Friday, February 18, 2022

The Red Letter Poem 98

 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 #98



If it can be said there is any upside to the Covid pandemic (and that’s something I do with great trepidation when referring to an illness that has affected a half billion individuals worldwide, and extinguished nearly 6 million lives), it may be the sort of shift in global consciousness which, sad to say, only disaster seems to be able to quickly accomplish.  There’s been something of a broad awakening concerning human mortality and the utter fragility of all we love.  And that extends beyond the domain of family and friends, and touches on ideas of community, the environment, planetary survival.  I’m not suggesting it’s universal – and I am in no way minimizing the countervailing forces of power politics and fear.  But experiencing the possibility that we might not see our children or grandchildren grow up (or, during some of the darker days we’ve been through, that we’d enjoy even another spring), changes something fundamentally.  That knowledge projects a rather harsh spotlight onto how we’re passing through our days and what is it we truly value.  I don’t believe I’m being overly optimistic to suggest that, in our new pandemic reality, we might be entertaining more moments of – at least awareness, if not outright compassion – for all those anonymous fellow-travelers whose paths we cross in the supermarket or on the bus heading home, and who are staring back at us with curiosity from above their masks.


Charles Coe is a poet, educator, exuberant baritone, avid blogger, big-hearted individual.  In today’s Red Letter, I’m offering one of his poems that predates the pandemic (it’s included in his collection All Sins Forgiven: Poems For My Parents from Leapfrog Press) yet seems to be reflecting what I’ve come to think of as Covid-mind.  It takes one of those simple perceptions of the other and makes of it a small portrait of humankind on this troubled blue-green planet.  This is the transformative capability of a well-crafted poem: it can engage within us that cinematic effect of the ‘slow zoom’ – and not simply visually but within the depths of our emotional landscapes.  Its approach can either focus in on the fine-detailed microcosm, until even the familiar becomes quietly astonishing; or, as in the case of Charles’ poem, it can begin with the small specific detail and then broaden out to gradually assume something of a god-like perspective.  And from that great distance, I think our hearts feel like they must stretch their boundaries in order to encompass that deep feeling for (how could I not have seen it earlier?!) the rich complexity each individual life contains.  “For small creatures such as us,” wrote the planetary scientist Carl Sagan, “the vastness is only bearable through love.”  And paying attention – to the great swing of the galaxy, to the modest beauty passing outside the bus window, even to the mole on a girl’s neck (not to mention the poet’s precision as he describes it all in a notebook) – is nothing less than an act of love.








The young woman on the bus

wearing headphones

has a mole on her neck.


Perhaps the same mole

in the same place

on some ancient ancestor

itched with sweat as she

crawled on hands and knees

through the king’s garden,

back bent, pulling weeds.


I know someone whose husband

died a month after their baby's birth.

Years later, she had to turn away

when her teenaged son brushed

the hair from his girlfriend's

face with exactly the same gesture

as the father he had never known.


Some mysteries are greater

than the birth of stars;

that sound you hear the moment

before sleep is not the wind, but

your own flesh, in a timeless,

whispered conversation with itself.



                        ­­–– Charles Coe





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 17, 2022

A Somerville writer writes about Cambridge Cats: A Cat on the Case by Clea Simon


I lost my beloved cat Ketz this summer. I can attest to the mystery and magic that cats possess. So it came to my attention that Somerville novelist and critic Clea Simon has come out with yet another in her Cambridge Witch Cats Series. It is titled, " A Cat on the Case," which concerns a young woman and her band of unique cats, as they try to solve a mystery in the Republic of Cambridge. I am hoping we see a Somerville cat series some time soon!

You have written a lot of cat mysteries--the cats in your latest mystery--are part of your Cambridge Witch Cats Series. Do you anticipate a Somerville cat series? How would a Somerville cat differ from a Cambridge one?

I conceived of the Witch Cats of Cambridge series while I still lived in Cambridge, so I’m afraid I don’t see moving it. (A Cat on the Case is the third Witch Cats of Cambridge mystery.) Though if I do start a new series at some point, I’ll definitely set it in Somerville! Hmmm… a Somerville cat? Maybe younger and hipper – an idiosyncratic tortoiseshell who goes her own way. Kind of like my current feline companion, Thisbe, maybe.

In your book a band of cats are in the employ of an aspiring witch detective. She is investigating the disappearance of a panicked stranger who handed her a violin and then split. The cats use their paranormal and magical powers to solve the mystery. Cats and witches are closely aligned in literature, but is it a unique take for witch detectives and cats?

I wish I could give you a definitive answer, Doug. I’m not aware of any other amateur sleuths who use their paranormal powers to solve crimes – which is how I’d define “witch detective” in crime fiction parlance, but there may be. I am certainly playing with all the literary and mythological tropes about women, magic, and cats (a topic I got to have great fun with in my nonfiction book, The Feline Mystique: On the Mysterious Connection Between Women and Cats). What I love best about Becca, the human protagonist of A Cat on the Case, is that she thinks she’s the one taking care of the cats, as opposed to the other way around. And that is just based on fact, of course.

The shop where the panicked stranger hands the violin to the protagonist--is that modeled after one shop in particular?

No, I picked details from various shops, including Ritual Arts in Allston. But I added everything I’d want to see in a New Age botanica.

This book also explores the challenges a young woman has trying to cope in an ever-changing New England city. Explain.

A Cat on the Case is light-hearted, fun mystery – what we call a “cozy” in crime fiction – but I believe in making my characters realistic. I can certainly remember what it was like to be young and single and trying to make a living in a changing/gentrifying city, and I think readers will identify with Becca and her struggles – and be grateful that she has three loyal cats to help her!

Sunday, February 13, 2022

Carolynn Kingyens’ “Coupling” — Art as a Means of Survival

Poetry Review: Carolynn Kingyens’ “Coupling” — Art as a Means of Survival

By Ed Meek

In this collection, Carolynn Kingyens discloses what lies behind the veneer of our relationships. Coupling by Carolynn Kingyens. Kelsay Books, 68 pages, $16.50.

Art is a survival tool. It helps us make meaning of our lives by providing us with aesthetic pleasure, much as the beauty of nature does. The mainstream media titillates us with disconnected, mostly fragmented negative narratives. The language of art peels back the curtain of confusion and shows us the wizard, for better or worse. Coupling, Carolynn Kingyens’ second book of poems, goes about disclosing what lies behind the veneer of our relationships. She draws from her past and invites us to share revelations that are both humorous and troubling.

Kingyens is particularly good at dramatizing paradoxes we cling to in everyday life. We are influenced by the beliefs we grew up with — even when we no longer entirely believe them.

“Each chore/ around your house–/a station of the cross:/that’s how far gone I was/that’s how good you were/in bed.” Like Lena Dunham in the series Girls, the narrator of

Kingyens’ poems finds herself stuck in relationships that she’s both surprised and appalled by.

In “Alone Now” Kingyens invites us to

Imagine for a moment being trapped on a long flight to Tibet; a kind stranger in the seat beside you– who never shuts up.

By the fifth hour, your neck begins to hurt from all the nodding.

Readers will no doubt nod along in amused agreement, while having to acknowledge at the same time that its true — these situations drive us crazy. And the weird part is they happen to all of us all the time.

A few stanzas later she says:

Imagine, for a moment, your head in your hands.

The serious turn in the poem is so emotionally effective because the horror was prefaced by humor. She suggests that we live lives filled with tragicomedy.

Kingyens comment on marriage partakes of that clear-eyed vision:

No one warns you about the movement in marriage, that slow-motion drift toward indifference

“Write about the things that bother you. The experiences that don’t go away,” poet Richard Hugo once said. Kingyens tells us about a friend who remains in her thoughts.

Jimmy Russo told me six months before he jumped off the George Washington Bridge that my problem was I didn’t know myself; that…and I talked too much.

Kingyens taps into how we remember odd details about friends who are no longer with us.

In the title poem, “Coupling,” Kingyens contrasts the story her husband tells others about how they met with the real story. She hones in on how we present better versions of ourselves and our relationships to others. We hide the self that exists beneath the reassuring social fa├žade. You need to do no more than check out all the testifying that takes place on Facebook around anniversaries.

Your version of events were tidy and clean, When you said you knew I was the woman you were destined to marry the moment you saw me…

But the truth was:

you had no interest in wanting to marry me the day I showed up in your messy doorway…

I was ripe, hot, willing to please— not the bitch you would later marry.

One of Kingyens’ strengths is her ability to view, with skepticism, her religious upbringing. Here is her experience of “Vacation Bible School”:

We sang songs at Vacation Bible School about how Jesus loved the little children of the world…

All of us, soldiers for Christ.

We drank Jim Jones-colored punch and ate no frills butter cookies…

The Jim Jones reference emphasizes the cult like atmosphere. As children, many of us believed these myths. Kingyens then shocks us with how some of her bible schoolmates turned out:

Years later, Timmy Ainsley would shoot himself in the mouth after he came out to his parents…

And I heard little Regina Hopely, Bethel’s Christmas Pageant Mary, became a meth addict…

Taking a poetic approach similar to that of Hugo, Joseph Lawrence, and Doug Holder, Kingyens zeroes in on stories and experiences that stick with her. She shares them with us, prompting us to take a closer — perhaps braver — look at our own lives and relationships. Her poems are rife with the contradictions we all live with; she reminds us that we need good poetry to make sense of our lives.