Friday, May 06, 2022

Red Letter Poem #109

 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 #109




Recently, I mentioned to a friend that I’d spent all morning “working my way through a poem” – and I could actually see him bristle.  Was this, perhaps, an involuntary response?  A telltale vestige from years of American schooling – an experience that convinced him poetry was indeed work (and often tedious work at that), a daunting undertaking, utterly fruitless?  For many, poetry is something the curriculum required of teachers who, often, were themselves scarred by their own early introduction to the artform?  Over the years, I’ve had others confide in me that they felt poetry was used like an intelligence test “to separate the smart kids from the rest of us” – the very antithesis of an activity (reading poetry, let alone writing it) that deepened understanding, broke down cultural barriers, provided delight.  Having done residencies at several hundred elementary and secondary schools, I am happy to report that the skill-level of today’s teachers is far advanced from those of my childhood; they’re much more comfortable with all sorts of art endeavors.  Perhaps this has been one of the most important lessons we’ve derived from contemporary poetry and art: a willingness to be surprised – and that, through the upsurge of the creative act (in words or colors or sounds, no matter how other-worldly or matter-of-fact), the actuality of our human experience becomes manifest.  And, as Robert Frost noted, “The fact is the sweetest dream that labor knows” – work worthy of our precious time.


So I explained to my friend that I hadn’t even left bed that morning before I felt something launched inside me, like a boat.  The prow was a single line that appeared out of nowhere, and the craft began to assemble itself around that possibility.  I felt myself both passenger and crew.  I steered and was steered, trusting in the currents.  It all felt confounding, thrilling, thoroughly unexpected – and slowly, the far shore came into view.  In the end: twenty lines; ink on paper; a thought-contraption I’d combed through, read aloud, rewritten again and again, and felt grateful to have received.  Such neural clarity; such a retreat from the demands of the busy day!  Then I stretched, dressed, and entered (re-entered?) the morning.


A poem like Chloé Firetto-Toomey’s “Images” does make some demands on our attention, requires a bit of work – but then it rewards us with a marvelous sense of arrival when we finally stand before her symbolic mirror.  The prow of her vessel was, as she explained to me, a collection of “lost lines from failed poems”, resurrected and given a new form.  She’s led me to think about how we receive (and alter) images as the external world joins with the inner.  I must say, I’ll never read mirror again without noticing that pair of reflective r’s at the heart of the word.  Chloé is a British-American poet and essayist living in Miami Beach.  She earned an MFA degree from Florida International University and went on to teach Creative Nonfiction and Poetry at FIU and at Everglades Correctional Institution with the nonprofit Exchange for Change.  Having studied with the acclaimed poet Richard Blanco, she currently works as his assistant.  Her most recent chapbook of poems, Little Cauliflower, was published in 2019 by Dancing Girl Press.  A Pushcart Prize nominee, and winner of the Scotti Merrill Memorial Award in Poetry, her poetry career is off to an auspicious start.  I’m happy to welcome her voice to the Red Letter conversation.








As though nowere a landscapein the mirrorand thingstood before itwith a single inquiry—


I know nothing.


II.All images are mirages.



Every day, I pass a man selling white roses

from a green bucket. He hauntsthe halted traffic in the winnowing heat

and I think of all the snipped roses,

gasping; his face unclear in the shadow

of his wide-brimmed hat.



If images are miragesr buds between letters, sprouts above the water

through a crack in the concrete bridge. I admire it from my canoe:

green bud, blue bridge, roots dangling like snagged mermaid hairs.



Spring evenings,two women prod luminous green bulbswith metal pipes, arms raised to the highest branches.


I like their voices, bright saris,the sounds of the fruit falling,

clipping leaves, the inevitable thump.



Mirrors hold bodiesof unanswered questions,

as do eyes and windows,

smooth as gyroscopes.


VII.All images are mirages, the r makes us mirrors.




                         – Chloé Firetto-Toomey







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