Saturday, July 01, 2023

Red Letter Poem #163

 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 #163





Leaving Friends on a Spring Evening 



I left

blessing them with rainwater

I shook from forsythia petals.


Some people––

like the feeling

of sound


when the spirit 

escapes from a tiny bell

or wind chimes––




                        ––Mary Bonina



During an interview I conducted with Seamus Heaney many years back, the great poet spoke about “the extra voltage in the language, the intensity, the self-consciousness” that helps give poetry its distinctive quality.  “It's a kind of over-doing it.  Enough is not enough when it comes to poetry…This extra-ness may be subtle and reticent.  Or it may be scandalous and overdone.  But it is extra...”.  But the question every minimalist poem forces us to consider: how much is just enough?  Enough to create that neural tingling as the disparate provinces of the mind suddenly light up, revealing their unexpected connections.  To engage the great archive of sound we carry within us, vibrating in resonance (or dissonance) with this new syllabic music.  Or to make us believe in the unique consciousness somewhere behind those inked signs or spoken phonemes, presented as if for our ears alone.  Like Seamus Heaney (who was famous for his rich music and inventive narratives), Mary Bonina tends to create complex texts that carry readers along on their strong emotional currents – but not this time.  This poem is as spare a piece as I’ve seen from her and reflects the minimalist impulse most Western writers attribute to the legacy of China, Japan and Korea, whose poets worked in very brief forms, many centuries before our own.  Sometimes, poets feel the need to toughen diction, test our skill, by making a simple contour drawing convey what we’d normally do in a thousand layered brushstrokes.  Or sometimes, we get the sense (as I believe Mary has in “Leaving Friends…”) that we are creating a most precarious balance, and even a feather’s weight, misplaced, can topple the whole creation.  That’s why I decided to comment only after you’ve negotiated the 29-word mobile she’s hung shimmering from the page.


If you’ve read much Asian poetry, you’ll remember there’s a long tradition of leave-taking poems, spurred by the fact that many of these poets worked as government officials; when old friends were forced to journey to the far reaches of the empire, they were keenly aware this embrace might be their last.  As the speaker here departs – after what we imagine was a wonderful gathering – did she purposely anoint her friends, or was this the mere happenstance of passing beneath the forsythia?  And when she pauses to look at these familiar faces, it seems she is experiencing right then the emotional surge that will propel her to the notebook page.  I certainly recall occasions when I could feel my skin tingling – with delight? with fear? – at the apprehension of our shared emotional depth/mortal fragility.  She closes the poem with the simplest of declaratives: “Some people. . .are” – but in that intervening parenthetical flash, the speaker feels the full benediction of their shared moment.  Mary and I had a fine discussion as to whether to offset that quiet awakening with commas or em dashes –because, in so carefully-etched a creation, even the smallest choices bolster (or jeopardize) significance.  And if some people simply are, do we dare pause for a moment and remember how many dear faces are not?


Mary is the author of two poetry collections and a memoir – all from Cervena Barva press – and her poem “Drift”, a winner of UrbanArts "Boston Contemporary Authors" prize, was engraved on a granite monolith outside Boston’s Green Street Station of the MBTA Orange Line.  She’s been honored with a number of fellowships including from the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, and was awarded a VCCA-France residency at Moulin a Nef in Auvillar.  I find her longer narrative poems entrancing (two new ones will appear in future installments of the Letters) – but I’m delighted to see how far-reaching are the ripples from so simple and delicately-tossed a pebble.




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