Saturday, July 09, 2022

Red Letter Poem #118

 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 #118

 

 

 

 

Even without clocks, without calendar pages, this succession of time-keepers: the reddening maples; the first frost; the mid-season snowbanks towering and, later on (greeted with a feeling of elation), the melting away of that last soot-streaked drift.  The first snowdrops (not precipitation but Galanthus nivalis with its pale dangling bells) and those pert spears of crocus, both defying the cold and seeming to demand a seasonal rebirth.  The fanfare of our weeping cherry tree announces spring to me; but when the blossoms crowd the branches of our gnarly old apple, I know summer has taken hold – and this year, I used that signal as a reminder: get Lynne Viti’s new poem ready for the Red Letters.  Though it mentions harvest in the title, the poem is really a much larger horological mechanism, keeping track of the year (or vast stretches of years.)  It was triggered, the poet let me know, at the outset of the pandemic when all our notions about time were eviscerated: some hours lasted for a week; and then whole months evaporated, seemingly while our backs were turned.  We were all suddenly children again, immersed in (or adrift upon) the fitful current of the days, thinking that if we could just muster a little more patience all this would be over and sweet normalcy return.  And then, eyes blinking, the leaves were suddenly swept from the trees, the snows returned, and our heads spun dizzily.

 

Yet, as chronometer, a poem is a strangely comforting device; it reassures us somehow that the present experience is neither unique nor unprecedented in the long ages – and that, if we keep our eyes open (and our hearts available to what is passing through us), there is indeed a harvest to be made and a moment to be savored.  Lynne, born and raised in Baltimore, is the proud daughter of a Highlandtown tavern owner and a schoolteacher.  She is a senior lecturer emerita in the Writing Program at Wellesley College where she taught for three decades.  The author of several poetry titles and a collection of short fiction, her work has appeared in over 150 journals and anthologies.  The Cornerstone Press/Portage Poetry Series will bring out her new book, The Walk To Cefal├╣, (I was about to write at the close of September, 2022, but I’ll say instead) when my dogwoods begin going bronze and the first over-anxious geese appear high overhead honking southward.

 

 

 

Apple Harvest

 

 

Spring’s explosion brought bees and hoverflies.

The insect army probed and dusted the old trees.

 

While we complained about lockdown,

the closing of gyms, the ballpark’s empty seats,

the sluggishness of mail delivery,

all the while the pollinators were at it.

In April, they clocked in at sunrise.

 

By July, rain had disappeared.

The trees dropped small red apples

not much bigger than walnuts— scores of fruit.

One branch was so laden with apples

 

It split from the tree. When crows,

chipmunks, any fruitarian in search of a snack

took a bite and left the sampled fruit to rot,

we tossed it into the neighbor’s woods.

 

We watered the trees on a slow drip, fifteen gallons

three times a week—the windfall subsided,

the rest of the fruit grew bigger, redder.

Neighbor children came to pick apples.

 

A man took the bruised ones for his chickens,

a young couple said they’d use our rejects

for smoothies—this went on for weeks

until the day came when I poked at the top branches

with my pole, pulled down the final harvest—

 

red apples of normal size, easily polished

ready for their star turn on Instagram.

We made apple crisp, apple pie, apple cake,

apple sauce, apple brown betty, we munched on apples.

 

That winter we strained to find a way through

the stew of conflict, hate, and suffering,

our daily dose of news, fake news, fact checks.

We canceled paper delivery, upped our screen time,

had groceries delivered, shrunk our holidays to a table for two.

 

Now our eyes are fixed on the buds of new apple blossoms––

these two trees, in their eighth decade,

prepare to host the pollinators again

while we emerge— warily— from dormancy.

 

 

–– Lynne Viti

 

 

 

The Red Letter3.0

 

* 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:

steven.arlingtonlaureate@gmail.com

 

 

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

https://www.arrowsmithpress.com/community-of-voices

 

Two of our partner sites will continue re-posting each Red Letter weekly: the YourArlington news blog

https://www.yourarlington.com/easyblog/entry/28-poetry/3149-redletter-052722

 

 

and the Boston Area Small Press and Poetry Scene

http://dougholder.blogspot.com

 

For updates and announcements about Red Letter projects and poetry readings, please follow me on Twitter          

@StevenRatiner

 

Friday, July 08, 2022

Somerville's Sebastian Rizzon: A Zen Master with a Yen for Poetry

 

A while back I visited the studio of Sebastian Rizzon during the Open Studios event in Somerville-- organized by the great folks at the Somerville Arts Council. Rizzon fits the profile of many folks I have interviewed: eclectic, multi-talented, and innovative.  Here is an interview I conducted with him.



First of all --how has Somerville been for you as an artist and a poet?




Somerville has been great! It has a large artist population and I’ve felt welcomed by the community since I moved here a year ago. There have also been multiple opportunities to show my work. Participating in Somerville Open Studios was a fun opportunity to meet the community and network with other artists. I do have some longer term concerns as Joy Street Studios is set to be redeveloped into biotech offices and there is no formal plan to keep our thriving artist community together. I’m concerned many of the artists here will be dispersed into other communities in the area unless Somerville and the developer are committed to keeping us here.





You are a Zen Master among other things. How did you come to Zen-- did it change the direction of your life?




I had a career as a structural engineer prior to studying Zen. While I experienced a high level success in that field, something seemed to be missing. I had read about Taoism and Buddhism and found myself attracted to the idea of enlightenment, but it still seemed unattainable. I also had a history of martial arts training, so an old housemate directed me to the Shim Gum Do (Mind Sword Way) school nearby. It was an art that combined the practice of Zen with sword and other martial arts. After a few classes it seemed to be filling in the blanks of what was missing in my life, so I ended up moving into the temple after a few months of training.





At one point you were living at Shim Gwang Sa Temple ( Mind Light Temple) for over 16 years. Tell me about your experience there?




At the Shim Gwang Sa (Mind Light Temple), I had the unparalleled experience of living with and learning directly from the enlightened founding master of the school, Great Zen Master Chang Sik Kim (who passed away last year). Through our daily routines, I learned the traditional Buddhist practices of bowing, chanting, and sitting meditation. What made this experience unique from other Buddhist practices was the use of the martial arts choreography as a moving meditation. My teacher challenged us to turn all of our actions, from the martial arts to every other part of our life, into a form of meditation. In this way, everything that we had to do became a koan, or question, asking how do you see your mind? or what does your mind look like? In Buddhism it is said that to attain enlightenment you must see your own mind.




In the process of becoming a martial arts master, my time at the temple became part of a larger quest to understand myself, the essence of who I am, and my purpose in life. Ultimately, this led me to writing poetry, making art, and starting the Zen Art Center as a way to convey these lessons, ideas, and the practice to others.





You have a new book coming out " Into the Mind" in which you use poetry to explore Zen practice. Why do you find poetry a good tool for this exploration?




Many of the concepts in Zen transcend words and must be learned through experience. I find poetry is a great tool for teaching these lessons. Poetry gives me the freedom to use imagery and metaphors to lead the reader to deeper level of understanding about our existence. By using poetry to explore the realm of the mind I hope to illuminate the magnitude of the power that resides within all of us.








Your art is full of vivid colors and revels in nature. Too often we divorce ourselves from nature--
how would you reconnect the world to this seminal source?





The teachings of Zen Buddhism are founded in dharma, which is the truth of nature or natural truth. The truth is always evolving each moment and therefore it is essential to keep your mind focused on what nature is telling you so that you can respond appropriately. As you learn to observe nature with greater discernment you gain a better understanding of how everything works together. My goal is to use colorful imagery and metaphors from nature to make the reader more aware of our interconnectedness. If you can see the various deep connections we share with each other and the universe, compassion becomes the most logical, rational response. My hope is to make a compelling appeal for more compassion in the world.





One might say he or she could find 'joy' at your Zen Art Center at the Joy Street studios in Somerville. What do you offer there for us seekers?




I use the word art to mean anything that you put your heart into. I’m currently working with painters, writers, musicians, potters, scientists, and even a software developer. The type of art form can be anything, my own art was initially martial arts and sword. The idea is to use meditation and dharma teachings to understand the mind, then use the various art techniques to bring what is in the mind out into reality through creativity. I hope to inspire others to develop an art form that appeals to them and learn how to apply Zen techniques to the practice. By using this process we can understand how the power of the mind can affect reality through the energy of creation, which is love. The purest expression of love is compassion (or helping others). When we act with compassion, we can bring joy to others and the smiles on their faces are reflected in our mind.



 For more information  : www.zen-artcenter.com.

Wednesday, July 06, 2022

September 12 Andrea Carter Brown

 

September 12

Andrea Carter Brown

The Word Works

Washington D.C.

Copyright 2021

109 pages


Review by Lo Galluccio


I left New York City’s Lower East Side around September 1st, 2001 to stay briefly at my mother’s place in Cambridge, expecting to hear about a tour of Italy I had been devising with my band and a promoter in Rome. When my plans fell through, I fell into a deep depression which persisted through the morning hours of September 11th. It was my little sister who said, “This is one of the saddest days in US history,” and roused me from my morose bed-ridden state to watch the horrifying television repeating loop of the airplanes, piloted by al-Qaeda terrorists, crash the Twin Towers in New York City, the event we now call, 9/11. The cavernous holes and billowing smoke, the fire and ash, was a harrowing signal that the US had been brutally and systematically attacked by people who hated us and our way of life. I had worked as a temp secretary in the World Trade Center for Smith Barney, the largest tenant of the Towers, who managed to evacuate all their employees. It was soon revealed that American capitalism was under siege, that Osama Bin Laden and his corps had masterminded an attack on the heart and symbol of it in New York City, our own country’s cultural Mecca And while I had never fully bought into the system as a full-time employee, certainly not as a manager or executive, I felt that those people who had been killed, the nearly 3,000 of them, were innocent in some fundamental way. It was indeed a tragic day for America and a tragic day to be an American. 9/11 was a political and historical reckoning.


Recently, I came across Andrea Carter Brown’s poetry collection titled, September 12, released in 2021, her most recent book, along with two previous chapbooks and another collection titled, The Disheveled Bed, none of which I knew. I felt compelled to read this collection, to try to glean a better understanding of a first-person account of someone who had fled New York City in the immediate wake of the attacks on September 11. As the book is titled September 12, it seemed that the author was also aiming to take stock of the aftermath of the catastrophe. What does the day after an apocalyptic event bring? What’s the damage, the perspective, the prognosis for a person, a city, a civilization, an empire’s people?


Andrea Carter Brown opens with a simple paragraph about how she was alerted by her sister’s phone call to the first hit on the North Tower, while she was sitting and drinking coffee in her apartment in Battery Park City, just a block away at about 9 a.m. She immediately flees the scene and her journey to Staten Island through New Jersey and finally to upstate New York where she meets up with her husband Tom. This takes up the second section of the book, a lengthy prose poem in sections of astute observation, resilient emotions and stunning details. Like any refugee, she is dependent on luck, resources, the kindness of strangers and happenstance. There is no clearer demonstration of this than her parlous ride in the Staten Island Ferry which stalls halfway across the sound and is enveloped by a cloud of black smoke from the burning towers. Brown recounts how she nervously dons a donut shaped life-jacket and takes it off, twice, not knowing what will actually save her. Finally, after a kind Staten Island resident named Joyce takes her and a dozen or so survivors in, affording them clean clothes, internet and refreshment, Andrea is able to reach her husband and let him know she’s okay. She writes:


“All of Lower Manhattan dissolves in a scrim of gray dust. Rising, it rivers the sky as the wind carries it east, raining grit and papers on Brooklyn as far as the eye can see. On the western edge of the island, on landfill made from bedrock excavated to build the World Trade Center, I can just make out the apartment building where Tom and I live. It’s still standing. I don’t understand. How could those two skyscrapers, a hundred and ten stories each, fall down without destroying everything nearby? But there it is: our home.” (p 38).


The names of Jersey cities, including the one where Andrea grew up, fly by as though they are flags on a ski slalom course, as she is transported by a Port Authority pick up truck and finally arrives in a gas station at Larchmont, New York where she and her husband had planned to rendezvous. However, he is not there so Andrea waits and waits. Four days later, on September 15th, escorted by the National Guard they are allowed to go home. She recounts:


“Flashlights on, dust masks positioned over nose and mouth, we walk through the lobby, up five flights of stairs, and down dark hallways reeking of spoiled food. Inside the apartment, dirty white dust covers everything. The dust contains ashes of the thousands who vanished four mornings ago: we know this without being told. The dead now lie in our home, now cover every surface. They coat silverware, the runners on which drawers open and close; they sleep in book bindings; they seep between pages and underneath volumes packed tight on shelves; they find corners of closets where we haven’t looked in years. Yes, the dead are with us, will always be with us. Our home has become theirs; we hesitate to disturb their final resting place. Leave them in peace, if there can be any. As for the living, I long to simply walk away, take nothing, and never come back.” (p 42)


The third section of the book, “The Rock in the Glen,” memorializes and specifies the victims from Andrea’s hometown of Glen Rock, NJ. Here she gives us poignant portraits of the ten residents of the town who on September 11th, “go to work and never come home.” In a homage to Whitman, she writes: “Picture a breeze/ rustling the oaks and the maples, spreading/ the news of the morning of September 11./Picture a pretty town brought to its knees.” (p.46). Through these portraits, the ashen remains are transformed into very real people, people with family and community causes, people who played sports or who had retired, whose children, some of them, still expected their parent to return home after months or years of waiting.


The book opens with eight poems that are related to the Hudson River, the great river that graces and enchants Andrea as she lives in Battery Park City. Most of these are beautiful homages to other poets, like Constable and Apollinaire, Dubuffet and Ruscha. In “Each Boat Signs the Water.” She writes in the second stanza,


“I’ve watched the river two years now

I know the names of tugs, the ebb and flow

of tankers and barges, when the next

bright yellow banana boat

comes in. I’ve caught

at dawn an ocean

liner cruise

into port.” (p 24)


In these poems Brown captures the movement and history of the river, its importance in the founding of Manhattan and the way the waters’ reflexes determine her own mood and stance as well as the commerce of New York. Implied by this poet, who is also a birdwatcher and naturalist, is that the river rolls on – it predates and persists beyond the reckoning of shattered man-made metal and glass, the brutal massacre of human life of 9/11.


The fourth section of the book “To the Dust” begins with an epigraph from Charles Bukowski:

what matters most is/how well you/walk through the/fire.” This is a fitting opening to a section that includes poems about ruined buildings brought back to life, about kid necklaces made on the day after, paeans to the varied ethnic laborers and characters that frequented the old neighborhood before the cataclysm, and more poems in the aftermath. It opens with a piece called, “The Kiss” in which Andrea’s husband remembers that he heard about the towers burning in a meeting and was sure that his wife was dead. His friend Andy takes him home and they watch TV to hear news, to figure out what happened. And he ends with “I was glad I had gone back to kiss you a second time before leaving. Do you remember that?” And then the poem turns to her story. “Did I hear your whispered I love you? I don’t know. I drifted back to sleep. Only late that night, September 11, when you ask, do your words come back, as in a dream.” (p 61)


There are two fragmented poems with columns that divide and connect each other: one called, “After the Disaster: Fragments” and the other a blunt ode to the Towers themselves, called, “Pinstriped Bullies,” that ends, “To live/in your/ shadow/was to feel/infinitesimal.” (p 73). In a poem titled “The Garden of Earthly Delights” – a homage to Bosch, Brown describes the trials her husband endures in the months following the attacks….”you waited in that stuffy acrid air/for someone to pick up the carpets/rolled up on our living room floor/since the morning of September 11./Those months doctors banned me/from going within two miles of the site,/you did everything. It took three years/to get the asthma I never had before/under control…” (p 81). In an “Ars Poetica” she writes: “Let’s not romanticize bodies/falling. Others may use float/or dance; I refuse to pretend/…Some screamed. The sound/they made landing? Forget/thud. Louder than the wind.” p. 83. And there is grace. In “This is for You” she gives thanks to all those who helped her and her husband during and after the crisis, a heartfelt tribute and testimony to the fact that no one can survive a catastrophe alone. This fourth part is a powerful section of the book: a poet wielding her full capacity at free verse to capture, in elegiac figures, the loss and realities of the devastation wrought by the 9/11 attacks.


September 12 ends with a fifth and final section called “The Present” with an epigraph from a swatch of London graffiti, “Every day is a gift, that’s why we call it the present.” Relocated to California, these poems shine with the domestic pleasures of cooking and gardening, of trips to Hawaii, of birds and snakes and reminders of what has transpired. In “To the WTC Health Registry” May 2020, Brown reports on the latest survey about 9/11’s health side-effects that arrives in the mail during the pandemic. In it the addressee is warned, “Call the 24/7 toll-free hotline should/flashbacks or raised heart rates/result at any point.” The survey goes on to ask about new cancers and PTSD, nightmares: “Still have trouble sleeping?” The poet ends this bureaucratic summons with “May it do some good./May some future survey/find us filling more spaces that say/Seldom/Almost Never/Not at All. (p 99)


The finale is a poem called, “Domestic Karma” which lists the daily objects of health and renewal, including lemons and tangerines and clothes lines of laundry dried by outdoor air. The author has been restored to an almost regular regimen. “Monday morning/again. May this ritual help us get/ through the week between tests/and results./May it bring/months of Mondays like this,/shirts loving sun on shoulders,/fear faded as favorite blue jeans/pinned to the line, socks ready/to take us wherever we want.” (p 103). There is ironic hope and a touch of glee in this ending – a sharp contrast to the terror and urgency of Brown’s fleeing blindly that morning from the furious heat and destruction nearby. To note, seventy of her neighbors never returned home after September 11th. In the Afterword she states, “In truth, I was very lucky.” And there is more but I will let you read it. In truth, she was lucky, but she was also brave and instinctual in making a fast getaway and dealing with the displacement and damage of that day, for years to come.


This book is an amazing compendium of recollection and transformation. It is an important and singular chronicle of one woman’s survival and insight into the debacle of 9/11. It has remarkable structure, imagination, music and heart – a poetic and historical treasure. On this Fourth of July, 2022, it seems fitting that I recommend it to you. Read it.