Saturday, May 28, 2022

Red Letter Poem #112

 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 #112



The Little Book of Cheerful Thoughts.  I’m desperate for this now, crave it – some solidity, reassurance, balm.  And oh, wouldn’t it be wonderful if it came between the covers of a small book, a little packet of hope I might slip into my pocket, return to in quiet moments, an all-purpose anodyne always within reach.  After the heartbreaking news about the shooting at the elementary school in Uvalde, Texas.  After that hate-fueled massacre in that grocery store in Buffalo, New York.  After America has reached that grim milestone of a million lives snuffed out by Covid (not to mention the countless losses globally), while reports keep popping up like sparks about new variants on the rise.  After we turn toward our leaders in government, in faith communities, in the arts, hoping for some voice that will guide us and restore our belief in – if not humanity’s ultimate goodness – then at least its impulse toward self-preservation.  And like the children we once were (and ultimately remain) – trusting that some wise parent is steering the car, so we can safely daydream in the back seat – we wait for a sign.


Jeffrey Harrison’s poem reflects that desire which, I’m betting, most of you share with me, especially when the week’s dark headlines pile up in drifts.  There actually was such a book displayed by the cash register at Bob Slate Stationer in Harvard Square, one day when the poet was shopping and, for a few dollars, seemed to be offering that promise.  Jeffrey, though, is an honest enough poet to temper that innocent desire with a wry dose of reality.  Because (and you don’t need me to remind you of this) it’s our hands gripping the wheel, navigating the traffic, choosing the way forward.  And our hearts we feel hanging in the balance.  Sometimes we just need to steer ourselves away from the maddening tumult, to create our own quiet clearing, the sanctuary within a single slow breath. . . so we can restore a sense of balance, strengthen our resolve, recognize those faces around us as individuals much like ourselves, acknowledge them with a smile.


Jeffrey is the author of seven collections of poetry, the most recent of which is Between Lakes published by Four Way Books.  There seems to be a quietude within the very fabric of his verse as his sly narratives maneuver between grief, joy, and the quiet astonishment of our daily awakening.  He reminds me how fortunate I feel that I have a more encompassing resource to draw upon: three millennia of texts from similarly astute observers, whose poems remind me that – no matter the circumstance – what I am facing is not unique, nor am I alone in what I feel.  Drawing a little strength from those words, it makes me want to work harder to right the course of my own life, to demand more from the folk who have assumed the mantle of leadership, and to be a little kinder to all those whose paths I intersect.  “For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you”, declares Walt Whitman, reminding us that to sing a song of praise for what is, in all its challenging complexity, somehow seems to restore, replenish, reaffirm the human community.   And in those instances when the day simply overwhelms, perhaps it wouldn’t be a bad idea to soak in a warm bath, companioned with a good book.  And if you do receive a sign, be sure to let the rest of us know.



The Little Book of Cheerful Thoughts




Small enough to fit

in your shirt pocket

so you could take it out

in a moment of distress

to ingest a happy

maxim or just stare

a while at its orange

and yellow cover

(so cheerful in itself

you need go no further),

this little booklet

wouldn’t stop a bullet

aimed at your heart


and seems a flimsy

shield against despair,

whatever its contents.

But there it is

by the cash register,

so I pick it up

as I wait in line and

come to a sentence

saying ‘there are few

things that can’t be

cured by a hot bath’

above the name

Sylvia Plath.


I rest my case,

placing the booklet

back by its petite

companions Sweet Nothings

and Simple Wisdom…

but not The Book of Sorrows,

a multivolume set

like the old Britannica

that each of us receives

in installments

of unpredictable

heft and frequency

over a lifetime.




                         – Jeffrey Harrison


                                                (first published in Poem-a-Day,

by the Academy of American Poets)




The Red Letters 3.0


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To learn more about the origins of the Red Letter Project, check out an essay I wrote for Arrowsmith Magazine:


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Friday, May 27, 2022

The Field of Happiness by Charles Rammelkamp

The Field of Happiness by Charles Rammelkamp

Paperback: 156 pages

Publisher: Kelsay Books (April 26, 2022)

ISBN-10 ‏ : ‎ 163980126X

ISBN-13 ‏ : ‎ 978-1639801268

Review by g emil reutter

The Field of Happiness is a character driven collection of poems by Charles Rammelkamp. We travel through the decades with Charles and the characters in his life, both real and imagined. It is his journey but it could be your journey with slight deviations. Rammelkamp creates with compassion and an eye for detail and on occasion irony.

Rammelkamp brings the grifters, hookers, back seat love, school mates, college stories, work stories and even a tale of a concentration camp boxer, baseball and yes he even waxes poetic on tennis. The narrative is quite simply Charles Rammelkamp. He travels Michigan; Maryland; Massachusetts and Pennsylvania. Along the way he picks up characters who charge this collection of narrative poetry.

He tells us of Celebrity, the chance encounters of meeting the famous:

Fame clings close

when you get next to it,

like the smell of chlorine

on the skin

after the swimming pool.

In the poem "Meeting of the Titans," the poet Randall Jarrell meets the quarterback Johnny Unitas.  It deals with how Jarrell was pleased and how Unitas had no clue to who he was:

Still wouldn’t it have been something

had Johnny U. recognized greatness

when it approached him on the plane.

The poem Snow Day concerns his daughters day home from school when interrupted by a car crashing into Rammelkamp’s car and his neighbors. Of course it isn’t the drivers fault when of course it is. Charles ends the poem:

The Camaro caromed off one parked car

and then another, like a guy in a singles bar

hitting on chicks.

And so, Charles writes of the accident on a snow day and in his Rammelkampian way ends up in a singles bar.

The poem "Now You’re a Metaphor", Charles tells of the Memorial Day parade in Potawatomi Rapids and the grand marshal, Mr. Engstrom of the Spanish-American War:

"White –whiskered Mister Engstrom…borne down Erie Street in a gas-guzzling convertible/ behind the high school marching band/ waving, looking a little vague, bewildered/ he was time itself; he was age personified."

Even though viewed when a young man, the images of Engstrom flood back to him. Why? It was the day he wrote the poem that his Medicare insurance kicked in a week shy of sixty-five. For some reason I don’t see Charles riding in a convertible on memorial day, metaphor or not.

He writes of encounters along the interstate, local shopping center, of the glorious past and the present. Rammelkamp even has jottings on Nixon and Trump. We travel the road with Charles and embrace the characters in his poems, warts and all. What we learn by the time we reach the end of the collection is that there are fields of happiness in his life and ours and for the most part to get there depends on how you view it.

You can find the book here:

g emil reutter is a writer of poems, stories and occasional literary criticism. He can be found at:

Wednesday, May 25, 2022

Time Is A Mother By Ocean Vuong


Time Is A Mother

By Ocean Vuong

Penguin Press

New York, NY

ISBN: 978-0-593-30023-7

114 Pages


Review by Dennis Daly

Decadent. Robotic. Thinly constructed with self-indulgent metaphors. No, I do not like Ocean Vuong’s new collection of poems, Time Is A Mother. In fairness, I am biased and motivated because of a breathless, over-the-top review of Vuong’s first book, Night Sky with Exit Wounds, published in the New Yorker in 2016. That hyperbolizing reviewer claimed that Vuong would somehow “fix” the English language. Nonsense.

However, Vuong, an American poet, born in Vietnam in 1988, did, as the inside flap of his new hardcover book reminds us, win the 2016 Whiting Award, the 2017 T. S. Eliot Prize, and a 2019 MacArthur Genius Grant.

Indeed, Vuong’s first book, as I remember it, seemed well-written and somewhat interesting as a first book, but not exceptional. This second collection, a meditation on his mother’s death—always a dicey subject for a poet, does not impress. Vuong’s technique reminds one of the infamous “poet voice” used to read aloud or, more to the point, the affected preciousness inherent in much of this poet’s written language. Until the last poem in the collection, nothing on Vuong’s pages offers even a modicum of originality. His images are often lifeless. His airy lyrics interrupted by verbal flatness.

Snow Theory, the first poem in Vuong’s collection, is probably his best. Each line begins with a capital letter and, although there are no periods, contributes a complete thought to the whole. After a bewildering montage of introductory lines, the poet launches into a riveting description of a snow angel he makes over his mother’s frozen outline that he has conjured up. His connection to her memory begets endearment, which, in turn, is blasted by blizzard-weather. Consider these lead-in lines,

This is the best day ever

I haven’t killed a thing since 2006

The darkness out there, wet as a newborn

I dog-eared the book & immediately

Thought of masturbation

How else do we return to ourselves but to fold

The page so it points to the good part

Another country burning on TV

What we’ll always have is something we lost

The non sequiturs aside, the fifth line, “Thought of masturbation,” doesn’t work, not because of sense (its 2022 and the term has lost all shock value and seems somewhat lame), but rather its flat Latinate tone. Line nine, “What we’ll always have is something we lost,” kicks in only cliché and slickness.

Vuong’s piece, Dear Peter, drops into the pedestrian depths of silliness. The victim/protagonist shows off his crazy credentials (a la Plath, Sexton, and Lowell) in words that are light and lifeless. It’s okay to write down your thoughts while confined and institutionalized, but, for God’s sake, make it new. And don’t position your bed a sea—especially given your first name, the irony smacks of puerile idiocy,

the xanax

dissolves & I’m

okay this bed

no longer stranded

at sea the door

coming closer

now & I’m gonna

dock some days

I make it to

the reading room

they have one flew over

the cuckoo’s nest can you

believe it but hey

I think I’m getting better

Trying to be clever in poetry never works. Vuong’s poem Old Glory is too artsy by half. His use of slang expressions, continuing clichés containing violent and obscene metaphors, doesn’t do much except engender dissatisfaction at old, tired phraseology and low-level disgust. The poet tries to lead his reader through brutishness into an illuminating last line that seems pointless and insignificant and, in any case, does not hold enough weight, given the piece’s preceding images. Here is the heartless center of the poem,

Total overkill. We tore

them a new one. My son’s a beast. A lady-

killer. Straight shooter, he knocked

her up. A bombshell blonde. You’ll blow

them away. Let’s bag the broad. Let’s spit-roast

the faggot. Let’s fuck his brains out.

That girl’s a grenade…

Vuong’s most telling work in the collection he sets as the last poem. It is an elegy, made up of thirty-three eight-line stanzas, addressed to his mother entitled Dear Rose. Vuong’s mother’s Vietnamese name, Hong, means rose or pink. She died in 2019 from cancer. The poem almost succeeds but seems embedded with hesitancy. Its subject revolves around his mother’s alienated life and his search for understanding in it. The back story certainly works, but not the two images that it is based upon: zigzagging ants and fish sauce. Here are two sets of those crucial lines,


there between thumb & forefinger

an ant racing in circles then zigzags

I wanted significance but think

it was just the load he was bearing

that unhinged him: another ant

curled & cold lifted on

his shoulders they looked like a set

of quotations missing speech…


you dumped

A garbage bag of anchovies into the glass jar

the day was harmless a breeze hovering

in amber light above us gray

New England branches swayed without

touching to make fish sauce you said

you must bear the scent of corpses

salted & crushed a year in a jar …

The above images seem a bit thin, given the insinuations of hatred, violence, and racism that follows. Because of her American father, Rose identifies herself as her people’s “white enemy.”

That Ocean Vuong came from a difficult background, no one doubts. Nor is he responsible for the over-the-top idolization of his (to some) compelling persona. But personality cults do not trump craft or musical inspiration. Vuong may be on his way to the heights of Parnassus, but he has not yet arrived. Time is, indeed, a mother.

Tuesday, May 24, 2022

Somerville Artist Jeannie Motherwell: From the Cosmos to the Canvas

Somerville Artist Jeannie Motherwell met me at her studio at Miller Street Artists Studios in Somerville. She has a large space with many of her expansive paintings both on the floor and the walls. Originally Motherwell had worked in her home studio in Cambridge, but eventually she needed a new and larger space. After a stint at the Joy Street Studios, she scored a space at Miller Street. It seems that folks moved from Miller Street due to the pandemic, and Motherwell lucked out and scored a vacant one. As for Somerville--Motherwell heartily embraces it. She told me, " I love the Somerville Arts Council--they really try to create spaces and opportunities  for artists in the community."


Motherwell has adorned many hats in her long career. One of which is being on the board of  Provincetown Arts Magazine. This much lauded magazine, has highlighted the works of a broad range for artists for decades. We talked a bit about the founder, the late Chrsitopher Busa, who I knew briefly. Motherwell reflected on Provincetown, " I have a long association with Provincetown. My father, the artist Robert Motherwell and my stepmother Helen Frankenthaler summered for years there, since I was a young child. It was an alternative to the Hamptons. The Hamptons were too busy, a lot more of a business atmosphere. But in Provincetown my father was most prolific during the summer season--it was a much more informal atmosphere." As for the magazine, Motherwell told me it is going as strong as ever since Busa passed. " Motherwell said," Liz Winston took over from Chris, and since then we have continued the tradition of great articles, new patrons, and great production values."
Having parents who were world famous artists made it hard for her to create her own artistic identity. She said that her parents were trailblazers. Back in the 1950s and 60s, artist in her parents' milieu were trying to put their art in in the world spotlight, that previously had shone on Europe.  Robert Motherwell, an abstract expressionist, was in the middle of this exciting period of American art.  Jeannie Motherwell told me her dad was worried about her choice of being an artist, but was also supportive. According to her --he was like a movie star in the artworld, and like any movie star parent might feel, he was worried that a child who wanted to follow the same path and would have to endure a hardscrabble life.  But in the end he said, " Hey, you've got the bug," realizing that this was an intrinsic part of her.
For a period of 10 years, in the‘80’s, Jeannie did not paint. She felt that she was too young, and wasn't confident that she could add something to the art world. She came back to it, and years later she viewed some pictures from the Hubbel Telescope, and was blown away. She became infatuated with the idea of space, stars, moons, all that infinite black space. In many ways her work includes that cosmic awareness---that focus on space in the cosmos and the canvas.
As a poet, I was interested to learn that the painter has an affinity for poetry. She told me,  "Painters understand poetry--the abstract nature of the world."  She remembered often having conversations with the noted poet John Yau at college and after about their process. She said, "We were so in tune we could complete each other sentences."
Jeannie said that she often spreads a canvas on the floor--with no preconceived notion of what the painting will be, and lets her brush explore.  She often listens to music to accompany her painting
Jeannie can often be found her Miller Street studio.  She has a solo show coming up at the Schoolhouse Gallery in Provincetown and the M FINE ARTS GALERIE IN BOSTON and this fall at the ETHAN COHEN GALLERY IN NYC. Jeannie Motherwell is yet another artist I have interviewed in this rich font of creativity that we call the " Paris of New England."

 For more information about Motherwell go to: