Saturday, April 23, 2022

Red Letter Poem #107

 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.


                                                                                                          – SteveRatiner



Red Letter Poem #107




Crowded and complex, nerve-wracking and utterly fascinating: the city.  The experience of population density creates a curious (some would say thrilling) sense of anonymity which, at any given moment, has the potential for startling revelation and human discovery.  It’s almost as if we were alien worlds, each only an arm’s length in the distance, orbiting the same invisible sun.  Day by day we go about our separate untranslatable lives – until, unexpectedly: interaction, conversation, an eruption of understanding (brief but significant).  And then, altered in some indefinable way, we speed apart.  I, myself, grew up in what is often thought of as the Ur-city of the modern world, New York (though I’m sure Parisians, Romans, and Londoners might have something to say about that – not to mention the citizens of Cairo, Mexico City, Shanghai and, of course, Boston.)  Since then, I’ve lived in much smaller urban settings and, when I return to The City (no additional designation required), I feel like the proverbial country mouse, dazzled and overwhelmed as I struggle to make my way.


Sometimes (shifting metaphors) I think that the city feeling is a bit like browsing a poetry anthology of innumerable pages, each composed in a unique foreign language.  We can’t help being both intrigued and intimidated by the indecipherable script – until some Rosetta Stone-moment seizes us and, with sudden insight, the text opens to us and we read (and feel ourselves read by) one life’s quiet unfolding.  In Denise Bergman’s lovely poem, set on a crowded F train in Manhattan, the key is a simple glimpse of someone else’s cell phone as he scrolls through his picture album, savoring memory.  And then that revelatory gesture that’s become emblematic of our modern age: thumb and forefinger lightly touching a screen, effortlessly expanding our vision.  Suddenly we understand – even if just a little – each other and ourselves.


Denise explained to me this is what she’s always loved about city life.  Born in Jersey City, she became a Cantabrigian way back in 1976.  She’s the author of five poetry collections, the most recent of which is The Shape of the Keyhole (Black Lawrence Press), formed (as are many of her collections) around a single historical figure or incident – in this case, one week in the year 1650 as a falsely accused woman awaits her hanging.  Denise is also the editor of the fine anthology City River of Voices which revolves around the small universe that is Cambridge, Massachusetts, her adoptive home.  What I enjoy about her poetry is the tension between what is said and what, unspoken, slowly blooms in the reader’s own consciousness.  Reading this new poem of hers brought to mind a recent visit to a playground with my grandson, not all that far from where Denise makes her home.  That afternoon, I overheard no less than seven different languages being spoken.  But this is what made me smile: engrossed in play, the children suffered none of the awkwardness we grown-ups often do.  Delight is a common tongue and requires no translation; it reminds us we’re human.  As do poets like Denise – before we race away inside the bustling day.



Close Is Far and Figured



We pull away, the subway platform an erased slate.

Beside me he sits

elbows on knees, that familiar poring-over position—

a young man, his father square in his palm.

Father, far and farther,

in a toe-length kanzu, tilted kofia on his head.


Then a boy slides into his hand, a backlit boy in a bowtie.

Then mother in a flowered puff-sleeve gomesi

and father sitting in a carved oak chair.

Then the boy again, bowtie loose,

then father with could-be his father.

Then mother in a skirt and blouse, stirring a large pot.

Then father, embroidered collar fiercely detailed,

and mother's red lips, red-streaked eyes,

boy’s wet cheeks.


The speeding F train lurches, empties, fills.

He steadies the distance in his hand.

I pretend not to peek but he glances, posture unfolds,

arm slightly nudges mine.

He’s seen I see, and to show me

swipes quickly past boy, father, kitchen, garden, dog,

cousins, wedding—to mother

plucking a pomegranate from a tree,

enlarging between his forefinger and thumb.



                         – Denise Bergman




The Red Letters 3.0


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Wednesday, April 20, 2022

Nothing Resplendent Lives Here by Renuka Raghavan


Nothing Resplendent Lives Here

by Renuka Raghavan

Cervena Barva Press

Somerville, MA

Copyright © 2022 by Renuka Raghavan

ISBN: 978-1-950063-71-0

Softbound, 47pages, $18

Review by  Zvi A. Sesling

Clouds come floating into my life, no longer to carry rain or usher storm, but to add color to my sunset sky.” -- Rabindranath Tagore

Renuka Raghavan is one of the up and coming flash fiction writers. Her work is compelling and memorable. In Nothing Resplendent Lives Here she has written thirty-three stories that to paraphrase Nobel Prize-- winning poet Rabindranath Tagore, they are clouds that float into our lives and add color. However, these do not add to our sunset, but to our lives. An Indian-American author, Raghavan delivers masterful tales that encompass both cultures.

Nothing Resplendent Lives Here is divided into three sections. The first has ten stories and the two subsequent sections have eleven and twelve stories each. And since the stories are flash fiction only seven of her stories get to a second page and therefore, are quick reads-- with lots of punch presenting readers with sharp to-the-point endings.

In the opening story, the book title, we find the narrator making a startling discovery that leaves us unnerved:

Nothing Resplendent Lives Here

People never came to the Oasis because it was a

Destination or because it had been their plan all along. It was

usually a combination of bad luck and a lack of other options

that brought them to me. Most arrived angry, some in tears,

and some are so fucked up they have to lean against the wall

to pull out their wallets. I treat them all the same, firm but

kind. I figure they deserve that much, at least. I smile at the

beginning when they check in, and as long as they haven’t

trashed the room, I smile when they return the key and check

out. The porn channel is always an extra fifty dollars.

One morning, around 3 A.M., a man came out of a

room on the first floor, shirt half-buttoned, pants unzipped,

boots barely on right. He got into is car and sped away,

leaving the door to his room wide open. I stood there waiting

for someone inside the room to close it, but when that didn’t

happen, I walked over and peeked in. A naked woman lay on

the floor at the foot of the bed. I didn’t realize what I was

looking at until it was too late.

It was past dawn by the time the police arrived. Their

questions hypnotized, but I was not much help. I walked

back to the parking lost since the sun was out, and even

though it was useless for warmth during this time of year, I

still feel the light on my skin. Its gentle pressure keeps

me from thinning into nothing, like a single drop of blood

lost and diluted in an endless sea.

The end of the story has us pondering the effects of tragedy and shock on the psyche of the beholder. Owner or employee, male or female, young or old, it does not matter because for the narrator the metaphor of the light of sunshine on skin keeps reality from dissipating into nothingness.

Raghavan’s stories are directed at the experiences and vulnerabilities that people encounter, even when humorous. Her ability to ensnare the reader into each story results in ending one and going to the next because one just has to read on. Putting down the books seems like a crime or at least an act of folly.

On television there is dramedy, a combination of drama and comedy. In “Chestnut Street” Raghavan brings these elements to fruition in a flash fiction story that leaves one wondering whether it is comical or portends inevitable doom.

Chestnut Street

Only a few people and maybe two stray cats

remember when this house was purple, not tan. Every

autumn except the last, a white Maltese often frolicked

through the yellow ginkgo fans confettied on the sidewalk

like he was too late for a parade. A pair of wood-planked

swings hanging from the giant oak out back rock themselves

to sleep in the shade of the late afternoon sun. Farther up the

street, close to the dead end, an infant loses her binky each

day right around five o’clock. Mr. and Mrs. Miller from the

yellow house on the corner sit on their porch and loudly

discuss the origin of the word crocus, as she sprinkles water

on hers. It’s Greek she shouts. It’s Hebrew, he shouts back. It’s

actually Sanskrit, I yell, for saffron. They nod and wave in

agreement or to encourage me to move along, I’m unsure

which. The fat pompous squirrel who’s been wreaking havoc

in my yard all week struts up and down the street as if

taunting me with his mouth full, almost like he fears there

won’t be a tomorrow.

In another story, “Fulcrum,” the narrator experiences what many people have experienced, being the brunt of jokes and laughter with an ending we have all taken in similar situation yet stated unerringly by Raghavan.

In “Punishment for the Damned” the ending again reflects the many ways in which Raghavan sees humor as punishment especially when it pierces skin like a knife.

In “Coyotes” the four-legged animals rule and mean no harm yet the narrator worries about future encounters.

In her stories Renuka Raghavan is spot on about emotions, the future, how families interact, self-confidence and death.

Nothing Resplendent Lives Here is extremely entertaining. It is the work of the writer who understands nature, animals and human behavior. Exploring Raghavan’s writing is to discover different worlds of humanity and best to be read more than once. Welcome to the unique world of Renuka Raghavan.

Zvi A. Sesling, Brookline, MA Poet Laureate (2017-2920)

Author, War Zones and The Lynching of Leo Frank

Author of forthcoming The Secret Behind The Gate (Cervena Barva Press)

Editor, Muddy River Poetry Review

Editor, 10 By 10 Flash Fiction Stories