Friday, April 08, 2022

Red Letter Poem #105

 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 #105




I would like to believe that the signature statement of our age is this one: “the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice” – taken from Dr. King’s speech at the National Cathedral in 1968.  But I fear it will end up being this – spoken at a crisis meeting of high-ranking Soviet officials focused on what came to be known as the Holodomor famine in the 1930’s: “If only one man dies of hunger, that is a tragedy. If millions die, that’s only statistics.”  The speaker was, at the time, the Commissar of Munitions – but Joseph Stalin went on to become the supreme ruler of his nation, operating with that same heartless realpolitik, where power and control trumped all other concerns.  It’s a cruel irony that the famine being addressed – and dismissed – at that meeting was taking place in Ukraine, another nation whose people had been swallowed up by the Soviet empire.  It seems that, today, Vladimir Putin must be using Stalin’s statement as a political guide as he wages his remorseless war on the cities and towns of a neighboring country that refuses to bend to his will.


So I especially appreciate the reminder that poets provide – voices representing the ordinary and the marvelous within our shared existence: that enmeshed in the sweeping forces of history, ours is the living and dying at stake.  Ours, too, the dreams we inherited from our parents – whose transmission to our own children is both a sacred duty and our deepest hope.  And, of course, ours, this very conversation which despots have tried to control since the earliest human civilizations, hammering it down with darkness and brutality, but which somehow keeps managing to find some small path back into daylight.


Ukrainian writer Oksana Zabuzhko made her poetry debut at the age of 12 but, because her parents had been blacklisted during the Soviet purges of the 1970s, it took another dozen years and the advent of perestroika before her first book received publication. Since then, she has authored twenty works of fiction, non-fiction, poetry, literary and social analysis which have been translated into a score of foreign languages.  Today’s Red Letter piece is taken from her Selected Poems, translated by Lisa Sapinkopf and published by Boston’s own Arrowsmith Press.  Oksana has been called “without doubt the most influential literary figure in Ukraine of the last half century”; one of her novels occupied a spot on her country’s best-seller list for a full decade.  Her honors – in her native land and beyond – include MacArthur and Fulbright Fellowships, as well as the Antonovych International Foundation Prize, the Shevchenko National Prize of Ukraine, and the Order of Princess Olha.  In early March, she addressed the European Parliament about the threats to Ukrainian sovereignty and the dire situation especially for the women there.  But for decades even before this crisis, her writing has borne witness to the myriad ways totalitarian regimes practice suppression in order to separate beleaguered people from their cultural inheritance and their imaginative freedom.  And now, away from her beloved home and friends in Kyiv, she is doing everything within her powers to support her country’s resistance to the Russian onslaught.  In a sense, she is testing something of an Archimedean principle: with the heart as the fulcrum and a lever of fervid language, is it possible to move the world? 



A Kingdom of Fallen Statues



Just as children scrawl self-portraitsWith two figures, mom and dad,Grasping them with unsteady stick-hands,I’m drawing on the windowpaneA kingdom of fallen statues —And the outlines, delicate, are quivering.In the kingdom of fallen statues all gates hang open,And even marauders no longer tread grassThat was overgrown in an instant.

Vanished temples,And yes, vanished dramas —But how real, O God, how alive they are...

Gilding and lapis flake like skinFrom the leprous faces of princes and saints.And, seated on tombstones or perhaps on column stumps,

Black-hooded gravediggers roll cigarettes in yellowed verse.

Don Quixote’s shield lies somewhere,Somewhere Casanova’s cloak has been tossed,Somewhere stands the tent where Khmelnytsky

Hosted Europe’s envoys.In the kingdom of fallen statues you can hear a language

Of words still warm but learned no longer.

I’m drawing it all: everything that’s ever vanished, or will;I peer into my picture as into rippling water:Triumphant Nike’s head

Lies somewhere in the grass.

I’ll draw it — and thenI’ll end it with a period.

   – Oksana Zabuzhko



                                       (Translated by Lisa Sapinkopf and Oksana Zabuzhko)





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Monday, April 04, 2022

The Patient a one-act play by Doug Holder and Lawrence Kessenich


The Patient a one-act play by Doug Holder and Lawrence Kessenich

Presa Press, 2019; re-issued, 2022 24 pages $8.00 ( Reissued by the Ibbetson Street Press  2022)   $10.

To order send check to Ibbetson Street Press 25 School St. Somerville, MA. 02143

Review by Denise Provost

The newly re-issued play “The Patient” is set in an unspecified year. Yet its era can be identified. It dates from the time of the seedy, down-at-the-heels Boston of not so long ago, when “affordable housing” often meant having a room in one of the area’s then-plentiful rooming houses.

For ambiance, think of the classic film “The Friends of Eddie Coyle.” The Boston of that era felt as if it were being filmed in black and white. These seem to be the colors of the world inhabited by Leon, the play’s protagonist.

A graduate student by day, Leon works nights at a local mental hospital. Leon takes advantage of usually uncomplicated shifts to read assigned books. His work schedule’s flipping of night and day and its solitude fit in with his orderly life – at least they do until the evening which is at the heart of this play’s action.

Like Bobby, the central character in Stephen Sondheim’s oh-so-New-York-City musical “Company” – also enjoying a revival now – Leon is 35 years old. This age is traditionally a time for having some sort of identity crisis. Leon seems mostly detached from this particular emotional powder keg – until he meets his special duty patient on the night dramatized in this play.

The Patient is never given another name, but the magnitude of his personality makes up for his anonymity. If he is a “type,” it’s that of a streetwise, smartass townie. Not someone who rises quite to Eddie Coyle’s level of (by then weary) thuggery, but a guy not above boosting merchandise from the back of a truck, or receiving stolen goods, say.

I’m not going to introduce spoilers into this review. Let’s just say that the Patient knows how to wind up Leon and spends the evening enjoying this sport. Their conflict is mediated only by the intervention of the Head Nurse, Sibyl, while no Nurse Ratched, is clearly the authority figure asserting herself between the two squabbling men.

“The Patient” is a good read. It would be fun to perform, or to see performed. Or even to read aloud with a couple of friends – since fictional dramas have a way of illuminating those of our lives.

***** Denise Provost is a retired state representative from Massachusetts, and the author of : City Stories  ( Cervena Barva Press)