Saturday, January 14, 2023

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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Friday, January 13, 2023

Atlantic fiction editor C. Michael Curtis passes.

An afternoon with C. Michael Curtis The Atlantic magazine fiction editor

***** I received word that Curtis has passed--here is an interview I conducted with him some years ago

An afternoon with the Atlantic fiction editor.

The Wilderness House Literary Retreat Hosts Atlantic fiction editor C. Michael Curtis.

On a sweltering early summer morning Somerville poet Linda Haviland Conte and I were ferried by golf cart up a long and winding forested hill to the “Wilderness House Literary Retreat,” in Littleton, Mass, to spend the day with C. Michael Curtis, the fiction editor of “The Atlantic” magazine. “The Atlantic” is moving from its long-time home in Boston to Washington, D.C. It will now be publishing its fiction and poetry in one large annual issue; rather than individual issues. C. Michael Curtis, who will edit this annual, gave the group in attendance a sneak preview of the issue and an illuminating discussion of his life in the rarefied environs of the literary world.

Curtis was peppered with many questions from an inquisitive audience. He was asked about his relationship with late poetry editor of “The Atlantic,” Peter Davison. Curtis met Davison in 1961 at Cornell University when Curtis was a student. It seems that Davison was in town for an Anne Sexton reading. Curtis managed to arrange a dinner meeting with Davison. He showed Davison a few of his poems, and the poetry editor took them back to Boston. Favorably impressed, Davison offered Curtis an intern or as it was called then a “summer reader,” position. This lead to Curtis’ long affair with The Atlantic. He left Cornell just shy of his PhD, and never went back. Curtis remained friends with Davison over the years in spite of breaking Davison’s rib in a touch football game one Cambridge afternoon.

In his long career at the magazine Curtis has edited the works of many notable authors. On one rare occasion he had to tell John Updike that one of his pieces “didn’t work.” Fortunately Updike was in agreement. A young John Sayles, (the noted indie filmmaker), was very offended by some minor changes Curtis made in his manuscript. It seems that Sayles had substituted dashes for quotations. Curtis naturally changed them back to standard

quotes. Sayles took strong exception; telling Curtis that he does everything for a reason. Sayles was ready to withdraw his work. Curtis left the dashes in.

After a hearty lunch with retreat participants, Curtis talked about what he looks for in a manuscript. Since “The Atlantic” gets up to 12,000 submissions a year, quick decisions must be made. Curtis said there are a few things that will undermine a writer’s chances. Misspelled words, bad grammar, adjectives in front of every noun, putting words in caps, overuse of the ellipsis, and the use of the present tense. Curtis feels that the use of the present often makes the work seem affected. Curtis said that in the cover letter that accompanies the manuscript the writer should never explain his story. This is a sure mark of an amateur. A good writer will realize the reader will discover this on his own. Oddly enough Curtis has received manuscripts that included a number of rejection slips from top shelf magazines. This, he said, is a poor advertisement for a writer’s work. Curtis also made it clear that he is not impressed by trendy writing. But he always likes to see well-constructed and coherent sentences. He also looks for an authentic voice and authentic dialogue in the work he reviews.

Curtis believes that an editor can make enormous improvements to a book. Curtis works on the grammar, syntax, and transitions in a story so it will flow. However, he is careful not to edit out the “voice’ of the writer. He feels that it is possible we may never know the true voice of authors like Thomas Wolfe, who was heavily edited by Maxwell Perkins.

For the aspiring writer, Curtis is strongly in favor of MFA writing programs. He said: “A lot of the stuff we publish comes from writers in MFA programs. Writers in MFA programs are the ones who are going to stay with it.”

As Linda and I left the retreat, we were met by a group of wild turkeys that had roamed on to the grounds. Perhaps they heard about this literary talk. After all, I’ve heard it said more than once that “Literature is for the birds.”

Doug Holder For more info on the Wilderness House Lit. Retreat go to:

Thursday, January 12, 2023

Doug Holder interviews Stephen O'Connor author of "Northwest of Boston"

The Comic Cruelty of Inishiren

The Banshees of Inishiren


The Comic Cruelty of Inishiren

(Spoilers included)

By Ed Meek

Irish feuds run like fissures through my family history. My younger brother fled to northern Maine thirty years ago and didn’t even come back for the funerals of our parents. He resented the criticism my parents leveled at him for not being the person they wanted him to be, and he resented my sisters and me for remaining close to our parents. My uncle Dan did not speak to my mother and father for ten years after his wife lost her engagement ring and my mother had the gall to give her sister a replacement. So, I was redisposed to identify when the musician Colm (Brendan Gleeson) picks a fight with his friend Padraic (Colin Farrell).

“I don’t like you no more,” Colm says.

In a conventional plot, this might be the climax when a particular action turns one character against another. A guy has sex with his friend’s wife for example. But in this case, we are to assume that Colm and Padraic were fast friends for years, drinking together every afternoon at the local pub after a long day of composing music in Colm’s case and hanging out at his house with his pet miniature donkey in Padraic’s case. We’re sympathetic toward Padraic as the film opens since he seems a bit simple and childlike. “Are we rowen (fighting) then?” he asks the barkeep. “We must be rowen. I didn’t know we were rowen but we must have been rowen.”

But why would these two ever have been friends? There’s no telling but the earnestness of Padriaic contrasted with Colm’s lugubrious demeanor makes Colm’s announcement funny. Thus begins a series of cruel jokes. As in Seven Psychopaths, Martin McDonough starts with an unlikely premise, a “what if” and proceeds from there to magnify the conflict. If you buy in, it can feel like a fun carnival ride.

When Padraic won’t accept Colm’s directive to stay away, Colm, a fiddler, cut off one of his fingers to spite Padraic. And when Padraic haplessly persists in being friends, Colm continues to dismember himself. The fact that musicians, like baseball pitchers, go to great lengths to protect their hands makes this incongruous. Worse still, one of the digits is swallowed by Padraic’s cute donkey, killing the poor animal.

These acts are vaguely predicted by an old crone, one of the many ridiculous characters on the island of Inishiren, an “island off an island” as Padraic’s sister says. Inishiren, although beautiful, is populated by “mental cases” as Padraic’s sister tells Padraic before she leaves for the mainland. Those mental cases include a policeman who beats both Padraic and his own developmentally delayed son. When not working, he sits home drunk and masturbates wearing nothing but his hat.

Maybe you find all this hilarious, a term whose meaning has shifted from really funny to a version of awkward humor. Isn’t it hilarious when Republican governors bus undocumented migrants thousands of miles and drop them off in blue states? Of course, cruel humor is nothing new but the preponderance of it in humor-horror and violent films might have something to do with the rise in cruelty in our culture. From the cruel attacks by Trump on Mexicans and the disabled, to the “lock her up” chants, to the personal attacks on Nancy Pelosi, to the sucker punching of women by young males. Not to mention our perverse system of justice where DAs and politicians are rewarded for getting tough on crime. The result is an excess of arrests and brutality (especially involving Black men). We lead the world in incarceration and many of those prisoners are unfit mentally. In addition, the punishment of prisoners continues after they’re released with disenfranchisement and criminal records that keep them from finding jobs.

If you buy Inishiren as a microcosm for the mainland and the civil war on it, maybe you just nod along with the movie although the feud doesn’t really fit that conflict. A better analogy might be Brexit where England hurt its own economy in the name of reclaiming its identity to get back at the rest of Europe. Then there’s the Republican Party whose leaders run for office in order to dismantle the government and destroy the planet to get back at the liberals.

The island scenery is stunning and the acting is fine, but at is core The Banshees of Inishiren is bitter and mean-spirited. Maybe that’s appropriate. Or maybe it’s just cynical.

Tuesday, January 10, 2023

Status and Culture by W. David Marx


Status and Culture by W. David Marx, Viking, 2022. 273 pages plus notes. $27.49.

Review by Ed Meek

In a column for the New York Times, Michelle Goldberg wrote about a recent book she read that changed her perspective. That was enough of a nudge for me to get a hold of a copy of Status and Culture. In it, W. David Marx elucidates a theory that begins to show up everywhere once you are on to it. Do I read and refer to the New York Times to increase my status? What kind of car do you drive? Is it a BMW signaling that you can afford German engineering? Is it a Tesla, trumpeting that you have joined the fight against climate change? Is it a Ford F150 telling us you are a regular guy or gal? Do you buy designer clothes? Women, what type of bag do you carry? What kind of shoes do you wear? Guys, do you wear team jerseys and tee shirts? Parents, do you sport those college sweatshirts based on the college you went to or the one attended by your kid? Is it an ivy league college? What signals are you giving to others through your purchases? As W. David Marx says, “The lessons of this book lend credence to the Marxist idea of hegemony … ‘the shaping of the society’s culture in the image of the dominant class.’”

W. David Marx is a writer on culture and the author of Ametora: How Japan saved American Style. In his new book, he makes the argument that it is the elite who influence everyone else to make decisions we mistakenly think are based on our own sense of taste. In The Devil Wears Prada, there’s a great scene where Meryl Street explains to novice Anne Hathaway that “you’re wearing a cerulean blue sweater selected for you by the people in this room (the fashion industry) based on a design by Oscar de la Renta.” Many of us bought skinny jeans a few years ago and now hesitate to pull them on because they are no longer in style. I read in the New York Times that boomers should no longer be wearing my favorite jean jacket. Oh no!

The big idea is that “status structures provide the underlying conventions for each culture, which determine our behaviors, values, and perception of reality.” Status, according to W. David Marx goes way beyond what we buy and what college our children attend. Consider your work environment. Who sits where and has access to what? What floor are you on? What kind of chair do you sit in? Where do you get to eat? Do you have a parking space? In meetings, who makes the decisions and why? Who gets taken seriously? Have you ever had the experience of expressing an idea that was ignored and later, the same idea is promoted by a higher up and adopted as his or her idea?

Where this focus on status begins to get uncomfortable is when you apply it to your own behavior. Are we all still obsessed with what others think of us the way we were in middle school? I play senior softball where status is based on ability. The best hitters and fielders have the highest status. If I happen to have a good day at the plate, I appreciate it if it is acknowledged by my teammates and feel let down when it isn’t. In professional sports status is quantified with numbers. Aaron Judge has recently vaulted over Roger Marris by breaking his Yankees home run record. Judge also has high status because he does not use steroids.

Media operates as a feedback loop where actors and artists and advertisements show us how we should dress, what we should believe, and what is valued. Music videos are all about status based on talent and conspicuous consumption. Beyonce and Jay Z demonstrate their status by filming a video in the Louvre. How rich they are!

According the W. David Marx, those of us in the middle class acquire our taste from sources like the New York Times, NPR, and The New Yorker. We learn from experts what to cook, what to read, what to watch, and how to think about politics.

Of course, a large part of the country has reacted against the influence of the elites and has their own status markers, from trucks to flags to MAGA wear. They watch Yellowstone, a show about a rich libertarian cowboy. Elites watch Succession, a show about a rich, selfish family, or Masterpiece Theater, dramas about the aristocracy.

To use another Marxist term, capitalism is overdetermined in the United States. Wealth has status and there is an overconcentration of it at the top leaving much of the country to struggle financially. That disparity really comes into focus when inflation occurs. The triumvirate of status, money and power makes it very difficult to change this class structure. W. David Marx doesn’t really have answers for this. He promotes art as a means of breaking down status although art too is controlled by the elites. Surprisingly, he doesn’t go to his namesake for the solution. That would be some form of socialism that ensures a more equal distribution of wealth through a graduated income tax or what Ezra Klein calls a consumption tax. We would be a better country if we awarded more status to manual laborers and teachers and social workers and less to celebrities and athletes and CEOs.

It is also true that like other theories of everything—Marxism, Freudian theory, Unified theory, not everything fits. Enjoying the fall in New England or the sunset, or hanging out with friends is not necessarily about status. Still, Status and Culture will have you rethinking what went on at your high school reunion, not to mention your Thanksgiving dinner.