Saturday, April 15, 2023

Review of Dear So and So by Rusty Barnes


Review of Dear So and So by Rusty Barnes

Review by Karen Klein

If you are a visual person, when you open Dear So and So and leaf through it you will be struck by the stanzaic forms of most of the poems. Most of them are sonnets-- 3 quatrains and a couplet--,but poet Rusty Barnes enjoys playing with the form, sometimes adding a line,taking a couple of lines away. The reader will see this playfulness runs throughout this book of love poems; he even includes a poem expressly titled, Not a Love Poem.

The poet has chosen the appropriate form in which to express love; after all that’s where the sonnet form began with the medieval Italian, Provencal poets in their expressions of longing for the beloved, appeals for just a look, just a touch. Whether these poets were truly in love with the beloved object--often a woman socially superior, therefore inaccessible--we don’t know. But as W.H. Auden wrote, “…a person’s statement of belief is no proof of belief, any more than a love poem is proof that that one is in love.” Shakespeare used the sonnet form in English to extend and describe more complex feelings of love--magic, mystery, misery. Barnes writes in this spirit, bringing a unique voice to a literary tradition.

The poems in Dear So and So are in the form of letters, but to whom are they addressed? The dedication is ‘to Heather’, but who is Heather--wife, lover, a single person, a composite of many? The first poem, Marriage for All Ages, punning perhaps on Ages as forever or the age of the couple, opens with a prose-like, five line stanza, describing a maybe fortunate or not sexual encounter. Describing his sexual technique, which guarantees her orgasm as “the Force-5 Forklift Flip,” he is hopeful his partner will marry him, “but two days later you sacked me as your boyfriend/because I didn’t like ‘sex’.” Barnes’ tone here is typical of his throughout--self-deprecating, but leavened with honesty and humor. Not shying away from sexual imagery, he ends his poem which includes a car accident with a deer and an allusion to jail with a declaration of his loving need: “Let your breasts hang from your shirt when you bail/me; smother me with the great guns of love.” How many poets can make a love poem like that?

There is the power of desire in “Dear So and So: the door remains too open” with its plea “teach me again what it means to be loved” from a man “bent on his own destruction.” There also is the sad despair in The Deep Dark Ditch of Love, Or What a Woman Says that She Doesn’t Mean, but on the facing page Vegetable Love: “ Dear So and So: at wholesale prices my love/might be worth five bucks and a fat cracker. Stop teasing. Break down the ways I refuse/to become a reasonably rational adult.” It is the speaker who is teasing, because it is a ‘reasonably rational adult’ who ends this poem: “We loved body to body like leaves,/ the wind always waving us goodbye,/or hello.Yes, hello. Yes love. Yes.” This resounding affirmations rings throughout literature, echoing Molly Bloom’s “Yes I said again, yes” ending Joyce’s Ulysses.

Rusty Barnes’ poems run the gamut from that affirmation to the Bondage Poem which imagines a phantasy of a woman tied down; this image serving as stimulation: “…I’ll take myself in hand anyway. For love.” What, as Tina Turner sung, “does love have to do with it?” For Barnes, it must be part if the mystery and complexity of our sexual, emotional, heartfelt, and instinctual needs. And their domestication as in The Man Addresses the Fight, its Aftermath and the Makeup Sex which ends “Bless the children who coitus interruptus us. Kiss their steamy wet/heads and tuck them in between us; we can continue at dawn.

Red Letter Poem #156

 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 #156



The tradition of appointing a United States Poet Laureate goes back decades, but I am heartened by the recent proliferation of Laureate positions in cities and towns all across the country. It seems to me to reflect both a desire for a kind of spokesperson for the soul of a community – but also our anxiety that perhaps we, individually, might not possess the words that need to be said, especially in these tumultuous times. I think it’s important to note how diverse are the voices and visions of the poets receiving this mantle, an acknowledgment perhaps that we as a people can be united without necessarily being homogeneous. In her essay "Warning, Witness, Presence", the poet Eavan Boland wrote this about the deep roots of the bardic tradition in her own native Ireland: “Their poems were remembered, recited, kept alive in an oral tradition. Despite the tragedy of their decline, they proved that poetry could keep company with the ordeals of a people." I think this is part of the job description of every poet, but especially those who have accepted this public commission. I am delighted today to bring you the work of the Poet Laureate of Alexandria, Virginia. Zeina Azzam is a Palestinian-American whose family arrived in this country when she was ten. She’s published one chapbook and has appeared widely in journals; today’s poem is from her new collection Some Things Never Leave You (Tiger Bark Press) that will be issued early this summer. She also helps foster the talents of young Palestinians in Gaza as part of We Are Not Numbers, a virtual mentorship program offered by writers from Europe and the US.

Zeina’s poem focuses on the recent earthquake in Turkey and Syria, but it also prompted me to reflect on events closer to home. In the Boston area this week, there’ll be two public commemorations of significance; the first marks ten years since the bombing at the Boston Marathon that took the lives of three individuals and gruesomely wounded 281 runners and spectators at the finish line of the race. We here remember the area-wide lockdown a few days later as police sought out the two domestic terrorists who perpetrated the attack. A decade on, and we remain united in our grief – but in my mind, I’d prefer that the anniversary celebrate the extraordinary efforts that Monday by first responders, medical centers, and even heroic bystanders on blood-soaked Boylston Street – a community coming together in unprecedented ways, and earning the appellation Boston Strong. But this week, we also laid to rest Mel King – politician, community organizer extraordinaire, tireless educator – whose barrier-breaking 1983 mayoral campaign reached into every neighborhood in the city (including places a Black man might have hesitated to visit at that time.) His grassroots movement gave rise to the very first Rainbow Coalition, a term that has since taken hold nationally. Mel – who also wrote poetry, I’m delighted to note – has this signature line as his legacy: “Love is the question and the answer” and it guided all his 94 years on this planet. If I peruse the week’s headlines, it’s clear to me that the questions we’re facing now feel more dire and encompassing than at almost any time in recent memory. It is far from certain how this community, this country will respond to the challenges.

In Zeina’s lovely lyric, she’s using language to extend her compassion halfway around the planet. The people of the Middle East have suffered far more than their share of human-made disasters in recent times, with political clashes often resulting in armed conflict – so it seems grossly unfair for Mother Nature to add to their burden. In her litany of blessings, Zeina is celebrating the aspect of humanity that feels compelled to alleviate suffering – and the enduring spirit that wants to hold on to what precious life is within our grasp. It’s hard not to feel the unspoken question within the poem: what will we do when calamity, in its multiplicity of forms, erupts before us? Is love indeed that bedrock question, revealing what resides deep within us? And will we find the strength to answer in the affirmative?

Prayer for Syria

“When she was rescued, baby Aya was still connected to her mother by her umbilical cord. Her mother, father and all four of her siblings died after the quake hit the town of Jindayris.”

––BBC News, February 10, 2023

Bless the bruised infant, hours old. Bless her life spirit, the holding on.

Bless the mother whose womb sheltered the child,

whose final push was her final breath

was her final mercy.

Bless the umbilical cord that continued to nourish under the rubble.

Bless the sibling souls who wanted to protect their tiny sister.

Bless the father who tried.

Bless the innocent and the brave crushed by walls and floors from above,

injured or dead by fires and flying glass.

Bless the hands that heft heavy stones,

the ears that hear fading cries,

the town that toils on and on.

Bless the doctors and nurses and medicines,

the suturing, the setting of bones,

the healing.

Bless those who bring food and water and warmth.

Bless the ones who sew the shrouds and bury the dead.

Bless the prayerful who bestow grace and blessings.

Bless the life spirit, the holding on, the holding on.

––Zeina Azzam



The Red Letters 3.0


* If you would like to receive these poems every Friday in your own in-box – or would like to write in with comments or submissions – send correspondence to:



To learn more about the origins of the Red Letter Project, check out an essay I wrote for Arrowsmith Magazine:


and the Boston Area Small Press and Poetry Scene


For updates and announcements about Red Letter projects and poetry readings, please follow me on Twitter