Saturday, August 20, 2022

Red Letter Poem #124

 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 #124




In Western culture, nothing gets a bad rap.  We are utterly enamored with the substance of our material lives, the bulwark of somethings we cobble together – both as individuals and as part of our societal fortresses. So on those occasions when we confront even a hint of nothingness – perhaps standing before the vast expanse of the sea, the night sky, the cloud of our quiet thoughts – we sometimes feel a tremor inside, and quickly opt for the balm of distraction: reaching for our phones or another beer, turning up the music or dialing down our attention.  It’s perhaps why many Eastern religions – where the concept of nothingness is seen as a vital element in their cosmologies – make some of us a little nervous.  And just the prospect of sitting still for a meditative hour in a quiet space – paying attention to what the mind is not doing – would lead certain individuals to suddenly remember (and gratefully so) that the lawn needs mowing; the laundry, ironing; and the Amazon cart, overflowing with saved items, is whispering our name.  Yet the Chinese sage Lao Tsu begins the seminal Taoist text, the Tao Te Ching, by saying that the Tao is an empty vessel. . .but from it, the Ten Thousand Things rise up.  From that generative emptiness, all the universe (all things as well as all thoughts) comes surging into existence.


“At the Mouth of a Canal in Key Largo” is triggered, I’m sure, by Chloé Firetto-Toomey’s proximity to the sea – but it’s also mindful of the much-loved and iconoclastic 20th century poetry of James Wright (take a look at his poem “Lying in a Hammock at William Duffy’s Farm in Pine Island, Minnesota” for a direct antecedent.)  Chloé has chosen to stand attentively before a great emptiness, allowing her mind to find its place within the open expanse.  A young British-American poet and essayist, she settled in Miami Beach after earning an MFA degree from Florida International University where she studied with poets like Denise Duhamel and Richard Blanco and, after graduation, took the position as Richard’s personal assistant.  Chloé’s most recent chapbook of poems, Little Cauliflower, was published in 2019 by Dancing Girl Press.  Her work has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize, and she received the Scotti Merrill Memorial Award in Poetry.  I like how, in this poem, she is exploring abstract ideas but portraying them in the tangible experiences we all share – inviting us perhaps to stand where she is standing, feeling the salt-spray on our faces.  “Here, as darkness/ takes shape…”, and immediately I remembered what I felt standing at the edge overlooking my mother’s grave – precious something returning to an inconceivable nothingness.  But this poem is not mournful; to my mind, it approaches the mysterious convergence of surrender and love.  And it pleases me a good deal to know that, at this moment, Chloé is engaged in that greatest of all something-out-of-nothing magic tricks: she is about to give birth to her first child.  Where there was no life before, now there is life.  No poem can explain that, and mustn’t even try.  But it can stand as an invitation: to watch the pas de deux between land and the sea, shadow and light, until all words return to silence, and we sense what we’re all a part of.  




At the Mouth of a Canal in Key Largo


After James Wright



Palm leaves wave their mermaid hair

over the shifting shoulders of the sea.

They are ageless


lovers, enamored

with the shape of something

the other will never embody.


Transversive waves

chip jewels

that tremor to seawalls.


The horizon longs to reach back

upon itself,

as I do,


cupping those jeweled shoulders

of shadow

and brine, the faces


of immensity.

Here, as darkness

takes shape,


I am happy to be





––Chloé Firetto-Toomey




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