Friday, February 04, 2022

Red Letter Poem #96

 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 #96



Mundane. . .workaday. . .humdrum. . .prosaic. . .pedestrian: we’ve an expansive vocabulary for what we take to be the commonplace – most of it tinged with dissatisfaction if not outright disdain.  Perhaps it’s human nature: that the daily experiences, even those we once prized, can quickly tarnish beneath habit and disregard. . .unless, that is, some change in our circumstance drives those boring presences out of reach and makes us keenly aware of how sweet the water actually tasted, now that the proverbial well has run dry.


Jennifer Garfield (who, I am happy to report, has become an Arlingtonian in recent years) has published poetry in such journals as The Threepenny Review, Frontier Poetry, Sugarhouse Review, and Salamander – and she recently received The Martha's Vineyard Institute for Creative Writing Parent-Writer Fellowship.   She is performing one of the vital tasks we depend upon from all cherished artists: to cast even the ordinary of our days in sharp relief so that we might feel once again the extraordinary beauty in the simplest of moments.  She does this by setting her poem in the most perfunctory of situations (grocery shopping) and framing her cascade of thoughts in fairly unpoetic diction (“Have you ever considered/ how everyone has a face?”)  But as her mind suddenly seems overwhelmed with the simple delight of being a human among her fellow homo sapiens, we begin to find ourselves swept away by her enthusiasm (“Show me any beast// and I will see the prince inside.”)  And all it took to prompt this epiphany was. . .two years of a global pandemic and soul-crushing isolation.


I heard William B. Irvine speaking recently about his book The Stoic Challenge, trying to make the worldview of these old Roman philosophers accessible (and, in fact, vital) for a modern audience.  We tend to summarize the Stoics as being people who suppressed their emotions, but Irvine says that couldn’t be further from the truth.  It’s only the negative emotions (anger, jealousy, despair) from which this philosophical stance seeks to unburden us, while fully embracing tranquility, contentment, and delight.  His rule of thumb: “Do what you can, with what you’ve got, where you are.”  Choose your own life rather than dreaming of a more perfect (and hypothetical) life-to-come.  He suggests the technique of “negative visualization” – a brief thought experiment where you imagine your life without one of those ordinary elements in order to have its precious nature instantly burnished again.  He reminds us, “Covid-19 is a kind of brutal substitute for negative visualization” because we are all actually experiencing the long months without: a window seat at our favorite cafĂ©, a crowded dance floor in a local club, a tableful of family or friends laughing over a home-cooked meal – or even the freedom to reach out spontaneously past the shield of a mask and just touch someone else’s face.


I was standing in line the other day at my own local market (while maintaining a respectful distance, of course), and remembered Jennifer’s upcoming Red Letter contribution.  I stared hard at all those pairs of eyes hovering just above the mask-line – and I had the urge to. . .well, tell them about this poem I’d just read, to offer them a copy, to remind them how utterly astonishing it is to recall – not what we, at the moment, lack but all that relentless beauty that remains close at hand.  And so I have.







I’ve been thinking about all the faces today,

and at Market Basket I had an overwhelming desire


to reach out and touch your face, to feel 

your cool skin, your rough unshaven chin, 


your fat rouged cheeks. Have you ever considered

how everyone has a face? I am suddenly in love


with all the faces, and isn’t there a phrase­­–– pimples

and all? That’s where I am today. Show me any beast


and I will see the prince inside. It’s not that difficult

to love a face. Now I am staring in a mirror, but for once


without judgment. I have no regret for my wrinkles, my nose. 

Today, pores seem like a miracle. We survive. I like seeing you, 


stocking up on chicken broth and chocolate bars, walking

through the picked-over aisles of a world gone mad, 


or good. I’d like to keep you safe. I’d like to touch your face. 



                       –– Jennifer Garfield




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:


Monday, January 31, 2022

Sarah Alcott Anderson, We Hold On To What We Can.


Sarah Alcott Anderson, We Hold On To What We Can. Loom Press, 2021. 119pp. $20.00

Review by Ruth Hoberman

Sarah Alcott Anderson’s debut collection, We Hold On To What We Can, returns again and again to the message of its title. Children grow up, family and old friends die, the places we love change. What can we retain from the passage of time? Anderson is the daughter of a photographer, and the poems are charged with some of the emotional aura of a family album: moments caught—vivid, but trailing clouds of loss.

Anderson, who has an MFA from Warren Wilson College, chairs the English department at Berwick Academy, in Maine. She and her husband live in New Hampshire with their two children, where they run the Word Barn, which hosts readings and workshops. Her poems have appeared in various journals, including North American Review and Raleigh Review.

The challenge of writing about the passage of time, of course, is figuring out how to avoid sentimentality. Anderson does this by using precise language and (mainly) short lines; the poems feel restrained, understated, even reticent. Transitions and context are minimal; moments and images are juxtaposed without elaboration. “Let parts of your world/speak to each other,” the speaker says in “Come Here,” quoting advice an artist once gave her. Or, as she says in “Sweet Gum Seed Pods,” “We hold on to what we can./My son’s hair is thick, golden,/a wilderness.”

The poems are grouped into four sections. The first focuses on childhood; the second losses (great uncle, friend, grandfather, older brother); the third more recent relationships; and finally “Kaleidoscope” addresses the mind-bending complexity of time. But themes and images recur throughout: in particular, as a poem from the first section, “Beginnings & Tornadoes,” has it, “It’s about Time”:

It’s always about time. Strings of little lights

and paper lanterns, the shimmering city over there,

the sirens over there. All those lives

in all those windows.

The poem mourns the long absence of a childhood friend: “Why/did it take us this long? My children have filled me./They have filled me. I should have called you.” The repetition suggests the way children both satisfy and consume. Now, at last, they talk and remember: “girls racing headlong toward the magic/and the hurt. No one could have stopped us./We had salt in our hair and we were fast.”

Other poems make similar efforts to recreate past moments or bridge distances between people. “Let me put you there,” “MacMahan Island” opens, inviting the reader into the speaker’s past, in this case a church service in Maine when the speaker and her twin sister are five. But we never quite get there. The moment hasn’t just slipped away; it was illusory to begin with, infused with a future that will undo it. “In two years, our parents/will separate. All that is, seen and unseen.” This snippet from the Nicene Creed appears as part of the church service, but also as a reminder that, much as her minister father might insist on the reality of the “world to come,” any single moment is inseparable from the ones preceding and coming after them. The speaker and her sister pretend they are lost:

I had heard about lost explorers—shipwrecks.

Where were our parents

those afternoons? Just behind or ahead of us,

I am sure. We are always turning,

responding to someone calling a name.

The sisters feel secure enough to want to pretend they’re lost; someone will always call a name. But in a sense they really are lost—caught up, as we all are, in fantasies and a future we can’t foresee.

To compensate for these uncertainties and losses, the poems celebrate love—not romantic love so much as a relatedness manifest through gesture. In “Turning to Go,” for example, the speaker stands behind her naked three-year-old son as he climbs a rock:

I stand behind him,

my arms ready. I imagine

holding my arms this way

for the rest of my life,

as if the space

I create with my limbs

will endure

his turning to go . . .

This idea that the mother’s gesture might create something enduring—combining memory and love in a single, embodied manifestation—strikes me as strangely powerful.

Such a gesture turns up in other poems as well. In “Turn, It’s Been Three Decades,” the speaker remembers drawing on her children’s backs: “If I could have traced my finger gently in circles/along your skin forever, girls, if I could have,” she says longingly. In “Moonstone,” the speaker opens, “If I could, I’d press my thumb along you/like I do across this smooth moon necklace…” And “Come Here” ends:

This drive has become

everything I can’t say

to you. In slow, half-moon

strokes, I will

wipe your face

with a warm cloth.

This is all I can promise.

The gesture compensates for what can’t be expressed or reconstituted.

What “drive” is the speaker referring to? The book is framed as a journey by the poems that open and close it. The first poem, “Caution,” warns “Do not run/on this trail.” And the last, a prose poem, “Free Advice,” is set on a highway: don’t mistake the taillights you see for the windows of a hostel, the poem warns us. We may be invited into the poems as co-constructors of past moments, but we’ll never quite arrive anywhere. “Maybe I’ll meet you in the dark,” “Free Advice” concludes, evoking Whitman, whose Leaves of Grass ends, “I stop somewhere waiting for you.” But Anderson isn’t as sure as Whitman about the meetup: “Maybe I’ll meet you in the dark, but you have to keep walking for now. Think of the gestures we all misread, slough them off, step over them. Keep going.” We will never get the whole picture—of the past or of each other—but perhaps the gestures of affection offered by these poems suffice.