Friday, June 18, 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 (, and the Boston Area Small Press and Poetry Scene ( 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:

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 #64



Context is everything.

When I first read Jeffrey Harrison’s poem “Temporary Blindness” from his collection Into Daylight (Tupelo Press), I marveled at the physicality of his experience of grief. The poem was written after the death of his brother, an event that shook him to the core. Usually, a poem such as this offers readers a vicariousness through which we can explore – until we turn the page and return to the safety of our own lives. But read these same opening lines today – “It lasted a year and a half/ as if grief had closed an inner lid/ between my eyes and brain” – and tell me you’re not shaking your head right now, thinking the poet is describing what we’ve all gone through ever since we were first introduced to those two quietly-sinister words: novel coronavirus.

Certainly we’ve experienced a tremendous loss of life – the U. S. total topped 600,000 this week, and the worldwide deaths are approaching four million – but there may be fifty times that number of people whose lives were turned inside out by the illness. And even for families spared such acute pain, haven’t we all been traumatized by this pandemic, our very sense of normalcy (admittedly, a concept built on shaky foundations) forced to undergo a permanent transformation? And what of the last fifteen months that seemed to vanish like mist? Bereft of the solace of family and friends? And the pleasures of communal spaces and shared enjoyments – things that underscore a sense of we in a world increasingly atomized and estranged? And then there are the young children for whom this crisis overshadows most of what they know of life on this planet – masked, distanced, tinged with anxiety – how do we assess this grief? So even as our American cities are reopening for business, it’s not surprising how adrift many of us are feeling today.

And so I wonder: might we be heartened by Jeffrey’s poem, the reminder that healing does occur, though perhaps at a glacial pace? Even more, there’s the suggestion that a certain element of choice may be involved in this process: our determination to sharpen attention – and appreciation – of the simple beauties close at hand. How can we not savor what so many millions have had to relinquish? This thought brought one of Kenneth Patchen’s poem-paintings to mind; he depicts two confetti-colored beings standing beside this epigrammatic line, written in a childlike scrawl: “The One who comes to question himself. . .has cared for mankind.” In our changed existence, what questions are we now willing to entertain?


Temporary Blindness



It lasted a year and a half,

as if grief had closed an inner lid

between my eyes and brain

or slipped a caul over my head.


I spent my days in the black space

inside me, orbiting a dead star.

Now I want to return to earth.

I want to come back from the dead,


to remove the sack from my head

and breathe again,

and let the world in—


here, now, right in front of me—

to be awakened by a lake

glittering through trees.



                           Jeffrey Harrison

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