Saturday, July 23, 2022

Red Letter Poem #120

 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 #120




This virus – I’m happy to report – is stunningly potent and highly transmissible: the creative spark.  And it’s capable of infecting you – not only from close contact with your contemporaries (sometimes, these days, I have a hard time reading more than three or four poems in a journal before I’m seized by that quiet voice prompting the opening line of a new poem), but also from long-dormant strains still circulating in the cultural landscape.  Whitman, Li Bai, Sappho, Mayakovsky, Mirabai all remain highly contagious, even after centuries, producing fever, tremors, and bouts of euphoria.


Of all the wildly-creative strains with whom I’ve personally come into contact, the one named William Stafford was likely the most endemic and enduring.  I am never surprised when other writers mention this acclaimed poet’s work as a source of inspiration; or his essays on the art of writing, and how his daily practice influenced their own; or (for those fortunate enough to have studied with him) the effect his very presence had on their creative approach and on their long-term emotional lives.  I was delighted to have interviewed him in 1991, not long before his death,  for my collection Giving Their Word – and I can’t tell you how many ways his influence continues with me today.  Here’s just one example that I think anyone engaged in a creative endeavor will appreciate.  Early on, he wrote a poem entitled “Traveling through the Dark” about coming across a deer on a country road who had been hit by a car.  Touching the belly of the doe, the speaker feels the still-warm fawn inside the dead mother.  When Stafford first shared the piece with poet-friends, he described how they reacted to the unexpected (and rather jarring) closing lines.  “‘No, no, Bill, you can't end it like this!  You can't end it pushing the deer over the edge into the river.’  And right away, I thought, ‘Oh, I can't, eh?’”  Stafford’s was a notoriously independent mind and he was neither swayed by social expectations nor literary fashion.  The poem, he explained to me, garnered dozens of rejections before one magazine’s acceptance letter arrived in his mailbox.  It would eventually become the title poem in his National Book Award-winning second collection and one of his most anthologized pieces in a long and storied career.  That persistence, that trust of the self’s inner compass, might serve us all well.  Here’s one of the exchanges with Bill that comes to mind almost on a weekly basis: “The editor says in his [rejection] note, 'Sorry, this is not for us. . .'.  Should I assume it is indeed 'not for us?'  I don't recognize it.  I think: I've got to find a better editor.”


Bruce Bond – a gifted poet and educator whose prolific tendencies rival those of Stafford’s – is the author of over thirty poetry collections, the most recent being Liberation of Dissonance (Nicholas Schaffner Award for Literature in Music), and the forthcoming Choreomania (from MadHat) which should be out any day now.  His work has been selected for seven editions of the annual Best American Poetry.  He’s Regents Emeritus Professor of English at the University of North Texas.  The spirit of this new poem debuting here, is inextricably linked to “Traveling through the Dark.”  Stafford’s piece – near its conclusion, and as he wrestles with the right course of action – says: “I could hear the wilderness listen.”  It is listening still in the vicinity of Bruce’s opened notebook – though I wonder whether the speaker in “Wilderness” is indeed the natural world, or the long-dead poet, or the inky phantom of the fateful deer.  But the “no one” being given voice here addresses the trembling we all feel within our mortal journey which, I’m sure you’ll agree, is traveled mostly through an unfathomable darkness.  For brief but exhilarating moments, we sometimes find we are able to truly see where we are – by the beam of Stafford’s headlights, perhaps; or Bruce Bond’s “good star”; or by the candlewick of a poem. Sometimes it’s one you’ve chanced upon in a journal or book, inflaming the imagination; other times, it’s one as-of-yet unwritten, making the head throb and the heart race; and the only cure is fresh ink on an unmarked page.








To you, if you are listening,


                    I am no one

and so hear things that no one hears.


If a deer leaps from nowhere

            to the road, what it leaves


of the many bleeds into one.

            And for a moment I hear less,


as no one hears.  Minus one.

            But know the river is a road


we walk together.  We must.

            It crackles with a good star


that burns the name we give it.

            If I come upon your body


in my path, know I will not, cannot,

            leave.  Although I travel on.



                         –– Bruce Bond





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