Thursday, January 06, 2022

Red Letter Poem #92

 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 #92



It is a strategy poets have employed since antiquity: to proceed by contraries – and Thomas DeFreitas uses it to bountiful effect in this poem from his first full-length collection, Winter in Halifax (Kelsay Books.)  The poem is an eloquent prayer for the most pedestrian of things (the Harvard Square hangouts of his youth.)  It uses the formal rhymes and entanglements of the villanelle while ushering us chockablock past the odd shops and cold facts of teenaged street life.  It clearly portrays a landscape where a part of the speaker’s heart is anchored – and yet the history and personality of that devotional voice is veiled behind his catalog of landmarks. . .except in those moments when the emotional tenor of the images rises into a higher register (ah, the “ink-sleeves” on those “ghost-white arms”!)  And then we may feel, for a moment, a curious kinship: we were all young once; the world was baffling and new; and we cared so passionately for this fragile existence that sometimes we too wished for some intercession, some clarifying force that would offer its blessing.


There is another category under which Thomas’ poem sits in my mind: it hints at the ubi sunt motif.  Derived from the Latin phrase: Ubi sunt qui ante nos fuerunt? ("Where are those who were before us?"), it represents a kind of nostalgia for people and places that proved to be (what a shock to our young psyches!) just as susceptible the forces of ephemerality as we.  A generation before Thomas inhabited these very streets, I remember hitchhiking up to Cambridge in the summer of 1969, the first stop on a cross-country odyssey.  Harvard Square was famous then for its artistic and intellectual scenes, and boasted an array of unique businesses.  But this holiday, when I made my annual shopping trip to the Square, I was stunned to see how its gradual transformation had been dramatically accelerated by the economic effects of the pandemic.  There were several empty storefronts – an unimaginable occurrence, here in one of the most valuable commercial districts in the Northeast!  Parts of whole blocks were being gutted for restoration, and the quaint shops that had been fixtures for decades will be replaced by luxury chains.  Even in this college town, the dozen or more bookshops I used to browse endlessly in my younger days had been reduced to a precious few.  I experienced a ghostly sense of history being hollowed out and erased – and I stopped to imagine how downtowns all across our nation might be undergoing similar changes.

May the “Mother of winter roses” and that “spare-change Madonna” take pity on us all, and reassure that the future will not think too harshly of us and the choices we’ve made when, in the coming years, some undergrad poet writes his or her own ubi sunt?     




Our Lady of Cambridge



Virgin of Harvard Square, gendering grace,watch over Holyoke Center, the Garage,Chameleon Tattoos, and the nose-ring place.Pray for the pink-haired waif of mournful faceand ink-sleeves on both ghost-white arms. Take charge(Mother of winter roses blushing with grace)of Raven, Grendel’s, Peet’s; and, just in case,tend to hungry undergrads at the largePalace of Pizza near the nose-ring place.Keep the Yard safe and sage. Make it your space.Send down, MarĂ­a, pardon from the stars;expand this city’s heart! Lady of grace,shelter the sleepers crouched in church doorwaysagainst the cold; protect the crowds in bars,the punks in the Pit and at the nose-ring place.Gather us all in your clement embrace;hasten with healing for our wounds and scars.Bless Newbury Comics, bless the nose-ring place,spare-change Madonna, prodigal of grace!



     –– Thomas DeFreitas




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: