Saturday, March 05, 2022

Red Letter Poem 100

 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 #100



After all, how long could it last: a month? Six weeks, tops.


That was my thinking when I launched the Red Letter Project back in March of 2020, responding to the Covid pandemic and the first quarantine.  At the time, there was a great deal of concern in the air – but hadn’t we seen other health crises come and go without too much disruption?  Still, I felt the project was a necessary response, recognizing immediately how isolation only magnified our fears.  And since I had been appointed as Arlington’s Laureate, I wanted to offer a reminder to my community, in any way I could, that while we might be physically apart, we were not alone.  “Men work together, I told him from the heart,/ Whether they work together or apart.”  We must embrace the state of mind depicted in Robert Frost’s poem if the balancing act of interconnectedness is to endure.  Even in our solitary efforts, we can still keep each other’s home, health, work, dream in mind.


So how has that feeling changed after two years of Covid anxiety?  And George Floyd?  And January 6th?  And the proliferation of climate disasters?  And now the Russian tanks rolling toward Kyiv?


I must say all this has only strengthened my resolve: that in pursuing the solitary passions that are central in my life, I must at the same time be mindful of our communal spaces and shared fates.  The first – and the most sacred – word in America’s founding document: we, as in we the people.  Our country has excelled in exploring the vast frontier of I – the rugged individualism and singular creative impulse (not to mention the mass-produced make-believe ‘uniqueness’ being touted from every screen and advertisement.)  But that drive had always been wedded to the idea of wethe common good, a shared humanity.  If now we’ve permitted political and economic forces to decouple those counterbalancing forces, our survival will indeed become precarious.


But for the past two years, I’ve experienced a glorious version of that communal impulse.  Putting the call out to Arlington, and then Massachusetts poets to allow me to share their work, I received nothing but positive responses.  Then as the Red Letters were circulated from friend to friend, I began getting subscribers from across the country and even from abroad (a few readers in Turkey, Singapore, Israel, South Korea.)  And soon poets from all over agreed to add their voices to this chorus.  Not only was I able to feature the work of up-and-coming talents but some of the most acclaimed figures in poetry today.  I loved how each Friday, as the new installment appeared in inboxes and on partnering websites, letters from readers would begin arriving – praising a poem or bolstering some idea with their personal narratives.  I would respond to each and then compile a sampling to share with the featured poet.  A real sense of the shared moment developed – that ‘community of voices’ I mention each week – and it reaffirmed all that I’d always hoped for from this medium when I was a young poet just beginning to find my way.


I’ll bet that if you polled a thousand poets about which author most exemplified that sense of poetry as part of our social connective tissue, the name Seamus Heaney would be a frequent answer.  Even before he became a Nobel Laureate – and dubbed the most famous poet of his time – both his writing and his manner (with friends and strangers alike) was so ebullient and deeply humane, he made you feel honored to be a part of the same literary guild.  Seamus left us nearly a decade ago and far too soon.  But I get a similar feeling from the Red Letter poets as well: something of great value was given to them, an ancient tradition; and they feel it is vital that they pass it on to others, that the connections endure, the circle continuing to strengthen and expand.  We recognize ourselves in these poems; and we imagine the countless unseen eyes moving across the page.






            (for Seamus Heaney)



Three months dead and your poem

appears in the glossy mag.  Below

the by-line, your years pried apart

with a paltry black hyphen.

In your honor, I crack a cold one ––

ragged moonlit clouds frothing atop

a pint of midnight –– and toast

to all our fermented spirits, lush

on the summer tongue, our sullen

eloquence, the cold glass weeping

inside the palm, because –– and you’d be

the first to remind me –– you can no longer

see, sip, taste, savor, nor honor with song

this starless June diminuendo.

I can.  And do.



                              ­­–– Steven Ratiner




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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