Friday, June 11, 2021

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 #63




To walk the talk.  In the world of business, this phrase of admiration refers to an individual who not only expresses some essential philosophical stance, but turns those concepts into concrete action.  In the world of poetry, I know of few who walk the talk more determinedly, with more grace and sheer delight, than Jane Hirshfield.  Her literary accomplishments include: nine volumes of poetry; three books of literary essays; a foundational anthology presenting four millennia of global women’s poetry; a much-prized co-translation from the Japanese; and frequent engagements as speaker and educator that carry her around the world.  Over her four-decade-long career, Jane has proven to be a trustworthy reporter on the human condition, reflecting both the beauty and pain inherent in that experience.  I’m delighted to see that her path in Alaya, published in 1982, is recognizably the same one traveled today in Ledger, her latest collection. 


Of course, there’s been evolution over time: the lush music of her early lyrics has grown more crystalline, restrained.  Her uncanny ability – capturing images that reveal the way the societal, material and spiritual experience of being human is, at every moment, interconnected – has become more subtle and refined.  In her recent work, we still find the wise regard and depth of feeling we’ve come to expect from Hirshfield poems, but it’s joined with a new fierceness, even anger, at the continuing brutality we inflict on each other and on the planet itself.  Her poem "Let Them Not Say", for example, has become something of an anthem in the movement combating climate change.  Many poets write today as if the self was the only object worthy of inquiry.  But art, music, science and history are braided into Jane’s curiosity and thought.  Her exploration encompasses human nature, the natural world, and their interwoven fates.  She’s developed a large and devoted readership, among whom I happily count myself.


The footer of Jane’s e-mails holds a quotation from another well-loved poet, Gwendolyn Brooks: “We are each other’s/ business;/ we are each other’s/ harvest;/ we are each other’s/ magnitude and bond.”  The business Jane is engaged in is the very one we each should attend to if we are to live without shackling ourselves to blindness and regret: how to love the days we are given, even as they escape us; how to embrace the simple beauties we encounter, though they are fragile and fleeting; and how to honor those same desires in every living being.  If we, at times, decline to pursue this enterprise – and in our busy lives, that’s easy to do – rest assured, some 48-point headline will soon come along to trumpet the latest calamity and wake us from our drowse. 


Coming upon the shell of a dead cicada, the great Japanese poet Basho wrote: “he sung himself utterly away.”  If Jane Hirshfield had to write a job description for the project of her poetry, I think that might come close: to continue singing until there is no more left of the instrument she was given – both voice and heart.  Those who love her poetry are grateful she’s employed her talents in that pursuit.







I touch my toes.


When I was a child,

this was difficult.

Now I touch my toes daily.


In 2012, in Sanford, Florida,

someone nearby was touching her toes before bed.


Three weeks ago,

in the Philippines or Myanmar, someone was stretching.


Tomorrow, someone elsewhere will bend

first to one side, then the other.


I also do ten push-ups, morning and evening.


Women's push-ups,

from the knees.

They resemble certain forms of religious bowing.


In place of one, two, four, seven,

I count the names of incomprehension: SanfordFerguson,


Aleppo, Sarajevo, Nagasaki.


I never reach: Troy, Ur.


I have done this for years now.

Bystander, listener. One of the lucky.

I do not seem to grow stronger.



                                           –– Jane Hirshfield


                                                (from: Ledger; Alfred A. Knopf)

Thursday, June 10, 2021

Katrina Borowicz’s Rosetta


Katrina Borowicz’s Rosetta (Ex Ophidia Press, 2020)

reviewed by Gregory J. Wolos

I am moved by the quiet ambition of the poems collected by Katrina Borowicz in her prize-winning collection Rosetta—“moved” in that I find myself unsettled as I surrender myself to the poet’s skillful yet quiet manipulation of time and perspective. It is the poet’s eye that controls what we see—what details are chosen to be placed under a magnifying glass and enhanced for the reader’s attention. Without the poet, how would we know what to see? Without the poet, how would we know how to think about what we see? Subtly, almost imperceptibly, Borowicz constructs a tableau, situates the reader’s focus, and then expounds on the value of the experience she has created.

In the poem “Moment,” Borowicz seems to be validating the poet’s license to be an interpreter of experience for the reader: “I was there/ at just the right time./ That is my/ life, showing up/ at the moment/ others don’t. Maybe/ that moment/ was meant for me/ maybe it even/ waited. Maybe it was/ nothing but/ the silk of chance/ roaring/ in a sudden wind/ And I/ alone/ was there.” Borowicz, in “From the Deck” draws our attention to what we she is privileged to see, yet also exercises her own judgment on how much we are allowed to experience from what she has chosen to reveal: “Perhaps it means/ nothing/ the constant/ gesturing of the sea:/ look over here, here/ I am— / a small swell/ I like to think only I/ see suddenly flatten/ because what was/ almost there/ must never break/ the surface.” In “Caw,” the title of which reminds us of the “mood changing” crow in Robert Frost’s “Dust of Snow,” Borowicz again glorifies the role of the poet as one who has the ability and responsibility of articulating an experience as personal as a dream: “. . . who am I that can lie/ content in the fragile dawn, nerves in the ear/ purring, fingers curling and stretching/ like a pianist’s before the velvet curtain decides to part.”

When Borowicz contemplates the “frightening” and “inevitable” power of spring in the poem “Fingers,” as she experiences “so much movement suddenly pulling me along,” she does not lose sight of her role as poet-observer, the bestower and revealer of sensibility, concluding: “maybe I’ve willed it all.”

In Borowitz’s poems, discovery and revelation go hand and hand, and it is the poet that achieves both, as she expresses in “Circling”: “pen/ between fingers,/ How odd is that?/ The everyday / startles me/ with its baldness.” It is the poet-observer who draws connections over time, and thus controls our understanding of history: “A hand moved/ over paper long ago,/ forming the words/ Beauty/ is energy./ That perfect circle/ has no beginning/ just the discovery/ of being said.” Borowitz as poet teaches her readers how to connect to their own pasts by illustrating her connection to her own, as in her poem “The Old Country”: “There was another country,/ always spoken of with reverence./ I didn’t understand/ why we’d left,/ I didn’t yet/ understand the saw blade of history.” It is through the imagination that, as in a fairy tale, a connection to the past is forged: “Our fireplace was where/ the stories were read/ from a burning book:/ molten logs, lit from within./ See the shadow of a man/ in there. See a terrifying/ creature with wings./ See it all fall down.”

Yet it is not only history that the poet frames through imaginative “storying;” it is also the poet who extracts meaning from the cacophonous present, as Borowitz suggests in “Rosetta,” (the title an allusion to the Rosetta stone, which has been used as a key to interpret ancient languages): “It’s like listening/ to three different songs/ at once—/ if you hear all/ of them, you hear/ none of them.” Though we may “[l]ie in bed,/ thankful/ for your blanket/ . . . / Vaguely warm in the beat/ of your own/ private blood,” we are aware of events occurring outside of ourselves, such as the comet that “is making a terrible/ noise somewhere,/ everywhere.” Yet if the world is full of such “terrible noise,” how do we dare leave the security of our bed and blanket to enter the fray? In “Truce,” Borowitz suggests that, despite the cacophony, we share common forms of experience: “For everyone who steps on the bus/ what fear and disappointment comes on/ what tenderness what memories of childhood nightmares/ and family gatherings what secrets are bundled up/ in our arms fallen into a shallow sleep.” On the bus—i.e., the world we share, we agree, the poet tells us, to maintain a truce: “a truce exists among us/ an uneasy silence/ ancient silence the native realm/ of strangers and dreamers.”

Borowitz’s poems return again and again to her contemplation of her role as poet—to act as a filter through which the incomprehensibility of a too-vast world can be limited and described. In “Tiny” she suggests that the process, for her, is challenging, yet physical: “My voice not even a momentary quiver/ in a great sea of silence./ . . ./ Yet there are times/ I feel my body—heart/ beating, hands at work—/ is a passage, an opening/ the size of a needle’s eye/ but big enough to let it all/ pass through.” Borowitz as poet, she believes, possesses a kind of objective vision that allows her to see what is not readily available to others. She describes, in the poem “Escape,” her “true habitat”: “the not here,/ that maybe island/ at the other end of a long gaze.” Her poetic sensibility, “a part of me with no name/ wanders far from the I whose cold hands/ are in her pockets,” enabling her to make sense of what others do not or cannot see, such as a metaphorical ship that “is out there/ going about its slow-motion business,/ neither arriving nor departing./ The lives on board invisible as insects in winter.”

The clockman of Borowitz’s eponymous poem seeks to understand the mechanism of time: “I’ll find out what the matter is,/ he says.” The narrator-poet marvels at his ability to focus in spite of the chaos of the outer world, yet it is a concentration that parallels the efforts of the poet: “I wonder how he can think/ in that room filled with footsteps—/ some delicate as a cat’s/ others empty suits of armor/ marching in circles.” It is the clockman’s questions that focus his investigation and that will provide him with the answer he seeks. In such a way the poet makes her choices, which define and limit her own investigation—though she remains aware that she is drawing these limits in a world that contains infinite possible sets of questions and answers. She is unlike the clockman’s parrot which sees only the world of the shop: “From its perch it can’t see / the huge flock of blackbirds/ mobbing the backyard feeder.” Wallace Stevens may give us “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird,” Borowitz seems to be telling the reader, but thirteen is far less than infinity, and the poet’s job in any single poem is to depend on her own vision to give the reader one way of making sense of the world.