Friday, December 31, 2021

Red Letter Poem #91: Frank Bidart

 The Red Letters



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 #91



“Should auld acquaintance be forgot,/ and never brought to mind?”  It was my mistake: I was too young when I first heard the song to grasp what the Scots poet Robbie Burns was aiming at; perhaps I just couldn’t detect that dangling question mark, requiring a listener’s response.  But early on, I thought the word should was prescriptive and tried to make myself believe that moving beyond memory was the path to freedom.  It’s an unsurprising reaction; children who’ve experienced early loss are simultaneously burdened by the past and gratefully imprisoned within the bright rooms of memory’s palace.  But often kindled within such individuals is a passionate desire to fashion new structures that might safely house all the incomprehensible voices echoing inside the green and permeable self.


Frank Bidart is one of the most acclaimed American poets; his virtual trophy case is burgeoning with prestigious honors including the Pultizer and Bollingen Prizes, and the National Book Award.  His eleventh collection, Against Silence (Farrar, Straus and Girouxappeared recently.  I’m fairly sure that when Frank first ran across Walt Whitman’s line, “I am large.  I contain multitudes”, he instantly nodded in assent; his fifty-year body of work is crowded with the voices of people – remembered, imagined – that inhabit the metropolis of his consciousness.  These are characters he, by turns, discovered, conjured, nurtured, or preserved – all within his supple lyrics and sprawling monologues.  It seems to me the poems are intended to simultaneously separate himself from and fully embrace the upsurge of these unbridled energies.  Reading his work cannot help but make me aware of the many rooms in my own self into which I’ve rarely ventured.  So, in 1999, when I directed a massive poetry/music/dance/art project to celebrate the new Millennium, I asked Frank if he’d let me make a video-poem of his “For the Twentieth Century”, to be included with the performances.  So generous with his time, he welcomed me and my crew into his Cambridge apartment which, I was surprised to see, was filled floor-to-ceiling with books, video tapes, and audio recordings.  It was as if he was the self-appointed archivist of our cultural era, preserving artifacts of the past that formed his imagination so they would always remain accessible to his further explorations.


And so here, his poem celebrates the technology of a century that, while perfecting the most awful war-making machinery, also managed to create the means by which the voices of poets, the performances of musicians, and even the slapstick antics of classic movie comedians, would have lives that extended far beyond that of their mortal selves.  Talking with him in his private spaces, hearing his voice bring this poem to life, I began to more fully understand how precious memory really is – how even the simplest moments of our waking day are inextricably wedded to older times, distant voices which our minds sustain (and which sustain us in turn.)  When, later on, I discovered that Burns’ famous song was actually preserving and elaborating upon lyrics that had been fashioned a century earlier, I felt grateful now to be able to offer my own response to the Scotsman: yes – we will preserve and cherish moments of our remembered past, and pass along what we can to the generations that follow.  For the sake of our culture and all that makes us human, we’ll happily press the play button, re-read a few favorite poems, and raise “a cup o’ kindness yet” as another year slips into the rearview and we turn to face the oncoming brights.   




For the Twentieth Century



Bound, hungry to pluck again from the thousand

technologies of ecstasy


boundlessness, the world that at a drop of water

rises without boundaries,


I push the PLAY button:—


. . .Callas, Laurel & Hardy, Szigeti


you are alive again,—


the slow movement of K.218

once again no longer


bland, merely pretty, nearly

banal, as it is


in all but Szigeti's hands




Therefore you and I and Mozart

must thank the Twentieth Century, for


it made you pattern, form

whose infinite


repeatability within matter

defies matter—


Malibran. Henry Irving. The young

Joachim. They are lost, a mountain of


newspaper clippings, become words

not their own words. The art of the performer.



                                    –– Frank Bidart




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 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:


Thursday, December 30, 2021

Shalom, My Teardrop! Mimoza Erebara


Shalom, My Teardrop!

Mimoza Erebara (Translated from the Albanian by Arben P. Latifi)

© 2021 by Mimoza Erebara

Cervena Barva Press

Somerville MA

ISBN 978-1-950063-27-7

Softbound, $8, 28 pages

Review by Zvi A. Sesling

There are fewer than a dozen and a half Albanian poets listed on Amazon, though there are many more you will find via Google. I have read exactly three Albanian poets: Luljeta Lleshanaku, Ani Gjika and now, thanks to Cervena Barva Press, Mimoza Erebara.

Writer, critic and editorPeter Constantine, in his introduction to Luljeta Lleshanaku’s Fresco, states: “Luljeta Lleshanaku is a pioneer of Albanian poetry. She speaks with a completely original voice, her imagery and language always unexpected and innovative. Her poetry has little connection to poetic styles past or present in America, Europe, or the rest of the world. And it is not connected to anything in Albanian poetry either.”

Whereas Lleshanaku’s poetry is praised for being apolitical, Gjika’s poetry employs the political as it is described by former U.S. Poet Laureate Robert Pinsky: “Albania, India, Massachusetts. The mass culture posters of an American adolescent and the mass uniformity of a police state. Snow and bread. Ani Gjika has created penetrating, alert and elegant poems that successfully bring her unique voice to English…”

Erebara’s chapbook, Shalom, My Teardrop! is entirely about Israel, some written in her home of Albania and some on a trip to Israel. Her poetry is translated by Arben P. Latifi. I find this chapbook particularly interesting because it is about Israel and is most likely, though I cannot be sure, the rare setting for a book of poetics among Albanian poets.

Erebara has won numerous awards at home and internationally and thanks to Gloria Mindock’s Cervena Barva Press Erebara will now be better known in the United States.

In Shalom, My Treardrop! Erebara declares her love for Israel in a way few other poets could. As an Albanian, her heritage and her visit to Israel inform her verse and bring the reader, especially Diaspora Jews, a connection to Israel and their Jewish heritage.

In the title poem: “Shalom, My Teardrop” Erebara writes from Albania about a land far away, a land of the soul that many Jews in the Diaspora feel for a homeland they have never visited. She cites her soul from whence her love of Israel comes and even further, in a tip of the hat to politics, she notes “a different air” as a metaphor for freedom as opposed to a police state.

Shalom, My Teardrip!

This land, even though far away,

won’t let me go…

With her love,

hidden somewhere

in the depths of my sinews,

which freshened me up in a different air,

despite the dazzling spears

of negation,

that pierce me through

like slander.

A single leaf of fire

holds me onto the marrow of nonoblivion

like a teardrop

that never dropped down…

In her poem Ha-Shoah, Erebara gets to the crux of the Holocaust including three lines of which on her visit to Yad Vashem struck my heart like a knife because I remember the identical feeling that I had as a visitor to this memorial that I never forgot “I want to leave/But I am pinned there/Petrified,”

There is no sugar coating. There is terror, sadness and pain for those who visit this Holocaust Memorial. It is direct, hard and takes one’s breath away to experience that six million Jews – men, women, children, whole families -- died at the hands of the nazis.


In Yad Vashem, the Museum of Holocaust Victims

Like a crematorium

Inside me burn

Grain, Bone, Light, Breath

Everything is extinguished

In the ashes of existence,

Which gained its very soul from air…

I want to leave,

But I am pinned there,


Like a black pigeon,

In the hollow sockets

Of those beautiful eyes – once,

When they’d breathe life toward Life

I pause

To find the akin to myself

In the field, where the wheat is freshly cropped…

And here’s where I am,


Along with a wheat-ear of memory

That, twixt smoke and ashes –

poor rosy smoke –

Confides to me in ecstatic whisper

My, wasn’t Hope so beautiful

Under winglets of butterflies

Dripping with dew!

*Ha-Shoah [Hebr.] -- Commemoration

Jewish or not, these poems will help readers understand the importance of Israel to Jewish heritage and its meaning to those who live in countries other than Israel, and feel their connection to this tiny democratic country in the midst of those who wish to destroy it.


Zvi A. Sesling

Poet Laureate, Brookline, MA 2017-2020

Editor, Muddy River Poetry Review

Author, War Zones (Nixes Mate Books)

The Lynching of Leo Frank (Big Table Publishing)