Friday, April 01, 2022

Red Letter Poem #104

 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 #104




Impossible to know, or very nearly: what bewildering joy; what quietly-throbbing grief; what barely-contained wonder – there, behind that paper surgical mask, as we wait on line at the pharmacy or cross paths outside the Italian restaurant waiting for take-out.  Sometimes we try to decipher the complex narrative that seems to be unscrolling from those dark eyes sharing the elevator, or monitoring a toddler’s sandbox excavations.  And at other times, let’s be honest, our own tangled storyline feels too overwhelming, and we simply haven’t the bandwidth to pay the necessary attention.  But I believe we’ve come to share a visceral understanding during these past two years of multiplying crises: over there, in someone else’s movie (where we may only be bit players, if we figure in the action at all), hearts hang in the balance – whether we notice or not.  And what we do or fail to do – what small gesture of kindness or casual disregard – has the potential to alter someone’s experience: for this hour, this day, within this precarious lifetime.


Maria Lisella’s moving poem “Anointing” reminds us of what may be taking place only an arm’s length or two in the distance.  Would I have been able to sense what this woman, across the subway car, was bearing beneath the streets of Manhattan?  Probably not.  Thank goodness, then, for poems (or paintings or songs) through which we might escape our isolation, even if only for a few moments, and see the world through another’s eyes.  And reading this piece, do you instantly imagine yourself as the one ministering to a loved one’s suffering, or the one being comforted?  And which individual in this scene has been more profoundly anointed by love’s attention?  Maria, a poet and short story writer, is the current Poet Laureate for Queens, NYC and, as such, was awarded a Laureate Fellowship from the Academy of American Poets.  Her third collection, Thieves in the Family (NYQ Books) features some of her strongest work, including poems which were nominated for the Pushcart Prize.  She co-curates the Italian American Writers Association poetry readings; and, as an active travel writer, she contributes to diverse publications such as La Voce di New York and the Jerusalem Post.


Maria’s husband Gil Fagiani – whose passing is at the heart of today’s elegy – was himself a poet, though he came to the vocation only in mid-life after fighting his way free from a heroin addiction.  He also became a community organizer, a political radical, and the director of a drug rehabilitation center in Brooklyn where he helped other addicts to rescue their own lives.  His last collection, Missing Madonnas, was issued by Bordighera Press in 2018.  In print, Gil was sometimes referred to as the Poet Laureate of the Street, a title he wore with pride.  Maria is currently working on a joint collection she began with her late husband – and that, I believe, involves an anointing of another sort.






as the winter sky cools on its way to night.You ask me “… before you go, can you …” And I do.Unwilling to go, needing to go, I organize itemson the table, as if anointing them for you, talk youthrough the maze of meds, the need to eat something,anything all day. I swirl and spin the hospital furniture --the walker, the tables into place. Your prayer booksnext to the phone, small laboratory cups of mouthwashes for who remembers why there are three of them.I make my way to Second Avenue, chase the subway car,look up to see a woman giggling. I must have misseda transient, funny incident on the platform. She wantsme to join her, I do, smile back, blink and recall the last thingyou asked. “Would you take a hot cloth, wash my face …”as my grandmother did on cold mornings knowingeach child would tiptoe on chilled wooden planked floorsas my mother did for me to gentle me into mornings.I reach my stop and think quite possibly, I forgotto warm your face as night falls in a place wherethe weather never changes, where you live just for me.



– Maria Lisella



                                               (first published in SHREW Magazine)





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