Friday, May 13, 2022

Red Letter Poem #110

 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 #110



This is one of the things I love most about poetry: there isn’t a single rule, aesthetic stricture, established formulation, honored tradition – no matter how critically revered or widely practiced – for which I can’t offer you an example of a poet who violated said rule in order to achieve a successful poem.  Perhaps that is poetry’s ‘prime directive’: once a new poem begins to announce itself inside your consciousness, do anything – no matter how devilishly subtle or lavishly irregular – if (and I must stress that sense of necessity) it helps you to bring that dynamic vision, that singular music to the page.


One of those ‘best practices’ young poets learn in writing classes: don’t beat around the bush. You should move directly into the heart of the subject; don’t sacrifice clarity or economy of expression by allowing the poem’s attention to wander.  After all, how can you expect a reader to be moved if the poem indulges in detour or distraction?  Well, tell that to acclaimed poets like Frank O’Hara or Ruth Stone, Philip Levine or Wislawa Szymborska – who each seemed to make detours into an art form, creating a new experience of consciousness within poetry by mimicking the way our minds often meander, subvert and, seemingly, stumble upon a more meaningful destination than the conventional one sighted at the outset.  Jennifer Garfield – another fine poet making Arlington her home – has her own version of such anomalous behavior, often second-guessing herself within the poem, challenging her own perceptions, only to offer at the end some realization, some unexpected clarity made more satisfying for the circuitous route that brought us there.  If I tell you a poem entitled “Spring” contains baby bunnies and tulips, I’m sure you have some immediate and Hallmark-like expectations about the piece in question.  But this poet continually undercuts our assumptions and, in doing so, reminds us of our own doubts and insecurities, our often-formless craving for clear emotional resolutions in a world where such things are, at the least, problematic if not downright impossible.  Jennifer has published poetry in such journals as The Threepenny Review, Frontier Poetry, Sugarhouse Review, and Salamander, and was recently featured in Mass Poetry’s Hard Work of Hope series.  She’s also the recipient of The Martha's Vineyard Institute for Creative Writing Parent-Writer Fellowship.  She’s one of those poets whose voice and vision seem desultory and eccentric – and then, after a few readings, inevitable and strangely trustworthy.


So if spring is a time of rebirth and renewal, shouldn’t a spring poem take Ezra Pound’s directive to heart – “make it new!” – and uncover what unimagined moments might be blooming inside even everyday consciousness?  And if new poems seem to sprout each May, attempting to honor both the season and, of course, Mother’s Day, I’d gladly help myself to ones as mysterious and honestly self-reflective as Jennifer’s.  Her “Spring” produces both a smile and a wince, and makes me grateful to have endured another winter.







There are baby bunnies in our neighbor’s yard 

hiding behind an old ladder. I watch them 

while doing dishes and think to show my own kids 


the miracle of spring, but I don’t. You are a bad mother, 

the voice in my head says. It sounds a lot like 

my own mother. I turn her words into statues 


and arrange them in the garden. Bunnies hop 

over syllables, unbothered by their tone and history. 

Can I not be wild without strumming my list 


of failures? Let me admire someone else’s flowers, 

not mine, I don’t know how to make things grow. 

Yet somehow the kids keep sprouting, 


even when I keep the bunnies to myself 

for reasons I can’t explain, and don’t you see? 

Spring really is meant for poetry. Or poetry 


is meant for spring. Or I’ve been stuck inside

too long and willing to mistake any damn season 

for spring. I forgot to mention the tulips 


and the pink blossoms

on our tree, opening their hearts

to no one but the sky. 



                         – Jennifer Garfield




The Red Letters 3.0


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