Saturday, October 15, 2022

Red Letter Poem #131

 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 #131




It is, perhaps, too easy a metaphor to say that Martha Collins is a miner – but that doesn’t mean it’s not apt.  I don’t think I know of another lyric poet today who is so dogged a researcher; and once she senses that there is some rich vein, some subterranean knowledge beyond her immediate perception, it seems that nothing can block her efforts to unearth it, relying on a fierce spirit and keen-eyed intelligence to go deep.  She’s become quite well known for her elliptical style, her fragmentation of syntax and the narrative flow, but it is always in service of a more nuanced understanding – first her own, and then any reader who is willing to go exploring along with her.  In ten acclaimed volumes of poetry, she’s focused her sights on some of the most consequential social and historical dilemmas our country has faced – including her award-winning trilogy about racial conflict in America.  But this very week, her eleventh collection has been published in the Pitt Poetry Series – and in these poems, the story of coal and coal mining takes center stage, both as an historical thread in the evolution of modern American society, and as an icon for the processes by which poor people have had their lives commodified and abused in the service of power and wealth. 


But this is no academic curiosity on her part; she begins the book with her paternal grandfather’s experience in the 19th century mines of Illinois, touching on family stories and artifacts, trying to memorialize a half-forgotten experience.  Then the poems broaden their view to include, not only industrial mining, but the racial strife and rampant gun violence we suffer today – all of which she takes as symptoms of a willful blindness we are both the victim of and, sadly, complicit with.  When I read pieces like her long poem “Lamentations”, or today’s featured lyric “And the Revolution We Call the”, it seems to me Martha is portraying a mind struggling to make sense; it plunges ahead, retreats, feints left or right, doubles back on itself, reaching for a clarity just beyond the capability of ordinary speech.  But in their brokenness, her poems in the end cohere as a human document: they declare that there are layers of truth beneath the very ground we walk upon – and a poem can be sharp enough an auger to locate, excavate, and (shifting the spelling to let augury come into play) reassemble the fragments into what we need to have revealed.  


Poet, translator, educator, anthologist, Martha has been the recipient of numerous honors including the Anisfield-Wolf Book Award, three Pushcart Prizes, the Alice Fay Di Castagnola Award, and the Laurence Goldstein Poetry Prize.  Her writing has earned her fellowships from the NEA, the Bunting Institute, the Ingram Merrill Foundation, and the Witter Bynner Foundation.  Blue Front, a book-length poem based on a lynching the poet’s father witnessed as a child, was chosen as one of “25 Books to Remember from 2006” by the New York Public Library.  The depths this poet is willing to excavate, and the dangerous freight carried within her poems, certainly make her one of America’s indispensable talents.




And the Revolution We Call the



coal to power steam engines

to pump water & lift coal

to sell or use to power steam


coal to coke for furnaces

to smelt iron to make tools

& furnaces to smelt for rails


trains to transport coal to power

steam engines to power trains

& boats to transport coal


harnessed the power of

raised to the power

of power



                            ––Martha Collins




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