Friday, July 09, 2021

The Red Letters 3.0: A New Beginning (Perhaps)

 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 #67

To my mind, this may be the greatest gift poetry and art have to offer: to make the invisible visible. And I’m not just talking about mystical visions and emotional depths – I mean the profound complexity masked by the dailiness of our existence which we, blinded by habit, most often overlook. And, sadly, that applies to the human beings moving through their own lives in close proximity – whose love or fear, pain or exultation can go unnoticed. . .that is, until some observant eye, some artistic apprehension penetrates the veil. That’s what Jim Foritano does here in his portrait of Al, a hot dog vendor near New York’s famed citadel of art, the Met. Not only does Jim humanize this gentleman, he hints at the depth of suffering – emotional as well as economic – our current plague has visited upon his reality. I might have been tempted to call Al an antihero, until I came to the poet’s lines: “Al lifts// N.Y.C. hands/ that held arms// in Vietnam” – and then I found myself feeling somewhat abashed at how easily we substitute appearances for the unique quality of our individual experience. I cannot know all that this man is carrying within him – but close observation, or perhaps a quick conversation over a purchase (two ‘dogs, please, ‘kraut, deli mustard) can allow us a glimpse. I’m anxious to see whether our year-and-a-half of isolation will make us, for example, more appreciative of those fellow commuters packed in beside us on the Red Line; or the clutch of tourists bustling through Boston Garden, begging directions; or even that unnamed neighbor from down the street with whom, before Covid, we exchanged only a slight nod in passing. Jim’s poem put me in mind of the lines spoken by George Bailey, Jimmy Stewart’s character from It’s a Wonderful Life, as he rails against Bedford Falls’ stone-hearted banker: “Just remember this, Mr. Potter, that this rabble you're talking about, they do most of the working and paying and living and dying in this community.” I have the feeling this would not come as news to Al.

J.C. (Jim) Foritano reports that “he was born and grew to some semblance of maturity in Arlington, then moved to Belmont, and is now a proud Cantabridgian.” But as a member of the Beehive poetry group at the Robbins Library, he frequently revisits his Arlingtonian roots. He began writing poetry in the 1960’s at Colby College where one of his professors published a chapbook of his work. Throughout a lifetime of teaching (“and learning!”), Jim says that writing poems helps him sharpen his attention and makes himself more available to what’s happening around him.

Plague is Plague

Tell that to the vendor

of ‘dogs by the curb

of the Met. Others

number their dead. Al

numbers his ‘dogs

gone unsold, gone cold,

as the art lovers flock

to shelter. Al lifts

N.Y.C. hands

that held arms

in Vietnam, but now

he patrols empty

streets holding


he can’t meet,

meat he can’t

sell. Two trucks

idle; two shoulders

idle while Al


empty palms

into an eloquent

shrug: a New York


he can’t fill.

–– J. C. Foritano

No comments:

Post a Comment