Friday, June 23, 2023

Red Letter Poem #165

 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 #165





I was so pleased when the e-mail arrived – my eye immediately drawn to the little row of attachments, like picture windows, lined up beneath the signature.  They signaled: new poems from Gail Mazur!  I don’t think I was alone in wondering whether the 2020 publication of Land’s End: New and Selected Poems (University of Chicago Press) was a valedictory gift to her readers.  But I thought: if this was the case, hadn’t the poet earned her rest, her ease?  She’d not only given us eight fine volumes of verse, and taught a generation of young writers – in places like Boston University’s MFA program and the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown – she was the founder of the fabled Blacksmith House Poetry Series, still going strong after five decades.  Gail’s work was selected for the Massachusetts Book Award and as a finalist for The National Book Award and the Los Angeles Times Book Prize; it earned her fellowships along the way from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Bunting Institute.  But I was delighted now to learn that new poems had been arriving of late – and, even more a cause for celebration: they were strong!  So, before I make a few comments, I’ll let you read the first of two that will appear in the Red Letters.





––Cambridge, 2023



My black cat sprints through the kitchen door,

a glassy-eyed cottontail hanging limp from his jaws.


—I dread feeling the last flutter of a rabbit’s heart,

but Bogey wants praise, his city nights peopled


with coyotes, turkeys, rabid raccoons—and bats

high in the sky, silhouetting against the moon.


I can’t translate the coyotes’ howl, their language

of passions, soundtrack of sinister cartoons


but I’ve become calm, so I grab today’s Times

to wrap this plush creature, so still, so warm,


so unruffled, so cute, a little calamity lolling here,

its front paws curled, its blood a haiku trickle


on the front page across Kyiv’s ravaged news.

Looking peaceful at being dead, done with dying.



    ––Gail Mazur



Perhaps you’ll remember the old adage Tip O’Neill was fond of repeating: all politics is local.  The same applies to grief.  No matter the geographic distance or the magnitude of the tragedy, each individual registers it in the modest precincts of the heart.  We can’t help but compare each tragedy to, extrapolate from, and begin to comprehend via the microcosm of our own personal suffering.  Because I lost my father, my mother, perhaps I can begin to imagine what’s been obliterated recently beneath the floodwaters of São Paulo, the earthquake that struck Turkey and Syria – or (though more tragic because the losses are being caused, not by planetary forces, but the sheer brutality of which some human minds are capable) the ceaseless bombardment of Ukraine.  In Gail’s poem, that tiny trickle of the rabbit’s blood across the Times’ headlines suddenly made the distant suffering tangible, present within my own safe existence.  When we stop to consider the vast number of innocent lives being wantonly destroyed, we term it unimaginable.  But a poet’s job is precisely that: to help us (compel us?) to imagine – and that ‘haiku trickle of blood’ can suddenly assume flood-like proportions and tremendous urgency – things that are sometimes absent from simple headlines.


Of course, in this instance, the loss of life is understandable, the result of animal instincts neither we nor the house cat can really understand.  And I hardly think Gail is equating what the feline has done with the atrocities Vladimir Putin so cold-heartedly continues to promote.  But the fact of life’s fragility – and that each living being desires simply another day – all this was somehow driven home in the poem in a way that defies any rational accounting.  A poem can remind us that – while we are all beneficiaries of this “sun-blessed life" (to borrow a phrase from Robert Desnos) – we are therefore also citizens of the kingdom of grief, and must share both these small and monumental losses.




The Red Letters 3.0


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