Saturday, April 23, 2022

Red Letter Poem #107

 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.


                                                                                                          – SteveRatiner



Red Letter Poem #107




Crowded and complex, nerve-wracking and utterly fascinating: the city.  The experience of population density creates a curious (some would say thrilling) sense of anonymity which, at any given moment, has the potential for startling revelation and human discovery.  It’s almost as if we were alien worlds, each only an arm’s length in the distance, orbiting the same invisible sun.  Day by day we go about our separate untranslatable lives – until, unexpectedly: interaction, conversation, an eruption of understanding (brief but significant).  And then, altered in some indefinable way, we speed apart.  I, myself, grew up in what is often thought of as the Ur-city of the modern world, New York (though I’m sure Parisians, Romans, and Londoners might have something to say about that – not to mention the citizens of Cairo, Mexico City, Shanghai and, of course, Boston.)  Since then, I’ve lived in much smaller urban settings and, when I return to The City (no additional designation required), I feel like the proverbial country mouse, dazzled and overwhelmed as I struggle to make my way.


Sometimes (shifting metaphors) I think that the city feeling is a bit like browsing a poetry anthology of innumerable pages, each composed in a unique foreign language.  We can’t help being both intrigued and intimidated by the indecipherable script – until some Rosetta Stone-moment seizes us and, with sudden insight, the text opens to us and we read (and feel ourselves read by) one life’s quiet unfolding.  In Denise Bergman’s lovely poem, set on a crowded F train in Manhattan, the key is a simple glimpse of someone else’s cell phone as he scrolls through his picture album, savoring memory.  And then that revelatory gesture that’s become emblematic of our modern age: thumb and forefinger lightly touching a screen, effortlessly expanding our vision.  Suddenly we understand – even if just a little – each other and ourselves.


Denise explained to me this is what she’s always loved about city life.  Born in Jersey City, she became a Cantabrigian way back in 1976.  She’s the author of five poetry collections, the most recent of which is The Shape of the Keyhole (Black Lawrence Press), formed (as are many of her collections) around a single historical figure or incident – in this case, one week in the year 1650 as a falsely accused woman awaits her hanging.  Denise is also the editor of the fine anthology City River of Voices which revolves around the small universe that is Cambridge, Massachusetts, her adoptive home.  What I enjoy about her poetry is the tension between what is said and what, unspoken, slowly blooms in the reader’s own consciousness.  Reading this new poem of hers brought to mind a recent visit to a playground with my grandson, not all that far from where Denise makes her home.  That afternoon, I overheard no less than seven different languages being spoken.  But this is what made me smile: engrossed in play, the children suffered none of the awkwardness we grown-ups often do.  Delight is a common tongue and requires no translation; it reminds us we’re human.  As do poets like Denise – before we race away inside the bustling day.



Close Is Far and Figured



We pull away, the subway platform an erased slate.

Beside me he sits

elbows on knees, that familiar poring-over position—

a young man, his father square in his palm.

Father, far and farther,

in a toe-length kanzu, tilted kofia on his head.


Then a boy slides into his hand, a backlit boy in a bowtie.

Then mother in a flowered puff-sleeve gomesi

and father sitting in a carved oak chair.

Then the boy again, bowtie loose,

then father with could-be his father.

Then mother in a skirt and blouse, stirring a large pot.

Then father, embroidered collar fiercely detailed,

and mother's red lips, red-streaked eyes,

boy’s wet cheeks.


The speeding F train lurches, empties, fills.

He steadies the distance in his hand.

I pretend not to peek but he glances, posture unfolds,

arm slightly nudges mine.

He’s seen I see, and to show me

swipes quickly past boy, father, kitchen, garden, dog,

cousins, wedding—to mother

plucking a pomegranate from a tree,

enlarging between his forefinger and thumb.



                         – Denise Bergman




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