Sunday, January 22, 2023

Red Letter Poem #145

 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 #145





“Was I sleeping, while the others suffered?  Am I sleeping now?  Tomorrow, when I wake, or think I do, what shall I say of today?”  That’s Samuel Beckett at his best, in the waking-dream that is Waiting for Godot.  To my mind, Teresa Cader’s new poem, “Pythagoras…”, offers a similar kind of submersion into that cloudy zone where the mind is susceptible to the mystery of its own connectivity: how dream bleeds into memory; and clear-eyed observation can morph into unbridled fantasy without so much as a how-do-you-do.  And as in dream, this liminal state is not wholly random nor governed by intentional design – but neither is it empty sensation generated for its own sake.  It is an engagement with the material of our lives.  This is part of any artist’s essential mission: to make oneself so available to intuition and surprise, that she or he can record those imaginative responses – and then, with a practiced hand, to coax them out into the cold light of day, offering up some of their secrets.  Though we aren’t always aware of it, I believe the conscious mind craves – in fact, depends on – access to something more.  Teresa’s poem is more, and then some.


After all, peacocks and ancient Samos ought not to exist in the same two dozen lines as bread-baking and the oracle of NPR – yet here they are.  But when “cousin Danuta’s husband” is felled by stroke – or when the bright eyes of peacock feathers somehow gaze on both the Dalai Lama and the Nazi invaders – we start to feel wonder, bright as a barracuda, thrashing in the neural net.  What Teresa’s poem does, at least for me, is to expose the way the mind operates – connecting disparate thoughts, creating narratives, coping with pain, and (as the inky script spools across the poet’s notebook page) creating a path forward.


Teresa is the author of three books of poetry: the first, Guests, was awarded both the Norma Farber First Book Award and Ohio State’s The Journal/Charles B. Wheeler Poetry Prize.  The titles that followed – The Paper Wasp and History of Hurricanes – helped earn her fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Bunting Institute at Radcliffe, among others – and some of the poems have been translated into Icelandic and Polish.  On a personal note, I’ll add that History of Hurricanes – an exploration of familial and communal history – rarely leaves the reading stack beside my easy chair.  It’s a pleasure to welcome Teresa back to the Red Letters.




Pythagoras Said the Soul of Homer

  Moved into a Peacock



My peacock is strutting on the deck again.

I thought it was in ancient Samos, but no,


its hundred eyes track me in the kitchen

as I knead my floured mound of dough,


listen to NPR—the bees are dying off—

maybe the yellow jackets. They’ve lived


in the cracks of the brick patio for years

and stung my thighs through white cotton.


Maybe, like the peacock, they’re immortal,

their silence a kind of holiness.


When my cousin Danuta’s husband had a stroke,

she used her eyes and voice for his.


Believe me, I am not good at praying for people.

My mind wanders.  I see peacock feathers catch


glints of sun from the window, and Homer’s

soul opens like a peony in the garden.


It’s said the Dalai Lama brings a peacock feather

to his audiences with the holy and the desperate.


I’ve learned my grandmother owned a peacock

when the Nazis stormed her Polish village,


but she and my young aunt and uncle fled

weeks earlier on the last ship for New York.


Before my grandfather died, he called for his prized

canaries, decades gone, trained by his gramophone.


In the hospital they sang for him all night.



––Teresa Cader




The Red Letters 3.0


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