Saturday, November 05, 2022

Red Letter Poem #134

 If you live in the Boston area, you’re invited to:


Red Letter Live!

A poetry reading for the Arlington Center for the Arts’

Open Studios Day –

Saturday, November 12th, 1-3 p.m.


featuring 5 of your favorite Red Letter poets

plus a special musical performance:



George Kalogeris


Christopher Jane Corkery


Charles Coe


Denise Bergman




& violinist

Elizabeth Burke



11/12/22 – 1-3 p.m.

Robbins Library

Community Room

700 Massachusetts Avenue, Arlington

Free and open to the public


For biographical material about the performers, see the attached PDF –

and for details about the entire Open Studios program, visit:




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 #134






Years ago, when I had the good fortune to interview one of America’s most esteemed poets, William Stafford, I took the opportunity to ask about several of my favorite poems.  I was wondering whether they were – as they’d appeared to me – all based on actual events.  Some were, it turns out – and others were cut from the whole cloth of deep imagination.  I remember being quite pleased, though, to learn that “Bess” was based on a real librarian who walked the streets of the poet’s Lake Oswego – but why should that be the case?  Wasn’t it enough that she, again and again, patrolled the streets of my consciousness?  Would knowing Bess had been flesh-and-blood make her somehow more substantial than the figure conjured by rhythmic syllables and with which Stafford had seized my heart? 


This memory came to mind when Charles Coe sent me a new prose poem about his father.  If I was a betting man, I’d wager that the incident depicted – in an Indiana town, a half-century ago – actually occurred.  But the truth of the situation exists here on the page – and in the rippling pages of my imagination – wholly separate from Charles’ family history.  I trust his voice; I experience this scene, almost as if I were standing right behind him in line at the drugstore.  And I find myself feeling like that lyrical son, looking back on a moment irretrievable except through the power of language.  These days, in the age of George Floyd (not to mention the countless other verifiable incidents), a poet does us a great service if he or she allows us to stand in someone else’s shoes for even a moment, to feel the truth of what goes on – whether or not it’s gone on in our own days, and whether or not the poet has captured or concocted that truth from one incident or a thousand from their personal experience.  The poem is a vehicle and we travel inside it to a destination we must, in the end, substantiate – from what the poem gives us, from the baggage we were carrying all along.


Charles Coe is a poet, prose writer, teacher of writing, and musician.  Born and raised in Indianapolis, Indiana, he’s made his home in the Boston area since 1975.  He published his third collection of verse, Memento Mori (Leapfrog Press) in 2019; he also authored Spin Cycles, a novella issued by Gemma Media.  Among his honors was a 2017 appointment as Artist-in-Residence for the city of Boston.  An adjunct professor of English at Salve Regina University in Newport, Rhode Island, he teaches in their MFA program, helping students to achieve their own authenticity.  “We all know that Art is not truth,” wrote Pablo Picasso; “Art is a lie that makes us realize truth, at least the truth that is given us to understand.”  Charles’ poem helps me realize what my own days contain.  My bet is that it will do something similar for you as well.





I Wish I’d Held My Father’s Hand




My father put what he wanted to buy on the drugstore counter and said a polite “Good Afternoon” to the young white clerk, who didn’t return the greeting or meet his eye, just stared at the items a long moment, as if Father had dumped a bucket of kitchen scraps, and then with exquisite slowness that dripped contempt, began to ring them up.


It was just an ordinary day in Indiana in the early sixties. Everywhere a black man went he had to bite his tongue. Looking back over the years, I wish I could go back to that afternoon when my father stood quiet and still, as this young punk tried to put him in his place. I wish I could have caught his eye, delivered the silent message that I understood what he had to go through every day to keep the peace, to raise his family.


I wish I’d held my father’s hand.



                                                         ––Charles Coe





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


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