Friday, February 18, 2022

The Red Letter Poem 98

 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 #98



If it can be said there is any upside to the Covid pandemic (and that’s something I do with great trepidation when referring to an illness that has affected a half billion individuals worldwide, and extinguished nearly 6 million lives), it may be the sort of shift in global consciousness which, sad to say, only disaster seems to be able to quickly accomplish.  There’s been something of a broad awakening concerning human mortality and the utter fragility of all we love.  And that extends beyond the domain of family and friends, and touches on ideas of community, the environment, planetary survival.  I’m not suggesting it’s universal – and I am in no way minimizing the countervailing forces of power politics and fear.  But experiencing the possibility that we might not see our children or grandchildren grow up (or, during some of the darker days we’ve been through, that we’d enjoy even another spring), changes something fundamentally.  That knowledge projects a rather harsh spotlight onto how we’re passing through our days and what is it we truly value.  I don’t believe I’m being overly optimistic to suggest that, in our new pandemic reality, we might be entertaining more moments of – at least awareness, if not outright compassion – for all those anonymous fellow-travelers whose paths we cross in the supermarket or on the bus heading home, and who are staring back at us with curiosity from above their masks.


Charles Coe is a poet, educator, exuberant baritone, avid blogger, big-hearted individual.  In today’s Red Letter, I’m offering one of his poems that predates the pandemic (it’s included in his collection All Sins Forgiven: Poems For My Parents from Leapfrog Press) yet seems to be reflecting what I’ve come to think of as Covid-mind.  It takes one of those simple perceptions of the other and makes of it a small portrait of humankind on this troubled blue-green planet.  This is the transformative capability of a well-crafted poem: it can engage within us that cinematic effect of the ‘slow zoom’ – and not simply visually but within the depths of our emotional landscapes.  Its approach can either focus in on the fine-detailed microcosm, until even the familiar becomes quietly astonishing; or, as in the case of Charles’ poem, it can begin with the small specific detail and then broaden out to gradually assume something of a god-like perspective.  And from that great distance, I think our hearts feel like they must stretch their boundaries in order to encompass that deep feeling for (how could I not have seen it earlier?!) the rich complexity each individual life contains.  “For small creatures such as us,” wrote the planetary scientist Carl Sagan, “the vastness is only bearable through love.”  And paying attention – to the great swing of the galaxy, to the modest beauty passing outside the bus window, even to the mole on a girl’s neck (not to mention the poet’s precision as he describes it all in a notebook) – is nothing less than an act of love.








The young woman on the bus

wearing headphones

has a mole on her neck.


Perhaps the same mole

in the same place

on some ancient ancestor

itched with sweat as she

crawled on hands and knees

through the king’s garden,

back bent, pulling weeds.


I know someone whose husband

died a month after their baby's birth.

Years later, she had to turn away

when her teenaged son brushed

the hair from his girlfriend's

face with exactly the same gesture

as the father he had never known.


Some mysteries are greater

than the birth of stars;

that sound you hear the moment

before sleep is not the wind, but

your own flesh, in a timeless,

whispered conversation with itself.



                        ­­–– Charles Coe





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:


No comments:

Post a Comment