Saturday, October 08, 2022

Red Letter Poem #130

 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 #130




“We shall not cease from explorationAnd the end of all our exploringWill be to arrive where we startedAnd know the place for the first time.”


                    ––T. S. Eliot, Four Quartets



These lines show Eliot at his most oracular – but, as was most often the case, his thoughts were based on keen-eyed observation.  It seems a fact of life that, as we age, we tend to revisit the places of our past – the actual locales, if that is possible, but certainly the province of memory in any case.  And what we are often most startled to discover is that everything seems changed; the years and the distance having colored recollection or, in some cases, brought them into a startling focus we’d never before imagined.  Motivations and reactions that may have mystified us as children suddenly, in retrospect, make perfect sense.  So it is with Ann Bookman’s Blood Lines (Kelsay Books), her first full-length collection.  The book is a prolonged meditation about the members of her family; the texture of their vanished experience; her youthful alienation from a shared Jewish identity; and, subtly, the emotional charge that goes into the making of a poet.  But now, as the characters materialize again center stage (in an uncommon gesture, the poet included a host of old family photographs interspersed with the text), Ann finds herself falling in love with a world that was always – to her young self – enlarged, mysterious and, sad to say, perhaps under-appreciated.  As the poems explore and give voice to these experiences – and conjure, as well, her own childhood self – she finds she can savor them, marvel over their vitality, discover those qualities that helped comprise her present-day reality.


I chose “Handmade” as a Red Letter because it makes clear to me a poetic truth that took me decades to learn: when we remain most true to the particularity of our experience, it is then that we are also being most universal.  I expect readers, no matter their background, will have little trouble locating themselves within these scenes.  After my father’s death, I was the one male in a household of women; and I, too, observed what seemed then the foreign territory of femininity: watching my mother busy in her kitchen or attending to her makeup for an evening out – but also serving as the emotional rock upon which all the others relied.  I noticed as well how, in their varying ways, my four sisters began to exhibit gestures in imitation – how each self grows from those that preceded it.  Then there were those “altar(s) of intimacy” arranged in various rooms – artifacts representing lives that came before us and yet which still maintained a magnetized power over the household.  And finally, there are those objects which, over time, came into our possession, made us caretakers of a past we may only have known from family stories.  In these poems, Ann begins to take her bearings by such talismans, such recollections, and to reinvest in them a spirit she, perhaps, had not been aware she was carrying.


Ann is a poet, anthropologist, and a strong voice for social justice.  In her early career, she was the Assistant Director of the Bunting Institute at Radcliffe College, championing women’s scholarship and creativity back when our society was far less hospitable to such endeavors.  Today she is a Senior Fellow at the McCormack Graduate School of Policy and Global Studies at UMass Boston; and serves on the board of the Hudson Valley Writers Center, one of the country’s premier literary forums.  To my mind, it is a less-heralded but equally-important piece of work that she focuses now on excavating memory and shaping it into – as another poem is called – “Migration Routes” that other individuals may follow, especially younger women who are busy building new ‘handmade’ memories but might benefit from these guiding lights.







Upward stroke of a sable brush,

my mother painted rouge just below her cheekbone,

feint of hand makes pale cheeks blush.


Dabbing perfume drops with pointer finger—

twice behind each ear—

the way her mother taught her.


My grandmother’s sepia portrait always in place

on my mother’s dressing table, altar of intimacy:

I never knew her. I know her face as I know my face.


Owner of the brass menorah, keeper of the family flame,

I imagine my grandmother’s hands gathering sabbath light,

her first name, my middle name.


When I wear perfume for an evening out,

I dab with my pointer finger twice behind each ear.

What’s in a name? I never knew her.



                                    ––Ann Bookman




The Red Letters 3.0


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Sunday, October 02, 2022

"Don't the Moon Look Like an Asshole?"


**** on the grounds of McLean Hospital -- a psychiatric hospital outside of Boston.

I was walking with a patient who was in my poetry group at McLean Hospital one evening, when he looked up at the night sky, saw a vivid moon, and asked me " Don't the moon look like an asshole?" And indeed, this disheveled man, certainly no man of letters, came up with the best metaphor he could. He gave me a radiant smile, which I returned. The moon was not his Byronic mistress, but for him it was not the 'butt of jokes' but poetry. He did not --"go a roving late at night," the moon did not ride on some luminescent wave--but for him it walked in beauty in the night.

Artist Julie C. Baer : A painter who paints and plants.

I recently caught up with artist Julie C. Baer, an artist who revels in nature, as she paints and plants.

You have exhibited in Somerville-what is your impression as an artist of the vibe of the city?

It feels like Somerville’s cultural life is burgeoning these days by thoughtful young people using a really transdisciplinary approach to social entrepreneurship. You don’t see a random restaurant or store opening, but each new space seems to intentionally respond to the local context of the community culture and contribute an interesting, and needed, new dimension, with a focus on sustainability, inclusion, and interdependence. Super exciting and uplifting.

You have a series of painting titled. "Weird Season." created during the pandemic. In the series you explore the flowers and the fauna of the ecosystem. Although to an undiscerning eye there does not seem to be a lot going on in nature—you hear the cacophony of communication. Explain.

Weird Season was my pandemic project. In early Spring 2020, when we all were huddling indoors, fearing invisible danger from outside, I kind of forced myself to go outside every day for a walk around the neighborhood. I probably walked every street in West Somerville and North Cambridge. I was surprised by how disorienting it felt to see green things pushing up through the cold, hard soil and buds forming on leafless limbs, such a shocking dichotomy between the dark, closed indoor space and the vibrant, open outdoor space. Soon Spring came on in full force, bravely baring both its vulnerability and fierceness. I began visiting the Alewife Brook Reservation regularly, noticing the seasonal trajectory of plants’ life cycles: budding, blooming, fruiting, seeding, dying, renewal. I tried to photographically document my cognitive dissonance by manipulating the composition, cropping, focus, skew, color, and tonality of my casual iphone photos, using only the built-in features in the iphone camera–very low-tech. The resulting digital images feel quite abstract yet still organic, fresh, and plant-like.

Initially I called the series “Weird Spring,” but soon it was pretty evident this nightmare was the new paradigm. I would say we are still in this “Weird Season,” especially in that in March 2020 my family and I had gotten super sick with what we now suspect was Covid, and am currently, in October 2022, after four vaccinations and two-plus years of masking and distancing, we are recovering from a second nasty case.

My natural creative process, at that time, was, honestly, life-altering for me. In 2007, I had stopped painting due to some mental health setbacks, after I'd been making art since I was a teenager. I decided to return to grad school to study education, particularly language and literacy. From 2007-2021, I taught reading and writing, advised, tutored, recruited, developed curricula, and directed a writing center in a variety of educational settings, including higher education, hospital workforce development programs, college transition programs, and ESOL and adult education programs in community-based organizations. By 2020, I was feeling burnt out from academics, though. And the amazing thing is that this devastating global pandemic forced me to slow down and reset, and gently brought me back to making art.

I was back in the studio, painting initially from those digital images and soon extrapolating, inventing thriving little fantasy ecosystems and the entangled, buzzing, singing cadences of life. I felt freer and more joyful than I’d ever felt making art. Your descriptor of communicative “cacophony” really felt to me like a “symphony.” I called these accumulating ecosystem paintings “Confluence” to acknowledge the multiple forces that brought me back to artmaking, and I exhibited this body of work in Somerville last Spring at the Armory Center for the Arts Rooted cafe–my first show in forever.

From what I read of you; you seem to want to address the 'elitism' of art. You want art to grow everywhere—not just in the 'gardens' of the privileged. What have you done to empower this?—what should society do?"

Sincere art can heal, teach, and include. Making art saved my life, no exaggeration. I have struggled with lifelong PTSD, depression, and hypersensitivity due to early childhood trauma. And since I “discovered” I could draw as a teenager, artmaking has served as a discipline, a calling, an identity, a space where I can belong, where I can continue to develop the “adjacent possible” in my creative process. My pain informs my empathy as a teacher, and my sensitivity enriches my depth as an artist and naturalist. And for viewers, art can inspire insight, stir hearts, light souls, stimulate freshness and hope. For example, when I worked on my memorial project Souls for ten years, large-scale portraits of children who perished in the Holocaust, I was surprised how many regular folks wanted to buy and live with these sweet faces. I strongly believe the promise of such transcendence should be a public resource, available to all viewers in everyday settings, promoted in every social context, for everyone’s intellectual, creative, and spiritual lives–not reserved for privileged, exclusionary spaces. This is why over the years I have shown my work in public spaces: hospitals, schools, libraries, synagogues, cafes, community centers. I have participated in the DeCordova Museum’s Corporate Lending program and donated over 13 works to Boston-area nonprofits via The Art Connection. People who clean hospital rooms and office spaces, who serve in school kitchens, who work in law enforcement, etc., all deserve access. I approached education and literacy in this way too. I want my work to support and inspire viewers to care for themselves and their own biomes, to love themselves and the world.

Tell us about the new series you are working on.

The natural world is our collective home, family, heritage, and future, yet humans have caused irreparable habitat, resource, and species loss and a rapidly warming climate. Native plant restoration, according to ecologist Douglas Tallamy, is “nature’s best hope” for creating self-sustaining, biodiverse ecosystems that attract native pollinators and fauna. The Wild Seed Project states “every landscape must support natural systems.” In my Rewilding series, I am painting (and planting) eastern New England native plants, and I’m just now embarking on painting the pollinators they attract, one species at a time. Gradually, this collective body will reflect biodiversity, as my urban garden develops into a biodiverse native ecosystem.


I have noticed you have done book art as well. How do determine what art will go on the cover as well as the text? What is your process?

I have written and illustrated two published picture books: Love Me Later and I Only Like What I Like, and written and/or illustrated many others that I have never been able to get published. My stories are always told from the kid’s point of view. Of course, they were organically grown from the amazement of raising children. Or in the case of Lilly Looking, my (unpublished) semi-autobiographical picture book, telling my own story of trauma. In Lilly Looking, we learn through vignettes depicting Lilly’s experiences as she grows up, that her baby brother died, but no adults ever talk about it except to say, “We lost the baby.” The images are narrated by Lilly’s inner thoughts about “losing” and “finding” things. I have often seen middle-school-age girls lying around the library after school, relaxing with picture books. As adults, we understand Lilly has survivor guilt, trauma, and hypervigilance, but what teen girl would want to relax with a book that uses impersonal, clinical ideas? There is so much learning and healing potential in stories told through pictures, with nominal text. Ideas can slip in through subtle emotional channels. But alas, the publishing industry pretty rigidly markets picture books for readers ages 2-8, so I would get rejection letters saying, “It made me cry. But who is your audience?” I ultimately abandoned the quest to publish my books, though I still am hoping to one day self-publish an ebook of Lilly Looking and my other manuscripts sitting in portfolios in storage.

I’m seeing a connection here. I always made my picture books with engaging images and ideas for both the reader and the read-to. I thought of this as nurturing the “read-aloud relationship.” As I look back, I see this thread clearly led me to return to school to study education, language, and literacy.

Why should we view your work?

I can't really answer why folks “should” view my artwork, but just that it makes me happy to share my work, especially if it can provide understanding or healing.

Where and when are you exhibiting again?

Well, I currently have pieces in a bunch of far-flung juried group shows including in the Fay Chandler Emerging Art Exhibition at the Boston City Hall Gallery and at the Louisiana State University Vet School in their Annual International Exhibition on Animals in Art. Next year, in 2023, I have three solo exhibitions slated: In March, I am showing at Mass Audubon Habitat Education Center & Wildlife Sanctuary Gallery; in June, at the Somerville Armory Center for the Arts Rooted cafe again; and in August, at the Firehouse Center for the Arts Gallery in Newburyport. In the meantime, folks can view my work at or on Instagram at