Friday, July 01, 2022

The Red Letter Poem 117

 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 #117




It is good knowing that glassesare to drink from;the bad thing is not to knowwhat thirst is for.

                  -- Antonio Machado



It seems to me Jennifer Barber knows – or, at the very least, is learning.  Thirst is the antidote for that drowsiness that veils the senses; thirst is a reagent for stripping the varnish off habit and expectation; for engaging in the complex practice that is gratitude; for learning how to wake on yet another morning, amid the everydayness of our lives, and discover new ways of discerning its unique beauty.  Thirst – and poetry, too, perhaps – is what elevates perception into prayer.


When Jennifer gave me two new poems from her then-forthcoming (and, I’m happy to report, now published and well-received) new collection – The Sliding Boat Our Bodies Made, issued by The Word Works Press – I could feel an increased emotional and even spiritual valence in the work.  No reason for surprise.  After a quarter century, she’d retired as editor-in-chief of the literary journal Salamander which she founded in 1992.  She’d also concluded her time as Scholar in Residence at Suffolk University, stepping back from the teaching that had become a central feature in her life.  She was undergoing a time of transition, perhaps a time of harvest.  It was now a central focus for her to attend to more personal labors, knowing that (as is the case for all of us) these mornings are neither guaranteed nor to be taken for granted.  And so in the new book Jennifer was entering undiscovered territory – or, in some cases, revisiting old terrains but with a more refined and probing investigation.  I like how, in this poem for example, one perception throws the next into an altered light, and only seems to magnify our quiet thirst for more.  When her unscrolling images come to an end, I believe the speaker is reflecting the dual responsibilities of any poet: to experience, as fully as possible, the potentiality within the present moment – while, at the same time, becoming available to the potentiality that this unexpected language is revealing within the poem, within the self.


I’ve read about Tang Dynasty scholars leaving the emperor’s employ and going off to live in the Chungnon Mountains – a life of solitude, reflection, and poetry.  And yet it is clear in their writing that, even in seclusion, they are conscious of their ties, their responsibilities to society-at-large, or perhaps to some imagined future.  I believe it was Robert Louis Stevenson who wrote: “Don’t judge each day by the harvest you reap but by the seeds that you plant.”  In an age that seems to be filled with unending turmoil, it’s a good thought to keep in mind.  So, once again, no great surprise when, in the spring of 2021 – and while the pandemic bedeviled every aspect of daily life – Jennifer accepted the appointment as Poet Laureate for Brookline, Massachusetts.  Even during the time of harvesting, new seeds need to be sowed. 





These Mornings



I light a candle at daybreak.

I fill a cup with my thirst

and drink it down, and reach for more.

I’m in a flannel nightgown,

a flannel bathrobe printed with red birds.

I sleep. I wake. Another indigo

fills the window of my room.

By now the trees have shed their leaves.

I light the grapefruit-scented candle

with three wicks; I fall in love with it

and scissors and pens and paperclips.

I strip to a shadow of myself

and fill the shadow with

powders, pink and blue,

and spread them evenly across.

What I feel I feel for all of us—

the highway driver, the insomniac,

my friend waiting to hear what the doctor found.



–– Jennifer Barber





The Red Letters 3.0


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