratiner

Red Letter Poem #31

“Not the least of poetry’s strengths (and delights) is its ability to allow us access to another reality: to stand for a few moments in someone else’s shoes, viewing the day through a surprising sensibility, our thoughts informed by a radically different sense of history.  This is one of the first things that attracted me to the poetry of Adnan Onart.  I will never experience the pain inflicted on Crimean Tatars as their country suffered invasions – vivid still in the long memories of his Turkish family – though some of his poems provide me with a mouthful of that anguish. Nor can I feel those American eyes at my back in some street or market – in this, our post-9/11 circumstance – triggered only by the accent of my voice; but Adnan’s poetry has made me imagine what that tremor must be like. Poetry confirms what most of us have long suspected: that our lives are dramatically different from each other and, paradoxically, utterly alike.  So it is with “Morning Prayer” – a poem that somehow reminded me of voices as disparate as that of Yehuda Amichai and Wislawa Szymborska: when the young protagonist is instructed in the ways of prayer, I found something of my eight-year-old self awakened, and I remembered what I first yearned for in the world.  And when the much older speaker (an immigrant now in Boston) repeats that same gesture, I suddenly felt how sweet and unpredictable is the nature of our answered prayers.

Adnan lives in Boston, MA. and his work has appeared in a number of journals including Prairie Schooner, Colere Magazine, Red Wheel Barrow, and The Massachusetts Review. ”Morning Prayer” was published in his first poetry collection, The Passport You Asked For (The Aeolos Press), coupled with Kenneth Rosen’s Cyprus’ Bad Period. He earned an honorable mention in the New England Poetry Club’s Erika Mumford Award, and was one of the winners of the 2011 Nazim Hikmet Poetry Competition.  Discouraged from poetry as a young man in Turkey, he has now begun to find an appreciative audience in his adoptive land.  Talk about paradoxes.”

– Steven Ratiner

Red Letter Poem #30

“Lloyd Schwartz navigates his roles as poet, scholar, and critic with such ease, an observer can easily believe a single impulse, a unified language informs them all.  His forthcoming Who’s on First? New and Selected Poems (University of Chicago Press) will be his sixth collection. He is the Frederick S. Troy Professor of English Emeritus at UMass Boston; and his voice is familiar to many as the longtime classical music critic for NPR’s Fresh Air. I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention that he is also the Poet Laureate for neighboring Somerville, MA.  A noted scholar and editor of the work of Elizabeth Bishop, he was invited to Brazil to offer some lectures celebrating the first Portuguese edition of her poetry. When the doorman of the hotel at which he was staying learned the reason for his trip, he told Lloyd: “We love poetry in Brazil – we even have poetry on our money!”  Pulling out a 50 Cruzados note — as common as a dollar bill – he showed the visitor the lovely engraving of Brazil’s national poet, Carlos Drummond de Andrade working thoughtfully at his desk. And beside it, in brown ink, was the text of “Canção Amiga”, one of his most beloved poems. How can American poets feel anything but awe and admiration for a country where its poets are so highly regarded? Lloyd, just learning Portuguese, began working on a translation of the piece that very evening.

Born in Itabira, a mining village in Minas Gerais in southeastern Brazil, de Andrade’s parents were farmers of Portuguese ancestry. Trained to be a pharmacist, he ended up working in government service, eventually becoming the Director of History for the National Historical and Artistic Heritage Service. Despite (or perhaps because of) the large family into which he was born, de Andrade developed an inwardness and a profound quiet which permeated his poems, balanced with wit, elegance, and a Whitman-like sense of the vibrant spirit of his people.  “Friendly Song” seems a perfect antidote to the troubled times we find ourselves in – and, as in Lloyd’s graceful translation, what could we wish for right now more necessary than a song that rouses men and women from their discordant lives while lulling the children to their rest?”

– Steven Ratiner

Red Letter Poem #29

How deserted lies the city,/ once so full of people!/ How like a widow is she,/ who once was great among the nations!”  Teresa Cader’s poem, too, is a lamentation, a word that calls up its Biblical roots. But it doesn’t take a poet to know that great loss is indeed possible, that the temple of our peaceful days can quickly be turned into rubble. We all remember when the pandemic struck; overnight, our towns became desolate, and fear, too, was contagion. And now, as the year draws to a close, such dark forces have been unleashed in our nation that many despair for democracy’s very survival. Perhaps that’s where a poet’s skill is required: in refocusing what we know to reveal the deepest resonance, to expose the dizzying implications. I think Teresa’s poem possesses a devastating beauty because it takes what is close at hand and suddenly, with a dramatic shift in reference, gives us a god’s-eye view of our moment together on this planet. Without resorting to polemics, she quietly reminds us that our decisions matter, shape our fate: what we owe to each other – to our community, commonwealth, country – in small and great moments of choice, will write the next verse of our lives. If her poem is a quiet Jeremiad, it speaks, not as a prophet, but another compassionate citizen shopping in the same marketplace as we do, struggling with the same challenges, resting nearby (but at a ‘social distance’) in our neighborhood park.  Perhaps that’s poetry’s most enigmatic quality: in operating within the most personal and specific it achieves a universality where every reader can recognize their reflection.

I introduced Teresa’s work in Red Letter #4, mentioning her three poetry collections — History of Hurricanes, The Paper Wasp, and Guests – and her numerous awards, including The Norma Farber First Book Award, The Journal Charles B. Wheeler Poetry Prize, and fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Bunting Institute at Radcliffe, and more. I can add here that “The Season…”, which appeared recently in Passengers Journal, is part of a sequence of poems responding to our current crisis; she is also at work on a memoir.”

– Steven Ratiner

Red Letter Poem #28

“The list poem is part of an ancient and honorable tradition.  A cataloging of images, names, or events, you find the technique used to great effect in the Bible and Homer; Walt Whitman often used his unreeling litanies to make the diverse conglomeration of his America sing! onto the page.  So, in honor of Alice Kociemba’s Red Letter contribution, a list:

*  How fortifying, to read Alice’s words of gratitude when the daily news is driving us to distraction.

*  How sly of the poet to make her phrasing seem so casual and off-handed, even as its rhythms carefully build and release, plucking at the strings of our own taut nerves.

*  How generous, to remind us that the inconsequential moments of our days are still our days!  And may actually reveal quiet depths of feeling.

*  And why does the heart plummet, just a bit, when she mentions “a single cup”?

*  And when she risks addressing that “someone” who might be “taking care”, I began wondering what my someone was like – and how desperate the night would feel to a person who suspected no one accompanied them toward that dawn.

*  And I must offer my thanks to her for bringing this “Thank you” poem to a close with a startling image that feels both lavish and utterly true.

*  And I should let you know that Alice is the author of Bourne Bridge (Turning Point) and the chapbook, Death of Teaticket Hardware.  She’s published widely in literary journals and anthologies.

*  And I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention that she is the founding director of Calliope Poetry which hosts poetry readings and writing workshops on Cape Cod, MA where she works tirelessly to keep their mission as her guide: Appreciate. Create. Celebrate.

– Steven Ratiner

Red Letter Poem #27

“When our family was young, we called it apple weather – those crisp, sun-skimmed days of early October – and immediately began making plans for an excursion west to visit an orchard. More than just the apple-picking, we loved having time together, wandering the green aisles, climbing rickety ladders into the tangled branches to select that perfect specimen, sun’s fickle kindness on our upturned faces even as the cold breeze skirmished at our backs.  Jessie Brown’s lovely poem imbues apple weather into every bracing line – but also something more, something that I think is especially ingrained in the consciousness of New Englanders: the inseparable connection between the dazzle of autumn days and the intimation of winter’s dark approach, the savor of late beauty magnified by the knowledge of impending loss. Perhaps, behind the urge to press the harvest into cider, is our wish that it can endure beyond that of each fragile fruit – even though every sweet sip exacts (if only in dreams, in poems) its mortal price. But knowing all this, we can begin to take some responsibility for the green revival, and for what will await the generations that follow ours.

Jessie is the author of two short collections, What We Don’t Know We Know (Finishing Line Press) and Lucky (Anabiosis Press). Her poems and translations have appeared in local and national journals like The Comstock Review, New Madrid, Full Bleed, Minerva Rising, and the American Poetry Review – and her work has earned her a prize from the American Academy of Poets.  She leads independent poetry workshops for adults and serves as a poet-in-residence in schools and libraries around Massachusetts. But Jessie also works to stretch the ways poetry and other art forms interact; her collaborations with artist Adria Arch have been exhibited along Arlington’s Minuteman Bikeway and in other communities.  She is also a founding member of the Alewife Poets, a group that has endured for decades.”

– Steven Ratiner

Red Letter Poem #26

What Thou Lovest Well, Remains American. It’s the title of a poetry collection by the late great Richard Hugo – and it sprang instantly to mind when Somerville poet Michael T. Steffen offered his poem ‘Walleye’ to the Red Letters, though I wasn’t quite sure why. Certainly there’s walleye and pike swimming throughout Hugo’s poetry, as he writes about fishing in Montana and the Pacific Northwest, but that’s merely the superficial. In Steffen’s poem, set in his childhood home of Norfolk, Nebraska, he elevates the quietly significant dramas of small-town life until they fill memory’s spot-lit stage (and certainly Hugo would smile upon that.) Especially for a young person, these glimpses of how grownups live, what they value, how their small gestures end up assuming an outsized significance – these are part of our essential education. The poem is filled with contrasts and transformations: the neighbor changing from the besuited businessman, governed by his banker’s hours, into the ‘scruffy’ and perhaps more thoroughly-satisfied fisherman; those delectable smells of fish frying turning into the ‘stubborn stink’ that’s left behind; and even the hazy weather that rewards the fisherman’s patience compared to the bright blue Monday morning that drives fish to hide in the shadows. Steffen’s restrained imagery and sometimes darting syntax require a similar patience if readers are to reel in what’s moving there beneath the surface – which, to my mind, includes the sort of elusive but well-loved experiences that feels quintessentially American.
Steffen’s poetry has appeared in venues such as Another Chicago Magazine, The Boston Globe, Harvard Review Online, Ibbetson Street, and Taos Journal. His first book, Partner, Orchard, Day Moon, was published in 2014. A new collection, On Earth As It Is, is forthcoming from Cervena Barva Press and from which today’s poem is taken. I, for one, am grateful to be the beneficiary of this poet’s bountiful catch.”         
– Steven Ratiner

Red Letter Poem #25

“Back in 1969, when we were sending our first men to the moon, I heard this lament on many news broadcasts: ‘if only we could send a poet along with the crew…’. Being a young writer at the time, the notion was a source of pride: that we all might be able to grasp unimaginable situations via the leap of a poet’s imagination.
I recalled this thought while reading Dorian Brooks’ poem ‘Unlatch.’ I am not a woman; I will never understand how a mother feels for that little being born from her own body. And even after many news reports, it is difficult to fully imagine the plight of an immigrant parent, desperate for asylum, whose family’s survival hangs in the balance. But Dorian’s poem offers readers a vital, almost physical intimation of what exists beyond the headlines. And somewhere, in the tension between the beautiful restriction of the sonnet and the unbound emotionality of the subject matter, our hearts too are launched.
Born  and raised in Connecticut, Dorian has made Arlington her home since 1985. Her poems have been collected in two books: A Pause in the Light (Holy Cow! Press) and The Wren’s Cry (Ibbetson Street Press), and have appeared in numerous literary journals. (‘Unlatch’ first appeared in Ibbetson Street magazine last fall in an earlier form.) Dorian writes: ‘Poetry, for me, is a way of trying to make emotional sense of the world and our place in it, through form, metaphor, and imagination’ – and this poem is a perfect example. An activist, she co-founded with Anna Watson the group Solidarity with American Indians to raise awareness of attitudes toward Native peoples as reflected in the media and popular culture; and she is a past president of the Lexington-area chapter of NOW.”         
– Steven Ratiner

Red Letter Poem #24

“Perhaps we can read Robert Frost’s formulation as not just two roads diverging but an endless succession of forked paths, each requiring us to make a choice which may (or may not) in fact make all the difference. Case in point: after graduating from Amherst College and considering the next choice in an academic track, David McCann instead joined the Peace Corps and was among the first group in 1966 to serve in Korea. However he imagined this work beforehand, I doubt he envisioned that it would begin a lifelong friendship with the Korean people and devotion to their literature.  Returning to America, he received his M.A. and Ph.D. degrees and went on to a stellar career teaching Korean literature at Cornell and then Harvard. Some 31 books later David, as poet and translator, has created a sort of self-appointed poetry ambassadorship where diverse literary traditions serve as the passport to a deeper understanding of, not just East and West, but our shared humanity.

His poems have received a Pushcart Prize and Touchstone Award in the US, and a number of awards from Korean literary and cultural organizations, including the Manhae Prize in 2004, and the Korean Culture Order of Merit in 2006.  One of David’s sijo poems, “Landscape” (included below), had the honor of being installed on a carved monument stone in the Boryeong Sijo Park in Korea. As David explains, sijo is the Korean counterpart to the Japanese haiku – a vernacular verse form that developed in contrast to the Classical Chinese quatrain. The sijo is written in three lines, each comprised of four phrases or words. The first line introduces an idea which the second line carries into a deeper reflection.  The third line begins with a twist or turn, a different view or interpretation, and then brings the poem to its conclusion. As was true in many Asian traditions, these poems were meant to be sung aloud, the very definition of lyrical poetry. It is, perhaps, that musical charge that first touches a reader’s heart, prompts a feeling we all can relate to: wanderers on a long and tangled path, raising our voices, as we try to find our way home.”
– Steven Ratiner

Red Letter Poem #23

“Some 30 years ago, when I created a poetry interview series for The Christian Science Monitor, Martín Espada was one of the first poets I invited to participate. Hed only just published his second full-length collection, but I was excited by his long Whitmanesque cadences, his dynamic use of metaphor, and one more thing that made his writing stand out from the crowd: ambition. But Im not simply referring to a determined drive to succeed — thats almost a commonplace among young writers. It was clear that Martín aspired to create a poetic voice that did more than represent his personal consciousness. Even then, he envisioned his words speaking for his people. At the outset, his people might have referred to those of his Puerto Rican heritage; or that of diverse immigrant families struggling to make their way in the US; or, enlarging its scope, any individual who felt marginalized by society, anguished by prejudice; or simply those painfully aware that their stories and dreams were left out of the greater American narrative. Today, after more than 20 books as a poet, essayist, editor and translator, its clear that Martíns conception of his people includes any agile mind on the other end of his sentences willing to engage with this fiery imagination.

It would exhaust my entire space to list all the honors showered upon this poet (the Academy of American Poets Fellowship, the Shelley Memorial Award, the American Book Award, the 2018 Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize for a lifetimes achievement, and more), but I will tell you the two I am most impressed with.  The first is the palpable eruption of energy in an auditorium any time Martín performs (and his readings are indeed bardic performances); the experience of a poets language being so thoroughly embraced by strangers is a trophy of extraordinary value. One of his best-known poems is Alabanza: In Praise of Local 100”; written after 9/11, it is dedicated to the 43 members of the Hotel and Restaurant Employees Union working at the Windows on the World restaurant, who lost their lives in the attack on the World Trade Center. They were a veritable United Nations of immigrants, some of whom were undocumented, invisible in life and more so in death. If you havent heard Martín deliver that poem, Id suggest an immediate trip to YouTube. And that second great honor (one Martín himself prizes above all others): a framed letter on the poets wall from the membership of Local 100 who felt their lives, their voices, found safe harbor inside the poets verse. What praise could matter more. Hes offered us here a new poem that will appear in his forthcoming collection, Floaters (W. W. Norton & Co.), arriving in January — a love poem to his wife Lauren (also a fine poet and teacher) and a tribute to the revolutionary act that is kindness in these troubled times.”          – Steven Ratiner

Red Letter Poem #22

“Can you imagine the relief?  In the early development of the human species — when a winter meant unbearable cold, scarcity of food, and a suffering that might well be interminable — a new knowledge eventually solidified: circular time. Communicated to the tribe through shamanic songs shared around a fire, or ceremonial paintings on the walls of caves, this understanding offered the promise that spring will indeed follow winter, that the animals will return, the plants grow, and life endure. Gary Snyder wrote: “Poets, as few others, must live close to the world that primitive men are in: the world, in its nakedness, which is fundamental for all of us — birth, love, death: the sheer fact of being alive.“

Deborah Melone, in her lovely chapbook The Wheel of the Year (Every Other Thursday Press), carries on that tradition by creating an 8-poem sequence to follow the solar cycle of a year. Based on the pre-Christian agricultural rites, her poems have a somewhat formal structure and diction; her half-rhymes and rhythmic cadences become almost incantatory — and we join her in celebrating the wheel of existence that carries us all. The poems bear the ‘pagan’ names for the summer and winter solstice; the fall and spring equinox; and the “cross-quarter days” which further divide the year. Deborah is also the author of Farmers’ Market, and her work has appeared in numerous literary magazines. For several years she chaired the Advisory Committee of The School Street Sessions, a venerable reading series focused on the history and literature of New England. Memory, tradition, the communal impulse: they guide much of this poet’s work and, hopefully, will invigorate ours. ”          – Steven Ratiner

Red Letter Poem #21

“So: who was yours? After months of strict isolation, who was the first outsider you permitted across your doorstep? Lifelong friend in need? Beloved grandchild? Repairman responding to some emergency? For Lilia Cuervo — retired minister, scholar, poet —  the necessity was to restore a more perfect cleanliness to her home, not to mention some precious peace of mind. But as her poem makes clear, our parents are always able to cross our psychic threshold and no distance, no order of quarantine will ever stop them.

Lilia’s poem is a pantoum, a Malaysian verse form dating from the 15th century but admired worldwide for its formal complexity. A series of interwoven quatrains, the second and fourth lines of the first stanza become the first and third lines in the subsequent one, and so on. The challenge, especially for the contemporary writer, is how to keep the poem from feeling stagnant despite the formal straitjacket — and Lilia does this masterfully by inserting her native Spanish and improvising on the refrains. The strategy seems fitting as the speaker’s mind struggles to maintain freedom even amid memory’s old restrictions. Of course, her whole life involved such determined effort:when she was young, she assisted her mother who worked as a nurse to the poorest of the poor in their Colombian homeland; then, defying expectations, Lilia became a respected demographer and traveled to the U.S. as a visiting professor; and eventually she became the first Latin American woman to be ordained a Unitarian Universalist minister. And yet, even for the most accomplished individuals, can any escape the force of those parental voices we carry inside? Perhaps a poem can help.  So: whose inner voice are you hearing now?”          – Steven Ratiner

Red Letter Poem #20

Celebration?!” wrote a friend, incredulous after reading my intro to last week’s Red Letter. “Have you been paying attention — these days, what’s to celebrate?” I think he misunderstood me, perhaps imagining something on the order of fireworks, birthday sparklers.  But a poet like Con Squires provides the ideal response, again and again throughout his poetry: memory, dogs, New Orleans jazz, a friend’s voice, Atlantic waters lapping below his home, second chances — and, oh yes, the sight of a child, any child, for whom nearly every minute of each ordinary day is charged with awe, surprise, fear, relief, unanticipated pleasure. Deep attention — a poet’s stock in trade — equals, in my mind, celebration.

Case in point: following a divorce, and at a time when his life felt in disarray, Con met his future wife — the partner with whom he still shares his days. Later, being introduced to her brother and sister-in-law, he remembers the couple seated on their couch, each with one of their twin babies held in the crook of an arm, a symmetrical tableau, feeding them from bottles. Con goes home and puts pencil to paper: celebration. I find such simple beauties throughout this poet’s work, in collections like Dancing with the Switchman and Ifka’s Castle, not to mention his novel about ancient China, The First Emperor. Years pass; the babies grow; the poem remains evergreen. The biographical note he sent me ended with this sentence: “Con Squires is 84 and getting younger by the minute.”  Quod erat demonstrandum.”        – Steven Ratiner

Red Letter Poem #19

“Elegy. Acknowledgement of grief.  Awareness of the void we feel in even the most beautiful of summer days.  Well over six hundred thousand families around the world — 150,000 in our country alone — will forever hear that word, Corona, and feel every nerve in the body plucked like a bass string, reverberating deep.  But elegy is one face of a two-sided coin, and the obverse is celebration — knowledge of how a certain face, a familiar voice made our day brim with abiding joy.  We each carry our share of unvoiced elegies, for losses great and small; and we must also find in our awareness the possible celebration every new day presents, simply to maintain our humanity.  Often a poet’s work assists us in both.

I think of Jo Pitkin as an Arlingtonian — even though, after fifteen years, she traded the waters of Spy Pond for the majestic Hudson River in upstate New York.  What I remember best were her tireless labors on the yearly Heart of the Arts Festival, back when the Arlington Center for the Arts was young, helping our town to enjoy the work of painters, dancers, musicians, craftspeople and, yes, poets.  Jo’s poems have a painter’s eye and a musician’s sense of rhythmic invention.  She is the author of four full-length poetry collections including Commonplace Invasions where today’s poem first appeared.  “Luna Moths” is sort of a pre-elegy when the prospect of her father’s loss first entered her consciousness.  But in my reading, it’s a tribute to our sense of relationship — to the people we most care about and the places that summon our deepest attention.  In pronouncing her quiet words, in imagining the brief beauty of the luna moth, we too might feel the complexity of our moment: its somber joy, its pained exultation.”      – Steven Ratiner

Red Letter Poem #18

“The old expression, it’s not a sprint, it’s a marathon, has taken on rather unnerving new significance in the age of Covid. Perhaps it’s finally dawned on us all that surviving this now multi-faceted crisis will be a long and grueling ordeal. Patience, endurance, faith in one’s inner compass: these are qualities we can emulate from long-distance runners. And poets.

Susan Lloyd McGarry has, for many decades, fashioned a life that combines personal creativity with civic engagement. She’s edited or co-edited literary magazines, academic journals like the Harvard Divinity Bulletin, and numerous essay collections such as the recent Ecologies of Human Flourishing. She’s operated out of a belief that clear vision and empowered language are not just intellectual concerns but matters of human survival. That’s what reminded me of one of her older poems, “The world speaks…”.  In granting permission to share it as a Red Letter, she asked that I call attention to that time frame so no one would read the word “chemo” and mistakenly think she was running that dire race again. But reading the poem now, my hope is that we are all reminded of the many and diverse challenges being faced by people all around us, often completely invisible to our gaze. We would do well to offer — and accept — a little encouragement as these long days unscroll.”              – Steven Ratiner

Red Letter Poem #17

“John Pijewski’s poems are terrible. And shockingly honest. And, I should quickly add, often devastatingly beautiful. They are colored by a sad truth of our world: pain begets pain. During the Second World War, John’s father was forced into a Nazi labor camp whose brutal conditions damaged him irreparably. Years later, safe, and making a new life in the United States, the father visited that same brutality upon his family. In John’s first book, Dinner With Uncle Jozef (Wesleyan University Press) – and now in Collected Father, a new manuscript he’s spent decades compiling – he has delved into that dangerous territory: how the nightmare of one generation shadows the ones that follow. More importantly, the writing explores a central question that’s much with us today: with what thoughts and actions can we attempt to break that sorrowful chain?

Fortunately, the darker poems are punctuated by unexpected moments of light, the simple beauties we too often overlook. In “Birds Before Dawn”, by saluting their tireless avian labor, John is able to recognize one of the few qualities he admired in his father: his unshakable work ethic. A similar perseverance marks Collected Father, an unscrolling of heart-wrenching song – but song nonetheless. In the challenging times we face today, perhaps such imaginative work is required of all of us.”        – Steven Ratiner

Red Letter Poem #16

Community. It’s a popular buzzword these days, extending even into those ethereal online neighborhoods where only pixels congregate. One curmudgeonly friend scoffs: “If they can’t stop by when you’re sick to bring soup, they’re not part of your community.” Soup notwithstanding, Bonnie Bishop’s poems are invigorated by new dimensions of the communal experience; over the last decade, she and her husband spent part of each year in New Orleans, exploring dimensions of the city that reach far beyond the tourist haunts. Her poems embrace – and are imbued with – the spirit of this place and its people. I was lucky to get a sneak-peek at her forthcoming chapbook River Jazz (Every Other Thursday Press) which is brimming with moments of how, again and again, she felt welcomed into neighborhoods and situations as diverse as the city itself: breakfast cafes, river wharfs, churches, parks, bayou waters – and, of course, the countless jazz clubs throughout the French Quarter, where the very lifeblood of a city is transformed into sound.

A poet, educator, and community organizer, she’s taught poetry and English for over three decades, from the elementary level up through college. Her first book, Local Habitation, came out in 2009, also through Every Other Thursday Press; and Finishing Line Press published her chapbook, O Crocodile in 2013. Bonnie’s writing reminds us that the strength of community – like that of history itself – is only preserved when no one is excluded.”    – Steven Ratiner

Red Letter Poem #15

“Curious, in this time of pandemic, which items have been much-prized and in short supply: toilet paper, baking flour – and fireworks! And not just today, as we prepare to mark the Glorious Fourth (tempered by thoughts of the mass protests across the country that continue to celebrate, in their own way, the core principles of our democracy); but for some time now, fireworks stands in New Hampshire (where such explosives are legal) have seen long lines and parking lots crowded with out-of-state license plates. Perhaps it’s that amalgam of beauty and destruction which feels strangely compelling, especially in these wounded times.
The gentleness of Gayle Roby’s poetic voice is fortified by its careful modulation and the visual clarity she brings to bear. Born amid fields of corn and soybean in Decatur, Illinois, she entered the Peace Corps after college, and her time in India changed her perspective on her place in the world, on each individual’s need to make a contribution. She’s made Arlington her home for four decades and, after retiring as an English teacher, her time is filled with writing, gardening, and vigils for peace. Her poems have appeared in a number of literary journals including The Iowa Review, The Ohio Review, Prairie Schooner, and Ibbetson Street where “Thunder Moon” first appeared. It’s part of a cycle of 13 poems, each titled with the Native American designation for that month’s full moon.”
 – Steven Ratiner

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.”  – 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 tenth 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.”  – Steven Ratiner

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.”   – Steven Ratiner

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 which 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?”   – Steven Ratiner

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” (”   – Steven Ratiner

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.”   – Steven Ratiner

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, 2017-19.”   – Steven Ratiner

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.”   – Steven Ratiner

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. ” – Steven Ratiner

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.” -Steven Ratiner

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 History of Hurricanes 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.” -Steven Ratiner

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.” – Steven Ratiner

Red Letter Poem #2

“Back in the ’60’s, 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 re-shaped 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.” – 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.” – Steven Ratiner