Saturday, April 16, 2022

Red Letter Poem #106

 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 #106



It’s National Poetry Month – and Phil Lewis’ Red Letter poem affords me the opportunity to think about this artform which is currently enjoying a resurgence in public interest.  But poet Gary Snyder reminds us that “Of all the streams of civilized tradition with roots in the paleolithic, poetry is one of the few that can realistically claim an unchanged function and a relevance which will outlast most of the activities that surround us today.”  I’m thinking now of how composing a poem seems to transform the day in its entirety; of how reading a good poem transports the consciousness to a wholly unexpected destination; and how, sitting at a poetry reading, some stranger’s voice can seize an audience with his or her measured lines and make us aware of those precious materials we humans hold in common.  I am imagining also a set of eyes a thousand years in the future reading a poem from our time (just as I read favorite poems from ancient Athens or Song Dynasty China) and wondering for a moment what our days were like.


When, on occasion, young poets ask me for advice about where to publish and how to amass an audience, I’m afraid the counsel I offer them is often not what they’re looking for: I plead for diligent practice, for patience, for deepened attention, for mastering one’s craft, and honestly exploring why you have the desire to compose these inky constructions in the first place (let alone committing to them as a career.)  I’m advocating for a poetry that is a vital activity in an individual’s life, as close at hand (and as essential) as breathing – something that will sustain them throughout their years, whether their job title is doctor, lawyer, farmer, carpenter, teacher, or perhaps poet.  Phil’s life presents a wonderful example: he remembers first writing poems as a freshman at Dartmouth, describing to me the powerful influence of faculty members like Sidney Cox and poets like Robert Frost and Philip Booth, both frequently present on campus.  A stint in the Navy silenced the Muse but later, while pursuing an advanced degree at Harvard and teaching high school mathematics and computer science, he returned to writing.  Even today, when Phil reads one of his artful sonnets to the Beehive group at the local library (one of the few enumerated responsibilities of Arlington’s Laureate is to lead this monthly workshop), I can recognize the flinty rhythms and softened vowels of Frost’s reading style.  Phil is a clear-eyed observer and a diligent craftsman who subtly maneuvers us through the grammatical twists until we, too, grasp the matter at hand and feel the ah! rising within us.


At this time – when the spring holidays of Easter, Passover, and Ramadan converge – here is a poem of quiet abundance.  It hints at the way absence can become a generative presence in our lives – even as what is present is made more precious by the knowledge of its inevitable loss.  Taken from what we imagine must have been a ruined church, this statue of Mary now reaches people in a new way within this museum setting.  There is a marvelous fullness conjured by those empty arms, by the dust on the stone.  No, Phil’s exemplary career as an educator and an early innovator in the use of computers to foster mathematical understanding did not include literary prizes or audiences applauding him at the podium – things, I realize, every poet dreams of to a greater or lesser degree.  But through all his years, poems have been a constant presence, illuminating the circumstances of his days, and offering him deep pleasure.  This is a poetry that sustains life.  It’s what I wish for every poet, old or young, who takes up the pen.  Phil Lewis is approaching the close of his 91st year, and this is his newest poem – only the second one published in a public forum.  Yet another reason to celebrate April. 







She had, we guess, remained unseen,except by occasional birds, for centuriesbefore today, and now exposed  in this eclectic alcove, still cradlesin empty arms her infant sonlong gone. She looks down fondlyon where he was –– and, moved,we wonder if the artisanwho carved for pay, believed beforeaccepting his task — or only after,job done, he dusted off the stone.

                         – Phil Lewis




The Red Letters 3.0


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Monday, April 11, 2022


Review by Andy Hoffman

In BEASTS, Cayenne Douglass has written an engaging play about the connections – and disconnections – between sisters. The older and wilder Judy unexpected visits Fran, living a suburban life with her frequently absent husband Jim. The sisters have not seen one another for years, it seems, and their last phone call, when Fran called Judy six months earlier to announce her pregnancy, ended with Judy hanging up on her sister. These two appear to have only one another as family, and neither seems all that certain that they want even that tenuous link.

Reminiscent of Sam Shepard’s FOOL FOR LOVE, BEASTS fills 95 uninterrupted minutes with this dyad trying reach an understanding of what ties them together. The play opens in Fran’s sterile suburban home, so far from whatever city it lies near that wolves howl in the darkness outside. Judy arrives with one small duffel and two-plus decades of resentment of her sister. We learn, as in Shepard’s play, about the family of origin only through the myths the sisters tell about the vanished father and the unstable mother. We can’t know with any certainty the truth of the sisters’ upbringing, but we learn quickly that they don’t take much comfort from one another.

The current friction springs from Fran’s pregnancy and the implied surrender Judy sees in it. Fran had promise as an artist but traded it in for the domestic certitude of money, marriage, and children. Judy, now in her late 30’s appears to have lived her past twenty years as a nomad on the margins of society, never beholden to anyone, but also never entirely free either. Fran doesn’t welcome her sister into her cocoon, threatened by Judy’s unpredictability. Fran wants to protect the world she has built, nervous that the poverty and insecurity of her youth will leak into her nondescript castle.

But Fran can’t keep the wild at bay. The wolves come closer, and Judy declares her intention to bring her unsettled life into the heart of her sister’s world.

Unlike FOOL FOR LOVE. BEASTS brings in some humor and release into the sisterly conflict by introducing Amelia, Fran’s birth coach, and Jim, her hapless but successful husband. Amelia only lacks crystals to complete the portrait of a New Age healer. She insists that Fran talk about her ‘vagina’ rather than her ‘hoo-ha’ and pronounces affirmations of motherhood as a sort of blessing over Fran. During these affirmations, Judy gets carried away, breaking down into a confession that she too is pregnant, though not visibly so.

This news – true or not – burrows holes in the walls between the sisters. Judy begins to nest, albeit in her sister’s house, and Fran reclaims some of the artist’s unpredictability of her sister. This role-switching creates the dramatic crescendo of the play.

BEASTS is the final production of the season for Boston Playwrights’ Theatre, which receives support from Boston University’s New Play Initiative and the College of Fine Arts. Clara Francesca brings a dangerous energy to her representation of Judy, and Katherine Schaber steals her scenes as Amelia. Marina Sartori’s set design and Kelly Galvin’s direction support the play without amplifying the depth of BEASTS’ inquiry into women’s reactions to one another’s pregnancies and the love/hate relationship between Fran and Judy.

The play itself will no doubt undergo some further rewrites. For example, the last-minute appearance of Jim – while funny – seems like an imperfect way to lead to the play’s denouement, and Judy’s initial appearance alienates the character from the audience rather than opens her up. Altogether though, BEASTS presents an entertaining and insightful evening. I found that getting back into a theater after

two years away injects the breath of life into me, and I look forward to seeing and supporting new plays at the Boston Playwrights’ Theatre.