Saturday, March 19, 2022

The Red Letters 102 Alan Feldman

 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 #102



L’chaim!  If I heard those words as a child, likely at some family celebration, they’d be followed by wine glasses quickly ascending toward the grownups’ smiling lips.  I thought little of what the expression meant – to life!  But as I got older, I began to appreciate that this foundational idea reflected one of the most beautiful aspects of my religion.  It signaled that life was paramount – that contained within life was the manifestation of the divine – and thus our small occasions of happiness were not to be taken lightly.  I loved the fact that, during the High Holy Days – when fasting was required of the faithful – the rules would be suspended for someone who was ill or aged; life trumped all stricture.  I think back to one of my first theater experiences – a production of Fiddler on the Roof – and how the budding wordsmith in me paid special attention to Sheldon Harnick’s lyrics.  As these poor Russian Jews – under constant threat from the Cossacks – celebrated a young couple’s marriage, suffering was momentarily banished: “Life has a way of confusing us,/ Blessing and bruising us./ Drink, l'chaim, to life!”


All our hearts have been battered and bruised in recent days, and so I’ve felt the need for a poem that saluted the good within even our darkest moments.  Fortunately, I had just the thing: “Café Table in the Luberon” – a new poem by a fine writer, Alan Feldman.  He’s the author of four poetry collections, the most recent of which – The Golden Coin (University of Wisconsin Press) won the Four Lakes Poetry Prize.  Born in New York, for several decades Alan was a professor and later chair of English at Framingham State University. After retiring he continued to teach free drop-in poetry workshops in Framingham and on Cape Cod – so I think the Commonwealth can fairly claim him as one of its own.   He’s been the recipient of many honors, but I’ll highlight one which, I believe, says much about the poet and his vision: one of his pieces was featured in Tony Hoagland’s essay “Twenty Little Poems That Could Save America” – high praise indeed!  Today’s Red Letter poem celebrates that rarest of commodities: ordinary joy.  A husband and wife visiting the South of France savor a moment, dining together outside, suddenly overfilled with a sense of quiet exultation.  But can such feelings be trusted?  Alan can’t help but peek beneath the veil of our transitory happiness (an inclination, I’m afraid, we poets are cursed with.)  Fortunately, his wife – a painter with, perhaps, a keener trust in the immediacy of the senses – provides some ballast for the poet’s uneasiness.  And that’s it: dessert, at a café table, with someone you love – nothing more.  War had not ceased to exist; famine was not eradicated; and somewhere in the world, people were oppressed, endangered, afraid.  And yet, a sip of wine together. . .


Chief among all the vital duties poets perform are these: we praise and we mourn – and sometimes we must do them both simultaneously.  Alan’s poem brought another one to mind, a favorite from Jack Gilbert in which he, first, details the variety of the world’s suffering – but then counters: “If we deny our happiness, resist our satisfaction,/ we lessen the importance of their deprivation. . ./We must risk delight. . . We must have/ the stubbornness to accept our gladness in the ruthlessfurnace of this world.”  In his books, Alan certainly acknowledges the presence of brutality – but affirms happiness, nevertheless.  Decades ago, my teenage self took note of how, as that high-spirited song from Fiddler drew to a close, the lyrics offered us this reality-check: “And if our good fortune never comes,/ Here's to whatever comes.”  And so, my recommendation now: wherever you are, raise a glass; stare into the eyes of someone you love, someone whose presence gives meaning to your days (and, hopefully, you to theirs) – and toast: l'chaim!  Or, in Shanghai, gān bēi!  Or in Buenos Aires, saúde!  Or in Harare, akubekuhle!  And yes, even in an apartment in Kyiv, with the sound of bombardment in the distance: “budmo!”  Mindful of human cruelty, of the earth’s fragile beauty, and fully cognizant that joy by its nature is ephemeral – even still: to life! 



Cafe Table in the Luberon



Nan is in pink, and we’re sitting close together

as we probably were even before we asked the waiter

to take our photo, overwhelmed by our perfect luck,

a cafe table in such a private corner,

our crepes flooded with raspberry sauce,

the wine in its dewy bucket.


We are interrupting our dessert to put this moment

into a kind of bank, as if the umbrella

over our wrought iron table, green and white,

and advertising a liqueur, could shelter us

from time.  And we have nowhere to rush to,

because we are absolutely here.

We are in our happiness.  And ambition

is down there somewhere like a rental car.


Down in the wide valley one could find industry

and problems.  But up here on this hilltop

we feel we ought to say something grateful,

even as the size and perfection of the moment

is somewhat numbing. “Oh look!” Nan says,

spotting a wicker dovecot with one white bird

as the scent of the lilacs surrounding the terrace

is about to become the memory of something lost

wrapped up in its gift of beauty.


Whenever I’ve been happy, I have to admit

I have to ask if it only looked like happiness

extrinsically, and was more complicated inside.

But for Nan the cafe has become the setting

of a wonderful dream.  “It was so real,

she said, lying in bed beside me this morning.

It was as if she’d suddenly received

an insight about heaven.  “I could feel

the cold metal of the wrought iron table.”

And were you cold?”  I asked.  Oh no,” she said

It was perfect.  I was really there.”



                              ­­–– Alan Feldman





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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