Saturday, July 16, 2022

Red Letter Poem #119

 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 #119




It was a hand-stitched sampler depicting an English pastoral scene.  Well, not an actual sampler – a photo reproduction; and it hung on my bedroom wall when I was a young child.  For all I know, it was a print that came with the picture frame, and perhaps my mother just liked the look of it.  But cross-stitched within the (visual) field was the first real poem I ever read: a Romantic piece by Robert Browning consisting of two quatrains.  And I remember reading it quietly inside my head each day upon waking, watching as the images took shape.  I have a memory as well of one certain morning, and the burst of excitement that erupted when my mind recognized at last what my ear had been savoring all along: at the poem’s core was pattern.  The endings of each line in the first stanza, I was shocked to discover, rhymed with the corresponding line of the second.  “The year’s at the spring/ and the day’s at the morn./ Morning’s at seven./ The hillside’s dew-pearled.”  When stanza two begins, each line chimes into place with its counterpart, forming a sort of estranged couplet: “The lark’s on the wing/ and the snail’s in the thorn./ God’s in His heaven./ All’s right with the world.”  What a concept for a troubled child to discover: that the broken world might somehow be healed – at least momentarily – by something as ephemeral as carefully formed words.  I tell my students today (only half in jest) that this sampler may be the reason I became a poet.


Even as infants, we seek out the comfort and reassurance of pattern.  And as the mind evolves, how satisfied, how empowered we feel when we suddenly deduce some regularity within the world around us where, moments earlier, there seemed only chaos: that certain click of footsteps now comes to mean that, in a moment, mother’s smiling face will appear in the doorway.  Miraculous!  In Michael Steffen’s gorgeous new poem, he relishes both the satisfaction – and possible heartache – that is embedded within our patterned lives.  Michael is the recipient of a Massachusetts Cultural Council Fellowship and an Ibbetson Street Press Poetry Award. His poems have appeared in numerous venues including The Boston Globe, E-Verse Radio, The Lyric, The Dark Horse, and The Concord Saunterer.  His second collection, On Earth As It Is, was recently published by Cervena Barva Press; the work is rich with imagery and musical nuance, bracing for both heart and mind.  In today’s Red Letter contribution, he describes this most mundane of objects – flowered wallpaper – and we feel in its composition a consciousness trying to keep its own understanding of the world from unraveling.  I fear saying too much about the patterning the poet quietly invests within his two-verse universe (after all, how much more satisfying when the ear uncovers its own surprise); but I will pass along something the poet told me about his piece: in his mind, it’s like the first two stanzas of a sestina.  And the missing four stanzas?  I imagine them appearing, with some variation, extending invisibly beyond the buds of that closing ellipsis – like wallpaper lilies, like heartbeats unspooling.








How little you suspected the wallpaper.

Its deliberate use of repetition and pattern

to forge them as givens, icons, those lilies.

When you went away, they made a connection

to our afternoons over tea, a world

of things to talk about, relieving the focus


of work and woe as your smile came into focus

and the sky tone breathed its blue from the wallpaper.

The day sometimes catches me: What in the world

am I thinking, resuming the old pattern

of setting out two cups? The eclipsed connection

of the empty one, a vase of water where lilies…




      –– Michael Steffen




The Red Letters 3.0


* 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:



To learn more about the origins of the Red Letter Project, check out an essay I wrote for Arrowsmith Magazine:


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


For updates and announcements about Red Letter projects and poetry readings, please follow me on Twitter          



No comments:

Post a Comment