Saturday, April 29, 2023

Red Letter Poem #158

 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 #158




Years ago, when I was fortunate enough to interview Mary Oliver, I asked about her early introduction to poetry.  Because I felt I hadn’t experienced an inspirational poetry teacher until the middle of my college years, I wondered whether she’d been more fortunate.  She explained that the school she attended in childhood had only the very best instructors: Blake, Wordsworth, Shelley – and she was its solitary student, assiduous and endlessly engaged with these voices of the honored dead.


I suspect Steven Cramer has matriculated at a similar academy.  It’s hardly an uncommon trait among poets – attending to the long-gone voices of beloved writers as fervently as they do those of their husbands and wives – but Steven does more than maintain his avid dialogues with the past.  He is willing to challenge his own consciousness with the demands of this rich tradition in which we writers aspire to participate.  Case in point: this autumn, the always-daring Arrowsmith Press will publish this fine poet’s seventh collection, Departures From Rilke.  Knowing Steven as both a writer and educator (he was the founding director of Lesley University’s MFA Creative Writing program), I was not surprised to experience, in the manuscript Steven shared, a kind of rigorous engagement with what’s generally considered Rainer Maria Rilke’s first great poetic achievement – the two volumes of Neue Gedichte (New Poems) of 1907 and 1908.  But what exactly was the nature of what was being offered?  They’re not really translations, at least not in the academic sense – though several come close and will certainly seem familiar to readers who’ve enjoyed any of the host of Rilke versions available.  And they are more than imitations, that term that Robert Lowell used for his idiosyncratic English renderings from a host of European verse traditions.  The poems here make me imagine that this is what Rilke might have composed had he been born in the US and been thoroughly conversant in the trends of contemporary poetics.  Steven has stripped the originals of their archaic phrasing, their overabundance of adjectives and adverbs, so that each poem’s intention gains tremendous immediacy.  But at their most intriguing, what we have are parallel worlds that Steven felt compelled to explore because of Rilke’s primary conceptions.  And isn’t this what the poetry of a master demands from any student of his work?  Steven carried Rilke – not from German into English – but from one consciousness into another, to breathe in our atmosphere.


So the original “Portrait of My Father as a Young Man” has morphed into “A Photograph of My Father’s Twin” – focusing instead on the uncle Steven never got the chance to know, a casualty of the Second World War.  The power of the poem lies in more than its expected updates – ornamental braid replaced by ammunition pouches; saber hilt becoming a holstered pistol – but in what feels immediately at stake for both poets: the actuality of loss – that of the loved one, coupled with the loss of our very capacity to contain such absence.  Steven grasps here not only his own darkening photograph, and not just the German poet’s dimming memory, but the very moment when we feel ourselves both defined by and inexorably subject to the authority of time.  Is it a comfort, perhaps, that the words, the artistic images, endure beyond our mortal allotment?  Perhaps that answer lies in the poem Rainer and Steven will prompt you and I to write.    




Photograph of My Father’s Twin

K.I.A., Anzio, January 26, 1944



The eyes dream; the forehead

seems to sense some far-off thing.

The mouth seduces without smiling.

Under the ammunition pouches,

one hand rests on a holster clipped

to its pistol belt; the other so at ease

it appears to vanish, as if the first

to grasp what’s waiting in the future.

Everything else about him lies hidden

in a sienna tint so deep, I can’t tell

who this disappearing soldier is.


The picture fades in my fading hand.



             ––Steven Cramer




The Red Letters 3.0


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