Saturday, July 16, 2022

Red Letter Poem #119

 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 #119




It was a hand-stitched sampler depicting an English pastoral scene.  Well, not an actual sampler – a photo reproduction; and it hung on my bedroom wall when I was a young child.  For all I know, it was a print that came with the picture frame, and perhaps my mother just liked the look of it.  But cross-stitched within the (visual) field was the first real poem I ever read: a Romantic piece by Robert Browning consisting of two quatrains.  And I remember reading it quietly inside my head each day upon waking, watching as the images took shape.  I have a memory as well of one certain morning, and the burst of excitement that erupted when my mind recognized at last what my ear had been savoring all along: at the poem’s core was pattern.  The endings of each line in the first stanza, I was shocked to discover, rhymed with the corresponding line of the second.  “The year’s at the spring/ and the day’s at the morn./ Morning’s at seven./ The hillside’s dew-pearled.”  When stanza two begins, each line chimes into place with its counterpart, forming a sort of estranged couplet: “The lark’s on the wing/ and the snail’s in the thorn./ God’s in His heaven./ All’s right with the world.”  What a concept for a troubled child to discover: that the broken world might somehow be healed – at least momentarily – by something as ephemeral as carefully formed words.  I tell my students today (only half in jest) that this sampler may be the reason I became a poet.


Even as infants, we seek out the comfort and reassurance of pattern.  And as the mind evolves, how satisfied, how empowered we feel when we suddenly deduce some regularity within the world around us where, moments earlier, there seemed only chaos: that certain click of footsteps now comes to mean that, in a moment, mother’s smiling face will appear in the doorway.  Miraculous!  In Michael Steffen’s gorgeous new poem, he relishes both the satisfaction – and possible heartache – that is embedded within our patterned lives.  Michael is the recipient of a Massachusetts Cultural Council Fellowship and an Ibbetson Street Press Poetry Award. His poems have appeared in numerous venues including The Boston Globe, E-Verse Radio, The Lyric, The Dark Horse, and The Concord Saunterer.  His second collection, On Earth As It Is, was recently published by Cervena Barva Press; the work is rich with imagery and musical nuance, bracing for both heart and mind.  In today’s Red Letter contribution, he describes this most mundane of objects – flowered wallpaper – and we feel in its composition a consciousness trying to keep its own understanding of the world from unraveling.  I fear saying too much about the patterning the poet quietly invests within his two-verse universe (after all, how much more satisfying when the ear uncovers its own surprise); but I will pass along something the poet told me about his piece: in his mind, it’s like the first two stanzas of a sestina.  And the missing four stanzas?  I imagine them appearing, with some variation, extending invisibly beyond the buds of that closing ellipsis – like wallpaper lilies, like heartbeats unspooling.








How little you suspected the wallpaper.

Its deliberate use of repetition and pattern

to forge them as givens, icons, those lilies.

When you went away, they made a connection

to our afternoons over tea, a world

of things to talk about, relieving the focus


of work and woe as your smile came into focus

and the sky tone breathed its blue from the wallpaper.

The day sometimes catches me: What in the world

am I thinking, resuming the old pattern

of setting out two cups? The eclipsed connection

of the empty one, a vase of water where lilies…




      –– Michael Steffen




The Red Letters 3.0


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Wednesday, July 13, 2022

Back in the Building, Elvis the movie


Back in the Building, Elvis the movie

article by Michael Todd Steffen

Just a “hey there” to moviegoers considering Elvis, Baz Luhrman’s biopic of iconic rock legend Elvis Presley. If you’re scrunching your nose and thinking Naw, this is just about a flashy rhinestone Vegas entertainer—think again.

The movie starring Austin Butler (as Elvis Presley) and Tom Hanks (as Presley’s notorious manager Colonel Parker) plumbs unexpected depths of social feeling (rather than commentary) about the racial strife America so bitterly suffered in the time of Presley’s stardom (1956-1977), beginning with Elvis’s thorough embodiment as a white entertainer of the American South’s black music culture from his childhood around black blues dives and black tent spiritual revivals in Mississippi and Tennessee.

Luhrman’s carefully sifted and sequenced film makes a startling documentation of the origins of Presley’s meteoric rise to the nation’s attention with his controversial early television appearances, emanating a mix of hillbilly country and negro blues while swinging and gyrating his hips and shaking his legs and shoulders in an unprecedented sexual choreography that made young women scream uncontrollably and drew intense opprobrium from white, especially the deep South white conservatives—all the way to a Congressional committee formed to censor his performances for indecency. The complaint precisely was that the white boy was exhibiting black behavior.

Other than portraying the Congressmen’s complaints and efforts against the performer, the movie maintains a rigorous political silence, in terms of language, while Luhrman lucidly follows and puts out on display the young entertainer’s fierce rebellion against any censorship of his music or physical expression from television producers, his bumbling business-savvy manager Colonel Parker (a brilliant performance by Tom Hanks), or even the police.

This was his act, sure, and Colonel Parker’s shallow money-raking philosophy about show business and show business are repeated as a leitmotif throughout the film. Yet the portrayal of Presley also drives home that this embodied union of white and black America was deeply who Elvis Presley was and its life and expression through him and the wild enthusiasm and love it engendered in American popular culture was an electrifying and amalgamating force from the soles our shoes through our hearts into the tingling of our brains. This music overrode the intellectual, political hatred which manifested themselves terribly in the tragic assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Bobby Kennedy, events the movie quietly pauses to observe and digest in a dramatic sequence of the film where the singer undergoes a transformation from rebellion to simple and powerful affirmation of faith in his performance of the spine-chilling anthem If I Can Dream, sung on a Christmastime TV special culminating the crisis year in December ’68. The song’s repetition of the word dream resonates poignantly with the I have a dream speech of Martin Luther King Jr. (Elvis was also known as The King) who was slain by gunshots at a motel in Memphis less than 10 miles away from Presley’s Graceland mansion.

Meanwhile throughout the movie Luhrman brings plenty of mother love, charm and excitement to entertain us with the mesmerizing spectacle Elvis Presley made for America. The film reveals both the exhilarating wild fun of Elvis’s personality and fame and the deep dark side of the driven exhaustion, frustration and bitter anger his dedication to that inspiration brought into his life, not innocent of his manager’s addictive greed to draw all he could from the megastar.

Besides making its own subtly, deeply felt statements on our contemporary crises with gun violence, the conflict between language and expression propriety and censorship, government, the young generation’s driven rebellion to be heard, the slippery dangers of fame, our ongoing racial conflicts, sexual exhibition and addiction, Elvis the film entertains us with the light and charm of an exalted icon of Rock ’n’ Roll and American culture as it celebrates Presley’s magnanimous talent, gift and generosity to our spirit and our lives.

Monday, July 11, 2022

Karen Klein. This Close.


Karen Klein. This Close. Ibbetson Street Press. 2022. 77pp. $16.00


There’s a deceptive simplicity to Karen Klein’s poems. They ease into your mind, these imagistic depictions of experience (walking a bridge, listening to music, looking at art, raking the yard), and only gradually do you realize how strange and transformative they are. The book’s first poem, “Journal 2017: Bilbao,” sets the tone:

to walk on Santiago Calatrava’s bridge

is to walk on a wish

to be free of rectangles

is to honor the architect’s desire

to be a curve

suspended in space

Klein’s poems, like Calatrava’s bridge, insist on the bodily component of experience. In that opening stanza there is no “I” to contemplate these sense impressions, no punctuation to contain them: only the bridge and the feel of being a “curve/suspended in space,” which is also “a wish.” Not until stanza two does a speaker surface: she remembers an analogous swinging, stretching “my legs way out/to pump/the excitement of reaching.”

The “excitement of reaching” runs throughout This Close, Klein’s first collection of poems. Giving voice to how life feels in sensory terms, the book has five sections, each titled by a line from a poem within in it. This first section, “the curvature of a line,” suggests the way a line of poetry can bend and stretch to follow a line in space, as the body’s own curves respond to what it sees. The following two sections—“skin/has its own/vocabulary” and “use words to find my tribe”—give voice to experiences that tend not to find their way into poems. “We float in a lake of awkward,” the speaker says of an early sexual encounter. In “Black Iris,” a young woman sees in Georgia O’Keefe’s painting “the names/forbidden and unspoken/to the child I was”—words like cunt, labial, clitoral. Other poems evoke the feel of dancing, skating, the pleasure of finally satisfying “our octopus arms” after the hygienic distance imposed by the pandemic. And in “Alphabet Soup,” letters become old lovers’ initials, as the speaker, struck by the “wild cunt-brain connection,” drifts toward sleep on the “memory soup/of good sex.”

The “wild cunt-brain connection”: the phrase feels revolutionary—even now, almost a hundred years after the publication of Lady Chatterley’s Lover and more than fifty since Muriel Rukeyser asked “what would happen if one woman told the truth about her life?/The world would split open.” A related phrase, “choreography of the mouth,” in “Indigo,” links language to dance. Trace words to their origins in mouths, and they feel more sensual, more grounded in the physical world. “Marking Time” also explores this choreography, pointing out that “Words for wanting/contain ‘L’:/lonely/garrulous/old”:

To make the sound

your tongue touches

the top of your palate

leaving a little space beneath

for moisture

to pool

like the still pools

of water

in hollow places

after rain.

Structurally, This Close moves from a sense of discovery—of voice and community—into considerations of aging and mortality (the fourth section is entitled “They won’t come back next year”), then concludes in “road to nowhere/and everywhere” with a sense of meditative indeterminacy. There’s a wry humor—incontinence as “gut knowledge/the meaning/of old”—but also a sense of foreboding and loss. In “Wild Swans at Waquoit,” global warming and anti-Semitic violence interrupt the speaker’s contemplation of wild swans, who become fewer and “no longer in repose”: “Their necks/elongated periscopes/strain to see what’s coming.” Finally the Yeatsian wild swans are displaced by a hint of his “Second Coming”: at the poem’s end the swans are replaced by “a massive/funnel of tree swallows that widens/into a ceaselessly moving circle/and disappears.”

But if we’re “this close” to chaos and loss, we’re also “this close” to nature and its surprises. The “swamp plants” in “Planted” “won’t come up next year,” but in “October Rose,” the speaker tells the flower: “ah, your color still eyeshocks us breathless”:

its pointed tip thrust directly up

defiant middle finger message

whenever anything’s over

it’s never really ever


“Eyeshocks”: the wonderful verb reminds me of Ginsberg’s “eyeball kicks,” linked by commentators (Michael Dylan Welch, Alex Danchev) to both haiku and the impact of Cézanne’s color juxtapositions on the eye. Klein writes in her acknowledgments that haikus have been crucial to her development as a poet. Certainly the precision of her images, the way juxtaposed images are left to speak for themselves, the scarcity of punctuation, the way extra space sometimes separates words within a single line, forcing a contemplative pause—all feel haiku-like. Also evident is Klein’s experience as dancer, visual artist, and (until her retirement) English professor. These poems are steeped in movement and in cultural history (Stravinsky, Shostakovich, Beethoven, and Kollwitz as well as Calatrava, Brancusi, O’Keefe, Yeats, and Thomas are among those invoked).

Most haiku-like of all is the book’s final section, ”road to nowhere/and everywhere,” with its embrace of contraries—movement and return; winter and spring; death and rebirth. “When We Could Still Go Home” describes “barren/snow-dotted farmers’ fields/leaching out the/loneliness/so deep you can’t bear it” but at home maybe a “fire/on the hearth”:

going home

the rusted metal

of old bridges

What is it about those final lines I find so poignant? Maybe it’s the tenuousness of those “old bridges”—enhanced by the space around the short lines—bridges that connect us even as they draw attention to the void below, to the gap between here and there—their rust a reminder of our own precarity, “this close” to arriving and “this close” to a fall.

The book’s final poem,“the green fuse,” is similarly attentive to precarity. Dylan Thomas’s “The force that through the green fuse drives the flower” depicts an abstract energy driving birth and death; Klein’s “green fuse” refers to actual hosta shoots—perky but vulnerable as the speaker starts to rake the dead leaves matting them down. Recognizing their fragility, she uses her hand instead:

…my forearm the rake’s handle

my fingers its tines carefully scoop dead leaves

inadvertently brush hosta spears

startled by their powerful thrust

the mutual shock of something live.

In Klein’s poems, the body isn’t just something we live in and lose (“at my sheet goes the same crooked worm,” Thomas’s poem concludes) but a means of engagement, full of nerve endings and expressiveness. That “mutual shock” suggests an uncanny encounter with otherness that pulls us out of our minds, into the physicality we share with the natural world.