Saturday, September 16, 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





My Dear Readers,


I try my best not to skip Red Letter installments––but as we speak, I’m flying home from a family wedding in California.  So rather than leave you Letter-less, I decided to share an older piece that many newer readers will have missed (and old readers will likely savor a second time.)  Instead of ‘Throwback Thursday,’ this will be our second Flashback Friday!  Enjoy Adnan Onart’s’ richly-emotional time-bending memory


See you with a new poem next Friday!






Red Letter Poem #31





Not the least of poetry’s strengths (and delights) is its ability to allow us access to another reality: to stand for a few moments in someone else’s shoes, viewing the day through a surprising sensibility, our thoughts informed by a radically different sense of history.  This is one of the first things that attracted me to the poetry of Adnan Onart.  I will never experience the pain inflicted on Crimean Tatars as their country suffered invasions––vivid still in the long memories of his Turkish family––though some of his poems provide me with a mouthful of that anguish.  Nor can I feel those American eyes at my back in some street or market––in this, our post-9/11 circumstance––triggered only by the accent of my voice; but Adnan’s poetry has made me imagine what that tremor must be like.  Poetry confirms what most of us have long suspected: that our lives are dramatically different from each other and, paradoxically, utterly alike.  So it is with “Morning Prayer”––a poem that somehow reminded me of voices as disparate as that of Yehuda Amichai and Wislawa Szymborska.  When the young protagonist is instructed in the ways of prayer, I found something of my eight-year-old self re-awakened, and I remembered what I first yearned for in the world.  And when the much older speaker (an immigrant now in Boston) repeats that same gesture, I suddenly felt how sweet and unpredictable is the nature of our answered prayers.

Adnan lives in Boston, MA. and his work has appeared in a number of journals including Prairie SchoonerColere Magazine, Red Wheel Barrow, and The Massachusetts Review. ”Morning Prayer” was published in his first poetry collection, The Passport You Asked For (The Aeolos Press), coupled with Kenneth Rosen’s Cyprus’ Bad Period He earned an honorable mention in the New England Poetry Club’s Erika Mumford Award, and was one of the winners of the 2011 Nazim Hikmet Poetry Competition.  Discouraged from poetry as a young man in Turkey, he has now begun to find an appreciative audience in his adoptive land.  Talk about paradoxes.


Morning Prayer


In a poor Istanbul neighborhood, 

at the ground floor of our house, 

my great-grandmother says: 

It is time for morning prayer.


If you pray, she says, pure as a child, 

from this corner of the room, 

an angel will appear.


I am five years old closing my eyes. 

Allahü Ekber.


Essallamü alleyküm ve rahmetullah. 

I am fifty opening my eyes.


In Boston, Massachusetts, 

in a not so poor neighborhood 

at the top floor of our house 

praying my morning prayer.


From that corner of the room, 

my great-grandmother appears.


                    ­­–– Adnan Adam Onart




The Red Letters 3.0


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Friday, September 15, 2023

Review of Prayer for the French Republic, a play by Joshua Harmon

               Left to right: Jesse Kodama, Jared Troilo, Phyllis Kay, Peter Van Wagner, Tony Estrella

Review of Prayer for the French Republic, a play by Joshua Harmon

At Huntington Theater through October 8, 2023

By Andy Hoffman

The Huntington Theater presents a new play by Joshua Harmon, Prayer for the French Republic, an extraordinary evening of theater. This ambitious drama concerns a family of French Jews and the uncertainty Jews everywhere feel about wherever they live. We may be comfortable now, the play posits, but for how long? We can look back to violent acts of antisemitism and ask ourselves, “Are we safe? Might we be safer somewhere else?”

Brother and sister Patrick Salomon and Marcelle Salomon Benhamou represent two sides of the problem. Patrick has assimilated to the extent that neither he nor his children observe Jewish holidays. Marcelle, on the other hand, married an Algerian Jew and described herself to a visiting young American cousin, Molly, as ‘traditional.’ Both Marcelle and her husband Charles are successful physicians, he with a large practice and she as psychiatry department head. Their two adult children, Elodie and Daniel, still live with them. Charles says of his family that they lived in Algeria for 500 years, and in Spain for a thousand years before that, marking the family’s movement around the Mediterranean with the Spanish Inquisition and the rise of Islamic Nationalism. The Benhamou family finds its peace disturbed in the beginning of the play when Daniel comes home having been attacked on the street, largely because as a math teacher at a Jewish school he wears a kippah, a skull cap. The elections involving the National Front leader Marie Le Pen and Donald Trump in the US have put the Benhamous on high alert. Charles no longer feels safe and wants the family to emigrate to Israel.

They live in the apartment that Marcelle and Patrick grew up in, and these characters share the stage with their ancestors, those who survived the Holocaust. Irma and Adolphe Salomon, the great-grandparents lived out the war trapped in the relative quiet of their Paris apartment, but their children have either escaped or fallen victim to the Nazis, and the old people pass their time imagining their offspring safe and sound. They are not, of course, not all of them. Those that do take up the century-old family business, selling pianos.

For these French Jews, the Holocaust remains as much a part of their personal history as their piano stores. Pierre marries a Catholic woman, and Patrick too marries outside the faith, but even he has not forgotten. As the play’s narrator, Patrick – admirably presented by Tony Estrella, the Artistic Director of Rhode Island’s Gamm Theater, which recently produced Harmon’s Bad Jews­ – regales the audience with stories of slaughter of Jews in France as far back as the Crusades. The felt vulnerability of the Benhamou family drives Prayer for the French Republic to its moving conclusion.

Harmon’s script, while long, flies along. These families, like all families, fight and argue and love, and we see plainly how people who are on the same side can vehemently, sometimes destructively, disagree. Prayer for the French Republic produces laughs and tears as the family struggles with and for its past and future. As they celebrate shabbat, Hannukah, and Passover, teaching their American cousin her own lost traditions, we feel the vital importance of both where they come from and where they are going. It’s a brilliant play, and Huntington Artistic director Loretta Greco has conducted the production and its talented cast to near perfection. The only hiccup in the evening is a peculiar break twenty minutes from the end, when the curtain comes down and the audience felt uncertain whether there was more to the show. Even with this misstep, Prayer for the French Republic should go on your must-see list. It tells a complicated and necessary story, not just about Jews, but about a world in migration. However we come down on the mass movement of people from the America’s north to the US, or African to Europe and the Middle East, or South Asians on the run from climate change, this play opens our eyes and hearts to the painful uncertainty of life.

Monday, September 11, 2023

Poet Dan Tobin Sees the Dazzle of the Sun in his New Book of Poetry-- The Mansions

Interview by New England Poetry Club Co- President Doug Holder

I recently caught up with poet Daniel Tobin to discuss his new book of poetry " The Mansions."  From the publisher's website ( Four Way Books):

From award-winning poet Daniel Tobin comes The Mansions, an epic trilogy of book-length poems which examines exemplary 20th-Century figures Georges Lemaître, Simone Weil, and Teilhard de Chardin, all at the crossroads of science, history, and religion. Capacious in their philosophical explorations, immaculate in their form, stirring in their alchemy of faith and empiricism, each complete section works both autonomously and as part of the whole, building a house that contains many mansions, simulating the dynamic enormity of creation itself — always already entire and yet unfinished, borderless, infinite. Immersed in a time when cataclysmic geopolitical events coincided with revolutionary scientific progress, The Mansions charts a Dantean journey as it confronts the exigencies and contingencies which define modernity: history, religion, our planet’s fate, and the purpose of humankind. A fractal symphony of voices, Tobin’s tripartite collection represents a staggering literary achievement — a lyric narrative that can hold the totality of the divine and of godlessness, that harmonizes time as change and as eternity, that sees “pendant grapes” as “embodied wine.” Its music is the harvest “cutting free the perfectly nurtured bruise-colored fruit, hour / by hour,” and its wisdom embraces the transience of all things as well as the transfiguration of the self, that everlasting impermanence: “‘I see the landscape as it is when I’m not there.’”

Ryan Wilson wrote in the preface of your new collection of poetry-- that after reading it-- "We may again see deep in our hearts, as children do, the dazzle of the sun." How hard was it for you to get back, or should I say forward, to that childhood sensibility?

Ryan Wilson’s insightful, and generous, introduction makes some parallels between Dante’s The Divine Comedy and The Mansions and the echoes structural and otherwise are as I intend. When Dante finally comers back to earth, as it were, from his fictive paradise he sees the world anew. I can’t say that The Mansions encompasses such a journey, or that I, myself, see the sun with new eyes having written the poem over some fourteen years. What I hope, of course, is that beyond whatever I intend there is something more that the poem offers, some further place in terms of perception that the poem brings the reader. I don’t assume that, of course, but I think any poet wants that for the work. I’m immensely gratified that Ryan saw some of that furtherance in the poem.

Your book is an ontological exploration. I heard it took you many years to put it together. Perhaps, at this point of your life—it seemed more germane to finish the book.

The Mansions is the second very long piece I’ve written—the first was The Narrows, a mural in verse as I call it, and that one took something like seventeen years since I had the kernel of the conception. I’m older now, so it meant a great deal to me to finish the book, which is very much an ontological exploration, as well as an existential one, through the lives it delves into and tries to embody. For whatever reason, I’ve always been tuned ontologically, not only in poetry but also in my obsessions and ultimate concerns. There is a thread that runs in and around the three “books” of The Mansions, a kind of double helix of couplets. The last contains a phrase I jotted in a notebook when I was something like seventeen or eighteen years old. “All Being Becomes All,” which forms an acrostic for the word “Father” in Aramaic” (not the Swedish pop group!), to whom Jesus cries out on the cross: “Father, father why have you forsaken me.” This material has been with me a long time.

The books drips with scholarship, and difficult concepts. In your opinion would this book be more likely to be appreciated by a rarefied crowd or the casual reader?

Well, I hope it doesn’t “drip,” but rides along. There can be some rapids, so to speak, as one moves through the sections, but the concepts and allusions and so forth, are grounded in the lives and in the felt necessity of the quest, both intellectually and emotionally. I don’t know what a casual reader of poetry is, to tell you the truth. I go to poems to have my brain re-wired and my emotional, intellectual, and contemplative life enlarged beyond my expectations. That would be as true for Elizabeth Bishop as for T.S. Eliot, or Robert Hayden. Hayden is a good example—would a “casual reader” go to Hayden’s work without accepting the premise that learning something about the Baha’I faith might be required to appreciate the poems fully? Good poems and surely great poems carry the reader along on their music first, but that doesn’t mean concepts and forms of knowledge are necessarily obstructive of the poem’s music. Of course, I want readers, casual, rarefied and everything in between, but the audience needs to go to the work as well, since poetry can and should make demands on the reader, like all literature that aspires to be something more than entertainment, or merely an underscoring of what the reader already believed before they read the work. As I argued recently in an essay that appeared in the English online journal Berfrois, I try to write for the dead with the expectation that the living will listen.

You write in one poem, and I paraphrase-- that we reach for something that we can't penetrate. Throughout the book- I sense the need to have consummation with the world—the universe. I remember, many years ago—​I experienced that after taking a psychedelic—in essence I felt I was merging with a tree and becoming part of it. Can you comment?

Yes, that is true—I have a need try to get beyond the veil of things, and pretty much always have. I think somewhere along the line I made a kind of bargain so that my poetry, hopefully, would be the trace of my spiritual journey, though that doesn’t mean “I” have gotten very far myself. Like I said, the poems need to press beyond the individual life of the poet, unless of course you are sufficiently blessed to have both—I’m thinking of Juan de la Cruz, for example, or Faiz Amed Faiz. I wish that for myself, but well, I am a failed mystic I’m afraid. I had one experience like the one you describe and without psychedelics. A rendering or a sort is woven into The Mansions, but I’m not comfortable talking about it casually or in print. Some “consummation with the world, with the universe” would be a good phrase, but fleeting and not final.

How did you choose the scientists, etc... that you write about in the collection?

I came across Georges Lemaître watching a PBS special on the history of physics some fourteen years ago. The circumstances of his life—a priest, the first physicist to conceptualize what we now call “the big bang,” his life as s soldier in World War I and his activities with the resistance during World War II fed right into my obsessions. I first read Simone Weil when I was in graduate school. I’m also drawn by the drama of her life, the extremity of her commitment to justice, her refusal to fit in. I first read Teilhard de Chardin when I was in college—such visionary idealism and optimism, the exact opposite of Weil! Their lives overlap historically, track in somewhat different directions—one might call it ontological conflict—and yet together they create a forward moving confluence of lives. When I was writing “From Nothing,” I realized the whole design required three “books” and the shape of the whole, and the importance of these lives, came from that realization.

Why should we read your book?

My wife just yesterday directed me to this quotation by Thoreau and asked if I had ever read it. I must have, since I read Walden more than once, but it did not come to mind when I was writing The Mansions: “The stars are the apexes of what wonderful triangles! What distant and different beings in the various mansions of the universe are contemplating the same one at the same moment!” If that doesn’t tell you why to read the book I probably can’t convince you!


“These designs attributed to God are cuttings made by us,
chosen from infinite turns, connections that might be made
by any intelligence, human, non-human, no matter the scale,

throughout space and time…” Let this cutting be morning
in the Luxembourg Gardens: They have come by streetcar
across the Seine—son, mother, baby Simone who refuses

to be fed, except by bottle, holes cut in the nipple to let
solid foods pass. Not yet two. Sickly. This baby cannot survive.
Each day they walk the paths so she breathes the fresher air,

this intricate parterre of flowers and lawn, the central basin
with its water jet, these balustrades, the marionette theatre—
like an unbroken symmetry… And people sitting, passing,

as in a painting by Watteau. Is she looking at the toy boats?

Are We Bootstrapped? Bootstrapped by Alissa Quart


Are We Bootstrapped?

Bootstrapped by Alissa Quart. HarperCollins, New York, 2023. $26.

by Ed Meek

The American dream is a powerful myth. “In the Will work and acquire, and thou hast chained the wheel of Chance.” Emerson said in “Self-Reliance.” If you work hard and save, invest, buy a house, you can be successful in America. Right? Every four years we hear presidential candidates tell their stories about working their way up. From Bill Clinton to Barack Obama to Nikki Haley. Celebrities like Eminem and Jay Z remind us of their rags to riches stories. In China, America is called the gold mountain where everyone can get rich. The Great Gatsby tells the story of Jay Gatsby who used his connections with corrupt characters like Meyer Wolfsheim (who fixed the World Series in 1919) to attain wealth. Donald Trump used seed money from daddy to build a real estate empire and exploited tax loopholes and bankruptcy laws. Then his starring role on The Apprentice convinced millions he should be President. Many of his followers see him as embodying the American dream.

This myth has a downside as Alissa Quart points out in her new book Bootstrapped. Those who fail to achieve the dream are blamed and they blame themselves. They must not have worked hard enough. Those failures are looked down upon because they failed to pull themselves up by their bootstraps. Quart tells us that, ironically, this expression originated in the 1800s when the rich had servants to help them put on their boots by pulling the bootstraps. Then, pulling yourself up by your own bootstraps was adopted to express the idea of working your way up. To this day, those who are rich and successful love to tell us that they did it all on their own. They are all the reincarnation of Horatio Alger’s ragged Dick who started as a shoeshine boy, became an office clerk and worked his way up the ladder.

One of the popular proponents of the dream was Ayn Rand whose Atlas Shrugged was handed out to new congressmen and women by Paul Ryan. Its brand of “self-made absolutism” as Quart calls it, is the myth the top 1% have adopted and promulgate to the bottom 99% who just haven’t worked hard enough or been talented enough to achieve their greatness. Quart digs into the biographies of famous individualists like Alger and Rand and Thoreau to make the case that their success depended on the help of others. Quart would agree with Hillary Clinton who said “It takes a village.”

Despite the campaign of Bernie Sanders and the work of Thomas Piketty, most Americans have no idea how much wealth the rich accumulate. According to Quart, “Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, with an estimated fortune of $177 billion, topped the list for the fourth year (2021) running.” Musk came in second at $151 billion. Americans still overwhelmingly believe in the fairness doctrine (an imaginary world where people get what they deserve). Robert Putnam writes with nostalgia about the 1950s when income distribution was less lopsided than it is today in his book Bowling Alone. In those days CEOs earned 25 times as much as the average worker. Now they earn hundreds of times as much.

Quart goes on to argue that many of the recent developments in our economy are branded as if they are cool but are instead problematic. All those independent contractors engaging in side-hustles driving Ubers and shopping for others and delivering food and teaching half of all the courses in our overpriced colleges and universities have no benefits and exist to make other people rich. GoFundMe is used to fill in some of the funds missing from our safety net. Our tech savvy world now has us stressed out while working as our own admins, our own tech help, our own editors. Quart says the wellness industry is yet another attempt to shift responsibility to the individual. Mindfulness is now the key to overcoming our unhappiness.

Our overworked economic model underwent a stress test during the pandemic when many of those side-hustles disappeared and we found out how dependent we were on essential workers. Quart admires the way many Americans responded to the crises by working together, supporting local restaurants, gaining a new appreciation for doctors and nurses and service workers. Our government responded by elevating our welfare state to include money for childcare, housing, health and unemployment. But those programs have all ended.

In Quart’s utopian community there would be a lot more interdependence. She refers to Co-ops where people share ownership of a company. Marx called this controlling the means of production. In fact, much of what Quart argues for is a version of either socialism or the type of welfare state that exists in northern Europe and existed here during the pandemic. Quart seems to think this kind of shift can begin locally and catch on nationally.

According to Marx, governments have a tendency to become overdetermined. That is, Communism turns into a bureaucracy with too much power residing with the state where capitalism relies too much on the free market where power and too much money flows into the hands of a small, powerful minority.

Quart wants us to recognize that depending on others is healthy and makes us happier. She tells us about the Patriotic Millionaires, a group that is giving back some of its wealth and lobbying for a more just tax system. As Joseph Stiglitz says, the best and most fair answer to our wealth and power disparity is a graduated income tax. That would result in the top income earners paying higher taxes and it would mean the middle class, paying higher taxes too. Matthew Desmond, the author of Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City, points out that “the biggest beneficiaries of federal aid (in the form of tax breaks) are affluent families.” If those tax breaks were eliminated and the money shifted to those who need it, poverty could be erased in the United States. The lack of a truly progressive income tax and tax breaks for the affluent are two reasons we have a growing deficit and a weak safety net.

Quart’s book is well worth reading for her perspective on the problems with the American dream and her calls for interdependence are praiseworthy although she doesn’t seem to be aware of another pervasive notion particular to Americans that is intertwined with the American dream, libertarianism. If you’re not sure what that is, watch a season of Yellowstone and you’ll see what rural America really wants: their own land and the freedom to do what they want on it.

What is the biggest problem humanity faces? Is it climate change? Artificial intelligence? Pandemics? Geo-politics? All of these issues are related to the concentration of wealth and power in the hands of a few. Myths like the American dream of self-reliance as well as the belief in the strongman who will save us must be replaced with the realization that we all have a stake in these problems and will have to work together to solve them. As Alfred McCoy suggests in To Govern the World, only a world government can tackle all of these problems. And that government will have to recognize our interdependence.