Saturday, March 05, 2022

Red Letter Poem 100

 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 #100



After all, how long could it last: a month? Six weeks, tops.


That was my thinking when I launched the Red Letter Project back in March of 2020, responding to the Covid pandemic and the first quarantine.  At the time, there was a great deal of concern in the air – but hadn’t we seen other health crises come and go without too much disruption?  Still, I felt the project was a necessary response, recognizing immediately how isolation only magnified our fears.  And since I had been appointed as Arlington’s Laureate, I wanted to offer a reminder to my community, in any way I could, that while we might be physically apart, we were not alone.  “Men work together, I told him from the heart,/ Whether they work together or apart.”  We must embrace the state of mind depicted in Robert Frost’s poem if the balancing act of interconnectedness is to endure.  Even in our solitary efforts, we can still keep each other’s home, health, work, dream in mind.


So how has that feeling changed after two years of Covid anxiety?  And George Floyd?  And January 6th?  And the proliferation of climate disasters?  And now the Russian tanks rolling toward Kyiv?


I must say all this has only strengthened my resolve: that in pursuing the solitary passions that are central in my life, I must at the same time be mindful of our communal spaces and shared fates.  The first – and the most sacred – word in America’s founding document: we, as in we the people.  Our country has excelled in exploring the vast frontier of I – the rugged individualism and singular creative impulse (not to mention the mass-produced make-believe ‘uniqueness’ being touted from every screen and advertisement.)  But that drive had always been wedded to the idea of wethe common good, a shared humanity.  If now we’ve permitted political and economic forces to decouple those counterbalancing forces, our survival will indeed become precarious.


But for the past two years, I’ve experienced a glorious version of that communal impulse.  Putting the call out to Arlington, and then Massachusetts poets to allow me to share their work, I received nothing but positive responses.  Then as the Red Letters were circulated from friend to friend, I began getting subscribers from across the country and even from abroad (a few readers in Turkey, Singapore, Israel, South Korea.)  And soon poets from all over agreed to add their voices to this chorus.  Not only was I able to feature the work of up-and-coming talents but some of the most acclaimed figures in poetry today.  I loved how each Friday, as the new installment appeared in inboxes and on partnering websites, letters from readers would begin arriving – praising a poem or bolstering some idea with their personal narratives.  I would respond to each and then compile a sampling to share with the featured poet.  A real sense of the shared moment developed – that ‘community of voices’ I mention each week – and it reaffirmed all that I’d always hoped for from this medium when I was a young poet just beginning to find my way.


I’ll bet that if you polled a thousand poets about which author most exemplified that sense of poetry as part of our social connective tissue, the name Seamus Heaney would be a frequent answer.  Even before he became a Nobel Laureate – and dubbed the most famous poet of his time – both his writing and his manner (with friends and strangers alike) was so ebullient and deeply humane, he made you feel honored to be a part of the same literary guild.  Seamus left us nearly a decade ago and far too soon.  But I get a similar feeling from the Red Letter poets as well: something of great value was given to them, an ancient tradition; and they feel it is vital that they pass it on to others, that the connections endure, the circle continuing to strengthen and expand.  We recognize ourselves in these poems; and we imagine the countless unseen eyes moving across the page.






            (for Seamus Heaney)



Three months dead and your poem

appears in the glossy mag.  Below

the by-line, your years pried apart

with a paltry black hyphen.

In your honor, I crack a cold one ––

ragged moonlit clouds frothing atop

a pint of midnight –– and toast

to all our fermented spirits, lush

on the summer tongue, our sullen

eloquence, the cold glass weeping

inside the palm, because –– and you’d be

the first to remind me –– you can no longer

see, sip, taste, savor, nor honor with song

this starless June diminuendo.

I can.  And do.



                              ­­–– Steven Ratiner




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:

Wednesday, March 02, 2022

On Earth as It Is, by Michael Todd Steffen

On Earth as It Is, by Michael Todd Steffen Cervena Barva Press, 2022 53 pages, $16.00

Review by Denise Provost

The day after I finished reading On Earth as It Is, a panel of the world’s foremost scientists warned the world’s nations – again - of the climate consequences of our escalating greenhouse gas emissions. Sea levels are on track to rise several feet, to make islands and seacoasts uninhabitable. The floods, droughts, heat, fire, storms, and plagues already bringing hunger, displacement, and elevated death tolls to our world will only accelerate if our fossil fuel consumption patterns continue.

Covering this report on February 28, 2022, the Washington Post calls it “a warning letter to a world on the brink,” noting that “averting the worst-case scenarios will require nothing less than transformational change on a global scale.” In its accompanying “Postcards from Earth’s Climate Futures,” the Post features a series of images of familiar places, under a range of future climate conditions. Those featuring Yosemite National Park show projected changes around Half Dome.

Half Dome is probably one of the world’s most recognized geologic features, thanks to the work of photographer Ansel Adams. In the exquisite poem bearing Adams’ name, Somerville poet Michael Steffen characterizes him this way:

“Hawk of vision, his hunger was

to appraise his subject on earth as it is,

not narrowing for extraction….

So much of what he aspired to take

and therefore leave was land on land

on land…”

Somewhere between restrained warning letter and delicate elegy, Steffen’s poems lovingly document features of our “world on the brink.” The poems in this collection include some enormous themes. There are poems about “Geology” (“what has been/has been again and again/while time’s unique utterances/keep vanishing….) the oceans (“the business/of the sails of cloud/stacked like the coasts’ glass mountains/these Aeolian beings, drawing from it/fertile rain, shimmering nets/and devastating storms….”) and the whole insect kingdom (“they were always in my path/in the long grass hopping, landing, swarming/at the intersections/of my world and theirs.”)

Intermingled with these wide-angled – yet detailed – views are those which emerge when the poet’s eye zooms in to the particular. We meet the Osage Orange tree, “whose fruit is green/ caught out as Mock; fiber/deemed chief for weapons and called Bowwood;” ‘the Mulberry, whose silkworms/wove a road from China/to the Mediterranean/kimono by kimono.” Then there are the sequoias, in whose grove we see “the rain and the shaken leaves, the swifts in front/of the storm, the hawk in the silence after.”

Some in the literary world seem determined to create taxonomies for the classification of all poetry; from some of these determined classifiers has come the ghastly term “ecopoetry.” There is a developing poetic consciousness which sees nature less as Eden and more as approaching apocalypse, but it deserves a better name, which honors it as a poetry of witness. Elisa Gabbert, writing in The New York Review of Book in 2020, notes the emergence of “what can only be called climate poetry, a poetry full of fire and flooding and refugees.”

Yet the poems in On Earth as It Is do not scream disaster but speak appreciation. We view at close range the snake; the walleye; a bird, and a fly trapped indoors; sea turtles in “the frenzy on the beach/under the moonlight where scavenger gulls/flock to the baby crawlers as they hatch/clambering seaward.” We glimpse “grass of Kentucky/Wing of blackbird, cascade, full full moon.”

There is a nostalgia here, too, for traces of the human world, alluded to on the macro scale in “Geology”: “ice shelf to/inland sea excavation/book written over/overwritten footprints/of civilizations….” In other poems, the fading artifacts are particular, and intimately close in time. They are old movies (Westerns, Mae West), a ball game at Wrigley field, a remembered moment in 1967 when “Aunt Donna warned and sipped from her iced tea/The glass beaded with sweat. It is so present/The smell of wet dog imbuing the shag carpet/The dust on the shelves with the family photos….”

The only references to our climate crisis are indirect, ironic, as in “Poem for Rachel Carson.” Almost as an aside, a note to self, is the instruction, “Doodle a frown/face by the passage/all about Prometheus and his/beneficial/then rampant fire.” The most formally structured piece of the collection, “All Imagery,” uses form and tone as distancing mechanisms: “End of the world, now shouldn’t that be alarming?/Keep busy, business says. Nobody knows/It’s just a lot of hoopla, this global warming….The dire poem, how dare it be charming?”

For all its charms, On Earth as It Is does not let readers off easy. The stunning first poem in this book begins “Little vessel of my soul/sit with this uneasiness….” That disquiet trails as a subtext in the poems that follow, until, reaching the book’s culminating poem, “Bark,” we are ready to embark with the poem’s narrator on to the “Calloused peel of trees” where “I scraped hands/elbows and knees/on the rough knobby grooved outsides/struggling up for a view of things.”

Michael Steffen’s view of Earth is definitely one worth seeing.