Friday, September 24, 2021

Doug Holder interviews Paul Steven Stone about his Karmic Crime Novel "S...

The Red Letter Poem Project

 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 #77



Shopping in the vegetable aisle of Trader Joe’s, comparing the relative merits of two tomatoes, I heard someone behind me cough.  And turning, I noticed that I was not the only pair of eyes searching out the culprit.  That look we shared: was it concern? Fear?


It strikes me that, just a few years back, such an incident would have been so unremarkable as to have passed unnoticed.  And a poem like Susan Donnelly’s “Mortality” might have seemed merely wry, quizzical, with only the slightest hint of menace.  What a life-lesson we’ve all been forced to undergo in the past year-and-a-half!  The fragility of our lives – which, as adults, we certainly understood before this, at least intellectually – was now a visceral presence, never all that distant from our thoughts.  But what Susan employs in her poetry, to masterful effect, is that slight disconnect between the nature of our inner discourse and the way we nonchalantly face the daily travail.  She can modulate tone of voice in order to reap the maximum effect from seemingly simple statements.  That muted threat (“Remember me?”); the quiet entitlement (“to my credit surely”); and that quick hint of self-satisfaction (“and a prayer or two/ behind my hands at church”): because we can’t help but identify with her speakers, we’re gently eased into a new awareness.  Susan is the author of six poetry chapbooks and four full-length collections, the newest being The Maureen Papers and Other Poems (Every Other Thursday Press) whose title poem was co-winner of the Samuel Washington Allen Award from the New England Poetry Club.


Having made my selection, I brought the tomato close to my nose: if sunshine had a smell…!  I paid attention to the redness, to the silkiness of the skin.  And for a moment I considered the weight of such simple earthly pleasures – magnified by the stunningly clear notion that I would, one day, have to relinquish them all.







strode in one day and said

Remember me?  I hadn’t really.

Figured, if I thought at all,

that he was occupied with others.


Felt kind of smug about that.

It was to my credit surely

that years had passed

without my being sick?


I sympathized, of course,

sent Get Well notes,

murmured a prayer or two

behind my hands at church.


Myself untouched.


Yet here he was, a bailiff

looking around,

who took things off

my shelves, my bureau,


suggesting, not so subtly,

Get your affairs in order,

accompanied by my wheeze

and piercing cough.



                  –– Susan Donnelly

Monday, September 20, 2021

& Company By Moira Linehan Dos Madres Press


& Company

By Moira Linehan

Dos Madres Press

Loveland, Ohio

ISBN: 978-1-953252-14-2

76 Pages

Review by Dennis Daly

Elegant beyond elegance. Moira Linehan stitches together a palimpsest biography of her mother’s mother, Marie Louise Raimbault Wacha, a nonpareil seamstress and dress designer. Based on very little hard information, Linehan conjures up backdrops, insights, and probable artistic techniques used by her grandmother. She does this by incorporating period art in an ekphrastic approach that uncovers the extraordinary will and likely contours of a magnificent lady. Wacha’s life spanned the late nineteenth century and the early twentieth century. The urban textile centers of Paris and Boston nurtured her.

In her well-wrought and telling sonnet, Ars Poetica, Linehan wonderfully describes the raw labor and hidden subtleties necessary in constructing a dress and, metaphorically, any serious artwork. Here she lists some of the basics,

The planning

beforehand. Washing washable textiles

to shrink them before they’re sewn. Laying out

the pattern so the design flows, the plaid lines

match, the dress drapes. Shears sharp so the seams

won’t pucker, twist, ravel. The seamstress’s stress

Then the fitting, the pinning and re-pinning

those seams. Right shade of thread? The sewing,

seemingly magic, not one stitch visible.

Each seam, steam-pressed flat till at last the sewn

carries material and a dressmaker’s vision

out into the world…

In the first of three stage-setting poems entitled Addressing the History Linehan interweaves economic history and art history. For instance, she details the domino effect of new fashion trends and how they took her grandmother’s world by storm,

under it all, the corset. At first, just working

to narrow the waist, set off by jackets with wide

shoulders, with bodice seams, darts, braiding, rows

of buttons, maybe striped textiles, all verging in a V

at the waist. Not how tiny. Then corsets lengthened

to an hourglass. As that century’s second half starts,

ten thousand workers in Paris produce those corsets.

The year the American Civil War begins, over

one million are sold there. Dressmakers are talking

to salesmen, salesmen to weavers. Soon bolts of cloth

come with borders woven in for hemlines, for cuffs.

Soon the new fashion journals, then department stores

carry patterns, instructions for assembling skirts

and dresses…

Mary Cassatt captures the subtle art of dressmaking in her brilliant drypoint and aquatint painting The Fitting (circa 1891). Linehan mines this piece for its historic value in relation to her grandmother. The image portrayed contrasts a graceful and stylish standing woman with her attentive, sitting (almost kneeling) seamstress, who is wearing a simple brown garb. The standing woman is doubled by a full-length mirror. In her poem of the same name Linehan draws out, not only some of her grandmother’s essence, but also a temperament and social position. Here’s part of her description,

She’s sitting on a low stool,

her back to the viewer, seams of her back

bodice on display. The center seam: pattern placed

so two strips of those four black lines get stitched

together at the neckband, leaving three lines

each side. But not just stitched. Fitted, so narrowing

to only three lines total at her waist. Likewise,

from left shoulder and right, strips of black lines,

taken in by darts. Each side of that center seam,

mirror of the other.

Another painting Linehan uses to great effect is Edmund Tarbell’s Girl, Crocheting (1904). The girl pictured seems content in her work, work that exists only in shadow. The artist even vanishes the girl’s face into shadow. A large portrait on the wall, however, leaves no doubt as to Pope Innocent’s identification and imposing figure. Linehan employs the grand pope as a figure of contrast with the contentedness of the crocheter, and both of them as a contrast to a new century and the impending revolution centering on the modern woman. The poet’s consideration of Tarbell’s portrait (copied from Velazquez) of Pope Innocent leads directly to a consideration of the breakout,

His waist-length cape, signature vermillion satin,

drapes in a V over a long surplice, its wide hem

of fine lace. Some claim it’s the greatest portrait

painter’s greatest portrait, this pope by Velazquez,

more or less a contemporary of Vermeer. Tarbell,

suggesting he has a foot in both those schools.

Tarbell, of the Boston school. Yet within the world

Of this art: all the unnamed. Nuns working bobbins

By window light, making lace for bishops’ vestments.

Women of Vermeer’s Delft about their daily lives.

This Girl in a long dark skirt, seemingly content

to crochet in shadow. She, a weir for Tarbell,

holding back the new century, those women marching.

Clues here and there suggest that Linehan’s grandmother, Maria, did quite well financially. Her poem, Getting My Grandmother to Boston notes that Maria’s tailor-husband was offered and accepted a managerial job with Boston’s largest manufacturing plant of woman’s fashions. Three years later he opened Jules Wacha & Company on Boylston Street. With these bare facts the poet’s (now well-schooled) imagination fills in the blanks,

So I decide to give her, as the “& Company,” part

of Jules Wacha & Company, the task

of overseeing its books as she oversaw

the finances of their home at 4 Zamora Street

in Jamaica Plain, my mother having told me

she grew up with servants—maids, housekeepers, cooks,

and gardeners—my grandmother keeping

from her husband (as my mother would) such

bothersome details…

This lovely book of artistic investigation concludes, not only with the reversal of her grandmother’s erasure, but also, revelations of the poet’s own craft and the intense, unforgotten influence of a mother’s love.

Newton Free Library Poetry Series Sept. 2021