Saturday, May 28, 2022

Red Letter Poem #112

 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 #112



The Little Book of Cheerful Thoughts.  I’m desperate for this now, crave it – some solidity, reassurance, balm.  And oh, wouldn’t it be wonderful if it came between the covers of a small book, a little packet of hope I might slip into my pocket, return to in quiet moments, an all-purpose anodyne always within reach.  After the heartbreaking news about the shooting at the elementary school in Uvalde, Texas.  After that hate-fueled massacre in that grocery store in Buffalo, New York.  After America has reached that grim milestone of a million lives snuffed out by Covid (not to mention the countless losses globally), while reports keep popping up like sparks about new variants on the rise.  After we turn toward our leaders in government, in faith communities, in the arts, hoping for some voice that will guide us and restore our belief in – if not humanity’s ultimate goodness – then at least its impulse toward self-preservation.  And like the children we once were (and ultimately remain) – trusting that some wise parent is steering the car, so we can safely daydream in the back seat – we wait for a sign.


Jeffrey Harrison’s poem reflects that desire which, I’m betting, most of you share with me, especially when the week’s dark headlines pile up in drifts.  There actually was such a book displayed by the cash register at Bob Slate Stationer in Harvard Square, one day when the poet was shopping and, for a few dollars, seemed to be offering that promise.  Jeffrey, though, is an honest enough poet to temper that innocent desire with a wry dose of reality.  Because (and you don’t need me to remind you of this) it’s our hands gripping the wheel, navigating the traffic, choosing the way forward.  And our hearts we feel hanging in the balance.  Sometimes we just need to steer ourselves away from the maddening tumult, to create our own quiet clearing, the sanctuary within a single slow breath. . . so we can restore a sense of balance, strengthen our resolve, recognize those faces around us as individuals much like ourselves, acknowledge them with a smile.


Jeffrey is the author of seven collections of poetry, the most recent of which is Between Lakes published by Four Way Books.  There seems to be a quietude within the very fabric of his verse as his sly narratives maneuver between grief, joy, and the quiet astonishment of our daily awakening.  He reminds me how fortunate I feel that I have a more encompassing resource to draw upon: three millennia of texts from similarly astute observers, whose poems remind me that – no matter the circumstance – what I am facing is not unique, nor am I alone in what I feel.  Drawing a little strength from those words, it makes me want to work harder to right the course of my own life, to demand more from the folk who have assumed the mantle of leadership, and to be a little kinder to all those whose paths I intersect.  “For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you”, declares Walt Whitman, reminding us that to sing a song of praise for what is, in all its challenging complexity, somehow seems to restore, replenish, reaffirm the human community.   And in those instances when the day simply overwhelms, perhaps it wouldn’t be a bad idea to soak in a warm bath, companioned with a good book.  And if you do receive a sign, be sure to let the rest of us know.



The Little Book of Cheerful Thoughts




Small enough to fit

in your shirt pocket

so you could take it out

in a moment of distress

to ingest a happy

maxim or just stare

a while at its orange

and yellow cover

(so cheerful in itself

you need go no further),

this little booklet

wouldn’t stop a bullet

aimed at your heart


and seems a flimsy

shield against despair,

whatever its contents.

But there it is

by the cash register,

so I pick it up

as I wait in line and

come to a sentence

saying ‘there are few

things that can’t be

cured by a hot bath’

above the name

Sylvia Plath.


I rest my case,

placing the booklet

back by its petite

companions Sweet Nothings

and Simple Wisdom…

but not The Book of Sorrows,

a multivolume set

like the old Britannica

that each of us receives

in installments

of unpredictable

heft and frequency

over a lifetime.




                         – Jeffrey Harrison


                                                (first published in Poem-a-Day,

by the Academy of American Poets)




The Red Letters 3.0


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