Thursday, March 24, 2022

Red Letter Poem #103 Moira Linehan

 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 #103




To salute Women’s History Month, I bring you a poem from Moira Linehan’s latest collection entitled & Company (Dos Madres Press) – and its subject matter couldn’t be more timely (even though it’s rooted in fin de siécle Paris and Boston.)  While I write this, the first Black woman ever nominated to the Supreme Court is undergoing interrogation in Congress by some who still have questions about the nature of women’s work.  Moira’s book, though, focuses on history – personal, familial, international – and the ways it becomes a tangible presence in our daily lives.  Situated at the heart of the collection is her maternal grandmother, a dress designer and seamstress who made her way from France to America to start a new and more independent life.  But the portal Moira chose, in order to immerse herself in that woman’s experience, was the artwork of the age, specifically the paintings by figures like Cassatt and Morisot whose works are rich with that granular visual and social detail in which imagination can take root.  And, of course, they depict the very sorts of clothes her grandmother might have worn and fashioned.  Featuring lyrics, narratives, elegies, and ekphrastic poems, her collection is a consideration of the tension between social stricture and freedom as women sought to assume some control of their work lives (dreaming, perhaps, of much more.) 


Today’s poem is built around a kind of interwoven repetition of word and idea; we can feel how hemmed in these lives (our lives?) might be.  And yet, within this pattern, the spirit that moved these women continually asserted itself, found a way to make from the microcosmic vision of domestic life an opening, a passage into vast possibility.  Hard to miss, though, that the piece ends where it began, a warning, perhaps: how fragile our dreams really are – and how resistant to change, actuality.  As with the fading of certain pigments, the fraying of textiles, the raveling and unraveling weave of word and sound – artists and poets acknowledge the ephemerality, and yet attempt nevertheless to clothe our ideas and emotions with something more enduring, with a style of our own making. 


Moira is the author of four poetry collections and has published widely in journals like Agni, The Georgia Review, Poet Lore, and Prairie Schooner. Her poem "Entering the Cill Rialaig Landscape" was chosen as the Grand Prize winner in Atlanta Review's 2016 International Poetry Competition.  Her exploration of her Irish ancestry has led to numerous writing residencies, including ones at the Cill Rialaig Project in Co. Kerry, Ireland; the Tyrone Guthrie Centre in Co. Monaghan, Ireland; and the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts.  A Connecticut native, she has lived her adult life in the greater Boston area.  It is my pleasure to have Moira make a return appearance to the Red Letters.



Before Mary Cassatt and Berthe Morisot




Fugitive, the materials of their art,

art made quickly in small notebooks, on wove paper,

paper that goods might have been wrapped in. In pencil.

Pencil sketch, sometimes pastel, a wash of watercolors.

Colorful little pieces of the confines of home.

Home where they made their art. Never alone. Sisters,

sisters-in-law, female cousins, ever close by.

By sofa, tea table, garden bench. No farther.

Far from boulevard, café, studio. The off-limits.

Limited, every aspect of their lives. Mirrors

mirrored rules for stepping out to dine, to dance. Be seen.

Scenes men painted in oils on large canvases. Framed.

Framework for the holding pattern till they married.

Marriage, or at least the arrival of children, the end,

ending their artwork. Art going, gone fugitive. 




–– Moira Linehan





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