Saturday, September 24, 2022

Red Letter Poem #128

 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 #128



“Politics is the art of the possible” – so wrote Otto von Bismarck, who masterminded the unification of Germany in 1871.  In our 21st century United States, it seems we’re working hard to obliterate both of those ideas – possibility and unity – replacing them with this: politics as the practice of demonizing the other, of making one constituency fear its counterpart through the art of psychological manipulation and bald-faced lies.  All that matters is the achievement of power – even if, as a consequence, the very foundations of our democracy are being rotted away.  This week, we’ve witnessed an appalling example of the depths to which politicians are willing to go: a certain Florida governor (with aspirations to one day occupy the White House) used beleaguered asylum-seekers from Venezuela as pawns in a gesture to score points with his followers.  Clearly the suffering of those human beings was completely inconsequential to him.  While he’s been roundly condemned for this – even by some members of his own party – if the gesture plays with the base, it will certainly be repeated.


Channeling the spirit of Walt Whitman, Indran Amirthanayagam’s poems try to inspire readers with a sense of new possibility, a more open-hearted and humanist conception of how the disparate energies of our troubled democracy can once again be united.  An award-winning poet, essayist, translator, publisher, and diplomat, Indran was born in Colombo, Sri Lanka, but also spent his formative years in London and Honolulu.  He writes in English, Spanish, French, Portuguese and Haitian Creole, making him a living example of the way language can construct bridges between people and diverse experiences.  “The Return” is taken from his just-published collection Ten Thousand Steps Against The Tyrant (Broadstone Books.)  While many of the poems unapologetically celebrate progressive politics, what is clear throughout is his vision that community and justice must trump political gain.  When I asked him about the opening image of this poem, Indran explained to me his “partner in poetry, Sara Cahill Marron, is also a lawyer. When Ruth Bader Ginsberg died, Sara went to the steps of the Supreme Court and left her legal pencil as an offering.”  Words matter – and, when wielded with skill and conviction, they possess enormous power. “Ginsberg worked to advance rights for women, for minorities, for all of us. She fought to make our democracy more fitting, more expansive, closer to the ideals that motivated the Founders of the Republic.”   


In his poetic manifesto, “Starting from Paumanok” – appearing in his seminal Leaves of Grass – the bard wrote: “Take my leaves America, take them South and take them North,/ Make welcome for them everywhere, for they are your own off-spring,/ Surround them East and West, for they would surround you…”.   Indran, too, sings of those marvelous possibilities, hoping we might once again embrace what this democracy first engendered and hungers for still.




The Return



The pencil is magic––leaving it in offering on steps of the Court, then the call

from the DA's office for a second interview. There is a hand beyond, outside,

inside at all times circulating, sweeping up worshippers who have given

the spirit his and her due, who have understood that one knows the world

through heart and head, eyes, breath, and with none of these but learned

faith, trusting the call out of the blue, ready to rise, pick up the phone and recite

the right words, healing words, words that will bring children bawling

and smiling into the world, that will give the wronged the chance to escape

the unjust, that will break down the trickery of the desperate purveyors

of privilege. This is the New Deal again, the throwing out of Coolidge,

Ms. Smith going to Washington, returning now to Paumanok to assure that

Walt Whitman's words will be spoken at this time that Jack Hirschman calls

the American Revolution, to which I add, humbly and in the eyes of God,

the re-revolving rolling raising goose hairs and kissing them without the knife,

this vegetarian, wine-free yet wine-respectful non-American, worldwide electric

spinning dial whirling, whirling from Paumanok to Washington to Frisco Bay,

light as a feather rolling on wind streams into my heart and yours. I too

am walking now and about to run. Do you see me light and hope-filled

grateful that the word is in good hands and coming back to the island

from where it walked abroad, coming back strong?



                         ––Indran Amirthanayagam




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          



Monday, September 19, 2022

In Between Spaces: An Anthology of Disabled Writers


Rebecca Burke, ed. In Between Spaces: An Anthology of Disabled Writers. Stillhouse Press. 258pp.

Reviewed by Ruth Hoberman

Curb cuts, kneeling buses, closed captions, and audible walk lights were a start. But disability rights activists are now asking for more: representation. This means representation in positions of power as well as representations in the media that they have themselves created. “Growing up, I never read a book with a main character like me written by a disabled author,” Rebecca Burke writes at the start of In Between Spaces, an anthology of work by thirty-three writers who identify as disabled. In solidarity with other underrepresented populations, Burke insists that publishing—long dominated by its “cisgender, heteronormative, ableist, and white supremacist history”—must make room for more diverse voices. In Between Spaces addresses ableism in particular: the assumption that bodies and minds differing from social norms or notions of health are defined solely by that difference, and that they therefore need “fixing.” Look elsewhere, these writers collectively suggest—at infrastructure, attitudes, and institutions—for what needs fixing.

Burke and her fellow editorial board members at Stillhouse Press—a student- and alumni-run press affiliated with George Mason University—have sought out work arising from the spaces “in-between traditional diagnostic criteria and textbook definitions, where lived experience fills the gaps in our understanding.” Individual pieces are true to this aim: fiction blurs with nonfiction, poetry with prose; poems push the boundaries of form and genre. There are no straightforward narratives of diagnosis, treatment, and cure. Instead we get immersion in the minds of interesting, carefully individualized people.

What exactly is “wrong” with the narrator of “Mornings,” a nonfiction piece by Rhea Dhanbhoora, which opens the book? What struck me as I read was how much I wanted to be told and how thoroughly my desire was rebuffed. The narrator has problems with her legs. “But you’re not disabled,” people tell her. “Disabled is—like really disabled.” But her legs “just hang there limp, loose, on fire.” My impulse was to impose a narrative on her experience, one where the tension comes from sickness and the happy ending means cure. Her friends tell her, “you’re not disabled—everyone has back problems.” But that urge to deny or fix someone else’s reality is one of the problems this anthology seeks to expose and counteract.

Many pieces point out the limitations of medical terms. Poems like “Health History,”“Galvanic Skin Test Response,” “Turner syndrome,” and “Bipolar II” undercut and complicate diagnostic labels. Kaleigh O’Keefe’s “Diagnostic Laparoscopy” echoes a medical textbook with its headings and bullet points:

I. What will the surgeon find inside me?

 . blood and muscle

  . inflammation

   .scar tissue (to be expected)

  .scar tissue (that wasn’t expected)

  .a box of Kleenex

The list mingles likely things (“scar tissue”) with unlikely (“maybe that tampon I still don’t know if I lost on the dance floor or if it got sucked into the black hole behind my cervix seven years ago when I got too drunk at that lesbian music festival”). There’s a hint of rage in some of the imagined findings: “an old stone wall creeping through my guts” or “a bomb”. We learn so much about this person through her fantasies that what the surgeon does finally find— endometriosis—feels laughably inadequate.

Lili Sarayrah’s “pain(t)—by—number,” a wry nonfictional account of back pain, complicates the infamous 1-10 pain scale with a paint-by-number set. Immobilized by pain and the pandemic, Sarayrah seeks distraction in her paint set but finds instead just another facet of her bodily condition: “If my pain were a color, it would be like paint No. 19, a shade of orange like those traffic cones marking caution ahead.” The pain scale, of course, frustrates with its narrow range of options; so, too, does the world’s desire to label who she is: “I feel in-between a lot of the time. Specifically in-between cultures, jobs, and diagnoses.” Sarayrah’s essay ends tentatively, inconclusively: there is no definitive triumph, only “acceptance of the imperfection.” And most important is her own incalculability as a human self: “I put away my pain(t) and when we film my first wobbly steps, no one’s counting.”

No one’s counting because experience isn’t reducible to numerical formulae. That lovely ending made me think of Whitman’s “When Last I heard the Learn’d Astronomer,” in which the speaker, “unaccountable,” gets impatient with the lecture and wanders out alone to look “in perfect silence at the stars.” The people in these poems, essays, and stories are all insistently unaccountable: individuals conveying what it feels like to live inside a particular body or mind at a particular time and place.

Resistance to categories means also resistance to conventional endings. Wendy Elizabeth Wallace offers the reader alternative plot options as she narrates “Your Very Own Low-Vision Dating Adventure,” and Teresa Milbrodt, in “Cyclops Notes,” a fragmented account of visual impairment, writes, “Life means continually revising what is normal, embracing your tenuousness, wondering if the twinge in your elbow is temporary or permanent. Nobody is ever out of the woods. Life is all about the woods.”

There are many more writers worth mentioning than I can include here. But I’ll conclude with Latif Askia Ba, whose four extraordinary poems depict life inside a body with “crooked glowing limbs.” “On Gospel (a Meander)” is particularly innovative and powerful. Aligned on the page’s left margin is an account of “this body like an exile,/like a wound dumb luck carved into my neurons,/a wound only words can pass through.” Interspersed is an account of listening to “Aretha’s gospel/over and over”—an account aligned along the right margin. “Only the gospel can remedy/this confusion,” we learn: the confusion of a mind where words from “Plato’s Republic/and the Pali Canon collide with verses/of Patwah.” The remedy: “She knows/one must bend to testify.”

Ba’s “Houses,” the book’s penultimate piece, epitomizes the anthology’s ability to familiarize us with unfamiliar voices even as it defamiliarizes the familiar:

Even houses are strange.

They live in you.

They’re shaped of corners and doorways,

parts of apartments and crammed lodgings—

private as a pair of testicles.

I thought of Philip Larkin’s “Home is So Sad,” but his houses are tame, “Shaped to the comfort of the last to go.” For Ba,

Houses cut you open:

a jagged wood,

a very bad word,

a question.

And when houses die, they leave behind an “inheritance” that captures the incongruities and beauties of this anthology: “a dying washing machine, a garden devoured by winter,/an old CPU, a bird unnamed by man.”

Saturday, September 17, 2022

Tracy Flick Can’t Win by Tom Perrotta

Tracy Flick Can’t Win by Tom Perrotta. Scribner, New York, 2022. 257 pages. $27.00.

Book review by Ed Meek

Tom Perrotta is one of the best satirists writing fiction today. His new book is a sequel to the very funny novel Election. The main character of both novels is Tracy Flick. In Election, she is a high school overachiever running for President of her class. She is the type of student everyone hated in high school—always knew the answer, hand up first in class, front row student and leader of half a dozen high school clubs. Tracy is played to perfection in the movie version of the novel by Reese Witherspoon (although the novel is funnier than the movie). In our me-too era, the movie feels a little out of date with the main character involved in a consensual affair with her English teacher. Is there such a thing as a consensual affair between a student and a teacher today? The fact that my next-door neighbor married his junior high math teacher just doesn’t compute anymore (they did wait until he graduated).

Well aware of the fraught atmosphere of today’s political correctness, Perrotta has recreated Tracy as a sympathetic woman whose dreams of becoming the first female President were dashed when she had to leave law school to take care of her sick mother. Now, a single mom and the Assistant Principal at the high school she graduated from, she just wants to be Principal. Is that too much to ask?

A rich member of the school board, Kyle Dorfman, who made his fortune with an app called Barky. Barky has a “Love Bank. If you did a nice thing for Barky, gave him a biscuit or a bath or a bone, you would earn Gratitude Hearts—they would float up from the dog’s head and deposit themselves in a treasure chest—and you could use those hearts as currency.” Kyle has decided to create a hall of fame in the high school that will be public relations for the school and for him.

Meanwhile, the principal, Jack Weede, is retiring to take his wife, who is a cancer survivor, on the cross-country trip of her dreams. Jack was involved for years with one of the secretaries at the school who is known as Front Desk Diane but he ended the affair when his wife got cancer and now, he is ready to retire and make his wife happy.

At first, Tracy seems to be a shoo-in for the principal position, but things get complicated when she signs up as a member of the committee choosing who will go into the hall of fame. A heavy favorite for induction is Vito Falcone, a quarterback who was a star at the high school and made it to the NFL. Maybe the high school needs a revitalized football program with Vito’s former coach winning coach to lead the school in a new direction rather than Tracy Flick.

Vito has his own challenges. Football left him with concussions that cause him to lose his temper and hit his wife. As a result, he’s living in an apartment by himself and trying to atone for his transgression.

It is a little harder to write satire in 2022 than it was twenty years ago. In Tracy Flick Can’t Win, it is not just a coincidence that those who commit transgressions are all males. Perrotta could have followed Tracy into politics but instead he has decided to make her into a single mom we root for. Perrotta sacrifices humor for realism. If you’re so inclined, I’d encourage you to read or reread Election before picking up Tracy Flick Can’t Win. Humor is partly based on violating taboos, but what is acceptable to audiences today is not the same as what was funny twenty years ago. In any case, both of these books make great summer reading.

Wednesday, September 14, 2022

Tuesday, September 13, 2022

Scene: From The Movie Giant by Tino Villanueva

Review by Paul Steven Stone: Scene: From The Movie Giant by Tino Villanueva

It's not very often that a cultural experience tears open the veneer one has unknowingly grown over one's vulnerabilities and cultural wounds, but Scene From The Movie Giant tells the tale of one such upheaval wrought upon the life and self-examination of a boy almost grown into manhood. Tino Villanueva was 14 years old when he sat in the darkness of a Texas movie theater watching the movie Giant. What he experienced was far more than a movie; call it a cultural earthquake, as he witnessed anti-Mexican racism supposedly offered to highlight and counter its racist cruelties, but still a painful dose of medicine for a boy struggling to understand his own identity in a bicultural community. Scene from the Movie Giant is Villanueva's exquisite portrayal of the havoc that viewing experience wrought in his life and growing understanding of the world around him. As he says in his artful poetry, "By now the day was fading into twilight/and I beginning/not to cast a shadow where I had always been/when I saw/suddenly a boy alone/who had to tear to prove he was…/Something from the movie screen had/dropped into his life, his small shield of faith/no longer with him." Words that cut deep into the human condition. A gem worth reading more than once.

Saturday, September 10, 2022

Red Letter Poem #127


Dear Readers, for only the second time in the two-and-a half years of the Red Letter project, I’ll have to skip a week.  I’ll be on a writing retreat to a little island off of New Hampshire where WIFI is iffy at best.  I will be making my own red letter days there – and I trust you will the same.  See you again on 9/23.





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 #127



It’s at the heart of every magician’s trick: misdirection – distracting the audience with some feint, some attention-grabbing gesture so that, while their minds are elsewhere, the ‘feat of magic’ can suddenly take place.  It’s an act of self-conscious deception designed to provoke wonder in the onlooker.  Ta-da!  Cue the applause and the appreciative ooh’s and ah’s!


Is that what’s taking place here, in this new poem from Miriam Levine?  Not quite.  She begins by following her mind’s attention as it wends its way into the world, noticing bits of ordinary beauty (darting birds, blue-veiled Mt. Monadnock) and elements of the modern urban landscape (the half-way house, the cars struggling uphill.)  And suddenly, the startling news – and nothing seems quite the same after that.  While her carefully-observed images lead us onward, we’re more than a little shocked when, out of nowhere, the great 19th century poet of Amherst steps from behind the scrim; and then a closing couplet materializes that is both beautiful and haunting. 


The difference between the magician’s legerdemain and the poet’s conjuring: I think the poet is both performer and audience.  I don’t think Miriam set out to lay a trap for our hearts but, lured on by her own exploring consciousness, was herself caught off-guard.  Was she, too, quietly stunned by where those flitting birds eventually settled down – as we were?  The magic within the contemporary poem is the daring (or unbridled curiosity? or intuitive skill?) that allows the writer to travel – not to what she thought, at the outset, was her intended destination, but where the poem (with a mind of its own) was leading her all along.  Or maybe I’m wrong, and these were a set of artful moves, designed to unsettle and surprise.  That, too, is the great pleasure in such a performance: we can reread a poem again and again and, each time, try to see how the trick was done – or to simply sit back and enjoy what appears out of that sudden flash of light and puff of smoke. 


Making a return appearance to the Red Letters, Miriam is that sort of bracing poet that seems to welcome her readers into the substance of her days, trusting that we will savor both the kinship to our own experience as well as moments extending beyond our reach.  In that manner, her work reminds me of Ruth Stone’s – another poet whose writing I prize.  The author of five poetry collections – the most recent being Saving Daylight – as well as a novel and a memoir, Miriam was Arlington’s first Poet Laureate, but now divides her time between New Hampshire and Florida.




Watching Birds


Birds flit low in early morning across School Street

past the half-way house for released convicts


as a lone car strains up the steep hill

toward Monadnock in the blue distance.


And now another car, electric, soundless,

empty except for the obscured driver.


The clear, clean light and scent of lilacs

make the fast-disappearing birds so


piercing now.  Another friend is dead!

He who was supposed to outlive us all.


I think of the verve and flash of robins Dickinson

watched from the edge of her garden,


breathing in the spice of lilacs while the morning

sun found a cold space in her and filled it.



              ––Miriam Levine




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