Friday, June 25, 2021

The Red Letter Poem Project 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 #65



Here is the first quatrain of one of my favorite poems by Du Fu, the great Tang Dynasty poet: “A shore of thin reeds in light wind/ a tall boat alone at night/ stars hang over the barren land/ the moon rises out of the Yangtze…”.   In the Asian literary tradition, the concept of being adrift does not conjure a notion of aimlessness, or being lost, as it might for us in the West.  It hints at a mind at peace, willing to be satisfied within the experience of the moment, entrusting one’s fate to the great currents of the river (a notion prominent in both Taoism and Buddhism.)  As a younger man, Con Squires employed his poetic talents in the service of an advertising job.  Once, when he was hospitalized with a serious illness, someone gave him a copy of Arthur Waley’s translations from the Chinese.  He explained to me that it changed his life.  Not only did it alter his poetic approach, it led him to examine how he was living his life at the time.


Fast forward, and now Con is retired, remarried, content.  Poetry, as always, is a main focus in his days – but no more so than his appreciation of family and friends, his attention to the landscape in which he lives, and even the simple pleasures of the daily tasks.  As the title makes clear, this poem was composed right in the heart of the pandemic, when fear and uncertainty ravaged most of our thoughts.  But using a technique Du Fu would certainly recognize, he began his day by simply paying attention.  And as attention deepens, anxiety and regret are replaced by the delight of the senses.  Neither the anchor of memory nor the swollen sails of a hoped-for day-to-come have much sway over the mind.  There is only the moment, unfolding – and perhaps the appearance of words to ink in that blank scroll.  And though the result is quite a simple and straightforward poem, the emotional reserves Con taps into are vast; we readers are glad to accompany him on this little journey.


Here’s how Du Fu’s poem resolves (in this lovely translation by Red Pine): “how could writing ever lead to fame/ I quit my post due to illness and age/ drifting along what am I like/ a solitary gull between Heaven and Earth”.  After a time, the powerful Tang empire was riven by civil war, famine, overwhelming loss.  Du Fu, retired, sailed East in hopes of returning to his home; he had to reshape his understanding of what would remain central in his life.  Sometimes the world is only this: this moment, this feeling, this breath.  Con Squires nods in agreement.  Considering the trials our country has been suffering through, perhaps we might consider joining them – if only for a moment.



February 25, 2021, 5:48 a.m.: Dawn Begins

(Homage to Du Fu)

Sky is gray-blue mixed with white,

a low dark growl of clouds at the far edge.

Village lights sparkle in a wood,

vagaries of wind among trees.

Our house hums around me,

upstairs my lovely wife sleeps.

We owe nothing, need nothing, do

nothing in particular. No one calls.

My heart is a sailing boat, unguided.

It leaves me far behind.

Below two paintings of urban life

a lamp is reflected in a window.

Winter at the western edge.

So much change in ten minutes.

— Con Squires