Saturday, October 01, 2022

Red Letter Poem #128

 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 #128



“Politics is the art of the possible” – so wrote Otto von Bismarck, who masterminded the unification of Germany in 1871.  In our 21st century United States, it seems we’re working hard to obliterate both of those ideas – possibility and unity – replacing them with this: politics as the practice of demonizing the other, of making one constituency fear its counterpart through the art of psychological manipulation and bald-faced lies.  All that matters is the achievement of power – even if, as a consequence, the very foundations of our democracy are being rotted away.  This week, we’ve witnessed an appalling example of the depths to which politicians are willing to go: a certain Florida governor (with aspirations to one day occupy the White House) used beleaguered asylum-seekers from Venezuela as pawns in a gesture to score points with his followers.  Clearly the suffering of those human beings was completely inconsequential to him.  While he’s been roundly condemned for this – even by some members of his own party – if the gesture plays with the base, it will certainly be repeated.


Channeling the spirit of Walt Whitman, Indran Amirthanayagam’s poems try to inspire readers with a sense of new possibility, a more open-hearted and humanist conception of how the disparate energies of our troubled democracy can once again be united.  An award-winning poet, essayist, translator, publisher, and diplomat, Indran was born in Colombo, Sri Lanka, but also spent his formative years in London and Honolulu.  He writes in English, Spanish, French, Portuguese and Haitian Creole, making him a living example of the way language can construct bridges between people and diverse experiences.  “The Return” is taken from his just-published collection Ten Thousand Steps Against The Tyrant (Broadstone Books.)  While many of the poems unapologetically celebrate progressive politics, what is clear throughout is his vision that community and justice must trump political gain.  When I asked him about the opening image of this poem, Indran explained to me his “partner in poetry, Sara Cahill Marron, is also a lawyer. When Ruth Bader Ginsberg died, Sara went to the steps of the Supreme Court and left her legal pencil as an offering.”  Words matter – and, when wielded with skill and conviction, they possess enormous power. “Ginsberg worked to advance rights for women, for minorities, for all of us. She fought to make our democracy more fitting, more expansive, closer to the ideals that motivated the Founders of the Republic.”   


In his poetic manifesto, “Starting from Paumanok” – appearing in his seminal Leaves of Grass – the bard wrote: “Take my leaves America, take them South and take them North,/ Make welcome for them everywhere, for they are your own off-spring,/ Surround them East and West, for they would surround you…”.   Indran, too, sings of those marvelous possibilities, hoping we might once again embrace what this democracy first engendered and hungers for still.




The Return



The pencil is magic––leaving it in offering on steps of the Court, then the call

from the DA's office for a second interview. There is a hand beyond, outside,

inside at all times circulating, sweeping up worshippers who have given

the spirit his and her due, who have understood that one knows the world

through heart and head, eyes, breath, and with none of these but learned

faith, trusting the call out of the blue, ready to rise, pick up the phone and recite

the right words, healing words, words that will bring children bawling

and smiling into the world, that will give the wronged the chance to escape

the unjust, that will break down the trickery of the desperate purveyors

of privilege. This is the New Deal again, the throwing out of Coolidge,

Ms. Smith going to Washington, returning now to Paumanok to assure that

Walt Whitman's words will be spoken at this time that Jack Hirschman calls

the American Revolution, to which I add, humbly and in the eyes of God,

the re-revolving rolling raising goose hairs and kissing them without the knife,

this vegetarian, wine-free yet wine-respectful non-American, worldwide electric

spinning dial whirling, whirling from Paumanok to Washington to Frisco Bay,

light as a feather rolling on wind streams into my heart and yours. I too

am walking now and about to run. Do you see me light and hope-filled

grateful that the word is in good hands and coming back to the island

from where it walked abroad, coming back strong?



                         ––Indran Amirthanayagam




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