Sunday, December 04, 2022

Red Letter Poem #138

 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 #138





The term itself conjures mystery: horology.  It is the science (or art – even Webster’s equivocates) of making timepieces or measuring time.  In mankind’s earliest development, an understanding of time’s passage was something akin to wisdom.  From Egyptian sundials and water clocks; to the elaborate 17th century contraptions harnessing pendulums, springs, and hand-wrought gears; through the high-tech chronometers adorning wrists today where an oscillating sliver of silicon carves each second into a hundred pieces – it seems something in human consciousness takes comfort in the attempt to regulate the horological, knowing full well how time defies our timekeepers at every turn.


And so Denise Bergman returns to the Red Letters with a fascinating linguistic device where the springs and escapements of grammar make us all into watchmakers, our workbench surrounded by the echoes of history and desire.  Can we rely on our tools, our skills, to coax that “dead 1:22” back from oblivion?  Has time’s arrow been misplaced in our understanding, or has it already found its target?  I’m left feeling a little befuddled, one eye gazing through a jeweler’s loupe at the minute details of our fragile now, while my other eye squints at the bright window where flocks of days and months seem to race past like birds on a southward trajectory.  The poem makes me savor that faint tick-ticking inside my ribcage, as words trickle through the hourglass of couplets.  Denise is the author of five poetry collections, the most recent of which is The Shape of the Keyhole (from Black Lawrence Press.)  As was her penchant in the earlier volumes, this one is formed around a single historical figure and incident – in this case, one week in the year 1650 as a woman accused of witchcraft awaits her hanging.  No surprise that time is again a protagonist in her verse.  Denise is also the editor of the anthology City River of Voices, a literary panorama of Cambridge, MA where she’s made her home for decades.


I must add that “Split Second” is also an ekphrastic poem – a piece created in response to an existing artwork – in this case, the eccentric and engaging Watchmaker by Jacob Lawrence, the noted Harlem Renaissance painter.  And it dawns on me that one of the projects of both the artist and poet is to arrest time so that even the momentary can be seen as momentous, capable of bearing our scrutiny, our delight.  We lose ourselves briefly, standing before the canvas or rereading the poem, only to reemerge into our morning refreshed, invigorated – blissfully unaware of how much time has fled in our absence.




Split Second


                   (Watchmaker, Jacob Lawrence, 1946)



Into the split second where the gear’s teeth will engage,

a man peers, head tilted, eyepiece wedged against gravity’s claim


Arm on a ledge of air, his fingers with tiny tools mend time

Look who’s waiting: Cupid on a table-clock’s brass bell


arched back, arrowless bowstring pulled taut

Nude stretched on a tangerine sun, hour hand mired in dusk


On the wall behind intent’s blue-stripe shoulders, a dead 1:22,

jittering 7:10, paralyzed ticktock swinging on a wristband


Mouth to the watchmaker’s earless ear

the 11:45 waits to start counting


The hand in his hand stutters  His work is working on time



                                                ––Denise Bergman





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1 comment:

  1. Anonymous5:04 AM

    Good of you, Doug, to forward Steven's page here. Second and third readings reveal so much more, and Bergman's a fine poet, Ratiner elaborates so insightfully!