Thursday, August 26, 2021

The Red Letter Poem Project: Featuring Doug Holder

 ***This is sponsored by the Arlington, Ma. Council of the Arts, and written by Steve Ratiner--Arlington Poet Laureate...... Ratiner founded this program, and many fine poets have appeared here..


  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 #74


There are no words.  It’s a phrase people resort to in moments of overwhelming emotion – sometimes in response to joy but, more commonly, grief.  Even at our best, we’re aware of how words cannot match the utter complexity of the lived moment nor fully represent the depth of our response.  And yet we feel the need for words nonetheless.  Perhaps that’s because language, when fully empowered, forms – not a mirror – but a second self within our experience, a companion that exists both independently but also in a sort of harmony with what we call (for lack of a better term) our real lives.  And this is not only true for the author but for we readers as well who may discover, entering this shadow-realm, a new sense of what actually matters in our sunlit days.


Such is the case for poet Doug Holder who, in today’s installment, is allowing us to be one of the “treasured guests” to visit with his wife Dianne before she was recently lost to cancer.  It was not the artfulness of this poem that drew me in but its astonishing intimacy.  There is no doubt about the actuality behind this scene – and yet, in its poetic incarnation, we feel we arreceiving a privileged understanding of these three beings, there on the verge of an overwhelming grief.  Doug told me Dianne, the gentlest of souls, was a long-time nurse who also wrote poetry and published a chapbook.  But her personal paradise might be the couple’s "cocktail hour” where she’d be “reading, listening to Chet Baker and writing in her journal.” 


It is not at all surprising to come across poets willing to dedicate vast amounts of time and vital energy toward exploring their own writing and career.  Far less common is an individual who will offer that sort of dedication to promoting the work of other poets, toward enhancing the vitality of the very artform.  But that is certainly true of Doug: founder of Ibbetson Street Press, creative writing teacher at Endicott College, and publisher of a host of popular blogs that feature poetry and interviews with diverse writers from Massachusetts and beyond.  His ‘Poet to Poet, Writer to Writer’ cable program ( is a tremendous resource of literary insight and delight.  I feel honored to debut this beautiful elegy in the Red Letters.  


And yes: there are no words.  Yet they are so utterly necessary, we reach for them anyway.  And our day is deepened because they were shared.




Dianne At Sleep


             (for my wife Dianne Robitaille)

As she lays in bed

framed pictures,

splashes of muted color

arise from

her tousled head.

She mutters

some B movie script

from a

nightly passionate


while the

cat consumes her,

his green eyes,

a hungry

verdant blaze.


We both lay

just below

her breasts

and sleep in

a lap



treasured guests.



            –– Doug Holder

Monday, August 23, 2021

A New Way to Listen by Gerry Grubbs


Gerry Grubbs is an attorney who practices law in Cincinnati OH. He has several books from Dos Madres Press, his most recent is Chrysanthemum Moon. This poem touched me, because it is about his communication with his late wife. We are sort of fellow travelers--doug holder

A New Way To Listen

When my beloved calls now

I cannot hear her voice

Her voice is the dew

On the morning flowers

So I must learn

A new way to listen

She calls and it is

The sound of the sea on the sand

Sinking and withdrawing

Now coming again

Now again

My beloved calls

And says my name

As a ray of sun

Illuminating all

Her voice falls on

How can she be so near

When I feel so far away

I hear the birds sing

And it is her voice calling

For my light to rise

Her voice is the sky

Full of that blue

That knows how to call me

And I am the cloud that her voice calls

And that she fills with rain

Which is falling

As my tears fall

Emptying me out

To be filled again

And again

As it pleases her

And it pleases her to find me

Even when I am not looking for her

She still comes

She still watches over me

The way a song watches

Over its notes by singing

Me into existence.

Sunday, August 22, 2021

Double Trio by Nathaniel Mackey: Review by Donald Wellman


Double Trio by Nathaniel Mackey

  Review by Donald Wellman

I have been reading Nathaniel Mackey’s Double Trio (New Directions, 2020), three volumes, each containing multiple sections in which strands from his long serial poems, Song of the Andoumboulou and Mu are interwoven as was the case in Splay Anthem (New Directions, 2006). The development of these serial poems is a lifework stemming from 2002, a lifework of challenging dimensions that the reader may find daunting, as I do, especially with the recent release of Double Trio. Achieving a remarkable degree of stylistic consistency, each poem and each strophe expands through line and syllable using a prosody first found in School of Udhra where the rhythm of line and strophe is extended by means of monosyllabic hinge points that force enjambment or torquing, “sleepless, eyes like rocks, / night / like so many such nights I’ve known.” The poems of Double Trio adhere to a “bedouin impulse,” pursuing a mélange of threads that incorporate jazz, politics, anthropology and spiritual studies.

Double Trio is structured by the meetings and wanderings of a disparate group of individuals as they experience emotions that are often identified with a gnostic presence, the waft of a perfume, ineffable but vital, “melodic pout, Bedouin updraft” (Trio I, Tej Bet, 73). These comings and goings describe layers of ritual in superposition with the rational realms of quotidian reality, although that reality too appears to be a virtual construct. One of Mackey’s models is found in Victor Turner’s The Forest of Symbols: Aspects of Ndembu Ritual. In conversation with Paul Naylor, as early as 2002, Mackey recalls Baudelaire's poem "Correspondences," which he first read in his late teens. Turner uses the poem as an epigraph. Mackey explains, “The book is about

how the Ndembu intuit and enact correspondences between themselves and their environment and among themselves, about a sort of lived poetry, a sense of underlying rapport, about how they sustain or, when it's ruptured, restore such a sense.” In the opening pages of Tej Bet, Mackey again cites Turner, “Ritual, scholars are coming to see, is precisely a mechanism that periodically converts the obligatory into the desirable.” In other words, the obligatory can be said to be punctuated by desire. In the gatherings of spiritual scholars or adepts, including the migrating peoples that populate Double Trio, identity resolves itself and filters through an immanent “might have been.” Ritual enables a “we” and a “way.”

There was a we we were on


way towards regardless, no utopic elsewise

too utopic, a we we would eventually be. “Let

the parts congregate and grow,” we got up


ing a shout so loud it lifted us, our feet left the

floor, no matter it might’ve been mental at

most . . . It was an abstract inaudible ring shout,” (239).

The “ritual” in hand here is modelled on celebrations held by African American congregations. States of “might’ve been” opposed to states of actuality form identity. Virtual, eventual, obscured, abstract or immanent states “lift” the congregation, as an “a we” or an all of us, coinage found in the work of Kamau Brathwaite. Immanence and community are the pivots of Double Trio.

It’s a spell to’ve inhabited a space that splays or spread out. Didn’t Heidegger speak of how poetry dwells? Immanent to the body and released during sex is a perfume associated by Mackey with gnostic spirituality. The bodies of the Andoumboulou, primal Dogon creatures, imperfect or not quite human, as they cross virtual worlds, spread in multiple directions, a scattered flight, in which they seek union among themselves. Different bodies in different conversations create a multilayered discourse, social reality, as it were, ever on the edge of happening. The burr or buzz of song or choric soughing, mixed with pleading and clapping are “the one truth” known by participants.

“Well, well, well.” Said to have been said of Sough

Choir, said of what was, whatever it was, at two

removes, two the very least we knew, Said to’ve


said to’ve been caught up in burr, buzz the one

truth we knew . . . So spoke the we I awaited, a

collective wish made by a wished for collective,

his or that mystic bent, splay immanence, this or


ythmic event,

“Sough Choir,’ -- mu one hundred and thirty-eight part—Double Trio 1: Tej Bet, 326

In the Nationaal Book Award winning Splay Anthem (2002, 2006) dogon figures work to similar effect. There is a remarkable and deliberate sonance of signs that suggests “dotted bodies,” cattle among the thundering horses of Lascaux and a stick figure that might indicate a body, perhaps that of shaman or ghost among the cattle and bison figured on the walls, the animals too in ghostly guise. I remember Mackey in the years of the composition of Double Trio, bracing himself upon his walking stick, as if he too were a virtual part of the world figured in his poetry, a shaman himself. “Signs / all around, how to read them one of us / knew. It wasn’t we were lost, we lost / track absorbed as we were . . . dotted / bodies bespoke ‘immanent elsewhere’” (97). Twisted and dance-like lines bespeak immanences layered in time and on the page. Perception of this sort consists of layers in both Charles Olson, dear to Mackey, and Giles Deleuze, whose many plateaus are central to my Expressivity and to Mackey’s thought. In Expressivity I undertook an analysis of the forms of immanence so central to the disorienting swirl of Mackey’s poetry. I wrote:

In “Anuncio’s Last Love Song,” Mackey refers to “paper” as “wood’s pressed immanence.” A plane of immanence is always virtual, Deleuze writes, and then he continues, “Absolute immanence is in itself; it is not in something, or to something: it does not depend on an object or belong to a subject.” Immanence has a life, and its life is found not in moments that happen to collide or build upon one another. It exists between moments and “offers the immensity of an empty space where one sees the event yet to come and already happened, in the absolute of an immediate consciousness.” “Paper,” in Mackey’s poem, is subsequent to virtual rings that circle like halos and are likened to pearls, a gnostic image for the soul. His lines require context: Soul and Self’s lyric digest. Circling round our heads went rings of paper, wood’s pressed immanence, pearls we cut

our teeth on, strung, string broken, let’s go . . . Comments on the unwinding of Mackey’s baroque syntax, notes sustained for many bars on a singular horn, further implicate immanence as transcendent to the page, an extended modality of reading’s suggestibilities. “Occasions” or “meanwhiles” exist between “moments” of perception. Here are glimpses of virtualities that are not bound in time. An “occasion” is a plane of consistency populated by multiple moments of perception. (Expressivity 182)

In this poetry from its earlies conception, rings of smoke, haloes, and wells of gnostic light take the form of perfume or melodic pout, as in the case of the minister who in his spiritual transport, with its distinctive postures of crouching and leaping, is driven by or responds to the loud and rhapsodic noise of celebration. In this paper I have been tracking various instances of the immanence that offers glimpses of the wholeness underlying Double Trio.

Mackey’s method of composition seems to be best addressed in the section entitled “I-Insofar’s Last Love Song,” So’s Notice (Trio II). The title of this passage is reminiscent of several of thevpassages with a title that read “Anuncio’s Last Love Song.” “I-Insofar’s Last Love Song” recounts a lying back, a repose or restraint, “what / lay close not to be let in , , , Ooze of honey I’d / have said but held back, tongue tugged on by / tej.” (272). Tej is the Ethiopian honey-wine or mead often invoked for its intoxicating and trance-inducing qualities. The sexual imagery like the perfume cited earlier occupies a between space, as it were between two layers of virtuality. “In-betweenness” is the essence of liminality, “inter / polated, nonce, anomalous kiss.” The imagery of closeness but not quite closeness rhymes with the imagery of composition, an imagery of language use. This section begins with the lines “I listened and I wrote away / from what came at once. To write was to / be at odds or at an angle, bent ventricle I’d / have / said /

had it had to do with heart.” The language loop of listening and writings exists at an angle with the heart, “bent” as in the bent notes of the blues. The image is also quantum-mechanical, a science that posits worlds at right angle to related worlds. The reference here is both to recovery from heart surgery and reminiscences of love. The art is to resist any easy fusion of emotions or conditions and “to write away from” these towards a moment that is itself in itself. Mackey’s grammar contains so many sweet contortions “had it had to do.” Here I hear those “bent notes” clearly. The loveliness of this section of Mu is completely present in the strophe entitled. “I looked and I wrote and I wrote away from / what I saw. I called her crow’s feet filigree” (274), lines recognized as denial in virtuality. Double Trio evokes spaces of love on every page.

Double Trio, a consummate love poem is also a poem about war and dying. In So’s Notice (Double Trio II), the subject of death via decapitation, resonates with a horrify aspect of the world we inhabit, “Decapitism stuck to the end of my tongue” (“Song of the Andoumboulou 1661/2,” 49). Again: “We sought refuge, decapitism at us where- / ever er looked. They were starting the next / war, they were stealing the sky’s ozone,” The scene could well be Iraq with memories of decapitations executed by Isis. (Trio 3, Nerve Church, “Song of the Andouboulou: 216,” 34). “Decapitism is an aspect of capitalism, it’s cause.i Consider the history of oil in the Middle East. Under capitalism, life fades into invisibility, “Citizen vs denizen an inequation we came to / as well, the TV on lest we missed the latest out- / rage. . . . Toward / the end we were only so much breath” (Trio III, Nerve Church, 131). Dying embodies immanence, “a / deep singing sounding like shadows of a voice, gruff / murmur, immanence caught between limbs of a / tree outside” (226). Synesthesia of sound and image one of the destination in Double Trio that

disappears as approached, and yet such states are the object of Mackey’s poetry. Nerve Church presents us with a constant disappearing, a felt disappearing.

Whatever it was, I was feel-

ing it. It was all so inordinate I thought, whatever it was

the horns we couldn’t hear, the water we couldn’t see, a


cret world, whose effects we moved at large in, an im-

manence unvalved, unstopped . . . (156). i "In this installment of the ongoing 'Song of the Andoumboulou,' the poem's transient 'we' stop at the Stick City Ashram. They rename capitalism 'decapitism,' rename prophecy 'profitry,' rename business 'bitness' and revisit poetic dicta, all in the service of 'thought's due ad- / vent.'" — Nathaniel M

*****  Poet, translator, and editor Donald Wellman was born in Nashua, New Hampshire, and attended the University of New Hampshire. Following military service, he earned a PhD from the University of Oregon. ... Wellman is the founding editor of O. ARS, an annual anthology of poetry and poetics.