Saturday, May 22, 2021

Eating Grief at Bickford's

JACOB WIRTH (Boston, Mass. 1868 to 2018 )

The sawdust

on the floor

has gone the way

of all dust.

But it is the hard slap

of the house dark

on the dark, mahogany bar

that sustains me.

Yes ,

they have made


to a high

definition TV

but the ancient

beaten ivories

of the piano

still hold its torch songs

on Friday nights.


it seems

there is still a wholesome , yellow statement

of cornbread,

and a saucer of

baked beans.

The long dining room

has stretched over 100 years

and in the rear

there is a pay phone

in its battered booth

before you hit the head.

And that din of laughter--

(and I admit

I miss the cigar smoke)

and the bright red--

sheaves of corned beef

sprouting from dark bread.

What was once alive in this city

is still

not quite


Copley Square, Ken's Deli~ By Doug Holder

Copley Square—Midnight—Slipped into Ken’s Deli. A Jackie Gleasonish fat man –the manager—stationed by the rotisserie chickens—a chorus line of spread legs, melting flesh, wings posturing on their plump hips—wondering which one would I choose. A dishwasher emerged, effeminate man, dirty apron, a cigarette in a holder, long expressive hands, wearing an eye patch. Drag Queens in the men’s room. At the counter on the first floor—a waitress—not long on patience piped “What’s it going to be, hon.” Actors off from a gig at the Colonial, gesturing to each other dramatically at the booths—a few years before—I was a dishwasher here. I was chosen from a lineup of world-weary men: “You, you and you,” at 5PM—peering at all this through stacks of dishes—all this would be mine one day—a late night character—laughing over corn beef and chopped liver on dark rye—with poets and writers, after a day of writing—joking like Dorothy Parker, my round table…my Algonquin Hotel. The men I worked with I knew would reappear again—even then taking mental notes—trying to construct a narrative of the chaos of my life.

Eating Grief at Bickford's

· From Allen Ginsberg's “Kaddish”

There are no places anymore

Where I can sit at a threadbare table

Pick at the crumbs on my plate

And wipe

The white dust

From my pitch

Black shirt.

The old men

Who used to spout


Rants from

The cracked porcelain of their cups

Are gone

The boiling water

Ketchup soup

The mustard sandwich

They use to relish

All that so lean


Oh, Hunchback

In the corner

Your lonely reflection

In the glass of water---

And Tennessee Williams' Blanche

Eyes me through her grilled cheese

“Pass the sugar, sugar”

She teases.


The queer

Late night

Security guard.

His policeman's hat

Draped on his head

Looking like a

Sacrilegious rake

This countless


Of defending his honor

In the amorous, crazed embraces

Of muscular young men

How he protests…

Too much…too much.

The discarded men

Blue blazers

Shedding their threads

Outcasts with newspapers

Stains of baked beans

On their lapels

Fingering a piece

Of passionless Cod

Lolled by their

own murmur.

Winter is outside the large, long window

Pushing pedestrians

With its cold, snapping whip

The cracks in the pavement

Are filled

With flakes of melting,

Dying, snow.

271 Newbury Street

Early in the morning—I heard the retired Irish civil servant…a pensioner with a stained undershirt and plaid boxers—coughing up phlegm—heard through the thin walls: How are you, me boy? he crooned at me in the morning—both of us jockeying for the head down the hall. Then the fire alarm—a gas main break—out in the street—explosions traversed Newbury Street. I ran down the stairs in my blue corduroy sports jacket—a slightly irregular affair—from the depths of Filene’s Basement…padded shoulders to bolster my narrow ones and a frail ego—a waxed mustache—the guys in the real estate office on the first floor used to crack: Well, Hello Dali! I made my way down the winding staircase (the spinster on the second floor opened the door a crack—she knew she would be flushed out)— me—with a red scarf around my skinny neck—like a poor man’s ascot—Kirby Perkins, the newsman on the scene—I heard him say from the side of his mouth to the cameraman: Look at this fuckin’ character. So oblivious to my absurdity—a beret on my already thinning hair—a rakish angle—I could be a posturing mannequin in one of the shop windows—central casting-clich├ęd young Beatnik.

Friday, May 21, 2021

The Red Letter Poem Project

 The Red Letter Poem Project


The Red Letters 2.0:  

When I was first appointed as Poet Laureate for Arlington, MA one of my goals was to help bring the strength and delight of poetry into unexpected settings. The Red Letter Poems Project was going to be a novel way of sharing Arlington’s poetic voices, sent off in bright red envelopes, a one-off mass mailing intended to surprise and delight. But when the Corona crisis struck, and families everywhere were suffering a fearful uncertainty in enforced isolation, I converted the idea into an e-version which has gone out weekly ever since. Because of the partnership I forged with seven organizations, mainstays of our community, the poems have been able to reach tens of thousands of readers, throughout Arlington and far beyond its borders. I hope you too are grateful that these groups stepped up and reached out: The Arlington Commission for Arts and Culture, The Arlington Center for the Arts, The Arlington Public Library, The Arlington International Film Festival, Arlington Community Education, The Council on Aging, and – each of which distributes or posts the new Red Letter installments and, in many cases, provide a space where all the poems of this evolving anthology continue to be available. And I’m delighted to add our newest RLP partner: Boston Area Small Press and Poetry Scene – a blog that is a marvelous poetry resource.

But now we are experiencing a triple pandemic: the rapid spread of the Covid virus, which then created an economic catastrophe, and served to further expose our long-standing crises around race and social justice. My hope is to have the Red Letters continue as a forum for poetic voices – from Arlington and all of the Commonwealth – that will help us gain perspective on where we are at this crucial moment and how we envision a healing will emerge. So please: pass the word, submit new poems, continue sharing the installments with your own e-lists and social media sites (#RedLetterPoems, #ArlingtonPoetLaureate, #SeeingBeyondCorona), and help further the conversation. Art-making has always been the way we human beings reflect on what is around us, work to alter our circumstances, and dream of what may still be possible. In its own small way, the Red Letters intends to draw upon our deepest voices to promote just such a healing and share our enduring hope for something better.

If you would like to receive these poems every Friday in your in-box plus notices about future poetry events, send an e-mail to: with the subject line ‘mailing list’.

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 #60



Just a short time ago, I was sitting on my son’s back porch playing with his toddler son.  Little George would call to me: “Baw, baw!”  And when I rolled the ball to him, he’d snatch at it with both hands and then applaud at the marvel of it all: he simply speaks a word, and Papa understands precisely what he needs.  It seems a few weeks have passed, and George is about to turn five, a precocious boy who is prone to lecture me on the difference between a tower crane and a gantry crane at the construction site – or why referring to that long-necked creature in the picture book as a brontosaurus is no longer deemed correct; “paleontologists now call him a brachiosaurus, Papa”, and he gives me a bemused look.  What a privilege: to witness a small being acquiring that most astonishing of tools, language, with which we each come to believe we might chart the vast distances between one thought and another – or, even more mind-boggling, between one galaxy (mine), and the one you inhabit, sitting there across the room.


And Jenny Barber – whose poems seem to alternate between those quiet reaches within our hearts and the breathtakingly-mutable world without – reminds us that there is yet an even greater level of complexity involved when we attempt to rocket a probe into the deep space between one language and another.  But the impulse propelling us is not so very different from George’s: by what name can I conjure that object of desire; and how can I ever know if my signal has reached you?  Jenny has a new book of poetry, The Sliding Boat Our Bodies Made, that will appear from The Word Works in 2022.  Her earlier collections include Works on Paper (also from The Word Works) and Given Away (Kore Press, 2012) from which today’s Red Letter is taken.  Equally impressive to me is the fact that, in 1992, Jenny founded the literary journal Salamander, serving as its editor in chief through 2018 and patiently nurturing its evolution.  Hers was a commitment to create a space where the voices of young and diverse talents could test the powers of their own language experiments and launch them in our direction.  The journal has become one of the most vital in New England and is now centered at Suffolk University in Boston.  



In the Hebrew Primer



A man. A woman. A road.



Nouns like mountain and gate,

water and famine,

wind and wilderness

arrange themselves in two

columns on the page.


The verbs are

remember and guard;

the verbs are

give birth to and glean.


The eye picks its way

through letters like

torches and doors, like scythes.


The harvest, the dust.

The day calls, the night sings

from the threshing floor.


A woman, a man:

I was, you were, we were.



                  –– Jennifer Barber

Somerville's Kevin McIntosh: Author of 'Class Dismissed'


Kevin McIntosh met me at the outdoor patio of the Neighborhood Restaurant in Union Square to chat about his new book, "Class Dismissed," as well as his life as a writer and teacher. Originally from Illinois, McIntosh counts Ernest Hemingway as one of his earliest influences. After all he grew up in Oak Park, Illinois, where the great man spent his early years. McIntosh has a wide range of experience as a teacher. He has taught in inner city schools, and at high-toned suburban academies. McIntosh, as a young man, had a bit of the wanderlust, as he taught in Oakland, New York City, and in Dover Massachusetts, and held a variety of jobs before that. I asked him about his Somerville experience. He told me, "My wife and I had lived in Newton, Massachusetts for twenty years. We wanted to downsize and be close to the city. We have been here for six years and we love it." McIntosh noted that some of his favorite spots in our burg are the Common Grounds Coffee Shop in Ball Square (where he likes to write) and the Burren--an Irish pub in the heart of Davis Square.

McIntosh, a man in his late 50s, who sports a professorial beard, and a casual manner, has written a novel "Class Dismissed", that is very loosely based on his own experiences as a young teacher. The 30 year old protagonist of the novel, Patrick Lynch is from the hinterlands of Minnesota, and is adjusting to the mean streets and schools of New York City. Due to an unfortunate classroom incident with a student, he finds himself in the notorious "Rubber Room." The New York school system's Rubber Room, which was exposed by the media in the early 2000s, (and may still be in use) is a sort of at Twilight Zone--limbo space. Here teachers, who are held for various infractions, wait for judgment from above about their exoneration...or not. They are in essence paid to sit. This can go on for years. McIntosh's protagonist, sits in this room, while his relationship with his girlfriend goes South, not to mention, that his life in general takes a downward spiral. McIntosh who has never experienced such a fate said that the room was, " Like a scene from Waiting for Godot, with this monstrous bureaucracy rattling on, keeping the teachers in suspended animation." Throughout the book McIntosh brings in the intricate aspects of the classroom experience, the students, the teachers, and the institution.

McIntosh explained to me that in his career teaching English he found the inner city kids just as creative as the kids he taught in the tony suburbs. He explained, "The kids in the suburbs were more grade conscious--bright kids, but narrowly focused. In New York City the kids were more open, and seemed to be more spontaneous--there was a genuine joy for learning."

McIntosh, like may Somerville creatives I have interviewed has an eclectic background. He was an aspiring playwright in his younger years. His play, a musical "By George," about the Gershwin brothers was produced at his Alma mater, Carleton College, and had a staged reading at the Playwright's Center in Minneapolis. In this time at the center, he often saw the great African American playwright August Wilson walk the halls.

It is always a pleasure to interview people at the Neighborhood Restaurant patio, with its tangle of vines, comfort food, and friendly vibe. And I was glad to connect with McIntosh here-- in the Paris of New England.

McIntosh will be reading June 30 at the Harvard Bookstore---for more details go to: