Friday, September 10, 2021

Red Letter Poem 76

I’ll be taking a one-week hiatus to attend a writing retreat and will return with a new Red Letter on September 24th. In the meantime, why not seek out your own clear-eyed passage, composing your own Red Letter day.



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 #76




Gyre.  Anemone.  Colonnade.  Crevasse.  It’s a little like following footsteps in the sand: reading words.  They lead us back to all the people whose minds once savored their meanings, all those in whose mouths these syllables once rested.  For a moment, mid-sentence, you might have a sense of yourself on the long human caravan where, during the lonely nights, you can take your bearings by all those stellar words spoken before you even existed.  And if you are of the inclination to put words to paper, you may even have an intimation of the linguistic markers you yourself are setting down which some other traveler may come across, sometime in the future.


When words are used especially well, they become imbued with personality, resonance, mystery – not only those rare beauties (what my high school English teacher referred to as “five dollar words”) but even those blunt and serviceable nouns we use to convey apple to waiting hand.  Poets often leave their mark on words in an especially indelible way that survives long after their mortal existence.  Most readers of poetry cannot come across a word like gyre without the uneasy feeling of chaos erupting while the shadow of Yeats’ falcon falls across our path.   Anemone, and I’m standing in Dr. Williams’ white field.   Colonnade, and I’m waking in April, Eliot’s cruelest of months.  And when I hear crevasse, I can’t help but find myself searching along with Lucille Clifton for the garden of delight, “certain only of the syllables.  After reading today’s Red Letter, I suspect Deborah Melone’s psithurism will always have a bit of her voice attached (to say nothing of apricity.)  Her poem is reminding us of that elemental joy when we discover that there are, in fact, words for that desire just taking shape inside us – ones that can make us feel we do, in fact, belong in this world. 


In her earlier Red Letter appearances, I’ve praised Deborah’s collection Farmers’ Market and her lovely chapbook The Wheel of the Year (Every Other Thursday Press) – but today’s installment is a brand new poem that charmed me the moment I heard it, and I hope it will work the same magic on you.  It prompted me to recall a conversation I had many years back with the great poet William Stafford for my interview collection.  Speaking of language, Stafford declared: “The words that occur to me come out of my relation to the language which is developing even as I am using it. . .I am not learning definitions as established in even the latest dictionary.  I'm not a dictionary-maker.  I'm a person a dictionary-maker has to contend with. . .”.  Ms. Melone as well.






Psithurism, the sound of the wind in the trees.

Who would think there’s a word for that?  But there is.

From the ancient Greek, psithuros—whispering, slanderous,

a little like susurrus, a rustling sound.

To me it suggests a murmuring of bees

as they search through leaves for sources of honey.


The words for things we never knew the words for:

apricity—the warmth of the winter sun;

petrichor—the earthy smell after rain.

Blending together, rising into song

Like hakòmè grass, a graceful, cascading mound

of leaves that ripple in the slightest breeze,

cloaking us in odor, texture, savor,

drawing us into the world, where we belong.



                                          — Deborah Melone


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