Friday, September 03, 2021

The Red Letter Poem Project #75

 NOW ONLINE!  I was asked to write an essay for Askold Melnyczuk’s Arrowsmith Journal about what I learned from the first year of the Red Letter Project.  It also became a meditation about the relationship between poet and reader.  If you’d like to take a look, here is a link –

-- and you’ll also be able to check out the variety of marvelous literary projects that appear under Askold’s Arrowsmith imprint.  Enjoy!


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 #75



One could argue that central to Frank Bidart’s body of work is the notion of syntax – though I don’t mean the grammarian’s preoccupation with the rules of well-turned sentences.  Since it’s believed that language is innate in our species, then this poet’s work can be seen as a series of portraits revealing the intimate thought-structures that come to light in minds working their way into self-consciousness – in the author’s mind as well as a host of personas.  We find the bold assertions and sly deflections, the feints and false starts, eviscerating despair and the resurgent hope that holds our days together.  And each has its effect on how words interact.  Frank’s is the rich and complex music of our inner voices tangling and untangling what we believe is happening to us.  And within us.  And all around us.   


I’d just moved to California in 1973 and was working in a bookstore when I came across a debut poetry collection entitled Golden State.  How could a newcomer not pick it up?  But the poems within those covers were nothing like what I’d expected – nothing, in fact, like the work my college teachers had lectured about.  These voices were unusual but wholly mesmerizing; they possessed a musical charge that was akin to touching an uninsulated wire.  I’ve been following Frank’s poetry ever since.  Across a half-century of writing, he is perhaps most famous for a number of extended (and wildly inventive) dramatic monologues featuring such disparate voices as “Ellen West” (who suffered from anorexia and body dysmorphia); “Herbert White” (a psychopathic killer); and the great Russian dancer Vaslav Nijinsky.  But even in the shorter and more personal lyrics, his poems feel to me like the recitativo of a sprawling opera in which the singer is simultaneously hidden away in his inner sanctum and also spotlighted on the dark stage before a vast audience.  In other words: the predicament of human consciousness.


It would be impossible to overstate how highly regarded this poet’s work is, especially among other poets.  An exhaustive list of his awards and honors would require more space than I have, but some of the highlights include: the Pulitzer Prize, the Bollingen Prize, the National Book Award, and the Lifetime Recognition Award from the Griffin Trust for Excellence in Poetry.  Today’s poem comes from Frank’s eleventh collection, Against Silence (Farrar, Straus and Giroux), which will be published next month.  Here too, we are presented with a monologue, seemingly intended for one certain listener – the sort that occupies that singular place which love alone carves out inside us and which nothing else, across the long decades, can hope to fill.  He borrows the Persian phrase to marks that bittersweet absence.   And encroaching silence is pushed back yet again.      




On My Seventy-Eighth



There will be just two at

table tonight,

though to accommodate all those who have

so mattered

and still so matter in my life, the table will be

very long:

though empty. I say to you, Jaya

shoma khalee!

Your place is empty! Your place at my table

is saved

for you. I tried to construct in my soul

your necessary

grave (because you were dead/because you were


concentrated on your soul, too often you were

cruel—) but

as I shoveled dirt onto your body, the dirt refused,

soon, to

cling.  Those who torment because you know you

loved them

refuse to remain buried. Is anything ever forgotten,

actually forgiven?

Shovel in hand, I saw how little I had

known you.

Tonight, I abjure the wisdom, the illusion of

forgetting. Come,

give up silence. Intolerable the fiction

the rest

is silence. To the dead, to the living:

your place

is empty.



                                    –– Frank Bidart

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