Saturday, December 24, 2022

Red Letter Poem #141

 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 #141






I’ll tell you mine if you’ll tell me yours.  It’s the unspoken covenant within all literature, extending way back to the time when our thoughts had not yet been turned into written signs.  It’s a belief that the telling of stories cannot help but incite in those that hear them a desire to respond, to identify their own narrative threads and follow where they lead.  This is true even if the listener – at least for now – keeps their own tales private.  There is a faith that the telling is a communal impulse, and we are somehow bound together by what we share.  I can’t help but imagine a time when humans huddled together around a fire in the darkest of nights needing to calm the heart before sleep, needing to remind themselves (as we do now) that the darkness would eventually yield (hadn’t it always before?), and the sun would carry us back to morning.  In last week’s Red Letter, Jack Stewart’s poem had us gazing into the winter sky and wondering what moved beyond that starlight – or, more to the point, how the stories we tell ourselves shape what we perceive in this present moment.  Prompted by his little narrative, I’ll tell you mine.


I found myself thinking back to the last years of my mother’s life when, every few months, I’d fly down to South Florida to spend a several days with her.  The visits were largely uneventful: we’d make simple meals together or, for a treat, buy hot pastrami sandwiches and matzoh ball soup from the local deli, so we could hunker down at her kitchen table playing round after round of gin rummy.  But the food, the games were largely an excuse for us to sit close and talk: telling stories that dredged up old memories; recalling faces that were distant or had been lost to us; letting laughter heal the ache, confusion, and regret.  Though only rarely did we speak of it directly, this was our way of conducting a long goodbye, of making sure we’d settled our hearts while we were together, preparing for the days apart.  On one occasion, and to break up the regularity, I suggested I drive her to Coconut Creek to visit Butterfly World, the largest butterfly park on the planet.  Though not the sort of thing she might normally have sought out, she agreed – and ended up loving the afternoon, sharing an experience that led to a much-loved photograph, a skein of memories we’d rehash over the card games, and eventually today’s poem.


Here, at the time of mid-winter celebrations – where almost every religious tradition has its own story to tell – we can share this starlit moment together (even if virtually), and wonder about all that lies beyond our comprehension.  The story you and your family tell may be about unassailable hope embodied in the birth of a child; or about the endurance of light beyond all rational expectation; about the planet itself sheathed in the cold and dark that, nonetheless, contains new seeds waiting to erupt.  Or it may be about an old woman in a butterfly garden, lifted momentarily by the unimaginable beauty of those tiny creatures whose survival depends upon a transformation that can only be called miraculous.  Every narrative we share illuminates a small space between the listeners as – eyes finding other eyes – we recognize once again with whom we are sharing this hour.


So: I’ve told you my story, now you tell me yours.  Or, better yet, put down the phone or switch off the screen, and tell that person across the dining room table or seated beside you on the couch: about that time you actually. . .how then, out of the blue. . .and you won’t believe what happened next. . ..  I can’t tell you how often those gin rummy games come to mind; or how many questions I’d now like to ask, had I the chance; or which family stories, dulled (or so I thought) by the re-telling, I’d give anything to hear her voice share one more time.  The constellation of all those red-letter days and evenings – familial or cosmic, simple or profound – by which we steer our lives: savor them now, and then pass them on.  




My Mother, in the Butterfly Garden



The white morphos roiling about her head

were not halos.  The nervous flurry

of fritillaries, lacewings – not seraphim, not stars.

Even if Divinity had not been, all her life,

a wordless thing, she would never have taken this

for scripture scribbled across the humid air.  

Still, mother ooh!-ed and ah!-ed as each one

caught her eye, giddy as the schoolchildren

walking past us – but then suddenly solemn

as one black-and-scarlet beauty lighted

on her withered arm.  And later when she

pried herself from her wheelchair and stood

wavering in the afternoon sun so she could

bring her face close to the passion vines (this one,

a spray of spiky blue novas – and this,

a chorus of yellow mouths rising on the trellis),

she smiled and spoke a single word: Wonderful! 

It was not meant as benediction but

became that just the same, the syllables

blossoming in the air between us.  Tired again,

she had me wheel her to the shade. 

For nearly an hour we sat together in this

glassed-in world and let beauty do its work.

So, there it is – the little that’s left to us:

flower, wing, garden, mother, son – 

a brief outing at the close of summer.

If not God, then at least the will to desire Him.

If not eternity, then this bloom-scented

breathing in, and breathing out.

All we possess –                                                                 

all that’s been taken from us –

all that, in the end, we willingly

let slip from our grasp:  Wonderful! 








The Red Letters 3.0


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My Report from the Uwharries By Irene Mitchell


My Report from the Uwharries

By Irene Mitchell

Dos Madres Press

Loveland, Ohio

ISBN: 978-1-953252-69-2

64 Pages

Review by Dennis Daly

Ranging over and through the world of the imagination, gathering details, and illuminating the poetic high ground found between the unfathomable and the understood is no mean feat. In her newest collection of poetry, My Report from the Uwharries, Irene Mitchell leads us along the ancient paths of mood and metaphor finding, of all things, a wry, contemplative vision of harmony.

Underlying truths depend on the seeker maintaining the goals that originally propelled the quest. Mitchell’s poem Illusion lays out the power of perception and the need to follow, with some shrewdness, the trail of building wonder, sometimes in the face of adversity. The poet puts it this way,

What a curious thing it is,

this exploration under the roof of stars

of that un-rejectable map

yielding what one never quite wanted

to know.

Each frayed opportunity thus weighed

is found insufficient in its own world,

but in this illusory world

every chance shines

with a smooth coat and smart figuration

Fallout, Mitchell’s poem denying causality, at least in the artistic imagination, in the mad, mad world at hand, asks a question of degree: How much can one tolerate?. The peacefulness of the poet’s craft enables her to utilize logic to justify the encroaching opposition and, seemingly, to plea for redundancy and purposeful deceleration. Mitchell opens the poem with candor,

In a hurry to disclose the particulars,

I will tell you right now

that the resulting fallout

had nothing to do with my actions.

I was not responsible

for the wind that brought down

the power lines but spared the roof

while I was under it

in my room so peacefully versifying

about how the opposition

only wanted to plant the wheat of thought

in the arid field.

They were busy rototilling

Just when the power went out

So the tillers had to go to sleep out there.

The title poem, My Report from the Uwharries, makes clear the nature of Mitchell’s explorations. She searches for inspiration and a sense of mystery or awe. Speed and first impressions are everything. Her poetry demands immediacy, and its unfolding universe permits no corrections. Mitchell opens her piece this way,

I go now with magnificent velocity

to the imagined place, driven

to explore its diversity,

I go there seeking any surprises

and wonders of the universe

that may present themselves to me.

The stratosphere and I

will then become acquainted

in a subtle, convenient fashion.

There will be no need

for correction, either of content

or pronunciation…

Under a disapproving and prescient moon, the poet in her piece entitled Making Good the Way reports the phenomena of melting glaciers and the current lack of honeyed inspiration in the natural world. However, the imagined universe picks up the slack and carries the day. Time connects the photons of goodness together into a powerful and joyous introspection. The poem concludes this way,

Hallelujah that the report

uncovers evidence

that there are draughts of clear air to spare

in one’s private room

on silver earth

where moments of icy moonlight

conjoin to make good the way.

Awaiting Sentence, Mitchell’s poem contemplating the art of poetry, finds that solitary space that nurtures creation. The mystery of its strange logic and texture feels palpable. Time’s fluidity flows both ways as tenses mesh in a self-sustaining dynamic. The ponderous waiting as art develops gnaws at the poet’s essence with no mitigation, even in this cocoon of innocence. Consider these lines in the interior of the poem,

Like rain disappearing into the atmosphere,

even those breaths brimming

with goodness

in traditional fashion

can be lost at any time.

Hardly had the words been written,

night’s harness freighting each syllable,

then the versifier sped toward the one sanctified

response, a sleep during which the distant

future seemed inconsequential.

Most complex actions in life collapse in transit. Mitchell’s geographical survey takes note of each stunted adventure and highlights it as she passes. Her poem Presence observes the jittery crowd in her wake and their general disinterest. The poet also points out a potential for engagement. She says,

Although such reconnaissance

May prove a tiring exercise,

It brings to the fore

The many incompletes harboring

Along the way, waiting to be reawakened

Through some artful conveyance.

Take more tests.

Find Tripoli on the map,

Define tidal pool.

Explain sorry.


pain, neglect, achievements, glory.

What a piece of work is she,” says Mitchell in her dazzling poem entitled The Harmony of Good Genes, praising the eloquence, inspiration, and infinity of poetic choices. Even under intense assault the poet formalizes her wry commentaries as she is defended by the ever-benevolent foot knight. She eschews complaints and tedium and pleasures others with the harmony of her unhesitant visions. Here is the heart of the piece,

Harken back to the first pleasure,

deep breaths in the gold bathing suit

with sea-green stripes front to back

and she emerged from the sea a swimmer

slapped down by waves no more, now able to slough off

the brine even though the wrought iron spokes

of an incoming storm.

Meanwhile, light and air tooled at their workbench

her agreeable complexion.

She did not pry into why that was,

Only took pleasure from it

Mitchell’s delightful collection, created wholly out of light and air, deserves serious attention for her craft, her mischief, and her pantheon of visionary and wonder-filled moments.

Sunday, December 18, 2022

Four Paperback Tearjerkers and a Guide for the Appreciation of Literature and other Arts

 Four Paperback Tearjerkers and a Guide for the Appreciation of Literature and other Arts

Reviews by Wendell Smith

The four tearjerkers:

The Dutch House, by Ann Patchett, Harper, New York, ISBN: 9780062963680

Bel Canto by Ann Patchett, Harper Collins, New York, 2001, ISBN: 9780060188733

A River Runs Through It by Norman MacLean, University of Chicago Press, ISBN: 9780226500669

Stoner by John Edward Williams, New York Review of Books Classics, ISBN: 9788893250627

The Guide:

“It Happens,” in Maximum Security Ward and other Poems by Ramon Guthrie ed. by Sally M. Gall, Persea Books, New York, ISBN: 9780892550807, p. 56

Ever so often a book reminds that a good cry can make the world, as ugly as it is, easier to drive through. Recently Ann Patchett’s The Dutch House triggered this utility of tears to wash my windshield, cleanse my vision. Although it was published in 2019 and has been a trade paperback for over a year, I hope you won’t find this review too tardy; I think, when you have been gob smacked, you need to share the cause no matter how delayed your acknowledgement might be.

As I considered what The Dutch House had done to me and why, three other novels, which had triggered similar responses, rose to the surface of my memory: Norman Maclean’s A River Runs Through It, Patchett’s Bel Canto and John Edward Williams’ Stoner. Then, while pondering these causes of lacrimation, it came to me: they all have villains with egos whose needs to win frustrate affection, cruelty. In Bel Canto it is the social/political expression of egoism, a conflict of ideologies that supplies the frustration. Oh! If the people who run our worlds would only leave things alone and let us love each other. Of course, that abstraction, love frustrated by egoism, which unites these novels, was not the reason for my weeping. If an abstraction could provoke an abreaction you would be reaching for a Kleenex right now as I reached for one toward the ends of these books. I reached because these writers had made “it happen,” which is why I think they warrant comparison with the works Ramon Guthrie references in his poem, “It Happens,” that begins:

It happens

has no name

No word stands in its path delimits it

It happens when Goya paints

those gloves that pock-marked wondrous face

of the Marquesa de la Solana

Guthrie continues for another 512 lines to end

It happens

Oh I too

could sometimes shout or sing or sob

wild hosannas to Its name

I am not interested in exploring this question “How did these authors make ‘it happen’?” I can understand an academic interest in the mastery each demonstrates in plot, character development, dialogue, scenic detail, etc., but my interest is in the opportunity each provided me and, therefore, might provide us, to incise and drain some of our emotional abscesses, with an old fashioned Aristotelian purgation of pity and fear and god knows what else.

I will make one note on the difference in the way “It” happened in The Dutch House, the novel that provoked this musing that led to my recollection of the other three. That difference was a comic note, so that another release, laughter, seasoned my tears through its final chapter. At a gathering in the physical Dutch House some time after the heroine, Maeve, has died her brother, the narrator Daniel, listens to his grown daughter, May, who is named after the heroine, read:

The boxes of Maeve’s books were still there … the letters I had written to her when she was in college. May did an impromptu reading of one of them over dinner.

…Somehow May knew exactly what I had sounded like at eleven. “Last Saturday we made thirty-seven stops for rent and collected $28.50 in quarters from the washing machines in the basements.”

“Are you making this up?” I asked.

She waved the letter. “Swear to God you were really were that boring. It goes on for another page.”

Moved by the amount of love contained in that “boring” I laughed, put the book down to wipe my eyes as my heart grew lighter then I picked it up and put it down and picked it up again.