Saturday, September 10, 2022

Red Letter Poem #127


Dear Readers, for only the second time in the two-and-a half years of the Red Letter project, I’ll have to skip a week.  I’ll be on a writing retreat to a little island off of New Hampshire where WIFI is iffy at best.  I will be making my own red letter days there – and I trust you will the same.  See you again on 9/23.





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 #127



It’s at the heart of every magician’s trick: misdirection – distracting the audience with some feint, some attention-grabbing gesture so that, while their minds are elsewhere, the ‘feat of magic’ can suddenly take place.  It’s an act of self-conscious deception designed to provoke wonder in the onlooker.  Ta-da!  Cue the applause and the appreciative ooh’s and ah’s!


Is that what’s taking place here, in this new poem from Miriam Levine?  Not quite.  She begins by following her mind’s attention as it wends its way into the world, noticing bits of ordinary beauty (darting birds, blue-veiled Mt. Monadnock) and elements of the modern urban landscape (the half-way house, the cars struggling uphill.)  And suddenly, the startling news – and nothing seems quite the same after that.  While her carefully-observed images lead us onward, we’re more than a little shocked when, out of nowhere, the great 19th century poet of Amherst steps from behind the scrim; and then a closing couplet materializes that is both beautiful and haunting. 


The difference between the magician’s legerdemain and the poet’s conjuring: I think the poet is both performer and audience.  I don’t think Miriam set out to lay a trap for our hearts but, lured on by her own exploring consciousness, was herself caught off-guard.  Was she, too, quietly stunned by where those flitting birds eventually settled down – as we were?  The magic within the contemporary poem is the daring (or unbridled curiosity? or intuitive skill?) that allows the writer to travel – not to what she thought, at the outset, was her intended destination, but where the poem (with a mind of its own) was leading her all along.  Or maybe I’m wrong, and these were a set of artful moves, designed to unsettle and surprise.  That, too, is the great pleasure in such a performance: we can reread a poem again and again and, each time, try to see how the trick was done – or to simply sit back and enjoy what appears out of that sudden flash of light and puff of smoke. 


Making a return appearance to the Red Letters, Miriam is that sort of bracing poet that seems to welcome her readers into the substance of her days, trusting that we will savor both the kinship to our own experience as well as moments extending beyond our reach.  In that manner, her work reminds me of Ruth Stone’s – another poet whose writing I prize.  The author of five poetry collections – the most recent being Saving Daylight – as well as a novel and a memoir, Miriam was Arlington’s first Poet Laureate, but now divides her time between New Hampshire and Florida.




Watching Birds


Birds flit low in early morning across School Street

past the half-way house for released convicts


as a lone car strains up the steep hill

toward Monadnock in the blue distance.


And now another car, electric, soundless,

empty except for the obscured driver.


The clear, clean light and scent of lilacs

make the fast-disappearing birds so


piercing now.  Another friend is dead!

He who was supposed to outlive us all.


I think of the verve and flash of robins Dickinson

watched from the edge of her garden,


breathing in the spice of lilacs while the morning

sun found a cold space in her and filled it.



              ––Miriam Levine




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