Friday, February 11, 2022

Red Letter Poem #97

 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 #97



I’ve received this idea through the most circuitous of means: from the philosophy of Schopenhauer, filtered through the composer Wagner (more specifically, his opera Tristan and Isolde), then interpreted and staged by The Lyric Opera of Chicago, and finally embedded (permanently, it seems) in the memory of my dear friend Michael who speaks often of how that performance, back in 2009, solidified his thinking about longing and love.  He was swayed by an idea crystalized at the heart of the piece that regarded longing as love’s truest embodiment – which, according to the philosopher’s way of thinking, will always be more satisfying and intense than when the dreamed-of experience is realized.  Sitting in that darkened theater, thrilled by the opera’s unresolved opening chords, Michael began to appreciate anew how nostalgia and distance operated within his own life.  Of course, today I wonder how the majority of soon-to-be holiday celebrants, plotting their perfect romantic evenings, would feel about this idea?  Or, for that matter, couples committed to long marriages? 


And where would poet Scott Ruescher come down within this debate?  Or, if not Scott exactly, then the unidentified speaker in his recent poem, “Traffic Jam”, making its debut here as an atmospheric valentine-Red Letter installment?  He is musing about love, aloneness, and the sort of long-distance desire that Tristan might easily embrace.  I like the poem’s long Whitmanesque lines and eye for street-level detail creating scenes that feel immediate and genuine.  In the course of three 8-line stanzas, this cinematic poem takes us, via long tracking shots: from the speaker’s own perspective on love and isolation; then drifting above the streaming traffic (each car containing its own versions of joy or sadness); down toward the hem of the Charles River where geese still huddle together in the cold; and finally, out toward that lonely scholar working late, far away and quite separate from the little dramas taking place below his library window.  The poem led me to consider what each of us desire most within this world – and how near or far it might be from our reach.


When asked about his background, Scott offered me this story (which I now convey to you) of a somewhat glamorous start to his writing career: a Teaching/Writing Fellowship to the prestigious Iowa Writers Workshop; publication in prominent magazines; a finalist in the sort of manuscript competitions that can define a poet’s career.  But the glorious success did not materialize, and he found himself working at Harvard where, for 18 years, he administered the Arts in Education program at the Graduate School of Education.  He also taught in the Boston University Prison Education Program during that same period – another way of trying to stay true to this art form, even if the muse remained aloof.  And though he continued to write, he felt that deep inspiration had somehow fled from him, his passion rebuffed – until, decades later, he went on a month-long writing retreat at the Vermont Studio Center, and that deep impulse slowly returned.  Even better, he found himself liberated from his older, more derivative style and free to make poems that felt like his truer self.  Since then, his career has once again clicked back into gear: poems from his first full-length collection, Waiting for the Light to Change (Prolific Press), won the Write Prize from Able Muse – reaching publication when the poet was in his early sixties.  He also received (two years in a row, I should add!) the Erika Mumford Award from the New England Poetry Club.  So, as we approach the celebration of another Valentine’s Day, I make this wish for our Red Letter community: that you use this occasion to give thought to who and what you truly love in this life.  And if longing for the ideal feeds your soul, may that only intensify.  But if it’s simply a matter of distance that keeps you from what you desire most, may you find a way to surmount the obstacles and cross that bridge.




Traffic Jam



From the hollow iron railing of a riveted green bridge

High above the river, I could see Mars, red and mad

In the clear black sky in the east above the harbor,

Attempting to appear—on Valentine’s night, without my lover here—

Equidistant to the pregnant white full moon in the sky

(To whom he was about as near as he’s ever allowed in a year)

And the blinking red light on the roof of the university library

That warns planes and cherubs not to enter the atmosphere.


And I could see cars, on both banks of the black river,

With moonlike headlights and Mars-like taillights headed to and fro

The candlelit city, the celestial occupants fresh from thawing out

The ice-white sheets of their beds, dressed, I guessed,

In the red skirts and trousers, the white shirts and pullovers,

That are known to yoke the astral, complementary powers—

Earthbound wooers who’d snared their share of starlight from the sky

Now intent on romantic public restaurant dinners.


Below me I saw a snow-white flock of hand-fed geese

For whom the cold had not quite sealed the river shut just yet

Floating upon a still black pool near the lace collar of white ice

Around a gray granite pylon—and through a window a scholar,

Oblivious, I imagined, to everything but the love story

He was reading in a book, looking, in a library nook, with lonely eyes

On the comings and goings of woman and man, too hurt, too prone

To lamentation, and too shy to participate in the ultimate traffic jam.



                                                     –– Scott Ruescher





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 (, and the Boston Area Small Press and Poetry Scene (  If you would like to receive these poems every Friday in your own in-box – or would like to write in with comments or submissions – send correspondence to:


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