Sunday, November 28, 2021

Doug Holder interviews Lindy Bergin Conroe, author of "Clearly Hidden."

Somerville Artist Jenn Wood: She explores her sanctuary of nature

 


From Somerville artist Jenn Wood's website:


Jenn Wood is a painter and photographer in the Boston area. 
 
"Her Work Has Been Selected By Distinguished Jurors And Curators From Museums And Galleries In New England, New York, And California. Jenn Was Awarded A Summer Residency At The C-Scape Dune Shack In Provincetown And Also At The Plumbing Museum Residency In MA. Recently Her Work Was Included In A Collage Biennial Exhibition With Denise Bibro Fine Art, Chelsea NYC, And #ICPConcerned Exhibition At The ICP Photography Museum In NYC. Jenn Is A Juried Member Of The Painting Center Art File Gallery In Chelsea, And Shows Work At The Kentler Flatfiles At Kentler International Drawing Space In Brooklyn. Additional Artworks For Exhibitions In The Boston And NYC Areas, And CT Were Selected By Paul Ha, Marcela Guerrero, Howard Yezerski, Camilo Alvarez, Jane Szabo, Lisa Hayes Williams, Al Miner, Adam Peck, Lexi Lee Sullivan, Beth Kantrowitz, And Joseph Carroll."



How long have you been in Somerville-- and how has it been for your artistic life?

The first week of March 2020 I started moving into my new to me studio at Vernon St. Very unfortunately my activities were abruptly cut short by the arrival of Covid-19. During the pandemic I worked on a sizable painting at the studio on and off when I felt it was safe to be there. I also worked at home primarily on collage work and photography. Since returning to working at Vernon St. more often, I'm very happy with the space and the building in general.  I look forward to SOS in May...it's really disappointing that 2020 + 2021 Open Studios were not held in person!


As far as how Somerville has been for my artistic life, I wanted to move to aSomerville studio for several years and am happy to have the shared space. The city is inspiring for me and for other creatives of all disciplines and ages. I've been attending SOS and Somerville community cultural events for many years.

It seems that many artists I have interviewed have been "mixed-media" artists. You define yourself as one. Is this more prominent now than it has been in the past? 

It may be more prominent now, but some of the most influential artists for me have produced mixed media work. People like Robert Rauschenberg, Nancy Spero, Wangechi Mutu, and Kurt Schwitters are a few favorites.

Can you talk about the materials you use in your art? Or what are the different genres of art do you use in your work?

I utilize materials that are traditional and non-traditional which include varied types of paints, drawing tools, and substrates. Art materials may include varied acrylics and gouache paints, oil pastel, drawing and colored pencils, Caran d’Ache, crayons, and assorted acrylic mediums. For my collage work I produce hand
painted materials, and have combined them with printed text or handwriting, photographic images, and textured papers; as well as bark, rubber, plastic, and other items that are non-traditional art materials. For substrates I work on paper, canvas, translucent yupo, and acid free board.


Most of my work is abstract or non-objective and has evolved over many years of practice. However, I greatly value my foundation education in drawing, painting, printmaking, and art history - learning more traditional disciplines.


Your say your work displays vivid evocations of nature. Nature--is rapidly being destroyed by climate change, etc..--do you view your work as a history of what may be extinct in years to come.? Do you consider your work political?

It is a frightening thought but yes, my work may become obsolete, along with so much of our natural world. I don’t obsess about probabilities of extinction since they would paralyze me with sadness. To be an artist and persevere against many odds I believe you must be an optimist. But optimism can, and IMO should, include realistic expectations and views.

Nature has been my personal sanctuary since childhood. I’ve been fortunate to experience the wonders of oceans, mountains, forests, deserts and more, in varied habitats. And also simple joy of planting seeds in the earth and tending to their growth. Through my artwork I try to convey some of nature’s wonder and beauty, but also the horror of her destruction. The destruction I focus on is manmade. In this sense my art can be considered political, and in recent years it has become more so.


You say you bring out emotional layers in your work. How does this conception take physical form?

Sometimes it is implied through line, color and/or texture in my paintings and photographs. These elements can suggest calm or frantic moods, warm or cool feelings, rough or smooth situations, and convey emotional content in the work.

Some works are abstractions of maelstroms, whirlpools, or twirling that can pull your view into a vortex of swirling motion. The titles may relate to weather or earth disruptions, while some are more playful and reminiscent of twirling around dancing or in happy energized abandon. I’d like the viewer to experience
emotions when viewing my work and possibly when remembering it as well.


More literally in some of my older collages, I layered painted or printed papers of varied translucency, to build up images that relate to a story. The narrative is further suggested by visual elements of handwritten or printed text.


Any teacher and mentors that were big influences in your work?

Marc St. Pierre, Laurie Kaplowitz and Elena Peteva in Grad School at UMass Dartmouth, CVPA. Calvin Burnett, Dan Dailey, Lila Chalpin, Gus Kayafas, and Doc Legg as an undergrad at MassArt. I didn’t study art in high school so have no one to mention from that time.



If someone wants to buy some of your creations--what is the best way to go about that?

The best way to reach me is by email. Second best is by direct message at Instagram. Email is: jaeart1@gmail.com which can also be found at my website: www.jennwoodstudio.com. My Instagram is www.instagram.com/jennwoodart.We can view work together online and/or at my studio.

Any future projects?

I continue to work on two to three different ongoing series in painting/mm and photography. Also, a sustained effort to eradicate glass or Plexiglas between the viewer and my work. And I’ll be experimenting with an innovative new substrate
for some of my photographs and mixed media work. For the holidays I’ll be showing a painting with The Painting Center, NYC in their annual fundraiser exhibit.

Saturday, November 27, 2021

Toastmasters Around the World Zooming to Camberville


By Bill Lewis


On Saturday, December 4th, at 10:00 AM, Members of Toastmasters clubs from over a dozen countries will descend upon the “Humor and Drama” Toastmasters club, which meets in Cambridge and Somerville, for a warm, happy, welcoming meeting entitled

Stories of the Solstice

Members of clubs from Japan, Kenya, England, Aruba, Columbia, and France will Zoom in and talk about their “Stories of the Solstice,” in word and art and music. Along with these formal presentations, Toastmasters meetings always include a section where all of the attendees get the opportunity to speak in some fashion.

For this meeting, our “Table Topics” session is going to involve small breakout rooms where you will work with two of three other people and plan something-yet-to-be-determined and presented at the end of the meeting. We’ve done this before, and it is both fun and personal—you get to know people.

We would love to have you visit us and share in the fun.

And improve your public speaking skills!

***********************************************************************************

When I first joined Toastmasters, I joined because of work. I did not have many opportunities to present at work, because at that time my role did not require a lot of presenting. I sought out Toastmasters as a safe place to practice speaking. This way, when the time came to present, I would be prepared.

As the years went by, I gained confidence through speeches, and later, District Leadership opportunities. Subsequently, I pushed myself more in my career, taking on more demanding roles. Inevitably these involved speaking, presenting, and leading.

And you know what? I was prepared for it all!

In a few years I went from being a technician to management. Toastmasters absolutely played a role in helping me develop these skills. To this day, I still speak at Toastmasters, and I always recommend it to anyone looking to develop and improve themselves.

Toastmasters International is an organization of some 16,000 clubs and 400,000 members, which helps people learn how to speak effectively in public meetings and teaches its members leadership skills, all by doing.

New members are shepherded through their first speeches, with the assistance and support of the other members. As they grow in experience and confidence, they move into leadership roles—first in their own clubs, then in wider and wider circles as they see fit. Each year, one person, who started out exactly like everyone else, is elected to be the World President of Toastmasters International.

As a High School Teacher in Peace Corps, Kenya, I felt confident in public speaking—right up until he was in front of an audience of his peers.

I felt like an idiot at my first meeting. My mother had convinced me to come to her club, and as the Table Topics Master, she asked me to speak briefly on a simple topic. My mind went blank.

Now I am comfortable and confident in front of any audience. I speak professionally about Computer Science and I teach in costume as James Madison. I never would have been able to do this without Toastmasters.

In 2010,  I was the District Governor for some 130 Toastmasters clubs in Eastern Massachusetts and Rhode Island. With a budget of $50,000 and 50 direct reports, it forces one to lead. I was responsible for two major conferences, 20 officer trainings sessions, and some 200 speech contests. Along with starting new clubs.

One of the “new” clubs I helped charter was the Somerville Toastmasters, which meets in the XXX church on Williams street, one block away from his erstwhile home in Somerville. While a professor at Tufts University, I worked to start a club there also. (Without success—but if someone were interested…)


Red Letter Poem #86

 The Red Letter Poem Project

 

 

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 #86

 

 

“Istanbul does not have a color of its own other than gray. Concrete is the predominant tone, massed shapes overwhelming and pressing down upon the individual. I carry within me this immense longing for empty lots, deserted areas yet to be seized by commercial intruders. Slivers in the grid where my fellow poets and I can express ourselves freely, breaking away from the oppressive apparatus of social normativity and the surveillance state.”  So begins poet Efe Murad’s The Pleasures of Empty Lots: Scenes of Istanbul 2015–2016, recently published by Bored Wolves Press.  It’s a sort of memoir/aesthetic panorama/and red-alert warning concerning the effect totalitarianism has on poets in his country and the citizenry in general.  Reading about the internecine poetry conflicts in Turkey between rival schools of thought – made all the more intense because the state has clamped down so dramatically on all freedom of expression – I experienced a growing uneasiness, though it took a few moments to figure out why. 

 

At first, I thought it was simply the shock of contrast: in recent years, American poets have enjoyed extraordinary freedom, mainly because we’re so marginalized in society, no government would feel the need to attack us – privilege undermined by the fear of irrelevance.  But Efe’s account made me realized how our situation, too, has changed.  The forces of suppression in our country, though, have become decentralized, the result of a confluence of societal riptides: battling mass media outlets; campaigns of political disinformation; storms of social media opinion; and our own fearful self-censoring impulses in response to these culture wars.  A poet like Efe reminds me of how precious and utterly vital are our open gathering spaces – the virtual and cerebral ones as well as those boisterous cafes and verdant public commons where anyone can retreat for either fellowship or solitude, as is needed.

 

A well-known writer in Turkey, Efe’s first gathering of poems translated into English is a sequence entitled Encirclings, part of an anthology of Mediterranean poets edited by Irena Eden and Stijn Lernout (published by Schlebr├╝gge.Editor.)  In each untitled segment, he explores a more avant-garde approach, undercutting the sentimentality of older Turkish poems with a ‘selfless’ vision – devoid of pronouns, adjectives, and the feel of ‘agency’.  He is just offering the world as he finds it, inviting us to simply plunge inside (as the boy in the poem does into the Sea of Marmara.)  Such poetry trusts readers and writers alike to make their own way through experience, and to so highly prize such simple human moments, we’d never allow anyone to take them from us – not via tweet, edict, force of arms, nor our own lavish disregard.  I, for one, will give thanks for the reminder.

 

 

 

 

from Encirclings

 

 

transparency arrives from above.

skies shadow salt water.     

as the angle changes,    

in the cloudy water, limpid cove.

the weave of the surface is honeycombed, as the boy

climbs the rock.

his eyes in dreams – the surface of the water, the boy jumpin’.

splashing against the water, eyes in the water and cloudy shadow.   

the boy’s entangled in the cloud of salt, the salt water in the mouth,

invisible water creature.

what we haven’t lived’re our mistakes

our lives can’t change

 

 

­­                                           –– Efe Murad

 

                                                            (translated from the Turkish

by Murat Nemet-Nejat)

 

The Red Letters 3.0: A New Beginning (Perhaps)   

At the outset of the Covid pandemic, when fear was at its highest, the Red Letter Project was intended to remind us of community: that, even isolated in our homes, we could still face this challenge together.  As Arlington’s Poet Laureate, I began sending out a poem of comfort each Friday, featuring the fine talents from our town and its neighbors.  Because I enlisted the partnership of seven local arts and community organizations, distribution of the poems spread quickly – and, with subscribers sharing and re-posting the installments, soon we had readers, not only throughout the Commonwealth, but across the country.  And I delighted in the weekly e-mails I’d receive with praise for the poets; as one reader recently commented: “You give me the gift of a quiet, contemplative break—with something to take away and reflect on.”

 

Then our circumstance changed dramatically again: following the murder of George Floyd, the massive social and political unrest, and the national economic catastrophe, the distress of the pandemic was magnified.  Red Letter 2.0 announced that I would seek out as diverse a set of voices as I could find – from Massachusetts and beyond – so that their poems might inspire, challenge, deepen the conversation we were, by necessity, engaged in.

 

Now, with widespread vaccination, an economic rebound, and a shift in the political landscape, I intend to help this forum continue to evolve – Red Letter 3.0.  For the last 15 months, I’ve heard one question again and again: when will we get back our old lives?  It may pain us to admit it, but that is little more than a fantasy.  Our lives have been altered irrevocably – not only our understanding of how thoroughly interdependent we are, both locally and globally, but how fragile and utterly precious is all that we love.  Weren’t you bowled over recently by how good it felt just to hug a friend or family member?  Or to walk unmasked through a grocery, noticing all the faces?  So I think the question we must wrestle with is this: knowing what we know, how will we begin shaping our new life?  Will we quickly forget how grateful we felt that strangers put themselves at risk, every day, so that we might purchase milk and bread, ride the bus to work, or be cared for by a doctor or nurse?  Will we slip back into our old drowse and look away from the pain so many are forced to endure – in this, the wealthiest nation on the planet?  Will we stop noticing those simple beauties all around us?  The poet Mary Oliver said it plainly: “Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?”  I will continue to offer RLP readers the work of poets who are engaged in these questions, hoping their voices will fortify all of ours.

 

Two of our partner sites will continue re-posting each Red Letter weekly: the YourArlington news blog (https://www.yourarlington.com/easyblog/entry/28-poetry/3070-redletter-111121), and the Boston Area Small Press and Poetry Scene (http://dougholder.blogspot.com).  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: steven.arlingtonlaureate@gmail.com.

Tuesday, November 23, 2021

Gary Metras, Vanishing Points







Gary Metras, Vanishing Point Dos Madres Press. 2021. 73pp. $18.00

   Review by Ruth Hoberman


Gary Metras has been an essential part of the Massachusetts poetry scene for decades. A widely published poet, for forty years he also ran the Adastra Press and in 2018 was appointed Easthampton’s first poet laureate. Vanishing Points, his eighth collection, is steeped in this local landscape: throughout much of the book the poet thinks through his own mortality by means of his relation to natural phenomena—mountains, clouds, wind, fish, snow.

Take the opening poem, for example, “The Flame”: “Wind and snow./ A white persistence/as unforgiving as night.” A sleeper wakes from oblivion and lights a candle (whose long, narrow shape is mimicked by the poem): “A heart moves on the wall/like a shadow.” The poem feels brief and breathless, a half-waking vision that suggests the brevity and immateriality of human life.

The book is divided into four parts, the first two of which strike me as particularly death-haunted. Part I culminates in an ominous and ultimately comic encounter with a hearse, and Part II opens with “Approaching Harvest,” a 14-line poem with a hint of Shakespeare’s “That Time of Year” to it: The squash “huddle with fears of impermanence,” and “I sit atop the worn/wood table . . . one more thing/that will not survive the season.” In “Narrating the Pond’s Night,” the speaker catches and throws back a trout after sniffing “the death sprouting under his fins.” This wonderfully precise poem narrates the process of fly fishing at night under conventional headings—“exposition,” “complication,” “climax” “denouement”—while evoking a mystery unstructured by human devices. Images startle with their strangeness: the speaker stands on a “weed throttled shore,” as “water licks my sneakers and the bony flesh inside.” The fisherman and the fish are equally liable to be consumed: “Night is a simple mouth admitting all.” As the fisherman heads home, “Darkness has swallowed/the human way out.”

If “Narrating the Pond’s Night” provides a key to the collection’s structure, parts one and two being “exposition” and “complication,” then the final two sections are “climax” and “denouement.” The poems in these sections deal less with nature than with cultural and domestic experiences: the poet’s response to the “complication” of aging is to celebrate the consolations of human-made things, including a long marriage and a future made real by the presence of grandchildren. Perhaps my favorite poem in the book is “Lint,” which concludes the third section, making it the climax to the climax:

It doesn’t bother me to have

lint in the bottoms of pant pockets;

it gives the hands something to do,

especially since I no longer hold

shovel, hod, or hammer

in the daylight hours of labor

and haven’t, in fact, done so

in fifty-five years.

In an interview several years ago, Metras cited Robert Frost as an influence, and his previous book, White Storm (2018), includes a poem entitled “Frost’s Chair.” Certainly there are echoes of Frost in Metras’s snowy, rural landscape, and an “After Apple Picking” sense of mortality hovering over it all. What struck me reading Metras, though, is how many of Frost’s poems describe labor—a working in/with the land. When Frost’s speaker sees birches, he thinks of boys swinging on them. Metras’s speaker mainly looks. He does fish and in one poem mixes stucco, but after mixing in the scenery with his stucco, he tells us, he “quits the job.” This aging out (or professionalizing out?) of physical labor widens the gap, I think, between the speaker and his physical environment and contributes to the book’s poignancy. Instead of “shovel, hod or hammer,” there’s “lint”—that unnoticed detritus of wear and tear produced by the unnatural collision of clothes and washing machine. The poem’s speaker imagines giving his wife a sweater made from it, or wearing a tweed coat of woven lint to class. “Who would believe it?/ Yet there are stranger things,” he concludes: “the son of a bricklayer with hands/so smooth they’re only fit/for picking lint.”

I thought of Seamus Heaney’s pen, “snug” in his hand in “Digging,” but no match for his father’s spade. Digging, of course, is the poet’s task; Metras offers “picking lint,” an apt if modest analogy for the poet’s skill at noticing, the magical way minuscule observations coalesce into substance (am I the only one who has wondered how those invisible particles that fabric sheds somehow transform into fuzz?).

Part four, our denouement, is dominated by love, the word appearing in multiple poems and underlying the title poem, “Vanishing Point”: “Staring, you look for clues,” the poem opens, the “you” being anyone who has wondered what makes a marriage work. But “Love, when it stays, is traceless,” disappearing into whatever it touches, dissolving boundaries between those who share it: “When two people journey far enough into the distance/they merge.”

In the process they pass beyond the horizon, leaving children and grandchildren to take their place. This is where the book ends: “It is the child who speaks to my future,” the speaker says in “The Birth.” And in the final poem, “Engineering Sweet Dreams,” the speaker confesses to having eaten his son-in-law’s last mint to spare his granddaughter the smell of “stale tobacco” on his breath: “we/want her dreams to be sweet.” That “we” makes his son-in-law (and us) complicit in the theft of his own mint—a funny, complicated commentary on the relation of old to young, of poetry to the world. 





Saturday, November 20, 2021

Code by Charlotte Pence

 



Charlotte Pence, Code. Black Lawrence Press. 2020. 100pp. $17.95

Review by Ruth Hoberman




There’s nothing like a pandemic to make you think about how much in life is determined by entities we can’t see, much less control. In her 2020 poetry collection Code, Charlotte Pence explores the tension between the givenness of DNA and the inchoate longings that make us human—a painfully relevant topic at a moment when a virus’s replications can alter the course of our lives. If DNA could write poetry, what would it look like? these poems ask. And how do we write back?

Pence’s first collection, Many Small Fires (2015), explored family through the lens of Darwinism, asking what and whom we sacrifice in the name of survival; in Code, too, science sharpens Pence’s vision as she describes human beings dealing with what she calls in one poem “the limits of the possible.” Science offers Pence a way of asking big questions inventively and expansively: far from being reduced by understanding ourselves biochemically, we are connected more deeply to each other and to the world. “I like being/reminded that we all began in dark and stars,” Pence writes in “The Weight of the Sun”: “that the carbon, nitrogen and oxygen/in our bodies was created 4.5 billion/years ago.” As for DNA, it may contain our death, but it also gives new life to the dead. “My child./Our eyes,” a dying mother says of her young daughter.

This dying mother is at the heart of the book’s Part III, entitled “Code: A Sequence in Twenty-Three Parts.” Its twenty-three poems dramatize a young mother’s death of a degenerative disease encoded in her DNA. This section is the book’s most inventive from a formal standpoint: along with a few sonnets, it includes poems constructed from a multiple choice quiz, from a series of palindromes, and from actual genetic codes. The woman is named A, her husband T, letters which, the endnotes inform us, stand for adenine and thymine, two constituents of DNA. Since a cell contains twenty-three pairs of chromosomes, the twenty-three poems dramatize the extent to which we are our DNA. What does it mean that DNA, that “track laid for/a corporeal train,” determines so much of who we are? That we can inherit a propensity for cancer or Huntington’s disease along with our parents’ love? “Don’t be fooled into thinking you/understand this world,” DNA cautions in one poem. DNA’s perspective is nothing like our own. “Up here/in this bank of blue, this blink of clouds,/everyone is reduced to the hard roof/of their car.”

CRISPR, Pence reminds us in an endnote, stands for Clustered Interspaced Palindromic Repeats. And indeed the book is structured somewhat like a palindrome: parts I and V contain poems drawing on Pence’s life as wife, mother, poet; each of parts II and IV contains an essay by Pence and two poems by Shira Shaiman, a poet-friend of Pence’s; and at the center, Part III: the story of A, T, and their daughter. Clever? Yes. Too clever? Not at all.

The language and structures borrowed from genetics only intensify the impact when humans talk back to what has been encoded—and they get plenty of space to talk back. “Grief, like art, continues to teach/the limits of the possible,” T says, but he stretches those limits as he envisions holding his daughter up in the Paleolithic cave he has read about, so she can poke “the ceiling’s moon milk,/that wet, soft carbonate sparkling like stars/under the forked flame,” stone age and contemporary child melding, joined by the clay, “this moonmilk, mountain, mother.”

Pence enacts T’s thoughts a few pages later, in Part IV’s “Stubby Horses and Why We Paint Them: An Essay,” where she describes visiting the Monte Castillo caves in Spain with her family. She, too, is looking for continuity in the face of death. Indeed the four parts that frame A’s story echo its themes, addressing losses in Pence’s own life—of her poet-friend Shaiman, of her father-in-law, and of a friend’s daughter—losses she chronicles in Part II’s “Codicil: An Essay.” There she describes rereading Shaiman’s masters thesis as she was completing Code. Her inclusion in the book of four poems by Shaiman works an act of love and preservation, and also as an echo-chamber of loss and replication. “Don’t become like me,” Shaiman’s speaker imagines her mother—dying of cancer—telling her.

Loss and the fear of loss pervade Code, but so too does delight in the everyday and in connection. In her essay about visiting the caves, Pence sees, in a child’s handprint on the wall, “that desire to reach out . . . red hands without arms reaching out in the dark.” Reaching hands appear also in “Among the Yellows,” in which a beehive’s “hundred split hexagons,/shining, licked gold” morph into an apartment building where, as the speaker passes by, “A slumped stranger suddenly/leapt from his chair, mouth/open, arms outstretched/to catch something/he loved.” These generous poems extend their own arms toward us—celebrating the many ways we save what we love from oblivion.






  Ruth Hoberman is a professor emerita of English at Eastern Illinois University, where she taught modern British literature for thirty years. She has published on Virginia Woolf, biography, and women’s historical fiction. Her most recent book, Museum Trouble: Edwardian Fiction and the Emergence of Modernism, was published in 2011 (University of Virginia Press).

Since her 2014 retirement, she has published poetry and creative nonfiction in (among other places) The Examined Life, Adirondack Review, Michigan Quarterly Review, Natural Bridge, Ploughshares, Calyx, and Rattle: Poets Respond.



Friday, November 19, 2021

The Red Letter Poem Project The Red Letters 3.0: A New Beginning (Perhaps)

 The Red Letter Poem Project

 

The Red Letters 3.0: A New Beginning (Perhaps)   

At the outset of the Covid pandemic, when fear was at its highest, the Red Letter Project was intended to remind us of community: that, even isolated in our separate homes, we could still face this challenge together.  As Arlington’s Poet Laureate, I began sending out a poem of comfort each Friday, featuring the fine talents from our town and its neighbors.  Because I enlisted the partnership of seven local arts and community organizations, distribution of the poems spread quickly – and, with subscribers sharing and re-posting the installments, soon we had readers, not only throughout the Commonwealth, but across the country.  And I delighted in the weekly e-mails I’d receive with praise for the poets; as one reader recently commented: “You give me the gift of a quiet, contemplative break—with something to take away and reflect on.”

 

Then our circumstance changed dramatically again: following the murder of George Floyd, the massive social and political unrest, and the national economic catastrophe, the distress of the pandemic was magnified.  Red Letter 2.0 announced that I would seek out as diverse a set of voices as I could find – from Massachusetts and beyond – so that their poems might inspire, challenge, deepen the conversation we were, by necessity, engaged in.

 

Now, with widespread vaccination, an economic rebound, and a shift in the political landscape, I intend to help this forum continue to evolve – Red Letter 3.0.  For the last 15 months, I’ve heard one question again and again: when will we get back our old lives?  It may pain us to admit it, but that is little more than a fantasy.  Our lives have been altered irrevocably – not only our understanding of how thoroughly interdependent we are, both locally and globally, but how fragile and utterly precious is all that we love.  Weren’t you bowled over recently by how good it felt just to hug a friend or family member?  Or to walk unmasked through a grocery, noticing all the faces?  So I think the question we must wrestle with is this: knowing what we know, how will we begin shaping our new life?  Will we quickly forget how grateful we felt that strangers put themselves at risk, every day, so that we might purchase milk and bread, ride the bus to work, or be cared for by a doctor or nurse?  Will we slip back into our old drowse and look away from the pain so many are forced to endure – in this, the wealthiest nation on the planet?  Will we stop noticing those simple beauties all around us?  The poet Mary Oliver said it plainly: “Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?”  I will continue to offer RLP readers the work of poets who are engaged in these questions, hoping their voices will fortify all of ours.

 

Two of our partner sites will continue re-posting each Red Letter weekly: the YourArlington news blog (https://www.yourarlington.com/easyblog/entry/28-poetry/3054-redletter-092421), and the Boston Area Small Press and Poetry Scene (http://dougholder.blogspot.com).  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: steven.arlingtonlaureate@gmail.com.

 

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 #85

 

 

Years back, I had the great good fortune of engaging in conversation with Nobel Prize-winning poet Seamus Heaney for an interview collection I was putting together.  I’d long admired the rich musicality of his writing, and the uncanny way he could make us feel the confluence of history, memory, and the magic of the natural world as undercurrents beneath each compelling line.  “But this isn't peculiar to me,” he said, deflecting my praise.  “This belongs to the language [itself.]  I think everybody, whether or not they're conscious of it, responds to these things. . .  we do have certain associations with certain sounds.  And what a poet is doing is unconsciously working with that.”  Reminding me of T. S. Eliot’s idea of the 'auditory imagination', he added: “Eliot talks about the feeling for syllable and rhythm reaching below the conscious levels, uniting the most ancient and most civilized mentality.  I feel that about the word 'culvert.'  It's got a kind of dark-hole-under-the-ground within it.  And stored in the system, in the big archive of every ear, there is a memory of hearing a very thin trickle of water in a big, echoey under-place. . .The collusion between the verbal thing and the human store in the ear, I mean, that's the mysterious nub of the matter.”

 

And so it is with Sarah Bennett’s new poem “My New Word”.  Written early on in the pandemic when the news was generally bleak and we were concerned whether ‘essential workers’ would continue putting their health and wellbeing on the line, just so we’d be able to purchase chicken breasts, cheddar cheese, and a supply of toilet paper.  Sarah’s choice of ‘anti-anxiety medication’ was a large supply of mystery novels which she devoured nightly.  It pleased her that a character like Nero Wolfe, the portly detective, was as fond of good food and fanciful language as he was of solving mysteries.  Sarah found herself keeping a running list of his words she wished to investigate: thaumaturge, minatory, casuistry, rodomontade.  Of course, even when we require Webster’s assistance, that does not mean we haven’t grasped, via poetic intuition, something about what freight might be carried within these words, what exploits they’ve had and what nuances of meaning acquired as they’ve passed through thousands of mouths. 

Having read Sarah’s first poetry collection, The Fisher Cat (Dytiscid Press), I understood how language was a sea her mind navigated continually; but in this poem, she allows us to wade in beside her, feeling the riptides tugging at our thought.  She sent me a little essay she wrote about reading these Rex Stout who-dunnits while the dark headlines of the Covid crisis swirled as a backdrop.  I guess detective stories do remind us that we are capable of working through problems, and order may yet be restored (even while fear and the death toll continue to rise.)  It’s a situation that calls for a word like minatory, don’t you think?  Sarah's piece concludes: “We need Nero Wolfe to come down from his orchid rooms and solve this mess. We need a thaumaturge.”  Even before you look it up, tell me you don’t already half-believe in the magic that might be contained there.

 

 

My New Word

 

 

In desperationfor distraction I have been readingNero Wolfe detective storiesone after anotherfast as I canand came upon a word I did not know: helotwhich sounded something between a hellionand a zealot.

 

A glance at the newssays Tyson must remain opendespite the plague:the humans shoulder to shoulderat the refrigerated slabdisassembling chickensone after anotherfast as they can.Something between a citizen and a slave.

 

 

­­                              –– Sarah Bennett