Thursday, August 24, 2023

Red Letter Poem #174

 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 #174





Widow, Walking



I don’t want a day when I never think of you,

but I would like more in the morning news

than another briefing on your absence.


I miss hearing my name as summons to a kiss.


If we can’t step into the same river twice,

with the past it’s not even once.


Memories are hot watches, knockoffs

pinned to the insides of my coat.


I open it and become a flasher.


At least the wind is wild today, the trees

in a frenzy.  If I wore a wig it would be

long gone, snagged in the crook of a tree,


but good for containing something

that starts off fragile, then grows wings.


If you are a spirit now, can you hear me

or have you left our flesh too far behind?


Somehow I’ve landed at the shore

where late sun makes the sea grass glow,

and for a second I don’t want to hold you


or anything, not moonrise in the east

or sun gleam in the west, not the path

of watery light washing my feet.


Still, I can’t stop talking to you.  Grief


is a heavy coat, dragging the ground. 

But death is very cold, so I wear it.



                               ––Betsy Sholl 



Breathtaking.  It is, sadly, a term we throw around much too easily, thus diluting its power.  But its original meaning describes the moment when something so overwhelmingly beautiful (or tragic, or surprising, or entrancing) literally seizes the body, snatches our breath away––and it takes a second or two before we feel the intensity subside and actually remember to exhale.  Recently I attended a reading Betsy Sholl gave at Grolier Books in Cambridge, one of the country’s most honored poetry bookshops.  Betsy teaches in the MFA Writing Program of Vermont College of Fine Arts, and served as the Poet Laureate of Maine from 2006 to 2011.  In introducing a poem from her tenth collection, As If a Song Could Save You (University of Wisconsin Press), she spoke briefly about Doug Sholl, her late husband.  After receiving a degree in theology from the Harvard Divinity School, Doug became a family therapist and community organizer and, while they lived in Appalachia, worked with adolescents on probation, and trained prison inmates to be big brothers.  The death of a life-partner is always one of the most wrenching experiences anyone can endure; but this loss was magnified by the disease that he suffered from––Alzheimer’s–– slowly effacing so learned and sensitive a mind.  But, as Betsy told me, “he bore his diagnosis. . .with astonishing dignity and grace.”


Besides being an apt description of the poem’s perambulation, the title––“Widow, Walking”––is perhaps intended to remind us of a common feature of coastal New England homes that once belonged to old sea captains.  They are crowned with a small railed-in rooftop deck where the wives could stare out at evening, searching the horizon for a sign of their mate’s safe return.  For those who’ve lost a loved one, that vigil of course never produces a glimpse of homeward sails.  When Betsy began reading, I found myself quietly overwhelmed by the matter-of-factness of her grief­­–– the unreliability of memory, the small endearments that are longed for––but quickly her attention to the present moment, and her irrepressible imagination, swept me away like those seaside gusts she mentions.  Only slowly did I fully appreciate that the vivid presence she was conjuring up was only a gesture toward (and embracing of) the profound absence that is always with her.  And when she feels herself unmoored––between East and West, sun and moon, sea and land––I found myself experiencing that enveloping ache we all must sometime know.  But then, with yet another turn, she brings the poem to a pitch-perfect close: “Grief”, she tells us, “is a heavy coat, dragging the ground./  But death is very cold, so I wear it.”  And I was not the only one in the audience who gasped, momentarily stricken by the way language can yank us out of the familiar and set us down on some wholly unexpected terrain.  And so I begged Betsy to allow me to share the poem with Red Letter readers––and knew that I must say nothing before you’ve had the chance to read her poem on your own, for fear of spoiling the surprise of its unfolding.


I remembered a line from the notebooks of the great poet Theodore Roethke, published in the collection Straw for the Fire: “Those who are willing to be vulnerable move among mysteries.”  Has this, perhaps, fallen out of fashion in this age of language experimentation and technical expertise?  But to my mind this is one of the primary characteristics of any authentic poet: to make one’s sensibility so vulnerable to the paroxysms of beauty and the seizures of grief, around which our living days revolve, so that the imagination is catalyzed by those mysteries.  And then, despite the toll it takes on the fragile self, comes the work of shaping that experience into fortified language so we readers might participate more fully––in this shared moment as well as our own private ones.  To my mind, that is something Betsy does in her books on a regular basis.  Absolutely breathtaking. 




The Red Letters 3.0


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Wednesday, August 23, 2023

Max Heinegg" A Poet who is "Going There"

I recently caught up with poet Max Heinegg, who has a new collection of poetry out. Heinegg works as an English teacher, brew master, musician, singer, actor and of course poet. He resides in Medford, and his poetry reflects the Somerville, Cambridge and Medford area.

The title of your new poetry collection is "Going There" by the Lily Press. Where are you going with this collection of poetry? In this part of your life are you taking a look at new territory, or revisiting the same ground?

The book is about literal journeys and the big life journey; it's about going to work, seeing the country, and attending all of the human ceremonies: weddings, births, funerals, and all of the mundane things in between, which I try to present as often having more significance and complexity than at first glance. I think it's about revisiting the past with clearer sight, but the poems range in age from less than a year, to in many cases five. There's a lot of revision to try to make the work sing.

One critic stated that your poems are like an arrangement of mirrors. Explain.

I think they mean I present places, people, and experiences as they are but also from different angles (often in the same poem) to show things as they are but also from different angles to reveal depth. I'm looking for resonances as well as different vantage points, and to try to see things from the perspectives of the subjects I'm writing about.

Among the many hats you wear is that of a brew master. I wonder is there a sort of poetry in the birth of beer?

Yes. I think there are some similarities with writer's block and then working on a piece. Making beer is about curiosity and enchantment, and then relying on experience and knowledge to help the beer become what it "wants" to be. Every beer is different and the arrival of every beer is exciting!

Why should we read your book?

I think the book is relatable on a human level. I write about family, teaching, travel, and aging, but I also write about Medford, Somerville, Cambridge, so there's a local aspect to it. For people who enjoy accessible, narrative oriented poems with a focus on the sound of the language, I think the book will connect. I always ask myself if the work feels authentic and if it reads with energy. I think these poems do that and I'm very excited to share them.


This is what I left the city for—​
a sight to soak in, the ah
in yard, a pint in a palmful,
the fruit that grows itself.

In summer, when they sit
heavy, loose to the touch,
I yield to ants that drag a crown off,
& wait until a thin pinkie can
don the knit pink hat, then focus
& get at the fractal of

drupelet a fat lip,
level an igloo’s row,
sepal a present’s bow,
peduncle a bristling

the tongue plays lazy
pestle to, molars for
mortar. Seeds bitter-
sweet as the month is
plucked. One, not done.

From " Going There."

To find out more about Max go to: