Wednesday, January 18, 2023

Red Letter Poem #144

 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 #144





“Anger shines through me” wrote Marge Piercy in her tumultuous poem “A Just Anger”; “I am a burning bush./ My rage is a cloud of flame. . ./ in which I walk/ seeking justice.”  So let me say right up front: today’s Red Letter is brimming with a righteous anger (for those who might desire a trigger warning.)  “A good anger acted upon/ is beautiful as lightning/ and swift with power.”  And Fred Marchant – a poet, it should be noted, of an exceptionally gentle spirit, whose work sings with the subtlest modulations – has found cause in this new poem to take up Ms. Piercy’s challenge.  He’s bringing the lightning.  Buckle up.


Though politicians still tout ‘American exceptionalism’, and claim our longstanding democracy is a beacon for all the world, how can we not examine that special American brand of cognitive dissonance, as the gap widens between our ingrained beliefs about our country and what our eyes and ears are reporting?  I can’t speak for Fred about which situations are the most maddening, but here are three uppermost in my mind.  When we elected our first Black president in 2008, the public dialogue considered the possibility of a “post-racial society”, free at last from centuries of racial division; today, it only seems that we’ve regressed into new waves of animosity and violence.  After witnessing the loss of over a million of our fellow citizens to Covid, we still seem incapable of learning the lesson of our mortal fragility and essential interdependence.  And finally, we’ve just passed the second anniversary of what, it has now been made clear, was an attempted coup, seeking to overturn the nearly 250 years of our American experiment.  Rather than shocking us awake and unifying the populace, we still see those anti-democratic ideas being used as a wedge to drive us further apart.  And so, when Fred sent me this new poem, my heart felt buffeted by its outrage – but I was not at all surprised.   


Fred’s very first collection, Tipping Point, won the 1993 Washington Prize, and reflected his deep commitment to pacifism.  Reissued recently in a 20th anniversary edition, the poems seem to have gained a new relevance.  Four other collections followed, including the most recent – Said Not Said from Graywolf Press (an "Honored Book" from the Massachusetts Book Awards.)  Together, they create a vision of both the power of the human spirit and the tragedy when it is subverted.


Just before I began writing this, a Bob Dylan song was playing on the radio – and it gave me reason to think about the progress in our lives, or lack thereof.  It seems not so very long ago that the young songwriter was chanting that “the times, they are a-changin.’”  I was a fourteen-year-old when that song seized the national imagination, and I was not alone in being spurred by its optimism.  It goes without saying that we’re all a good deal older these days – Dylan, Fred and yours truly.  And so, just now, when I heard the singer’s mournful tone, claiming: “I've been down on the bottom of the world full of lies./ I ain't lookin' for nothin' in anyone's eyes./ Sometimes my burden is more than I can bear./ It's not dark yet, but it's gettin' there” – I, too, could feel the weight of that darkness settled inside the chest.  So how are we to respond?  Perhaps we need to raise our voices, curse the clamoring devils, let our righteous anger throw off sparks.  Because either we ignite a more honest flame to see by, and hold ourselves to the standard we’ve long claimed for our nation, or else the “whole damned enterprise” may indeed be bound for Hades.   





[In Dante, ‘contrapasso’ refers to the idea that a given punishment in Hell

should symbolically represent the sins committed]



The sun came to me and wanted my friendship.

As it is Nature, it tries this regularly,

but today I looked it directly in the eye

and told it to fuck off,

I wanted no more of that let there be light business.

I wanted darkness on the waters.

Let's see what that looks like.

Let the whole damned enterprise fail.

The one called human.

Let great waves of misery be visited upon us.

And on this land so plagued by thievery and murder.

This people that sells its own down every river.

This nation that claimed it was the exception.

This that we are.

Let us find out what the rest have had to endure.

Let the punishment be fitting and just.

Turn out the lights. Lock up the stores.

Head home and pull down the curtains.

Don't even breathe, if you still can.

There's a hellhound on your trail and mine.

Killer eyes, and a nose for the way we smell.


As in sic ‘em.

Derived from seek.

Good dog!                            



––Fred Marchant




The Red Letters 3.0


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