Friday, March 11, 2022

Red Letter Poem #101: Gloria Mindock

 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 #101



“It is difficult to get the news from poems,” wrote William Carlos Williams (who was himself, of course, one of America’s most famous poets) – “…yet men die miserably every day for lack of what is found there.”  I must beg to differ (though only with the first half of the assertion; sadly, the second half still seems painfully accurate.)  Sometimes the most immediate and heart-wrenching reportage any of us can receive is being broadcast – continually and at great personal cost – from the hearts of poems.  Case in point: this week I attended the virtual poetry reading Voices for Ukraine, organized by PEN America and writers in the United States, Ukraine, and beyond.  Hosted by Boston’s own Askold Melnyczuk (novelist, educator, publisher of Arrowsmith Press) and Polina Sadovskaya (PEN’s Program Director for Eurasia), the event brought together more than two dozen acclaimed authors to raise awareness of the grievous struggle taking place as citizens attempt to defend the Ukrainian homeland from an unprovoked Russian invasion.   More than just demonstrating solidarity with the suffering being visited upon that nation, the poems provided context and depth (not to mention, a human face and voice) to bolster the more anonymous suffering in the war footage featured nightly on the news.  Each selection that was performed seemed to appear (at least in my mind) beneath an unwritten banner headline: Lives Hang in the Balance – What Are You Prepared to Do About It?


This may well have been the most moving poetry reading I’ve ever experienced.  In every contribution, we could feel hearts on the line.  But for some of the poets Zooming in from Kyiv and Lviv, life might come to a brutal conclusion at any moment – and still, this is how they chose to spend those precious minutes.  It’s a challenge most of us in America will (hopefully) never have to face; but these writers were demonstrating a profound faith: that, while a poem may be incapable of stopping a tank, it can nonetheless be a citadel, a sanctuary in which ten thousand years of human history are still regarded as sacred.  If you were not able to be part of this audience, here is a YouTube link where you can view the event belatedly:


Though Gloria Mindock’s poem “Protected” was not written about the crisis in Ukraine – it appears in her recently published collection Ash (from Glass Lyre Press) – it felt to me as if it reflected the emotional landscape many of us are experiencing, as the news gets darker by the day.  I asked the poet if she’d let me pair it with my little meditation about the current crisis, and she graciously agreed.  I think of Gloria as a poetry-lifer – not just referring to the longevity of her commitment (which is considerable), but to the central place it occupies in her days.  The author of six poetry collections and a children’s book, her work has been translated into eleven languages. She is the founder/editor of Červená Barva Press, which features poets from America and abroad, and also one of the USA editors for Levure Litteraire (France).   Awards and honors abound, but I’ll highlight just one: she was the second Poet Laureate for Somerville, MA. where she makes her home.


Socio-biologists tell us that our species has evolved to require community, to crave human connection.  Still, sometimes we can simply feel overwhelmed – especially after two years of a global pandemic and a greater degree of isolation than most of us are accustomed to.  So I understand the desire to turn away sometimes from the abundance of tragedy, including the coverage of this awful war.  Viewing yet another house aflame, there is the implied warning in such reportage: our house could be next.  Ezra Pound, though, spoke of literature as the news that remains news.  So poems like Gloria’s and Voices for Ukraine trumpet a very different headline, one with far deeper roots: that this burning house is our very own.  Now what are we prepared to do about it?







Inside the house was his life,

protected by a roof.

By the time the firemen got there,

it was gone.


He sifts through what remains,

eyes sunk, hands asleep,

brain idle for hours.


The man surfaces his heart.

He carries it away delicately.

It still beats, and he breathes asking

how much sorrow can this heart take?

There is never an answer.



                              ­­–– Gloria Mindock




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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