Saturday, March 19, 2022

POESY XLI is out- poetry, art, photography, reviews

 GO TO  click on names on the table of contents to view the work....

The Red Letters 102 Alan Feldman

 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 #102



L’chaim!  If I heard those words as a child, likely at some family celebration, they’d be followed by wine glasses quickly ascending toward the grownups’ smiling lips.  I thought little of what the expression meant – to life!  But as I got older, I began to appreciate that this foundational idea reflected one of the most beautiful aspects of my religion.  It signaled that life was paramount – that contained within life was the manifestation of the divine – and thus our small occasions of happiness were not to be taken lightly.  I loved the fact that, during the High Holy Days – when fasting was required of the faithful – the rules would be suspended for someone who was ill or aged; life trumped all stricture.  I think back to one of my first theater experiences – a production of Fiddler on the Roof – and how the budding wordsmith in me paid special attention to Sheldon Harnick’s lyrics.  As these poor Russian Jews – under constant threat from the Cossacks – celebrated a young couple’s marriage, suffering was momentarily banished: “Life has a way of confusing us,/ Blessing and bruising us./ Drink, l'chaim, to life!”


All our hearts have been battered and bruised in recent days, and so I’ve felt the need for a poem that saluted the good within even our darkest moments.  Fortunately, I had just the thing: “Café Table in the Luberon” – a new poem by a fine writer, Alan Feldman.  He’s the author of four poetry collections, the most recent of which – The Golden Coin (University of Wisconsin Press) won the Four Lakes Poetry Prize.  Born in New York, for several decades Alan was a professor and later chair of English at Framingham State University. After retiring he continued to teach free drop-in poetry workshops in Framingham and on Cape Cod – so I think the Commonwealth can fairly claim him as one of its own.   He’s been the recipient of many honors, but I’ll highlight one which, I believe, says much about the poet and his vision: one of his pieces was featured in Tony Hoagland’s essay “Twenty Little Poems That Could Save America” – high praise indeed!  Today’s Red Letter poem celebrates that rarest of commodities: ordinary joy.  A husband and wife visiting the South of France savor a moment, dining together outside, suddenly overfilled with a sense of quiet exultation.  But can such feelings be trusted?  Alan can’t help but peek beneath the veil of our transitory happiness (an inclination, I’m afraid, we poets are cursed with.)  Fortunately, his wife – a painter with, perhaps, a keener trust in the immediacy of the senses – provides some ballast for the poet’s uneasiness.  And that’s it: dessert, at a café table, with someone you love – nothing more.  War had not ceased to exist; famine was not eradicated; and somewhere in the world, people were oppressed, endangered, afraid.  And yet, a sip of wine together. . .


Chief among all the vital duties poets perform are these: we praise and we mourn – and sometimes we must do them both simultaneously.  Alan’s poem brought another one to mind, a favorite from Jack Gilbert in which he, first, details the variety of the world’s suffering – but then counters: “If we deny our happiness, resist our satisfaction,/ we lessen the importance of their deprivation. . ./We must risk delight. . . We must have/ the stubbornness to accept our gladness in the ruthlessfurnace of this world.”  In his books, Alan certainly acknowledges the presence of brutality – but affirms happiness, nevertheless.  Decades ago, my teenage self took note of how, as that high-spirited song from Fiddler drew to a close, the lyrics offered us this reality-check: “And if our good fortune never comes,/ Here's to whatever comes.”  And so, my recommendation now: wherever you are, raise a glass; stare into the eyes of someone you love, someone whose presence gives meaning to your days (and, hopefully, you to theirs) – and toast: l'chaim!  Or, in Shanghai, gān bēi!  Or in Buenos Aires, saúde!  Or in Harare, akubekuhle!  And yes, even in an apartment in Kyiv, with the sound of bombardment in the distance: “budmo!”  Mindful of human cruelty, of the earth’s fragile beauty, and fully cognizant that joy by its nature is ephemeral – even still: to life! 



Cafe Table in the Luberon



Nan is in pink, and we’re sitting close together

as we probably were even before we asked the waiter

to take our photo, overwhelmed by our perfect luck,

a cafe table in such a private corner,

our crepes flooded with raspberry sauce,

the wine in its dewy bucket.


We are interrupting our dessert to put this moment

into a kind of bank, as if the umbrella

over our wrought iron table, green and white,

and advertising a liqueur, could shelter us

from time.  And we have nowhere to rush to,

because we are absolutely here.

We are in our happiness.  And ambition

is down there somewhere like a rental car.


Down in the wide valley one could find industry

and problems.  But up here on this hilltop

we feel we ought to say something grateful,

even as the size and perfection of the moment

is somewhat numbing. “Oh look!” Nan says,

spotting a wicker dovecot with one white bird

as the scent of the lilacs surrounding the terrace

is about to become the memory of something lost

wrapped up in its gift of beauty.


Whenever I’ve been happy, I have to admit

I have to ask if it only looked like happiness

extrinsically, and was more complicated inside.

But for Nan the cafe has become the setting

of a wonderful dream.  “It was so real,

she said, lying in bed beside me this morning.

It was as if she’d suddenly received

an insight about heaven.  “I could feel

the cold metal of the wrought iron table.”

And were you cold?”  I asked.  Oh no,” she said

It was perfect.  I was really there.”



                              ­­–– Alan Feldman





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, March 17, 2022

Somerville’s Denise Levertov: The Poet of Glover Circle


Somerville’s Denise Levertov: The Poet of Glover Circle

Article by Doug Holder

Mark Pawlak, a former Somerville resident, had an informal apprenticeship with the late poet Denise Levertov ( 1923 to 1997). Levertov, a noted lyrical and political poet held court at her home at Glover Circle, right outside Davis Square. While teaching at Tufts and MIT, she sort of had an ongoing poetry salon at her house where poets like Mark Pawlak learned their craft back in the 60s and 70s. Pawlak has a new book about his experiences with Levertov entitled “ My Deniversity: Knowing Denise Levertov.” I had the chance to speak with Pawlak on my Somerville Media TV show, “ Poet to Poet: Writer to Writer.”

Pawlak, an accomplished writer and poet in his own right, and a founder of the noted “ Hanging Loose Press,” told me that he thought Levertov had three distinct phases in her life. The first was when she immigrated from London, and married Mitch Goldman-- a writer and political activist from Brooklyn. Then she transitioned to become an ‘American.’ Pawlak recalled that she wrestled with the American idiom. She eventually became comfortable with it.  Levertov’s early poems were very sensual. The noted poet William Carlos Williams compared her to Sappho. Later—she transitioned to becoming a more political poet. With the advent of the Vietnam War, she and her husband became devoted anti-war activists. So the political gradually seeped into her poetry. Pawlak said “ She never stopped being political.” Pawlak continued. “Some poets said her poetry suffered because of this new trend-- they felt her poems were too didactic.”

Pawlak, who still teaches physics at U/Mass Boston, was a physics student at MIT when he heard about Levertov from his roommate. Pawlak was very interested in poetry, and he was particularly fascinated with Walt Whitman. He read most of the body of his work when he was younger. So he attended Levertov’s workshop at MIT, and that was the beginning of a long association with her.

Levertov had a home about a block outside Davis Square on Grover Circle. This was a short walk for Pawlak. Levertov let him drop in whenever he wanted. He recorded the many conversations he had with her in his notebooks, some of which are included in “ Deniversity...” Pawlak told me Grover Circle was a sort of an ongoing literary salon. People would come in and out and discuss poetics, politics— a whole range of things.

We are all to some degree walking contradictions. And Pawlak told me that Levertov—in spite of being very political—never felt being a woman had anything to do with the quality of her work. Many younger women wanted her to be a mentor-- a feminist who stand up to the patriarchy of the male-dominated literary world, but she wouldn’t have it.

Eventually Pawlak and Levertov parted ways. Pawlak reflected, “ Often mentors want to be a continuing influence on their proteges. When I started to meet poets of my own generation, and others she didn’t approve of—we drifted apart. She became extremely critical of my poetry—so we moved on.”

In the end Pawlak was very lucky to have a mentor like Levertov. Perhaps without her he would never fully explored the craft, and become the accomplished man of letters he is today.

Tuesday, March 15, 2022

In memory of poet Richard E. Brenneman


By Doug Holder

The first time I went to the Boston Medical Center was in the 70s, when it was known as Boston City Hospital. I was a college student, without medical insurance. Back then we all knew we could get a hospital card and get free medical treatment there. I hadn’t been back until now, 45 years later-- and it was for a profoundly different reason. My poet and friend Richard E. Brenneman was in the intensive care unit at the Menino Wing of the hospital and gravely ill. I didn’t see the Richard I knew--a 76-year-old- man with an unstoppable font of boyish enthusiasm for poetry, books, and scholarship. Richard was attached to tubes—he at times seemed to recognize me, but all he could emit were halting, pained breaths-- his eyes wide open with some sort of recognition. Richard found our literary group “The Bagel Bards” late in his life. He was a retired Boston civil servant, who lived for years in a small studio apartment, in a rapidly gentrifying South Boston. Richard hinted at the hard times he had—being a diminutive, gay man in a hardscrabble section of the city. He was a solitary man, but he found friends and community with the Bards. He had a distinct Midwestern twang (He grew up in Missouri) and wrote finely, crafted poems about everything from art, travel—to lonesomeness in the city. We became a family of sorts for this man. He reveled in the eccentric nature of the group—the cast of characters-- the sometimes-vaudevillian nature of our meetings. He was invited to parties by one of our members—and he was like a social butterfly—happily engaging the old timers and the young intelligentsia alike. I knew when I walked out of that hospital room I would never see him again. I have been in many Boston Hospitals recently. And each time I try to walk back to my home in Somerville. Richard has taken his final journey… and my journey home has been through the winding streets of Boston—traversing the alley ways—the long-forgotten Brownstones of the city, the tar rooftops of the Back Bay where I watched the Boston Marathon run by. There is poetry on my journey-- and there is poetry in Richard’s... and there is poetry in yours...


Shadows of images come to mind
of which the scenes are lost,
projected on an inward screen
to haunt me, and then drift on
down the passages of time.
Fragments of images come and go,
and moods and metaphors
rustle through the mind
like pages quickly turned.
The heart feels once again
memories of love, desolation, hate
like the dry crunching leaves
from a forgotten fall
blowing across the deserted paths
that have been left behind.

— Richard E. Brenneman

Somerville writer Lesley Bannatyne is 'accustomed' to grace in her new collection of short stories

 Lesley Bannatyne has a new collection of her short stories out,  "Unaccustomed to Grace." A   In this debut collection, everyday characters find a kind of magic, grace and redemption.  Bannatyne told me she is the type of writer who can step out of her house and literally find a font of fodder for new work. My kind of writer! I caught up with her recently, and she generously agreed to answer a few questions.... 

You have lived in Somerville for many years.  Is Somerville a good match for the writer's life?

I first came to Somerville as part of the initial group of artists that moved into the Brickbottom Artists building back in 1987 and have always thought this city bolstered the arts in unique ways. The fact that Somerville has a permanent Arts Council makes a huge difference, in that they continue to innovate in support of all the city’s creative arts. But Somerville’s also a dense and fascinating city, and that, I think, adds a lot to a writer’s life. I was a Boston Globe correspondent for several years, and I always said I could find a story simply standing on my front steps and looking around. I wrote on the community of Nepalese who put down roots here several decades ago. I wrote about neighbors who take down their chain link to open up adjacent backyards; about the house with so many Christmas lights you could see if from space; about the artists who animated metallic shavings, played ukulele noir, or re-invented smell-o-vision. All this makes Somerville a rich place, inspiration-wise, for both journalism and fiction. 

You are known as an expert on Halloween and have written extensively on the subject. It seems that the stories in your book have a certain sense of horror, as well as irony. Do you believe that your years of writing about Halloween have influenced your fiction writing?

I have many friends who are horror writers, but I am not. I tried once; it’s not in me. My stories deal sometimes in magical realism, and they can sometimes deal with dark subjects, but I’ve never thought of them as horror, or even horror-filled. The story that opens Unaccustomed to Grace, “Corpse Walks Into a Bar," is inspired, not by anything terribly ghoulish, but by a several-hundred-years-old comedic Irish Ballad, “The Flitting of the Corpse and Tomas McGahon.” In the ballad, Tomas lugs a corpse from graveyard to graveyard trying to find a home for him. When it was sung, the ballad likely had to do with immigration to Ireland - who are your people and where do you belong - but I used the bones of the idea to look at what we carry and how and when we can put those burdens down. In the case of “Corpse,” it’s guilt that Tomas carries. The corpse is a walking and talking metaphor.

When people think of Halloween, they often think of all things spooky, and that’s definitely a big part of it. But after researching the holiday for so many years it’s clear to me that Halloween is as much about transformation and magic as it is about anything dark (ask anyone who’s been asked to make a princess/cat/marshmallow costume for a seven year old at the last minute). Dark things happen all the time. Halloween is when we can open our arms to the darkness and shine a little light on it.

In this sense, the idea of transformation and magic are definitely influences on my stories. In “Waiting for Ivy” a woman grieving the loss of her infant daughter discovers a listserv of parents whose dead children have been returned, as if the tragedy were a clerical error. The construct is magical, but the story is about a young mother opening her heart to the possibility of having another child. Many of the stories in Grace, though, are realistic, and any magic that emerges comes through the perception of the character: a phosphorescence on the water, the thrill of driving away from your hometown for the first time; blue light in deep snow that convinces you to put down roots. 

You have had a long career as a freelance journalist. I noticed you had a piece on druids in Massachusetts. Can you tell us a bit about this, and are there any in Somerville?

I wrote a profile of a local Somerville druid for the Boston Globe in 2004; he was a solitary practitioner training through an online program in Druidry (like Masons, there are stages of learning involved). I’ve also written about a Buddhist temple in East Boston, full-moon labyrinth walkers in Somerville’s Growing Center, and the annual “Passion of the Christ” that used to work its way through the streets of East Somerville. Spirituality has always interested me, and it’s a critical part of several of my characters—their desire to be part of a reality bigger than them; a yearning for connection, for something that floats them, if only for a moment.


I read a compelling story in your new collection that concerns an elderly grandmother who plans to extract revenge from a kid who killed her beloved grandson. As the story progresses--she slowly changes her mind. In the end she views the murderer as more of a person than a concept. Could this kind of 'redemption' be applied to other characters in this book?

Absolutely. The stories in Unaccustomed to Grace are united through those moments when a character experiences a moment of grace, when they’re at their most unexpectedly bright, most fully realized self, and it changes everything. It could come at a red light, in a karaoke bar in Russia, in Watertown the night the marathon bomber was caught, or just before dawn in a Dorchester graveyard.  

Why should we read this book?

What I especially love about short fiction is that the author can build an entire world in just a few pages. I heard one author describe the short story as a world built in a snow globe. Another said it was like being in an elevator where you can stop on every floor and take things to use, but you can’t use the whole city outside—that’s a novel. There are thirteen different worlds in this book - I’m hopeful readers will find something in Grace that resonates with them.