Friday, August 18, 2023

The Red Letters

 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 #173





A Language for Colors



Asfar she would say

pointing at a yellow tulip.


And the color of grass?




My young daughter had mastered

not only the colors

but also the throaty KH,

two letters in English

that equal one in Arabic.


I would tell her its the same sound

as in khamseh, khubez, sabanekh—

five, bread, spinach


and my favorite name

Khaled, Immortal.


I once confessed to a friend wistfully

that I would not name my son Khaled

because Americans couldn’t pronounce it.

Now I wonder about such wisdom:

even my eight-year-old

could constrict her throat muscles the right way

to say Khaled—


immortal like an ancient olive tree,

a flame that never abates,

a mothers love.


This spring, I saw a patch

of double hybrid tulips,

asfar tinged with akhdar,

and thought of my daughters

satisfied grin at learning those words

thousands of miles away

from her grandparents’ home

in Palestine.


Here we are, hybrid Americans

living between two languages

and speaking in colors,

splendid flowers in a distant field



                             ––Zeina Azzam



“There was a child went forth every day,” wrote the Good Gray Poet, “And the first object he look'd upon, that object he became. . .”.  And, upon first reading Leaves of Grass, the truth of that idea struck me immediately, resonating with my own distant memory.  In innocence, there seemed to be a much more permeable membrane between our consciousness and the surrounding world.  The crossing over from seeing into becoming felt, not only possible, but inevitable, utterly normal.  “And that object became part of him for the day or a certain part of the day,/ Or for many years or stretching cycles of years.”  I can remember, as a child, watching a grasshopper slowly climbing a waist-high stalk of timothy; eye to eye, we ached with the exertion, the need to ascend.  (When was the last time I felt such immersion!)  But soon enough (and just like Adam in the Garden) even children feel compelled to name those tangible experiences–– grasshoppertimothy, such words came later.  And while language created an almost-visceral power and a certain sense of permanence––after all, I can call up that memory many decades later just by speaking those names–– it also brought with it a separation between the beholder and the beauty beheld. 


But how to assess the layers of complexity surrounding such a moment if the very act of naming––and the spoken language that child is inheriting––already involves the experience of expulsion, fixed borders, and innocence lost?  Palestinian-American Zeina Azzam has had quite an interesting journey toward becoming the poet she is today.  Her family on both sides was rooted in Nazareth, in the Galilee.  (If memory serves, there was another child that went forth from that ancient town. . .but that’s for another story.)  Her parents fled their home in 1948 as war raged around them––a conflict that would eventually establish Israel as the official Jewish homeland.  But one person’s liberation can sometimes be another’s dispossession; as refugees, and empty-handed, her parents made their way to Syria, where Zeina was born.  After spending some of her childhood in Lebanon, she and her family emigrated to the United States when Zeina was a ten-year-old.  And today––writer, educator, activist–– she is the Poet Laureate for Alexandria, Virginia.  Astonishing, yes?  Last month, Zeina published Some Things Never Leave You (Tiger Bark Press) from which today’s Red Letter selection is taken.  In the memory poem, she is teaching her own young daughter (not to mention her readers) the Arabic words for the colors that surround us in the world.  She is also offering us a glimpse of the path––the many interwoven paths––words blaze before us and which guide our footsteps.  That is true for all of us but especially so in the hyphenated histories (in this case, Palestinian-American) that are integral in the American experience.  We carry within us, embedded in our very words, the lives and landscapes that helped give us meaning and purpose.  You might be interested to know that Zeina’s daughter, ­­­Lena, will give birth to her second baby any day now.  And another child will venture out into this achingly beautiful existence, reaching for fistfuls of the yellow, the green, the red––the asfar, akhdar, ahmar––profuse across the heart’s vast fields.




The Red Letters 3.0


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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


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Thursday, August 17, 2023

MY COVID: The Paths Not Taken

    *** Painting by Denise Penizzoto

By Doug Holder

In May of 2023, I was a participant in an international poetry festival at the U/Mass Lowell Campus, in Lowell, MA. Many of the poets and writers there were from South America, and it was a pleasure to meet, read, and talk with many of these folks. In May we were confident that the dreaded virus was not a threat. The reports from the media indicated that the numbers had greatly diminished.

During this festival, many of the panels, etc... took place indoors-- and for a number of hours. Many of the participants were without masks--and I was one of them.

Two days after the said event, I woke up with muscle aches and flu-like symptoms. I tested my myself and the line was brazenly, bright red. This was a  straight-no-chaser moment. I was a home for the virus. Friends left food at my door, etc... but I  live basically alone with my cat Klezmer. People told me to take Paxlovid--but I brushed them aside. I thought, " I can sweat this out, like other times when I was sick." But those other times were when I was younger--not a 68 year old man--who should know better.

So as it turned out this saga turned into an elongated " Long Day's Journey into Night." I was feverish, experiencing chills, cold sweats-- coughed up copious amounts of phlegm, I lost a lot of weight in a short time, damp tissues surrounded me on my bed -- I looked like something out of a Lucien Freud nightmare.

One night I was fitfully sleeping, I woke up, and there was a gaudy man in a cheap polyester sports jacket. He looked like some snake oil salesman from the Twilight Zone or a "Crazy Eddie" ad. And he was real as day. His thinning hair seemed to slicked down on his scalp by a wave of Vitalis. He said with a cracked smile  through a TV screen of sorts, " Elegant and Eternal, Elegant and Eternal" What was he pitching? A boat ride to hell? Elegant coffins? I shot up from my pillow and there he was again--in my frightened face, " Elegant and Eternal, Elegant and Eternal. " I got up shaking. I  took a shot of whiskey to stabilize myself--then went back to bed.

Later that night, I found myself in vivid dream. It was a pastoral scene, walking with my late wife Dianne, flowers abounded, the air perfumed-- a hint of music was in the background. I was incredibly happy--and I did not want to leave. Just as I decided to stay, my cat jumped up on me, and woke me up from this dream. I guess he knew something was wrong. Cats are that way.

I finally recovered, but it took me most of the month of May.  Since then, I have thought about this incident a lot --and the two paths that were offered to me.