Friday, September 02, 2022

Red Letter Poem #126

 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.


                                                                                                          – SteveRatiner




Red Letter Poem #126




Under Postmodernism, poets often (and gleefully) severed ties with tradition – whether it be cultural, formal, or even familial.  Their collective aim was toward forging a new language and imagination without antecedents.  Certainly, many bracing innovations came about because of those experiments – but also a lot of poetry which, bearing few ties to the shared experience of readers, was often quickly (sometimes disdainfully) forgotten.  And that quality of memorability has long been one of the bedrock experiences of poetry – phrasing and imagery that, once read or heard aloud, insinuate themselves into our consciousness as if they were ours in the first place.  And then, over time, they become just that.


Thank goodness, poets in recent decades have been re-energized by their connection to family history, poetic lineage, cultural legacy.  Case in point: the excellent Boston-area poet George Kalogeris who always writes as if he were rooted in multiple worlds.  There’s the one revolving around his long commitment to contemporary poetry – and not only his own work (for which he was awarded the James Dickey Poetry Prize), but that of the most vital talents in America and abroad.  For example: he’s created dynamic English translations of the Greek Nobelist George Seferis, bringing his poetry to new audiences.  There’s also George’s life as a scholar and educator; currently an Associate Professor at Suffolk University, he teaches English, creative writing, and classics in translation, while also directing their Poetry Center.  This is the proving ground where literature is either rejuvenated, generation after generation, or it withers on the sacred vine.   


But a third realm (and perhaps the one most relevant to today’s Red Letter): he is a vessel for the immigrant experience and the varied stories it engenders.  As a Greek-American, his imagination has long and tangled roots, extending from contemporary New England back to the ‘old country’ of his family, and then deeper still into the ancient Hellenic tradition which became the rootstock of much of Western civilization.  In his recent collection Winthropos, (Louisiana State University Press), I love his portrayals of relatives and family lore – and how, subtly, all three of his worlds come into play.  Today, in a brand new poem, his recollection of visiting for the first time his father’s birthplace, the impoverished village of Akovos, high in the Peloponnese.  In this brief narrative, his aunts somehow manage to school him in both the wellsprings of history and poetry while simultaneously puncturing (with good humor) the pretensions of a young man bearing his own poetic aspirations.  Though it’s hard to pin down, there is a quality in much of George’s work that is, I believe, an essential element in what’s best in contemporary poetry: it’s the gravity that comes from what we love and honor in our lives.  It may sound naïve – and will certainly ruffle the feathers of some academics – but to me it’s one of the truest measures of the work we create.  And what we are most deeply connected to, in turn, connects us to the universal, charges our creative endeavors with more than just our private desires.  It’s tantamount to a sacred wellspring for writers and, to my mind, it cannot help but fortify the ink.






Nereidivrisi. “Wellspring of the Nereids.”

At least that’s what it’s called in my father’s village.


Cobblestone shaft whose mossy tremulous darkness

I once looked way down into. Ice-cold water


From melting peaks of the Peloponnese. And me

The shaky balance that tries to keep two buckets


From spilling over as back down the slope I carry

One for witty Evgenikí, the other


For shrewd Yiannoúla, my aunts from Ákovos—

Who never fled their house when Hitler invaded, 


Or during the civil war that was even worse.

My father’s tiny, black-shawled, older sisters,


So eager to know if their young American nephew,

With all those books of poetry in his backpack,


Had seen the lovely ladies swimming up

From the bottom of the well…Before I can answer,


Their elderly elfin kerchiefed heads are already

Bobbing up and down with mischievous laughter.


O murky depths and open upturned faces!

Wrinkled water aglitter in brimming buckets


Whose wire handles carved this line in my palms:

Nereidivrisi. Wellspring of the Nereids.



              ––George Kalogeris




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