Friday, October 22, 2021

It Isn’t Walden’s Pond Essay by B. Lynne Zika


It Isn’t Walden’s Pond

Essay by B. Lynne Zika

A rare walk in the woods this afternoon. I could blame that rarity on age and the fact that my disks have given up even dreaming of cushioning, but the real culprit is La Tique, seed tick in these parts. I live alone, which means no neck, back, or hairline check when I get home. If I manage to be a host (hostess?) to Charlie, we might be stuck together awhile before I become aware of our partnership. He wouldn’t even have the courtesy to ask if he could join me.

The trees were too glorious to resist today, though. Milder weather (yes, global warming is real, Mr. ex-President) means a later explosion of color—all the reds, pinks, pines, junipers, mosses, oranges and, there and there and there, the sunlit yellows. My dog Jack and I stepped over our usual rotting log and through the doorway of Alabama woodland. Forgive me if I wax poetic. It’s that kind of place.

The trees in uncut forests are tall. I’ve spent much time walking the woods of Alabama in the last fifty years, and I’m fairly certain I’ve never seen a fat tree here. They grow thin and tall when no one weeds them. Do you weed trees? Well, Mr. Trump believed in sweeping the forest floor. Perhaps I could ask him whether woods are weeded. He’s probably busy with lawsuits and undercover campaigns. I suppose I should leave him alone. At any rate, I enjoy the neck craning, but the things that really delight me about Bama woods (we don’t say “forest” here, just as we don’t say “stream”) are all the loops and circles and curlicues.

One branch resembles an upside-down fishhook, designed to catch a cardinal or a finch, softly though. Another is a question mark. I’m not sure if it’s asking something specific (“How long’s winter this year?”) or existential (“Think you that you will ever see a poem lovely as a tree?” or “When will they ever learn?” ). One lovely creature sweeps in an arc all the way to the ground, bowing to its own beauty.

The woods were too littered with the detritus of autumn today (I’m waxing poetic again) for me to find my usual path to the pond. I wandered along what appeared to be a trail, and then I backed up and tried again. And again. About the time I should have been spotting the sheen of water through the trees, I saw the sun shining on the trusty silver. Hm … Not water. It was a woodland mobile home, stretched out with patchwork sheets of tin. Exactly the sort of place where meth is made. This was not good. I turned around. Getting the hell out of there took priority over finding the pond. I walked as quietly as a forest floor of crunching leaves would allow, hoping I wouldn’t be hearing a shotgun blast behind me.

Actually, I did hear one, fortunately off in the distance. Some man shooting deer. I hoped he was only trying to shoot a deer and that his aim was as skewed as a discarded Slinky.

I can understand men’s primitive impulse to hunt, but I’m a woman. I go for creating, not killing; growing things, not gathering trophies. I tend to think if you love something, you take care of it, often above your own needs or well-being, possibly even over your own life, metaphorically or literally. I once believed men felt the same way. I was wrong.

I fell in love with a fellow who lived on and owned the prettiest piece of land in Alabama. You needn’t take my word for it. It’s where the first cabin of European settlers coming to Alabama was built, not to mention the site of a Native American settlement before The Trail of Tears. I fell in love with—I’ll call him Luke—the land Luke owned as much as I fell in love with him. Walking those woods, every cell in my body proclaimed my identity externalized in the land around me. More than my identity. My very self.

However, as happens in a quirky life, the fellow was not up to the dance. The details are immaterial. Suffice it to say the thing fell apart. I thought I might fall apart in having to leave that exceptional land. When the gentleman in question told me he intended to bequeath the place to his sister if he died before she did, I wanted to yell . She doesn’t understand this place! She has no idea of its magic! She’ll sell it to a developer so she can take a trip to Europe, and it will be gone forever! At least leave it to someone who will preserve it! Yes, I admit I was also thinking, “Like me.” I moved on. I heard a few years later he’d died of a heart attack, alone on his land. I don’t know what his sister did with it.

I know what I did with it all, though. I wrote a poem. It’s a paltry thing in comparison to that place—to the enormity of its beauty. It doesn’t begin to address that enormity. A poem is small.

I pass it along, though, with my hard-won appreciation that such places are and that I got to be with it for a while. The poem:

The Courage of Your Conviction

How beautiful we were—

feasts for the dragon,

our arms and legs braided

as a loaf of glazed bread

gleaming on an autumn table.

A soft wind arranged my hair

into tiny fishes darting among streams,

your muscled arms gathering me for harvest.

She rose from her riverbed voracious,

a queen collecting her due.

I thought love meant giving all,

throat bared,

everything exposed; you whispered,

“Yes, my darling,”

and stripped me wordless.

How beautiful we were in the moonlight

as you lay me on glistening sand,

arranging my limbs in a perfect attitude of love,

and called to the dragon

and ran for all you were worth.

Thursday, October 21, 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 #81



Immersion.  Most artists – most people, in fact, who make anything requiring both skill and patience – will describe this as one of the great motivating elements in what can often be a formidable and isolating labor.  Years back I interviewed the poet Donald Hall who described waking often in the night and checking the clock to see how many hours he had to force himself to sleep before he could have the great pleasure of waking to another day of writing.  Curiously, or frustratingly,” he said of such work, “the greatest happiness is not to know you are happy, is not to know what time it is, is to be lost in the hour.“  It’s a concept I first encountered as a young man in my exploration of ancient Chinese verse.  In one of his famous quatrains, the Tang poet Li Bai depicts a moment at his retreat cottage high in the Ching-t’ing Mountains.  After giving himself over to a prolonged and open-hearted contemplation of his surroundings – a meditative practice that many here have borrowed from the East – he finds himself watching evening fall as the birds suddenly vanish, sensing the approach of winter.  Li Bai concludes the brief poem: “We sit together, the mountain and me,/ until only the mountain remains.”


I think of Jenny Barber as a poet of quiet immersions.  Focusing on subjects that range from the mundane to those dramatic life-changing alterations that appear suddenly like storms, her poems provide a sort of gradual absorption that lures readers into participating in the moment’s unfolding.  Today’s piece, debuting here, will appear in 2022 in her new collection The Sliding Boat Our Bodies Made from The Word Works.  Jenny was the founder and long-time editor of the literary journal Salamander and – I am happy to report – has recently been appointed as Poet Laureate for neighboring Brookline, MA.  Today’s Red Letter is about both a literal and figurative immersion in the natural world where (as Li Bai reminds us) the borders between ourselves and our surroundings can become quite blurred, and something unexpected may be experienced.  Located at the spot where Germany, Austria and Switzerland converge, the actual Lake Constance is one of Europe’s largest freshwater bodies – fortuitously named, it seems, to remind us that such experiences are everywhere present; it’s only our deep attention that is fleeting.  Here, though, Jenny’s Constance seems to be both literary and emotional as well as geographic – a place, I hope, located not very far from any of our front doors.  




Lake Constance



Sunlight in the water streaming from

            my arms, the bubbles of my mouth.


No one else around. “I’m here

            between the heavens and you,


the edge of sky and the tops of trees,”

            an angel says, “between


the burning world and flooded world,

            the first day and the last,”


and his words take on the sound

            of waves mumbling onshore,


July drought mixed with August rain,

            patches of blue among the clouds


falling to the water like dropped leaves,

            their shadows gliding over fish,


breathing through them, into them.

            No: not an angel, not the words,


but the lake cradling my limbs

            in ripples striated with light.



                          –– Jennifer Barber


Monday, October 18, 2021

Lorena: a Tabloid Epic : Boston Playwrights' Theatre

Lorena: a Tabloid Epic

By Eliana Pipes

Directed by Erica Terpening-Romeo

Review by Doug Holder

Back in 1993, Lorena Bobbitt castrated her husband, John Bobbitt. Lorena was the victim of violent domestic abuse from her husband, and as a result she took matters in her own 'hands.' By cutting the 'manhood' of her partner, she received some payback from all she suffered. This production, written by Eliana Pipes was developed at the Boston Playwrights' theatre at Boston University. It started as a classroom exercise, but now has hit the bright lights of the small stage.

If you remember this event, it created a whole median circus, with tee-shirts displaying disembodied members, crass jokes for late night comedians, the whole ball of wax. The two principle players in this play within a play, were made into gross parodies of themselves. The nuances of their lives, the deep, marrow pain, was brushed aside. These two tragic figures were part of a bizarre  reality game show.

The production, to put it mildly was riveting. The cast was energetic, emotive, and seemed to bounce off of each other well.  Constant images of text on the wall, strobe lights, yellow intrusive TV cameras made for an unsettling chaos for the viewers. The play starts out with a bunch of snarky young people, viewing the trials and travails of this tragic couple, as a source of popcorn-munching entertainment--nothing more. But soon enough they have their own 'long journey into night', as the this 'slice of life' play progresses.

A very interesting conceit is having the playwright injected into the play. Played brilliantly by Valyn  Lyric Turner, she tries to hold off an increasing confrontational onslaught of questions from her cast. They demanded more raw emotion from her.  But the playwright had her own black dogs to keep at bay, and wanted to intellectualize, rather than go into the shoals of messy emotion.

Lorena, played by Gabriela Medina-Toledo, is certainly not a static character, and Toledo does an effective job of portraying her evolution from a caricature to a real flesh and blood person.

As I walked out of the theatre, I saw this band of young actors, and complimented them on their performance. Later I spied Valyn Lyric Turner, and shouted " Hey playwright--marvelous job!" I surprised myself--I am a very reserved person--but something in me, wanted  to make it known.