Friday, February 11, 2022

Red Letter Poem #97

 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 #97



I’ve received this idea through the most circuitous of means: from the philosophy of Schopenhauer, filtered through the composer Wagner (more specifically, his opera Tristan and Isolde), then interpreted and staged by The Lyric Opera of Chicago, and finally embedded (permanently, it seems) in the memory of my dear friend Michael who speaks often of how that performance, back in 2009, solidified his thinking about longing and love.  He was swayed by an idea crystalized at the heart of the piece that regarded longing as love’s truest embodiment – which, according to the philosopher’s way of thinking, will always be more satisfying and intense than when the dreamed-of experience is realized.  Sitting in that darkened theater, thrilled by the opera’s unresolved opening chords, Michael began to appreciate anew how nostalgia and distance operated within his own life.  Of course, today I wonder how the majority of soon-to-be holiday celebrants, plotting their perfect romantic evenings, would feel about this idea?  Or, for that matter, couples committed to long marriages? 


And where would poet Scott Ruescher come down within this debate?  Or, if not Scott exactly, then the unidentified speaker in his recent poem, “Traffic Jam”, making its debut here as an atmospheric valentine-Red Letter installment?  He is musing about love, aloneness, and the sort of long-distance desire that Tristan might easily embrace.  I like the poem’s long Whitmanesque lines and eye for street-level detail creating scenes that feel immediate and genuine.  In the course of three 8-line stanzas, this cinematic poem takes us, via long tracking shots: from the speaker’s own perspective on love and isolation; then drifting above the streaming traffic (each car containing its own versions of joy or sadness); down toward the hem of the Charles River where geese still huddle together in the cold; and finally, out toward that lonely scholar working late, far away and quite separate from the little dramas taking place below his library window.  The poem led me to consider what each of us desire most within this world – and how near or far it might be from our reach.


When asked about his background, Scott offered me this story (which I now convey to you) of a somewhat glamorous start to his writing career: a Teaching/Writing Fellowship to the prestigious Iowa Writers Workshop; publication in prominent magazines; a finalist in the sort of manuscript competitions that can define a poet’s career.  But the glorious success did not materialize, and he found himself working at Harvard where, for 18 years, he administered the Arts in Education program at the Graduate School of Education.  He also taught in the Boston University Prison Education Program during that same period – another way of trying to stay true to this art form, even if the muse remained aloof.  And though he continued to write, he felt that deep inspiration had somehow fled from him, his passion rebuffed – until, decades later, he went on a month-long writing retreat at the Vermont Studio Center, and that deep impulse slowly returned.  Even better, he found himself liberated from his older, more derivative style and free to make poems that felt like his truer self.  Since then, his career has once again clicked back into gear: poems from his first full-length collection, Waiting for the Light to Change (Prolific Press), won the Write Prize from Able Muse – reaching publication when the poet was in his early sixties.  He also received (two years in a row, I should add!) the Erika Mumford Award from the New England Poetry Club.  So, as we approach the celebration of another Valentine’s Day, I make this wish for our Red Letter community: that you use this occasion to give thought to who and what you truly love in this life.  And if longing for the ideal feeds your soul, may that only intensify.  But if it’s simply a matter of distance that keeps you from what you desire most, may you find a way to surmount the obstacles and cross that bridge.




Traffic Jam



From the hollow iron railing of a riveted green bridge

High above the river, I could see Mars, red and mad

In the clear black sky in the east above the harbor,

Attempting to appear—on Valentine’s night, without my lover here—

Equidistant to the pregnant white full moon in the sky

(To whom he was about as near as he’s ever allowed in a year)

And the blinking red light on the roof of the university library

That warns planes and cherubs not to enter the atmosphere.


And I could see cars, on both banks of the black river,

With moonlike headlights and Mars-like taillights headed to and fro

The candlelit city, the celestial occupants fresh from thawing out

The ice-white sheets of their beds, dressed, I guessed,

In the red skirts and trousers, the white shirts and pullovers,

That are known to yoke the astral, complementary powers—

Earthbound wooers who’d snared their share of starlight from the sky

Now intent on romantic public restaurant dinners.


Below me I saw a snow-white flock of hand-fed geese

For whom the cold had not quite sealed the river shut just yet

Floating upon a still black pool near the lace collar of white ice

Around a gray granite pylon—and through a window a scholar,

Oblivious, I imagined, to everything but the love story

He was reading in a book, looking, in a library nook, with lonely eyes

On the comings and goings of woman and man, too hurt, too prone

To lamentation, and too shy to participate in the ultimate traffic jam.



                                                     –– Scott Ruescher





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, February 10, 2022

The Star of Dazzling Ecstasy 79 Poems by Alexander Pushkin

The Star of Dazzling Ecstasy

79 Poems by Alexander Pushkin

Translated by Philip Nikolayev

Tiptop Street (NYC) and a&b publishers (Moscow)

New York

ISBN: 979-8-9851762-0-9

213 Pages


Review by Dennis Daly


Most English translations of Alexander Pushkin convey facets of the poet’s singular, Russian genius, but never give the full sense of it. Even Vladimir Nabokov’s attempted literal translation of Eugene Onegin seems to fall flat. One exception to this is Charles Johnson’s impressively formalist translation of Eugene Onegin and other longish Pushkin poems. Now we have another exception, and an extraordinary one at that, Philip Nikolayev’s new bilingual book of selected Pushkin poems, entitled The Star of Dazzling Ecstasy.


Nikolayev’s translations mimic the Russian originals, using English rhyme and meter, to create accurate versions of Pushkin’s pieces. This translator-poet sets up 79 of Pushkin’s lyrical poems in chronological order, brilliantly exhibiting both range and elegance.


Pushkin, largely considered the greatest of all Russian poets, lived a short but eventful life (June 6, 1799 to February 10, 1837). Born into nobility, he pioneered using colloquial speech, rather than the traditional elevated language of Russia’s literary past. From the beginning Pushkin was controversial. He espoused liberal ideals that evolved into revolutionary beliefs. Joining a secret society and publicly reading poems of liberation got Pushkin exiled by Tsar Alexander I.  Later, his poetry and plays would give voice to the budding Decembrist movement that would, in 1825, explode into violent revolt.  Pushkin’s style drew from the romanticism and realism of his era. He died from a bullet to the stomach received during a pistol duel with Georges d’Anthes, a French attaché to the tsarist court and rumored lover of Natalia Goncharova, Pushkin’s wife. The rules of the duel separated the two antagonists by only ten paces. Not surprisingly, the first shot, fired by d’Anthes, hit its mark and mortally wounded Pushkin.


A young Pushkin stakes out his philosophical territory in the collection’s title poem To Chaadaev. Luminous to a fault, Nikolayev charts his way through the piece with simplicity and internal logic. His perfect rhymes drive the passion without intruding on the movement or sense. The poem concludes with an avowal of patriotism and an efficacious last line brandishing a future, eye-opening truth,


We still await in anguished languor

Our festival of sacred freedom

Much in the way that a young lover

Awaits a tryst that’s been agreed on.

While, thus ablaze with liberty,

Our hearts remain alive to honor,

Let’s to our mother-country offer

Our spirit’s full nobility!

Comrade, believe: it will emerge—

The star of dazzling ecstasy;

Russia will wake from her mirage;

On ruins of autocracy

We yet shall see our names writ large.


Mining a story from Herodotus, the 5th century B.C. Greek historian, Pushkin versifies a tale of the poet Arion, a native of Lesbos, the inventor of the dithyramb, and the greatest of all lyre players. The plot of the piece has Arion returning to his home in Corinth by way of ship. On board he is robbed by the crew and given the choice of hurling himself into the sea or being slaughtered once they reach land. Arion decides to leap into the sea, but only after he sings to the crew. All goes as planned and Arion dutifully jumps overboard. Here the story turns fanciful. Arion is rescued by a dolphin and survives. The crew drowns in a storm or (in another variant) faces justice in Corinth. Pushkin decided on a more realistic ending. He kills off the crew in the storm and Arion is washed to shore.


Nikolayev’s translation of Pushkin’s poem Arion moves fast. His use of slant rhyme and off rhyme lowers the tone to near prosaic. His word choices add layers of meaning. For instance, he uses the term, “mystic bard.”  Compare this with an equally formal, but slightly more internalized version by Seamus Heaney (“A mystery to my poet self”). I like both. Here is that section of Arion by Nikolayev in full,


Our helmsman leaned upon the wheel,

Steering us steady on the waves,

And I—filled with a carefree faith—

Sang to the crew… When suddenly

A whirlwind rent the gentle sea…

They perished all, except for me:

The mystic bard was washed ashore


Perhaps my favorite poem in Nikolayev’s collection Pushkin entitles To the Poet, A Sonnet. It’s a wonderfully constructed poem. Nothing fancy, but truth-telling. The didactic wordage carries the reader along with firmness and insistency. Pushkin’s persona shines through with earned authority, directing his words to a legitimate poet (Or, if not, God help him or her.). The poem opens this way,


Poet! Set not too much store by the people’s love.

The noise of accolades will not for long be heard,

You’ll face the idiot’s court, you’ll hear the cold crowd laugh,

Yet you must remain firm, sullen, and unperturbed.


You’re a king: live alone. Follow freely the roads

Along which your free mind impels your seeking feet,

Perfect the precious fruits of your beloved thoughts,

Demanding no rewards for that most noble feat.


In his poem, Verses Composed on a Night of Insomnia, Pushkin delves into the netherworld of sleeplessness. This short poem delivers its message effectively with an apparent effortlessness, much as free verse would. But it also imbues the poetry with an internal elegance, which adds to the mystery and the mayhap. Here is the heart of the poem,


The old Fates’ matronly murmurs

And the heart’s nocturnal tremors,

Life’s like scurrying of mice…

Why must you torment me thus?

What’s your message, tedious mumble?


Nikolayev’s virtuosity not only does justice to Pushkin’s lyrical poems, but he remakes them into intrinsic English poems and masterpieces of translation. Bravo Alexander Pushkin. Bravo Philip Nikolayev.

Tuesday, February 08, 2022

A New Zenith of Expression in Joan Houlihan’s It Isn’t a Ghost if It Lives in Your Chest

A New Zenith of Expression in Joan Houlihan's It Isn’t a Ghost if It Lives in Your Chest

article by Michael Todd Steffen

Readers have been the subjects of many famous painters—Fragonard, Manet, Sergeant—

and their expressions often mirror the emotions that go into the act: sometimes pleasant and passive, other times a little stormy or strained with the effort. I thought of these portraits as I was reading Joan Houlihan’s new book of poems It Isn’t a Ghost if it Lives in Your Chest, often finding my face involuntarily reacting with a lifted brow and a smile. The language in the poems of this new collection makes to date Houlihan’s most confidential and generous expressions.

A typographical invention these days isn’t easy to come by. Houlihan manages this by designating the book’s five sections with number of fore-slashes (/), one of many rudimentary gestures that will remind readers of her idiosyncratic signatures in the earlier book-length narratives The Us and Ay. The new poems astonish us in their simplicity:

Cloud bales load the sky.

Arms and legs, I am spokes on a lawn

fresh-cut. Which way

am I facing? Ground. Sky. Ground. (“The Cartwheel,” page 5)

The childlike brilliance, reminding us of Cummings and Bishop, is woven as a recurrent theme throughout the book, notably in fairytale allusions and curious linguistic observations that bear the weight of earthiness and thing into word and syntax.

Once you know you will die, the sky flattens.

Stars poke their fingers through

and point at you.

The passage is from “Gift Horse” (page 29), a title ringing with at least two associations: the proverb about looking a gift horse in the mouth; and Homer’s story about Troy and the gift horse in which the Achaeans sneaked into the walled city to sack it. The two instances demark a curious turn and counter-turn of thought—the wise, humble, and appreciative vs. the wary, ironic, and doubtful. (Sappho’s two adjectives for her inspirations, poikilothron and doloploke—fascinating and mischievous—announce this bifold—inviting, yet perilous—address to the poet from her numinous semiotic landscape.)

We meet this tide in and tide out again and again throughout the book, signed at the outset in Houlihan’s epigraph from Jacques Lacan, You are this which is so far from you.

Paradox sways us to and fro in the mother image of the book’s opening title, “The axe and hammer which come to be mother,” the axe for chopping and breaking down, the hammer for fastening and building. This dialectical wave continues throughout, to the ambiguous mix of shriving and atonement in the final section of the book, where grief is encountered both as a breaking down and restoration of the mourner, a passage through regret and guilt to justification of the survivor’s needs and inspirations. This two-way encounter in particular with Houlihan produces simultaneity in single words, double-entendres.

When she announces of her mother that “Her language busted with wrath,” we are left to wonder whether this language itself burst, whether it broke something else, or “busted” somebody in the sense of “arrested” or “caught out.” That it does so “with wrath” recalls how wrath may act both on the subject and the object of the verb, on the victim as well as the one wielding the terrible emotion.

Again, when Houlihan tells us “Her will, made of pitch, can’t be read”—can such an intangible thing as “will” concretize as a tarry substance? Or would the elusive force be more in the way of an agricultural or athletic motion?

The subtilty of Houlihan’s care with words operates in the multiple possibilities which are left unresolved in a very palpable silence bringing focus to the pivotal word. She does this in a broader sense by not announcing Oedipus in her sleight of hand with the Sphinx’s riddle:

by the pad of my feet in the morning,

by the tip of my nose at noon,

by the tap-tap-tap of my cane at night. (“Her Fostering,” page 4)

And she just stops short of announcing Little Red Riding Hood, throwing the Wolf’s grim phrase in the voice of the poet’s father:

What pink flesh you have, he’d observe,

as he stuffed an apple into a pig head

and served it with both eyes open.

Houlihan’s title on page 14, “I am a Switzerland,” finds its rejoinder title on page 16, “I am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang.” Like the French and Greek leitmotifs, the fairytale references and glimpses of ghost stories, the escapee theme is woven throughout different poems and gives It isn’t a Ghost a good sense as a book of continuity and resonance. (The first two sections are dedicated to “mother” and “father,” an echo of Houlihan’s 2018 book Shadow-feast with its first two sections respectively titled Hers and His.”

A menagerie of animals also (cooing dove, hooing owl, calicos, tabbies, wild turkey, geese, a brown bear, a rabbit named Little Plato…) makes frequent appearances, often lending, like the fairytale references, a charm of fable to the psychic landscape of the book. Section /// takes on the theme of a bestiary, celebrating the commodity cow that is led to the butcher’s block (You are the ignorance/she lives through), an octopus with its dusky ink, and a damaged parrot which becomes a brilliant extended metaphor for the trials and transformations of the fugitive:

Slow as a child first out,

she moved through the worlds of trees and grass,

fell asleep in the sun while the other birds played,

woke in the dark and expelled her owner’s words

Oh snap! Crap! Baby want a bitch-slap?

Felt herself be green but never knew her head was red… (page 41)

The intricacies of survival are given noteworthy consideration with the poet contemplating the dual game of predation between the human and animal worlds, in a camping moment of deprivation with the prospect of hunting—and a dangerous reversal:

Nature, it’s here for us.

The squirrel bit, the bird bit,

and bear. Loaded for you

they rise big from a bush,

typically drag you around

and stuff you in a log,

a meal to come back to, enjoy.

Nine-tenths of the law and all that.

I waited for hours playing dead,

then used my fingers to dig my way out.

The dirt’s still under my nails. (“Trigger Warning,” page 49)

Yes, we may very well acknowledge from certain experiences, my “triggers” have led me to such encounters, with “bears,” getting stuffed in a log and having to use my fingers to dig my way out. Things penetrating us and beyond our control find language and understanding through poetry, as if the pleasurable practice of the art required some usefulness. It is helpful to locate and name that which is so intimate with us and yet remains elusive and Other.

It is as constant with us as our breath, the in and out movement of the lungs in our “chest,” which the book’s title announces isn’t a Ghost, but a living presence. Or in a “chest” of keepsakes, like a poem, a record of occurrences perhaps for nobody else but only a ghost if left unwritten, unrecorded.

Artists ever aspire to new zeniths of expression. Houlihan achieves this in the poems of It isn’t a Ghost if it Lives in Your Chest, a poet who has taken its readers to satisfying heights in her narrative book-length poems, and then again in 2018 by intensifying the focus on the intimate subject of personal grief in Shadow-feast. In the new work the lens has softened back. Acceptance and wisdom with subtilty and their own milder guile come across and make everything seem fresh and curious. (This is also true of the elegies, more discursive than tearful, for late friend and poet Lucie Brock-Broido, author of the 2013 National Book Award Finalist Stay, Illusion). All the while we savor Houlihan’s characteristic talents for making her medium inconspicuous, inviting, and vivid. We turn to vertigo with her cartwheel and can feel, before we envision, her flattening sky.

It isn’t a Ghost if It Lives in Your Chest

Poems by Joan Houlihan

ISBN 9781945588914

Four Way Books

Tribeca, 2021