Saturday, November 26, 2022

Red Letter Poem #137

 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 #137





It’s an obligatory moment at many holiday gatherings: taking turns around the dinner table, each one coaxed to mention something you’re thankful for.  Many of us are so fortunate, we have a long list to choose from – but for me, the place of abundance always begins with the people in my life, the friends and family who are the source of such confounding joy, such a compelling sense of purpose and meaning.  If you’re especially lucky, those very faces are arrayed around the table at which you sit.  But there are others scattered across memory (those distant or vanished completely) upon whose love the foundation of your life, your growth, was built – and perhaps they too must be summoned to this occasion.  I remember, years ago, hearing the famed writer Maya Angelou speaking at a local college.  She began with a sentence intended to startle us: "You have been paid for.”  It required no explanation to grasp how volatile a statement that was, especially coming from a person of color.  “Each of you, Black, White, Brown, Yellow, Red. . .has been paid for.  But for the sacrifices made by some of your ancestors, you would not be here; they have paid for you.  So, when you enter a challenging situation, bring them on the stage with you; let their distant voices add timbre and strength to your words.  For it is your job to pay for those who are yet to come."


And so in today’s Red Letter, we are introduced to “Miss Lutie”, courtesy of poet, storyteller, and singer CD Collins.  Kentucky-born, she now makes her home in the Boston area, having transplanted her Southern musical and storytelling roots into our flinty New England soil.  She’s the author of Blue Land (short stories, published by Polyho Press); the poetry collection Self Portrait With Severed Head (from Ibbetson Street); a novel (Afterheat – issued by Empty City); and five spoken word/music recordings (the first, Kentucky Stories, was chosen as Best Spoken Word album at the Boston Poetry Awards.)  In this new poem, she places herself once again in that tiny kindergarten classroom of her childhood Mt. Sterling community, remembering Miss Lutie Quisenberry, a teacher whose outsized effect on her life has extended through the decades. 


A masterful storyteller, CD understands how the specificity of sense-impressions are capable of situating a reader in a new circumstance so they might vicariously take part in the moment unfolding.  That “mineral breath”, that whiff of the Fryolater, the glimmering dime-sized droplets of rain – they help us inhabit the mind of this precocious four-year-old (yes, four!  Her working parents needed to find some sort of childcare for their young daughter and lied about her age.)  We are witnessing here a poetic consciousness beginning to emerge – and thank goodness she had that generous soul, Miss Lutie, as her spirit-guide.  Educators rarely know what sort of lasting effect they are having on their students’ lives.  Teaching is both a profession and act of faith.  And whether we know it or not, we are all constantly being taught and teaching others in turn.  Ms. Angelou added: “We are braver and wiser because they existed, those strong women and strong men... We are who we are because they were who they were.  It's wise to know where you come from, who called your name.”  Miss Lutie called this child’s name.  As a matured talent, this poet is now calling ours.  Grateful that others “paid” for her life, CD is now paying it forward – “for those who are yet to come.”  I’ll give thanks for all the poets and wordsmiths, singers and dancers, who helped make a place for me at this table.




Miss Lutie



This woman with the mineral breath knows

you still speak to the forest animals,

that you once tried to make fireworks with flowers and precious sand,

thought you could walk off the chicken coop and fly.


She will hold all of you tenderly at your little desks,

will free you as often as she can,

because your body craves tearing through the playground,

sliding into third base, gathering as much dust as possible,

because you thrive in the dirt you’re made of.

She knows you need to stride to the pencil sharpener

just to relieve that spring inside you.


Her breath is silver with the frost of the mountain,

she has climbed down from,

to teach you letters and numbers,

which sacks have seeds you can plant,

which ones are too heavy a burden for your small bones to bear.

She will teach you that it’s not important to count the polished dimes

in the storm you got caught in,

but to watch them flashing from the sky,

under whatever shelter you can find. 

She will show you how to decipher letters and words

so that you can learn the stories of other children,

their small hands in the fur of the creatures that walk beside them.


Once, she dissolved a tiny square of paper in her mouth,      

ate breakfast at dawn in the diner,

scented with the seductive oils of the Fryolater.

Saw the towers spring up and down like accordions,

The birds in the trees outside the library chattered excitedly;

she understood them.


And may divine you, too, if you allow her.

Miss Ludie’s eyes are the blue of the hyacinths

she brought in one day,

setting the vase on her oak table.

Gaze into her eyes, that unfathomable blue.

The color of the sea under a shimmering dome of sky.

You’ve never seen a blue like that before.



                                    ––CD Collins





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