Tuesday, January 18, 2022

Millrat Poems By Michael Casey

 

Millrat

Poems By Michael Casey

25th Anniversary Edition

Loom Press

Amesbury, Massachusetts www.loompress.com

ISBN: 978-1-7351689-7-5

Review by Dennis Daly

Once upon a time multileveled manufacturing plants with attached smokestacks, called mills or factories grew like mushrooms around waterfalls and river bends. They attracted the able-bodied, both men and women, who sought financial independence and dignity. What these seekers found instead in this soot-filled urban culture was a rite of passage for some, a technological trap for others, and a graveyard or graveyard road for the unlucky remainder.

Humor often got one through the interminable repetitions and the real dangers of modern machinery and toxic chemicals. Michael Casey knows this and nails the details of mill culture in his classic collection of poetic narratives entitled Millrat, which is being republished this year as a 25th Anniversary Edition by Loom Press.

Casey sets the mid-twentieth century atmosphere perfectly by opening with driving while under the influence, a poetic vignette on drunk driving, a common experience, regrettably, for many teenagers of that era. His first-person protagonist is a know-it-all snot-nosed kid, cruising with his friends in what is probably his first car. The car slams into a blinking yellow light, as cars do when driven by snot-nosed kids, who believe they have the grownup world figured out. Casey concludes the poem with just the right amount of irony and gritty dialect,

I get out and hide behind but

by this time I can see the flashing lights

and it was really something

the police cruiser goes around the rotary

takes the exit I took

and comes right to me

I was alone all my friends split

and they get me for leaving the scene

driving under the influence

and being a minor in possession

all kinds of stuff right?

I asked the guy found me

How’d you catch me?

He said he followed the leaking radiator

It leaked after the crash right?

fifty million dumb cops in the world

and this guy

has to be a genius

Throughout the collection Casey positions poems based on company posters intended to boost employee morale and promote work ethics. They effectively deliver their pop psychologies with unintended wry humor. Some are just laugh-out-loud funny. The first of these the poet titles “Positivity Poster.” Here is the heart of the piece,

…just some old fashioned ideas

avoiding waste

pride of craftsmen

work as a team

the worth of experience

all these add to the unequalled quality

at wholesale value

that make our patrons love us so

the new old fashioned

textile business

everyone in the mill

the dye house anyway

reading this stuff

would think of only one word bullshit

you can guess

what wall these posters were on

and without any effort at all

you memorize them

and with some creativity and even art

you write crude phrases

and drawings on them

it was a lot like a team effort

Respect for authority did not jump out at one upon entering the mill culture, and veterans of this work force were even less likely to defer to the demands of a foreman or manager type, at least immediately. Everyone, except new hires, had figured out their place in this society and defined it by the time it took for them to comply with any despotic order conveyed from above. Casey explains this phenomenon in his poem foreman,

Walter walked over to Alfred

and asked him

to mix up the soap

when he got the chance

and Alfred said

sure he’d do it

when he got the chance

but he never did it

so Walter walked over to Ronald

Ron why don’t ya make the soap up

when ya through what ya doin

and Ronald said

fuck you Walter

of course

Ronald went and mixed up the soap

when he got a chance

Between the mill and the neighborhoods that surrounded the mill no clear demarcation existed. Both of these rough-and-tumble inner-city zones fed into each other. Some factories doing government work had hard security to separate the two, like the General Electric in Lynn. Others, like Casey’s mill in Lowell allowed a freer interchange. The poet details a result of this overlap in his poem, the night the fight with Bill happened. The piece opens this way,

that same night

after they beat up Bill

they came back

don’t you know

shithead was mad

because Ray broke up the fight

and so he brought back his gang

a bunch of them

clean out the mill

that’s what he said

I’m gonna clean out the mill

the second shift upstairs

and the dye house

hears all the noise

ands runs down and runs up

and those assholes left fast enough

through the doors

out the windows

Forklifts are not complicated to drive. In any case most company bigwigs assume that their employees have certain basic skills and need not be bothered by training. Of course, postulations like this are terribly wrong and monumental accidents follow. In his poem, forklift driver, Casey laments the havoc that one driver, who guns his vehicle into the elevator door, can do. He says,

do you know how important

that fuckin elevator is?

Gus is up there yelling all over

for yarn and this is holdin up the knitting room

the napping room and the whole place

gonna be backed up now

they tell me Gus is pissin and moanin up there

like he was pissin razor blades

Very few poets chronicle this essential part of our culture’s history, which many of us, or our parents, or our grandparents participated in. Poets who choose mill/factory life and that type of work experience as their subjects are very few indeed. Casey’s wry verse compositions delving into this blue-collar bastion enlighten and exhilarate. His use of local language is spot on. What Casey does, he does very, very well.

Saturday, January 15, 2022

Myrna Stone, The Resurrectionist’s Diary. (Dos Madres Press)



Myrna Stone, The Resurrectionist’s Diary. Dos Madres Press. 2021. 86pp. $17.00


REVIEW BY RUTH HOBERMAN


A coffin quilt decks the cover of Myrna Stone’s most recent book, The Resurrectionist’s Diary. Such quilts, often handed down from generation to generation, depict coffins, some filled and labeled, others awaiting the still-living and not-yet-born. It’s an apt image for a book that digs up the dead in various ways, most obviously by giving voice to forgotten women from previous centuries.

Stone, the author of five previous books, writes formal poems with a weirdly archaic yet vivid immediacy. The first section in particular struck me as uncanny in its power. Six poems, titled by their dates, are spoken by the wife of a “resurrectionist”: someone who digs up corpses and sells them, generally to medical professionals. Amid occasionally grotesque details, the speaker maintains her practical, thoughtful, observant tone:

Yesterday, half past the darkling hour, we took

from pauper’s corner in the South End Burying Ground

a woman’s freshly interred body, her face a book



writ large in pain, and her two infant daughters

laid upon her breast, their torsos joined at the sternum,

each malformed and monstrous.

I haven’t seen the word “darkling” since I last read Thomas Hardy and Matthew Arnold, but how right it sounds here, in a poem headed “Wednesday, 17 March, 1830.” The speaker has two boys and a baby on the way. Her life is defined by their shared labor and love, the meagre food, the weather. “Our work/is not without risk,” she notes, “though we take only the dead, never/their goods, never their souls.”

She and her husband do what they must to get by in nineteenth-century Boston. The climax is the death of their horse Belle: “What sour/Fate dictates such privation?” Unlike the humans, who seem troubled by the questionable morality of their work, “Belle was good—/a sweetness, a clearness—and come what may/we cannot replace her.” The reader is left wondering how they will live, though in the short term their needs are met: “John tells me the ice/is fast and the weather holds, so her flesh will keep./Therefore, even in death she will nourish us.” That final line says everything about the speaker’s cold, dark, hungry world.

The wife’s monologs are written in rhyming tercets that evoke Dante’s terza rima, and indeed this first section resembles a journey through the land of the dead. Enjambment and off-rhymes keep the formal constraints unobtrusive, the speaker’s voice spontaneous, genuine.

Stone herself, of course, is also a resurrectionist. The brief section that follows, “Each of the Dead,” unearths (among others) the wives of Raphael and Edgar Alan Poe, whose stories are told in quatrains; the third section, “Excerpts from Catharina Vermeer’s Daybook,” gives voice to the artist’s wife through a series of twenty-one sonnets. The book as a whole asks to think about the relevance of past to present: what’s worth digging up? Stone’s use of traditional forms—versions of terza rima, ballad, and Shakespearean sonnet—as well as her occasionally archaic diction lend dignity and distance to her subjects. There’s no sign here of the “American sonnet”—exemplified by Wanda Coleman and Terence Hayes—with its irreverent talking back to the form’s history and constraints. I think of Coleman’s “American Sonnet: 91,” for example, in which the sonnet is an angel, her foot lamed by the slamming of heaven’s gate, a “mystic gone ballistic” with “no choice but/to learn to boogaloo.”

No one boogaloos in these poems. But there is a lavish delight in words—their sounds, connotations, the way they emerge from the past with all their redolence intact. Stone’s poems about painters’ wives celebrate the “perpetual now of the painting’s moment” in which Raphael’s Margherita “breathes still, her spirit abrim/with familial affection, soulful and potent.”

Stone’s words are equally “abrim,” as when Catharina Vermeer’s heart is stirred “within the cincture/of my linen stays.” In telling of her son’s death, Catharina says, in the sonnet’s final couplet, “Nightly I pray that his soul may forever abide/with our lost others, and in their grace, happify.”

Dated 1674 to 1675, Catharina’s entries capture moments within a narrative: Vermeer paints; her brother behaves badly; a child dies; they struggle to pay debts; and then, disastrously, Vermeer dies. The sequence depicts the family’s daily life convincingly. At its conclusion, Catharina mourns her dead husband, “our lives as drear/without him as the graven light that suffuses/the leaded panes of glass inside my chamber/window.” She, too, is a resurrectionist as she remembers, in this section’s final lines:

his fingers tinctured in tints of weld and azurite,

his scent ripe and unsweetened, his head




lolling against my shoulder as he erupts

in laughter only the rush of love can disrupt.

The book’s final section, “Across the Void,” also consists of sonnets: five poems thinking back on the speaker’s past. That “void” we’re asked to bridge resonates in many ways: the gap between past and present, between dead and living, between self and other. Steeped in the antiquarian feel of previous sections, I found myself reading these final poems as if they were spoken by some long-dead woman shaped by another place and time. Only to find myself in the present, listening to a speaker reminisce about her mother, her brother, her childhood molester. Perhaps that is the point: our contemporaries are, in their way, as distant from us as these historical figures—equally bound by constraints we know little about, and equally deserving of our attention and generosity. “Mercy,” the speaker tells her ne’er-do-well brother, “has no expiration.”

Friday, January 14, 2022

Red Letter Poem #93

 The Red Letters

 

 

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.

 

                                                                                                          – Steven Ratiner

 

 

 

Red Letter Poem #93

 

 

 

Freud thought of art-making as a raid on the unconscious – a way to drag parts of our dreamlike (or nightmarish) processes out into the sunlight where they might be, if not fully understood, then at least experienced and, when necessary, defused.  And though I also find beauty in simple descriptives, and strength in the straight-forward voice, some of my favorite poems resemble waking dreams replete with images that seize the attention and meanings that are tantalizing but veiled.  And so it is with Bruce Bond’s new piece “Redactions. . .” from his forthcoming collection Invention of the Wilderness (Louisiana University Press.)  As in a dream, everything at first glance seems strangely connected and navigable – but then the questions erupt and certain phrases detonate (with shock as well as delight), and we keep moving toward what is just out of reach.

 

When I saw the poem’s title, I wondered whether this referred to the last presidential debates (well, scrums would be a better word) where, curiously, the health of our environment was rarely mentioned.  Or is the ‘last debate’ the ongoing conflict between those who fear irrevocable changes to our global climate and those who disbelieve the dire predictions of scientists?  Is the ‘blindness’ mentioned in the opening lines literal or metaphoric?  An affliction or a self-inflicted wound?  (Perhaps, like me, you heard an echo of your mother’s voice, warning you about running with scissors.)  Then come those gut-punch images (darkness falling “like a head into a basket”) and those disembodied voices littering the scene – and I begin to intuit the landscape through which I’m traveling.  The poem offers no easy answers because, frankly, there are none.  But perhaps, emerging from such a waking dream, I will feel inspired to ask better questions – of myself, of those who make decisions in my name.

 

Bruce is the author of (hold onto your hats, my fellow poets) thirty collections of poetry, including three new ones on the way; beside Invention…, we can look forward to Choreomania (Madhat Press), and Liberation of Dissonance (which received the Nicholas Schaffner Award for Literature in Music).  I was not surprised to learn that Bruce is a classical and jazz guitarist which, I assume, can’t help but strengthen both the musicality of his voice and the improvisational quality of his line.  He’s the Regents Emeritus Professor of English at the University of North Texas in Denton, and has received awards from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Texas Commission on the Arts.

 

 

Redactions from the Last Debate

 

 

When I was a child, one eye went blind

and then, in sympathy, the other.

 

Twins again with their own twin code.

Scissors, with your spectacles, tell me,

 

are they open or closed.  Are you no

less eyeless, the moment you are used. 

 

Was that you at my window, the chirp

of the screw that holds your blades together.

 

Was it God who said, let there be light,

and darkness fell like a head into a basket.

 

Like a floe in the arctic with a heap of cellular phones.

I fear we fear the wrong connections. 

 

The earth on the radio blows a plume

of smoke into the room, blackening the ceiling. 

 

The flies in the icecap long to be released.

What is any fly without the open air,

 

any blade of grass without the pasture.

When I swear that I am here, the field

 

there, wind everywhere among the shivers,

a slant of light through the window casts

 

a thousand tiny threads, a thousand hooks.

I see them, cut them, and the oceans rise.

 

 

     –– Bruce Bond

 

 

 

The Red Letters 3.0: A New Beginning (Perhaps)   

At the outset of the Covid pandemic, when fear was at its highest, the Red Letter Project was intended to remind us of community: that, even isolated in our homes, we could still face this challenge together.  As Arlington’s Poet Laureate, I began sending out a poem of comfort each Friday, featuring the fine talents from our town and its neighbors.  Because I enlisted the partnership of seven local arts and community organizations, distribution of the poems spread quickly – and, with subscribers sharing and re-posting the installments, soon we had readers, not only throughout the Commonwealth, but across the country.  And I delighted in the weekly e-mails I’d receive with praise for the poets; as one reader recently commented: “You give me the gift of a quiet, contemplative break—with something to take away and reflect on.”

 

Then our circumstance changed dramatically again: following the murder of George Floyd, the massive social and political unrest, and the national economic catastrophe, the distress of the pandemic was magnified.  Red Letter 2.0 announced that I would seek out as diverse a set of voices as I could find – from Massachusetts and beyond – so that their poems might inspire, challenge, deepen the conversation we were, by necessity, engaged in.

 

Now, with widespread vaccination, an economic rebound, and a shift in the political landscape, I intend to help this forum continue to evolve – Red Letter 3.0.  For the last 15 months, I’ve heard one question again and again: when will we get back our old lives?  It may pain us to admit it, but that is little more than a fantasy.  Our lives have been altered irrevocably – not only our understanding of how thoroughly interdependent we are, both locally and globally, but how fragile and utterly precious is all that we love.  Weren’t you bowled over recently by how good it felt just to hug a friend or family member?  Or to walk unmasked through a grocery, noticing all the faces?  So I think the question we must wrestle with is this: knowing what we know, how will we begin shaping our new life?  Will we quickly forget how grateful we felt that strangers put themselves at risk, every day, so that we might purchase milk and bread, ride the bus to work, or be cared for by a doctor or nurse?  Will we slip back into our old drowse and look away from the pain so many are forced to endure – in this, the wealthiest nation on the planet?  Will we stop noticing those simple beauties all around us?  The poet Mary Oliver said it plainly: “Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?”  I will continue to offer RLP readers the work of poets who are engaged in these questions, hoping their voices will fortify all of ours.

 

Two of our partner sites will continue re-posting each Red Letter weekly: the YourArlington news blog (https://www.yourarlington.com/easyblog/entry/28-poetry/3091-redletter-123121), and the Boston Area Small Press and Poetry Scene (http://dougholder.blogspot.com).  If you would like to receive these poems every Friday in your own in-box – or would like to write in with comments or submissions – send correspondence to: steven.arlingtonlaureate@gmail.com.

Wednesday, January 12, 2022

Somerville Poet Laureate Lloyd Schwartz put into a fortune cookie...

 



Somerville Poet Laureate Lloyd Schwartz, and The Somerville Times arts editor Doug Holder are some of the many poets included in Peter Payack's "The Edible Anthology of Poetry." This whimsical project, founded by Payack puts micro-poems from area poets into real fortune cookies and groups them into Chinese takeout boxes. These collector items can be purchased at the Grolier Poetry Book Shop in Harvard Square.


Payack wrote me, "This is the 7th edition of The Edible Anthology of Poetry. The first was in 1980. At that time The Boston Globe wrote, 'Peter Payack is the kid who crossed Popular Mechanics with the New Criticism and made the (fortune) cookie crumble into poems.'


Payack continued,


I had some people over last week and handed out 6 cookies to six people and was surprised to see how each person not only read the poem out loud but had an interpretation and they then started a discussion. The room unexpectedly turned into a literary salon! I then told them who the poets were and why I picked that particular poem. "



Some of the notable poets included are Martha Collins, Joyce Peseroff, Sam Cornish, DeWitt Henry, Ifeanyi Menkiti, Kathleen Spivack, Tracy K. Smith, Mark Pawlak, and many others...


After devouring some of the poems from your takeout box, watch out, you may hunger for more an hour later...

Tuesday, January 11, 2022

Raphael Matto: New Somerville resident brings poetry, art, animation, and special effects to Somerville

 

I was pleased to catch up with Raphael Matto, an accomplished,  multi-talented man, not to mention a new resident of the "Paris of New England."


You are new to Somerville. What brought you here? What are your impressions of our city?

Yes, new in September. I lived in Brookline during the Big Dig & Brady’s first win, so I thought I’d try this side of the Charles for round 2. I have family north of Boston in Portsmouth, east of Boston on Nantucket, south of Boston in Hartford, and west of Boston near Great Barrington—so I’ve plonked myself down in the middle. Also, an old friend who settled in Somerville invited me to visit some years ago; the cozy neighborhood vibe & off-kilter tree-lined streets stuck in my mind. I woke up one morning in San Diego & just thought out of the blue, “Boston, yeah, it has to be Boston.” So here I am—again—& I love it so far. Davis Sq is the perfect size for a bite or a night out, & the Somerville Community Path puts Walden Pond & the MA countryside in striking distance. It seems an ideal nexus—the sleepy end of a subway line w/quick access to a metropolis, & the start of a 20-mile bike ride to a glacial kettle pond & a refreshing swim—all without getting in a car.


You have an MFA from Vermont College, and I noticed your education was heavily into creative writing. You have done extensive work in film production -- working on such films as Avatar, and 30 Days of Night, as well as being in high tech. How did you get there, from there?


It’s a straight line—I taught myself desktop publishing and graphic design as a kid in high school to publish my own and my friends ’poems & short stories. I noticed how setting a poem on the page changed it—and became less interested in the spoken word and more interested in what computer software could do to enliven a poem for a reader. I remember being inspired by the gritty animated title sequence in the 1995 Morgan Freeman / Brad Pitt film Se7en—and created a series of video poems, mixing music, animated typography, photography, and video; I taught myself the 3D animation software Maya to accomplish more ambitious effects. Those videos were noticed by older college classmates who’d started working for Blue Sky Studios—the studio responsible for the Ice Age kids ’films. I landed a job as a Render Wrangler there—bottom of the barrel—but a dream for an English/Art major fresh out of college. On my first day, my manager dropped a tome from five feet up—I still remember it slamming onto my desk: O’Reilly Learning Perl. She grinned & said, “Sink or swim,” and left me there. Learning a programming language was the best thing that happened to me career-wise—it enabled me to take my interest in animation to the next level as an artist and eventually as an author of animation software. Recently, I’ve become interested in taking what I’ve learned in VFX production and automating the animation of synthetic poems vi AI/Machine Learning—so maybe it’s a full circle & not a straight line.


Can you describe a bit of your roles as an animator, and special effects person?

I usually explain CG film production like this: imagine someone is making a movie with puppets. First, someone has to design and draw the puppet on a piece of paper—that’s the Art department. Next, someone has to sculpt the puppet out of clay, based on the drawing—that’s the Modeling department. Next, someone has to cut up the puppet and add joints to its elbows, knees, fingers, etc, so it can move—that’s the Rigging department. The puppet needs to look real & so it ends up in the Materials department. A Materials Technical Director (that’s what I was for most of my career) adds color to the clay puppet, but also determines the physical properties of each of its parts. Is a part shiny like an eye or ring? Transparent like a fingernail? Translucent like an eyelid? Bumpy? Anisotropic? Oily? Velvety? Now imagine all those steps—Art, Modeling, Rigging, Materials—are happening to a Computer Generated puppet, not a real puppet. We repeat those steps for everything in a CG movie—buildings, forests, the ground, the sky, the sun—it requires keen observation. I remember going on a field trip to a junkyard and hauling back all kinds of rusted metal scraps for reference—for the film Robots. For the film Epic, it was the New York Botanical Garden, taking hundreds of photos of sunlight shining through leaves. There’s a lot of artistic guesswork based on visual reference, but it can get technical, too—for example, it’s handy to know the index of refraction for common elements like gold, brass, plastic, glass, diamond, water—and vital to understand geometry and algebra.

I noticed you published a poetry/prose book God & other Monsters. Can you tell us a bit about the content. Do you identify with a certain school of poetry?

Most of my books feature what I call speculative poetry. Sort of a mash-up of magic realism / surrealism / sci-fi. I like to mangle culturally embedded religious/scientific/political tropes to create alternative histories or realities. It’s a form of fantasy, I suppose, a way to escape—but I hope it gives the reader some perspective on our shared reality, too. Speculative poetry isn’t a common genre, but it does exist. There are a few dozen little-known journals out there specializing in it. Speculative fiction is much better represented—Kelly Link, Etgar Keret would be good examples of popular authors. I will say that I don’t write Confessional Poetry—a relatively new form of poetry that emerged in the 50s & 60s that is often mistaken as poetry itself these days. I encourage any poet or aspiring poet to research Confessional Poetry, realize it’s not the only kind of poetry a person can write, & challenge them to write something that is not Confessional Poetry.

Monday, January 10, 2022

My Pharisee : Essay by B. Lynne Zika

 



My Pharisee

Essay by B. Lynne Zika




I have uncovered a Pharisee within me. I suspect we all contain a bit of this rather archetypal character, but it was not a pleasant discovery, brought on when a neighbor of mine disappeared.

Years ago I began to find my trash can mysteriously transported down our steep hill to the county road where pickup occurs. It’s no small task—especially when the bin is full—to brake oneself on the downgrade and avoid being run over by soggy coffee grounds and moldy vegetable peelings. I could never catch the benevolent culprit in the act, however, so one day I wandered northward on a mission.

From the doorway of a dilapidated hodgepodge of a house, my benefactor confessed that yes, it was he who took my trash down for me each week. Such was my introduction to… I’ll call him Jim.

Jim. Toothless. Bald. Maintains constant conversation with himself. That is not, by the way, necessarily a sign of mental illness. We all engage in internal dialogue, though usually not audible to others. However, in a 2017 laboratory experiment, Paloma Mari-Beffa and Alexander Kirkham of Bangor University demonstrated that talking to ourselves out loud actually improves our control over a task.1 So perhaps Jim is simply coaching himself successfully through whatever activity lies at hand.

Sometime before the New Year, Jim stopped coming around, stopped pulling my trash downhill, and didn’t answer my texts. After a few days, I went to investigate. It’s common etiquette in rural areas. You lend a hand to and keep an eye out for your neighbors. There was no sign of Jim, no sign of activity, and no car in the driveway. On impulse I checked his mailbox. Utility bills stamped with warnings. Visions of various disasters shot through my mind. His grey Ford at the bottom of a nearby ravine. His wife’s current boyfriend cleaning an axe. Jim does not lead a dull life.

Fortunately, I soon received a text from him. He’d checked himself into rehab. A cause for celebration, I wrote back, and a helluva way to start a new year.

I then received a text from a close family member of mine. Had Jim ever surfaced? I texted back a few details and mentioned that Jim had seemed appreciative of my small note of praise. My FM wrote back: “Well done on your part. The encouragement helps.”

That is the moment I came face to face with my Pharisee.

My upbringing included an elegant mother who overcame her humble origins. She tended to disapprove if I had friends who were not upper crust. Forty years later, a friend of my daughter commented on our family’s New Year’s tradition: “You guys don’t just break open a six-pack and a bag of pretzels. You have champagne, Brie, and cranberry tarts, for God’s sake.” Try as we might, apples do not fall so far from the tree.

My internal Pharisee does not refer to Jim as “my friend.” S/He prefers charity to friendship.

A psychoanalytically trained friend of mine says that if a gift does not take something away from the giver, it is not a true gift.

As a child, I accompanied my paternal grandfather delivering a Christmas basket to an employee of his. As we were leaving, the man called out, “Thank you, Mr. Lybrand, sir.” I hated every moment of it.

I tried once to explain that to another friend of mine whose church regularly assembled Christmas baskets for “the needy.” I only succeeded in offending her.

My grandfather, at least to my then-young eyes, was a Pharisee sharing something which was a drop in the bucket of his own wealth. He was the gracious giver. Noblesse oblige. He did not call that man a friend.

Can I rout the Pharisee from my own breast? Do I have the breadth of spirit to call Jim my friend?


1https://theconversation.com/is-talking-to-yourself-a-sign-of-mental-illness-an-expert-delivers-her-verdict-77058


Thursday, January 06, 2022

Red Letter Poem #92

 The Red Letters

 

 

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.

 

                                                                                                          – Steven Ratiner

 

 

 

Red Letter Poem #92

 

 

It is a strategy poets have employed since antiquity: to proceed by contraries – and Thomas DeFreitas uses it to bountiful effect in this poem from his first full-length collection, Winter in Halifax (Kelsay Books.)  The poem is an eloquent prayer for the most pedestrian of things (the Harvard Square hangouts of his youth.)  It uses the formal rhymes and entanglements of the villanelle while ushering us chockablock past the odd shops and cold facts of teenaged street life.  It clearly portrays a landscape where a part of the speaker’s heart is anchored – and yet the history and personality of that devotional voice is veiled behind his catalog of landmarks. . .except in those moments when the emotional tenor of the images rises into a higher register (ah, the “ink-sleeves” on those “ghost-white arms”!)  And then we may feel, for a moment, a curious kinship: we were all young once; the world was baffling and new; and we cared so passionately for this fragile existence that sometimes we too wished for some intercession, some clarifying force that would offer its blessing.

 

There is another category under which Thomas’ poem sits in my mind: it hints at the ubi sunt motif.  Derived from the Latin phrase: Ubi sunt qui ante nos fuerunt? ("Where are those who were before us?"), it represents a kind of nostalgia for people and places that proved to be (what a shock to our young psyches!) just as susceptible the forces of ephemerality as we.  A generation before Thomas inhabited these very streets, I remember hitchhiking up to Cambridge in the summer of 1969, the first stop on a cross-country odyssey.  Harvard Square was famous then for its artistic and intellectual scenes, and boasted an array of unique businesses.  But this holiday, when I made my annual shopping trip to the Square, I was stunned to see how its gradual transformation had been dramatically accelerated by the economic effects of the pandemic.  There were several empty storefronts – an unimaginable occurrence, here in one of the most valuable commercial districts in the Northeast!  Parts of whole blocks were being gutted for restoration, and the quaint shops that had been fixtures for decades will be replaced by luxury chains.  Even in this college town, the dozen or more bookshops I used to browse endlessly in my younger days had been reduced to a precious few.  I experienced a ghostly sense of history being hollowed out and erased – and I stopped to imagine how downtowns all across our nation might be undergoing similar changes.

May the “Mother of winter roses” and that “spare-change Madonna” take pity on us all, and reassure that the future will not think too harshly of us and the choices we’ve made when, in the coming years, some undergrad poet writes his or her own ubi sunt?     

 

 

 

Our Lady of Cambridge

 

 

Virgin of Harvard Square, gendering grace,watch over Holyoke Center, the Garage,Chameleon Tattoos, and the nose-ring place.Pray for the pink-haired waif of mournful faceand ink-sleeves on both ghost-white arms. Take charge(Mother of winter roses blushing with grace)of Raven, Grendel’s, Peet’s; and, just in case,tend to hungry undergrads at the largePalace of Pizza near the nose-ring place.Keep the Yard safe and sage. Make it your space.Send down, MarĂ­a, pardon from the stars;expand this city’s heart! Lady of grace,shelter the sleepers crouched in church doorwaysagainst the cold; protect the crowds in bars,the punks in the Pit and at the nose-ring place.Gather us all in your clement embrace;hasten with healing for our wounds and scars.Bless Newbury Comics, bless the nose-ring place,spare-change Madonna, prodigal of grace!

 

 

     –– Thomas DeFreitas

 

 

 

The Red Letters 3.0: A New Beginning (Perhaps)   

At the outset of the Covid pandemic, when fear was at its highest, the Red Letter Project was intended to remind us of community: that, even isolated in our homes, we could still face this challenge together.  As Arlington’s Poet Laureate, I began sending out a poem of comfort each Friday, featuring the fine talents from our town and its neighbors.  Because I enlisted the partnership of seven local arts and community organizations, distribution of the poems spread quickly – and, with subscribers sharing and re-posting the installments, soon we had readers, not only throughout the Commonwealth, but across the country.  And I delighted in the weekly e-mails I’d receive with praise for the poets; as one reader recently commented: “You give me the gift of a quiet, contemplative break—with something to take away and reflect on.”

 

Then our circumstance changed dramatically again: following the murder of George Floyd, the massive social and political unrest, and the national economic catastrophe, the distress of the pandemic was magnified.  Red Letter 2.0 announced that I would seek out as diverse a set of voices as I could find – from Massachusetts and beyond – so that their poems might inspire, challenge, deepen the conversation we were, by necessity, engaged in.

 

Now, with widespread vaccination, an economic rebound, and a shift in the political landscape, I intend to help this forum continue to evolve – Red Letter 3.0.  For the last 15 months, I’ve heard one question again and again: when will we get back our old lives?  It may pain us to admit it, but that is little more than a fantasy.  Our lives have been altered irrevocably – not only our understanding of how thoroughly interdependent we are, both locally and globally, but how fragile and utterly precious is all that we love.  Weren’t you bowled over recently by how good it felt just to hug a friend or family member?  Or to walk unmasked through a grocery, noticing all the faces?  So I think the question we must wrestle with is this: knowing what we know, how will we begin shaping our new life?  Will we quickly forget how grateful we felt that strangers put themselves at risk, every day, so that we might purchase milk and bread, ride the bus to work, or be cared for by a doctor or nurse?  Will we slip back into our old drowse and look away from the pain so many are forced to endure – in this, the wealthiest nation on the planet?  Will we stop noticing those simple beauties all around us?  The poet Mary Oliver said it plainly: “Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?”  I will continue to offer RLP readers the work of poets who are engaged in these questions, hoping their voices will fortify all of ours.

 

Two of our partner sites will continue re-posting each Red Letter weekly: the YourArlington news blog (https://www.yourarlington.com/easyblog/entry/28-poetry/3091-redletter-123121), and the Boston Area Small Press and Poetry Scene (http://dougholder.blogspot.com).  If you would like to receive these poems every Friday in your own in-box – or would like to write in with comments or submissions – send correspondence to: steven.arlingtonlaureate@gmail.com.