Saturday, October 08, 2022

Red Letter Poem #130

 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 #130




“We shall not cease from explorationAnd the end of all our exploringWill be to arrive where we startedAnd know the place for the first time.”


                    ––T. S. Eliot, Four Quartets



These lines show Eliot at his most oracular – but, as was most often the case, his thoughts were based on keen-eyed observation.  It seems a fact of life that, as we age, we tend to revisit the places of our past – the actual locales, if that is possible, but certainly the province of memory in any case.  And what we are often most startled to discover is that everything seems changed; the years and the distance having colored recollection or, in some cases, brought them into a startling focus we’d never before imagined.  Motivations and reactions that may have mystified us as children suddenly, in retrospect, make perfect sense.  So it is with Ann Bookman’s Blood Lines (Kelsay Books), her first full-length collection.  The book is a prolonged meditation about the members of her family; the texture of their vanished experience; her youthful alienation from a shared Jewish identity; and, subtly, the emotional charge that goes into the making of a poet.  But now, as the characters materialize again center stage (in an uncommon gesture, the poet included a host of old family photographs interspersed with the text), Ann finds herself falling in love with a world that was always – to her young self – enlarged, mysterious and, sad to say, perhaps under-appreciated.  As the poems explore and give voice to these experiences – and conjure, as well, her own childhood self – she finds she can savor them, marvel over their vitality, discover those qualities that helped comprise her present-day reality.


I chose “Handmade” as a Red Letter because it makes clear to me a poetic truth that took me decades to learn: when we remain most true to the particularity of our experience, it is then that we are also being most universal.  I expect readers, no matter their background, will have little trouble locating themselves within these scenes.  After my father’s death, I was the one male in a household of women; and I, too, observed what seemed then the foreign territory of femininity: watching my mother busy in her kitchen or attending to her makeup for an evening out – but also serving as the emotional rock upon which all the others relied.  I noticed as well how, in their varying ways, my four sisters began to exhibit gestures in imitation – how each self grows from those that preceded it.  Then there were those “altar(s) of intimacy” arranged in various rooms – artifacts representing lives that came before us and yet which still maintained a magnetized power over the household.  And finally, there are those objects which, over time, came into our possession, made us caretakers of a past we may only have known from family stories.  In these poems, Ann begins to take her bearings by such talismans, such recollections, and to reinvest in them a spirit she, perhaps, had not been aware she was carrying.


Ann is a poet, anthropologist, and a strong voice for social justice.  In her early career, she was the Assistant Director of the Bunting Institute at Radcliffe College, championing women’s scholarship and creativity back when our society was far less hospitable to such endeavors.  Today she is a Senior Fellow at the McCormack Graduate School of Policy and Global Studies at UMass Boston; and serves on the board of the Hudson Valley Writers Center, one of the country’s premier literary forums.  To my mind, it is a less-heralded but equally-important piece of work that she focuses now on excavating memory and shaping it into – as another poem is called – “Migration Routes” that other individuals may follow, especially younger women who are busy building new ‘handmade’ memories but might benefit from these guiding lights.







Upward stroke of a sable brush,

my mother painted rouge just below her cheekbone,

feint of hand makes pale cheeks blush.


Dabbing perfume drops with pointer finger—

twice behind each ear—

the way her mother taught her.


My grandmother’s sepia portrait always in place

on my mother’s dressing table, altar of intimacy:

I never knew her. I know her face as I know my face.


Owner of the brass menorah, keeper of the family flame,

I imagine my grandmother’s hands gathering sabbath light,

her first name, my middle name.


When I wear perfume for an evening out,

I dab with my pointer finger twice behind each ear.

What’s in a name? I never knew her.



                                    ––Ann Bookman




The Red Letters 3.0


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