Friday, March 11, 2022

Red Letter Poem #101: Gloria Mindock

 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 #101



“It is difficult to get the news from poems,” wrote William Carlos Williams (who was himself, of course, one of America’s most famous poets) – “…yet men die miserably every day for lack of what is found there.”  I must beg to differ (though only with the first half of the assertion; sadly, the second half still seems painfully accurate.)  Sometimes the most immediate and heart-wrenching reportage any of us can receive is being broadcast – continually and at great personal cost – from the hearts of poems.  Case in point: this week I attended the virtual poetry reading Voices for Ukraine, organized by PEN America and writers in the United States, Ukraine, and beyond.  Hosted by Boston’s own Askold Melnyczuk (novelist, educator, publisher of Arrowsmith Press) and Polina Sadovskaya (PEN’s Program Director for Eurasia), the event brought together more than two dozen acclaimed authors to raise awareness of the grievous struggle taking place as citizens attempt to defend the Ukrainian homeland from an unprovoked Russian invasion.   More than just demonstrating solidarity with the suffering being visited upon that nation, the poems provided context and depth (not to mention, a human face and voice) to bolster the more anonymous suffering in the war footage featured nightly on the news.  Each selection that was performed seemed to appear (at least in my mind) beneath an unwritten banner headline: Lives Hang in the Balance – What Are You Prepared to Do About It?


This may well have been the most moving poetry reading I’ve ever experienced.  In every contribution, we could feel hearts on the line.  But for some of the poets Zooming in from Kyiv and Lviv, life might come to a brutal conclusion at any moment – and still, this is how they chose to spend those precious minutes.  It’s a challenge most of us in America will (hopefully) never have to face; but these writers were demonstrating a profound faith: that, while a poem may be incapable of stopping a tank, it can nonetheless be a citadel, a sanctuary in which ten thousand years of human history are still regarded as sacred.  If you were not able to be part of this audience, here is a YouTube link where you can view the event belatedly:


Though Gloria Mindock’s poem “Protected” was not written about the crisis in Ukraine – it appears in her recently published collection Ash (from Glass Lyre Press) – it felt to me as if it reflected the emotional landscape many of us are experiencing, as the news gets darker by the day.  I asked the poet if she’d let me pair it with my little meditation about the current crisis, and she graciously agreed.  I think of Gloria as a poetry-lifer – not just referring to the longevity of her commitment (which is considerable), but to the central place it occupies in her days.  The author of six poetry collections and a children’s book, her work has been translated into eleven languages. She is the founder/editor of Červená Barva Press, which features poets from America and abroad, and also one of the USA editors for Levure Litteraire (France).   Awards and honors abound, but I’ll highlight just one: she was the second Poet Laureate for Somerville, MA. where she makes her home.


Socio-biologists tell us that our species has evolved to require community, to crave human connection.  Still, sometimes we can simply feel overwhelmed – especially after two years of a global pandemic and a greater degree of isolation than most of us are accustomed to.  So I understand the desire to turn away sometimes from the abundance of tragedy, including the coverage of this awful war.  Viewing yet another house aflame, there is the implied warning in such reportage: our house could be next.  Ezra Pound, though, spoke of literature as the news that remains news.  So poems like Gloria’s and Voices for Ukraine trumpet a very different headline, one with far deeper roots: that this burning house is our very own.  Now what are we prepared to do about it?







Inside the house was his life,

protected by a roof.

By the time the firemen got there,

it was gone.


He sifts through what remains,

eyes sunk, hands asleep,

brain idle for hours.


The man surfaces his heart.

He carries it away delicately.

It still beats, and he breathes asking

how much sorrow can this heart take?

There is never an answer.



                              ­­–– Gloria Mindock




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:

No Time For Death By Harris Gardner


No Time For Death

By Harris Gardner

Cervena Barva Press

W. Somerville, MA

ISBN: 978-1-950063-59-8

82 Pages


Review by Dennis Daly

Oh death, where is thy sting?” 1 Corinthians had it right. So does Harris Gardner in his affecting affirmation of life, fittingly entitled No Time for Death. Slicing through humanity’s Gordian knot of denial, Gardner confronts mortality with memory and poetic craft, assisted by a large dose of wit. His stratagems are nothing if not down-to-earth and sensible. The collection’s three subtitles convey Gardner’s personified logic: An Argument with Time, Contemplating Mortality Instead of My Navel, and Negotiating for an Afterlife.

The third poem in this collection, the title poem No Time for Death, sets the tone. Gardner lays out the human condition earnestly, both what we know and what we don’t know. Like most of us the poet exhibits frustration at the inexorable nature of things. His sober and practical take on time leads to spurts of anger as he plots his possibilities of escape or delay. Although the poet’s impassioned will may not triumph in walking-around reality, it does assert itself in this poem. Here’s a bit of Gardner’s poetic discontent,

When we shatter the fragile hours,

Nothing remains in the bone-man’s sack.

We cannot choose to refuse the invitation.

We can only walk the walk on the streets of the dead.

We can offer up prayers for life on some prefab plane

Where the CFO keeps the brittle book of our days.

Maybe the weights will balance in our favor.

Maybe we shall come back to clean up loose ends.

Maybe the sentence gets upended, gets suspended.

Seven, six, five, four, three, two—

Will you stop for one forsaken minute!

In his poem entitled Inconvenient Baggage Gardiner delves into the essence of time, a phenomenon that won’t quit. Time’s didacticism stamps its emblems on even new beginnings (or, as Gardner describes them, bruised suitcases). The present only enables momentary pauses before the past lurches ahead toward a future of flawed promise or false prophesies. The poet details the problem in his opening stanzas,

The was was awhile ago.

It was not a happy was

Because no one wanted

To be taught by was. They thought

Will be, a promise, more or less.

Was was neglected, abused.

First drafts, tomes, and bridges

Fueled bonfires. Fuming was for naught.

These postcards for posterity

Were a banquet for flames.

Rather then overcoming poverty the poet’s persona confronts it, stares it down and finds another way to accomplish what must be accomplished. Until the Last Recorded Dime, Gardner’s impressive villanelle variation, guides the reader through the process of finding worth and parenting creation out of the depths of impoverishment. The lines meld together perfectly as a good villanelle should. The rhyme and repetition of “dime” and “time” acts as the poem’s insistent knell that offers hope for hard work. Consider this stoic and elevating conclusion,

You can’t stop the hands, the clock tolls the chime,

So you grin and concoct a mask of cheer

When you have been broke a very long time.

Your efforts ease you into the sublime.

You move to the beat only you can hear.

You adapt when you live from dime to dime.

Each day you wash away more of the grime.

Your mind is full, but your focus is clear.

You manage to manage after a time.

No more holding your breath from dime to dime.

Expanding the MRI medical procedure to a Hollywood movie production, and then even further to a metaphoric take on man’s mortality makes absolute sense to me (since I had one of those damn things myself). Gardner’s poem So You Want to Be in Films does this and does it well. Human powerlessness in the face of mortality takes center stage in this performance. The culprit, a heart murmur, cannot be separated from the protagonist, their relationship being one of utter dependency. Luckily for the poet’s persona, the short-term prognosis requires no drastic action. Long term it’s another story, as it is for all breathing creatures. As the street corner prophet proclaims, “the end is nigh.” Here, scripted in a mechanical channel between life and death, is the heart of the poem,

The MRI- The camera covers all

The angles: close-ups and long shots.

My heart is a ham. It performs

An unscripted dance.

A cocoon immerses me in Mozart’s music.

A tunnel floods with light;

Still, I want to dream.

The technician keeps me alert.

Breathe, exhale, hold your breath.”

I am drowning in light.

Another well-wrought villanelle, entitled Cemetery Visit, appears late in the collection. Overcome by guilt, the narrator addresses his long dead father, a father who monopolizes his prayers. Not surprising, since many petitioners see their earthly father’s face as the face of God. Procrastination, rebellion, and letting-go are the issues to be faced within the poet’s art, not emotionally, but in a quasi-logical, rhythmic way. Gardner negotiates with himself and nears a conclusion,

All our lives are merely on loan.

I rebel and demand to know why.

I write, rather than visit, to atone.

When grindstone struggle compels a groan,

I imagine his face in cloud framed sky.

Years have passed since we’ve seen our father’s stone.

It’s simple to observe that we are prone

To procrastinate when we should stop by.

I write, instead of visit, to atone.

Gardner’s dry-eyed, masterly meditations throughout this collection border on the metaphysical, that is, before stoicism intervenes. Over and over this poet’s understated inventions portend a new world and a concomitant genesis of acceptance and healing. Amen. Yes, amen to that.

Wednesday, March 09, 2022

To Govern the Globe, World Orders and Catastrophic Change. Alfred McCoy.


To Govern the Globe, World Orders and Catastrophic Change. Alfred McCoy. Haymarket Books, Chicago, 2021.

Review By Ed Meek

To better understand what is going on in the world these days, as well as how we got here and where we’re going, get a copy of Alfred McCoy’s brilliant new book To Govern the Globe. McCoy is the author of Policing America’s Empire. In his new book, he takes on the challenge of covering the last 800 years from the perspective of the rise and fall of empires, and more importantly, of world orders leading up to Pax Americana and the current decline of the United States. He describes convincingly the coming dominance of China and the world-wide problem of climate change that will undermine China’s future as we collectively attempt to survive a hostile environment—one that we’re beginning to understand the serious nature of as we witness wildfires, flooding, droughts, hurricanes, record heat, shifting seasons and climate refugees.

Reading about the conflicts of the last eight centuries, you might come away with the feeling that those of us residing in Europe and North America have been experiencing a brief utopian interlude and that the norm is a constant state of war and conflict. The invasion of Ukraine by Russia fits right into a history of imperial conquest and is a response the break-up of the Soviet Union and the wars, proxy wars, and CIA actions conducted by the US in the Middle East and Southeast Asia. This is not to justify the Russian attempt to reclaim Ukraine but McCoy provides us with some perspective on the game of thrones played by powerful countries through history. As Circe said to Ned just before he lost his head, “You win or you die.”

According to McCoy, world orders are “deeply rooted, resilient global systems created by a convergence of economic, ideological and geopolitical forces.” These may begin with an empire but often live on after it. They tie into our views of human rights and sovereignty. McCoy claims “there have been just three world orders: the Iberian age after 1494, the British imperial era from 1815, and Washington’s world system from 1945.” He also makes the case that the coming world order will belong to China beginning around 2030.

World orders, explains McCoy, have come into existence because of some combination of terrible events like pandemics or major wars that create a power vacuum combined with new developments in labor, technology and weapons. The Iberian Age was partly engendered by the advent of The Black Death that swept east from Asia causing the demise of 60% of Europe’s population. Meanwhile the Portuguese and the Spanish had built small, swift ships capable of sailing long distances. The Portuguese sailed south establishing ports in Africa and around the horn to the Indian ocean and Asia and on to China while the Spanish as well as the Portuguese headed west to America. They were religious zealots acting with the Pope’s stamp of approval to enslave all heathens. They bought captives from Africa and shipped them to the Caribbean and North America creating a world order that depended on slavery to engineer economies based on sugar and cotton. The Portuguese and Spanish were brutal in their treatment of Africans, Incas and Aztecs using superior weaponry to enslave Africans and to plunder gold and silver from the Incas and Aztecs.

Eventually they lost control of their empire when the Dutch, harnessing wind for with windmills and building better ships for warfare, defeated the Spanish Armada and established the first international corporation in the Dutch East India Company. They in turn were replaced the British who developed the steam engine and coal mining leading to the Industrial Revolution and defeating Napoleon to end his short-lived empire. This began the second world order and jump-started climate change.

Because of the industrial revolution, the British no longer needed slavery and they took a moral stance outlawing the slave trade in 1804. They began seizing ships and freeing the captives. At the same time, they developed a navy superior to the Spanish and the Dutch and began spreading their empire around the globe. They focused on colonizing countries in Africa, India, North America, Australia, New Zealand with the attitude that colonists were second class citizens subject to rule by the British Empire.

The sun finally set on the British empire during World War 11. While the rest of the world suffered 77 million casualties, the United States continued to grow and develop to emerge as the most powerful nation. After the war, the US helped draft “the UN Charter that promised its peoples the freedom to form their own states … and universal human rights.” This was America’s finest moment promoting freedom and individual rights around the globe.

At the same time, the US, like all of the preceding empires, engaged in geopolitics to establish global hegemony. Geopolitics, McCoy tells us is “the use of geography (air, land, and sea) to maximize military and economic advantage.” The US, following in the footsteps of past empires stationed its navy and its troops strategically around the world, from Europe to the Middle East and Southeast Asia to maintain open markets for the flow of goods.

Whenever threats to the empire appeared to be developing, the US used the CIA to depose objectionable leaders. These interventions did not often work out well. We replaced elected pro-communist Mossadegh in Iran with a pro-western Shah resulting in anti-American sentiment that continues today. McCoy points out that we fomented Muslim unrest in central Russia that resulted in Russia’s invasion of Afghanistan leading to the collapse of the Soviet Union. Like the British, French and Portuguese before us, we got involved in faraway wars wasting lives, and treasure in Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan.

Thinking we could free the world with global trade, we opened markets to Russia and China. Rather than proving mutually beneficial, both countries, China in particular exploited the weaknesses of capitalism by controlling and taking over markets while using the profits to educate its people and expand its power through the Belt and Road Initiative developing business in Africa and linking Asia to Europe and Russia. McCoy predicts that China will supplant the US by 2030 as the number one economy and power in the world.

Now Putin has disturbed the force by invading Ukraine like an imperialist from the 19th century.

The somewhat surprising result is that the US and NATO have reaffirmed their alliance and NATO has pledged to build up their military. Perhaps the US and Europe have more of a future than McCoy predicts.

If McCoy is right about China, the transition will not be easy since the Chinese have a much different world view than the United States. They prioritize their economy and centralized power, but they do not prize individual freedom or human rights. Nor do they approve of open oceans or free trade. McCoy thinks their hegemony will be short-lived though because of the growing global problem of climate change. 57% of China’s energy comes from coal. The connection between coal mining and electricity, begun by the British in the Industrial revolution remains strong in China, India and Australia. Through the twentieth century the US continued the development of industry using coal, oil and gas. Although fossil fuels led to better lives and prosperity for millions of people around the world, they have heated up our atmosphere and our oceans creating climate problems that the prime offenders, China and the US, do not appear to be willing to take on.

McCoy makes dire predictions about how bad it will get by 2050 based on studies by thousands of scientists. The glimmer of hope lies with those willing to make the changes necessary for the survival of humans, animals and vegetation. To Govern the Globe can be read as a clarion call to take action.

Monday, March 07, 2022

Looking Back At Hong Kong Edited by Nicolette Wong

Looking Back At Hong Kong

Edited by Nicolette Wong

© 2021 by the authors

Cart Noodles Press

Department of English

The Chinese University of Hong Kong

ISBN 978-75646-0-7

Softbound, No Price Given, 155 pages

Review by Zvi A. Sesling

Hong Kong’s known history goes back 35,000 or more years when the first settlers arrived and by 6,000 years ago was widely settled. In 214 BCE the Qin Dynasty made Hong Kong part of China. The Portuguese arrived in the 1500s and the Opium Wars in 1840 resulted in another dynasty, the Qing, ceding the territory to the British in 1842. One hundred and fifty-five years later the British lease expired and Hong Kong became a Special Administrative Region of the People’s Republic of China.

In Looking Back At Hong Kong Nicolette Wong, editor of this anthology, selected writers who lived there and subsequently relocated or returned to their homes overseas. The result is a fascinating combination of prose and poetry who, as Ms. Wong states, “are not from Hong Kong, but of Hong Kong.”

One of the eighteen writers included in the anthology is Pui Ying Wong a Cambridge, MA resident having moved to the Massachusetts city with her husband poet Tim Suermondt after many years in Brooklyn, NY.

Pui’s opening stanza for her poem Hotel Peninsular is:

I know this place since childhood,

a baroque building with fancy boutiques

and an elegant café

Later in the poem she notes her current feelings:

I find myself here after many years,

spotting the hotel on the ferry deck

and know

I have no use for its quaintness –

high tea and hush talks

And then after recalling fond memories she tells of her goal to leave her native land:

Some nights I watched ships

leaving the harbor and the future

grew in me like a sail.

Her last line in the poem explains it all:

I go after it. The sea is open.

Certainly Pui Ying Wong’s poems tell that while the past holds its nostalgic memories Hong Kong currently holds little for her to cling to nor does it evoke desire to return permanently. For those who grew up in one place and return years later this feeling is familiar.

As Thomas Wolf said, “You can’t go home again.” And for most of the writers in Looking Back At Hong Kong it is true. The past was happy, exciting, nostalgic and a meaningful experience in their growth.. The present Hong Kong, however, is not always pretty. There are the demonstrations, the smell of tear gas and additional negative experiences.

For some the memories are not good. In a prose piece Madeline Slavick notes:

My husband grew up in this neighborhood [Block 4 of the Lei Cheng Uk public housing estate] and had felt little affinity with Hong Kong. A colonized mind like a tree with no annual ring.

He had gone to the US to study, live, choosing that country, choosing me. He had felt too confined by expectations and regulations of his Chinese upbringing – as the oldest child and the only son, there were many.

I also left my first culture easily. Born to a German mother who grew up witnessing World War II and a Memphis-born father who grew up witnessing segregation, I saw two parents who saw their native country’s problems. My mother left for the US, my father for the North …dec Yet, too, it was the first I lived overseas as an adult, and the first time being in the minority race.

Andrea Brittan writes about the difference between Hong Kong and England and finds that:

I decided against a move to London or Edinburgh for that very reason: too many opportunities to say ‘This is great, but it’s not Hong Kong. Here [England] I have a slower life, a simpler life. One of milk deliveries and free-range chickens. Of farmers’ markets with organic produce. Of independent cafes and artisan bakers. I don’t need a flash car for this lifestyle.

I’ll always be an incomer, even if I spend the next thirty years here. I don’t have four generations buried in the local churchyard. My connection with the village doesn’t stretch beyond two weeks, never mind two hundred years.

Brittan who knows the long history of both Chinese and English families finds herself with no family and as Robert Heinlein wrote, quoting the Bible, “a stranger in a strange land.” Yet she finds the British countryside slower, quieter with a more amenable lifestyle.

Shui-yin Sharon Yam, a Hong Kong native living in America, views the 2019 protests a Hong Konger living in America in the following way:

On the one hand, I struggled with immense survivor’s guilt and imposter syndrome for not being on the streets of Hong Kong. On the other hand, surrounded by Americans who do not share the same deep tie with Hong Kong, I was unable to convey to them the heartbreak I woke up to every morning.

The authors in this Anthology in addition to Nicolette Wong, Pui Ying Wong, Madeline Slavick, Andrea Brittan and Shui-yin Sharon Yam are John Wall Barger, Jordan Dotson, Nashua Gallagher, Louise Ho, Viki Holmes, Hung Hung, Henry Wei Leung, Ploi Pirapokin, Mani Rao, Kate Rogers, Madelein Slavick,Jennifer Wong and Xu Xi.

Each writer has a unique voice and a strong sense of what Hong Kong meant to these authors throughout their lives. They are all excellent writers whom the readers will appreciate.

Looking Back At Hong Kong is an Anthology worth owning both for its historical perspective and poignant personal recollections