Saturday, October 07, 2023

Red Letter Poem #179

 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 #179





I Will Not Name It Except To Say is the title of Lee Sharkey’s eighth and final collection of poetry.  She put together the manuscript in 2020, working within that shadowy valley between a diagnosis of pancreatic cancer and, two months later, her untimely passing.  The poems, written in the prior two years, were already mindful of the small and large griefs most of us experience while aging––but the poet’s lessons in loss had been magnified by her husband Al’s intensifying struggles with Alzheimer’s.  She had to witness his brilliant mind being slowly effaced, knowing that the only balm she could offer was to continue loving him.  And yet the poems are equally concerned with­­––not what is taken from us––but what we must constantly strive to reclaim through the power of memory, will, and our imaginative potential.  Re-reading the poems now, I am continually astonished by the luminous quality of the work, whether she is unscrolling carefully etched images or surrealistic fragments of dream.  This is, to say the least, a substantial achievement.  Of course, Lee never got to see the finished book in print but, in an almost herculean act, her publisher at Tupelo Press was able to put together a proof copy––adorned with her chosen cover art, Paul Klee’s flickering seraph entitled “Angelus Novus”––so she could at least hold that in her hands.


Lee’s writing––always quite imagistic in its approach––pays homage to the work of visual artists referenced all throughout the text: Klee, Kandinsky, George Grosz, Käthe Kollwitz, among others.  One of the central pillars of the collection is a sequence of a dozen prose poems inspired by the life and work of Samuel Bak: prolific painter, writer, and Holocaust survivor.  Like Bak, Lee has wedded the materials of our mundane existence to haunting images of personal memory, communal history, and the sort of strange glimmerings that feel like a kind of mystical awakening.  In the Jewish religion, God is unnamable, referred to only through a host of euphemisms; and in a similar way, Lee understood she could never pin down what was taking place within the private and inviolable core of life’s fearsome transformations––but neither could she remain silent.  As an acclaimed poet, editor, teacher, mentor, she also understood that these poems were a kind of keeping faith with all she had known in the years she’d been given.  Clearly at work here is the way poetry’s lucidity can be used as (using Robert Frost’s phrase) a momentary stay against confusion.  But at other times, she is enigmatic, mercurial, coming at us from odd angles––as if, even in her saying, she needed to allow readers the imaginative space to incorporate their own inner responses, piecing together our fragmented worlds.


As many may know, the title of Lee’s poem here is borrowed from a Talmudic passage whose roots date back to the 1st century CE.  Tikkun Olam, often translated as ‘repairing the world,’ has since become one of the cornerstones of Jewish thought.  Especially in the post-Holocaust experience, where the utter brokenness of the world can feel overwhelming, the commentary is that ‘it is not incumbent upon us to complete this task, but neither can we desist from trying.’  The prose poem is, perhaps, an ideal choice for such subject matter.  A most welcoming verse form, it resembles the humble paragraph (with which everyone is familiar and few intimidated), though its voice and vision behave like the unbridled lyric poem.  Without the choreographic cues of line breaks, we readers are compelled to discover our own rhythmic turnings within the piece, our points of emphasis and momentary silences as we pause for each new breath.  With every reading, we make this prose poem our own inky vessel, reassembling the shards, and finding that it’s capacious enough to contain all that poet and reader bring to the moment.  From what I’ve heard about Lee’s generous spirit and her tireless engagement with each community of which she was a part, this poet’s energies were continually marshalled toward repairing our troubled existence, illuminating the dark.  And in those closing moments in her life, she was still fully engaged by the healing properties of language, even as she looked out into the starless night. 


 Red Letter Poem #179


The scroll of the Law’s gone blank. An angel unrolls and holds it. A hole the size of a country appears in it, with tears branching out. Look, look! says the Angel of Melancholy, pointing to the rupture. It’s the inverse of the gesture for blessing that hovers over the tiny shack on the workbench before him, where smoke rises from the chimney. The woman who lives there has lit candles, covered her eyes, muttered the prayer over bread. She sits for a moment as stars rise in the heavens. Bending to lift a letter that fell from the scroll of the Law, she carries it to bed.

––Lee Sharkey




Red Letters 3.0


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Friday, October 06, 2023

Somerville Found Artist Martha Friend: Brings obscurity to the light of day

I have heard about Somerville artist Martha Friend and her expansive 'found' projects for a while now. So I decided to contact  for an interview....

First off, how has it been for you as an artist-- to live in Somerville?

I moved to Somerviile almost 50 years ago when I was in college, and I never left. A big part of the reason I think I never left was that the funky, arty, slightly eccentric, and accepting atmosphere, that I always found in Somerville. It sustained me and ultimately it felt like home. After my husband and I had three kids and had outgrown our apartment we looked around a bit for a bigger place. We looked in Arlington and other neighboring towns, but realized pretty quickly that we belonged in Somerville.

You are a 'Found' artist. We could also say you are a lost and found artist. You bring things back from obscurity to the light of day. Do you have an emotional connection to these found items—for in a sense you saved them.

Yes, I feel connected to old and discarded items, especially worn, antiquey, things you might find in an old Country barn. I grew up in a small town in NH with farmers as parents and a pile of siblings- my parents reused everything, nothing ever got wasted. Scouring old farm dumps and barn sales is like looking for hidden treasure. So fun.

You were a professional photographer, and this informs your work. Do you still envision your work with a camera's lens?

Yes, sort of. Photography is always about framing the scene to include just what you need and nothing more. Photography is ubiquitous these days with cell phones, and I’m always saying to myself “crop that image! Get rid of all that extraneous stuff!” . Editing is important- I learned that with photography.

You have had installations on your own property in Somerville. How do your neighbors feel about this? Where else are your installations?

My neighbors in Somerville are great, really. They’re very appreciative . Passersby only compliment me, never criticize. If people don’t like what I’m doing, they’re keeping it to themselves, which I like. “The kids love it.” My installations are family friendly- why not? I have some inside installations which people don’t generally get to see, and I’m always trying to figure out how to change that without opening my home as a “real” museum. I travel quite a bit, have a beautiful grandson, don’t want to get tied down to running a museum. Any ideas?

If you had a mission statement what would that be?

Hmmmm… ok, different than an artist’s statement.( I have one of those on my website-
My original mission when I retired from public school teaching 9 years ago was to build something that was big and complex enough that it would engage me fully for a few months. I had missed making Art while working full time and raising kids etc. I built Emerald City that summer, and it was pretty much ALL I DID that summer- SO FUN! Folks loved it, so I built Sapphire City and the Tiny Museum. I was hooked on making people happy I guess, after that. The public really seems to enjoy what I make, and it’s gratifying and fun. I feel creative and feel challenged to invent new ideas. My mission at the moment: to use ordinary objects and new creative ideas to create works that all kinds of people, artsy types or not, can enjoy and appreciate and perhaps feel inspired by. Art is everywhere, it doesn’t need to be complicated or obtuse, and can bring everyone some joy.

For more info about Martha go to http://www.

Monday, October 02, 2023

Somerville Artist C. Marlo Feinberg makes sure every dog has its day

I recently caught up with Somerville artist C. Marlos Feinberg.

From her website:

Marlo currently focuses on working in pen and ink, and oils. Her subjects capture her own personal life and her deep interests through her own eyes. Some of those are counterculture, dogs, music, architecture, history, movement, and the abstract.

Marlo has had her art shown in galleries starting at age 15 where she sold her first painting, she has since written and illustrated 2 children’s books that have sold worldwide, a poetry book, and has been designing logos/ album covers since the age of 16. She continues to do all of the above plus freelance writing for publications, and now resides in Somerville, Massachusetts with her pianist husband, Jesse Feinberg and dog Charles Montgomery.

First off, how has it been for you as an artist in Somerville?

It's been incredible. I have slowly been working my way towards the Boston area for nearly two decades because of of art and music. Somerville is so concentrated with art that the surroundings inspire me to produce some form of art every day.

Your husband is a pianist—does this fact influence your own work?
Yes because I love seeing how things work and then drawing them-- and he has two pianos that I have been able to study, draw, and paint pictures of. Jesse also teaches me piano and I teach him painting.

You have illustrated many books. I noticed you illustrated a poetry book. As a poet, I would be interested to know how you come up with ideas for illustrating poetry?

I love this question because my father- in- law, Michael writes poetry and he sent my an email with poems about the High Holidays. I read one called "Mountain Air" and as I started reading it-- this image popped into my head of a man walking barefoot on mossy, dark green terrain, that is crinkled like the human brain. There is a blue sky, one fluffy cloud, a sun with a smile, etc. That's how my thought process works. Old cartoons also really influenced me, especially the ones to classical music.

I noticed you have a series of painting of dogs—some with vivid color and hypnotic eyes. Does your own dog inspire you? I own a cat— for me cats are eye candy. Do have the same fascination with our feline friends?

Monty does inspire me to paint! I study him frequently and he is the model for most of my dog paintings. The eyes are important to me, the windows to the soul. Cats eyes are like marbles!

You paint faces as well—do you just conjure them up or are they real people?

Thank you. I've never actually tried studying and painting someone's face either in person or from a reference. This is all from practicing over time and memory. It may be the reason that my faces aren't exactly real looking, but I enjoy them distorted a bit.

Is there any mission or message in your work?

Yes, one is to be kind to animals, especially dogs. The other is resilience. I have painted, drawn, and dug my way through some very dark times and it's important to stay strong.

Sunday, October 01, 2023

Kingdom to Refuge: Animals in a World of Poetry


Kingdom to Refuge: Animals in a World of Poetry

essay by Michael Todd Steffen

First thing on my coffee phone browse this morning, Google Play offers scrolls-full of books and calendars featuring poems about animals. (Last night before bed I had been searching emily dickinson’s riddle poem about a snake—“A narrow fellow in the grass/Occasionally rides…”) Now a horned, spotty ruminant stretches from my book case: Roy Fuller’s Selected Poems, wanting to revisit his “Giraffes,” shoulder-above in my mind’s browser under the entry animal poems.

Reading back through it reminds me of the curious power of my favorite poetry dealing with animals: It is not how these encounters welcome me as a human into a cuddly reflection of myself, but how they stand off, as other, and so reveal themselves in their territories. Fuller’s poem precisely begins by flipping the observer/observed dynamic around. The aloft animals are watching him first:

I think before they saw me the giraffes

Were watching me. Over the golden grass

The bush and ragged open tree of thorn,

From a grotesque height, under their lightish horns,

Their eyes fixed on mine as I approached them…

Fuller’s meditation also importantly brings home how animals already are poetry. They embody already that strange familiarity we share with our domestic companions and wilderness fauna, that dear otherness, tangential connectivity, uncanny communication, weird language. All at once I was thinking of Marianne Moore’s “The Pangolin” and Derek Walcott’s “The Pangolin.” I thought of Rita Dove’s “Canary”—two birds in one thought! I thought of Galway Kinell’s bear, Philip Larkin’s hedgehog, Coleridge’s albatross, Plath’s “starfish that can grow back its arms” and her thundering horse Ariel.

Small wonder poets make so much use of creatures. Look through a favorite poet’s collection, they are likely to include as many titles about animals as about love and loss. Even a fierce contrarian, who insists on avoiding commonplaces, the edgiest, will not resist creation’s providence. When one is boldly importuned by alterity, knack to stand us in our tracks, as Lowell’s skunk in the famous poem, this can work to open us again to another of our ponderous potentials, for being wretched. (Or like the Emperor we go rawly about thinking ourselves in fabulous garb.) Images and statements of a world in alienation and dilapidation precede the epiphany of Lowell’s bewildered standoff:

…the eyesores facing her shore…

the season’s ill…

A red fox stain covers Blue Hill…

where the graveyard shelves on the hill.

My mind’s not right…

I hear

my ill-spirit sob in each blood cell,

as if my hand were at its throat;

I myself am hell;

nobody’s here—

only skunks, that search

in the moonlight for a bite to eat.

They march on their soles up Main Street:

white stripes, moonstruck eyes’ red fire

under the chalk-dry and spar spire

of the Trinitarian Church…

a mother skunk with her column of kittens swills the garbage pail

She jabs her wedge-head in a cup

of sour cream, drops her ostrich tail,

and will not scare.

In poems, which are nominally “made” things, creatures appear as correlatives, witnessing what is—both in their creaturely being, and suggesting the more subtly present, less definite elements about us influencing our lives. Mary Oliver’s subjects in her poem “Crows” thus absorb and refract her observations of a solicitous world with its mascots:

each one loud and hungry,

crossing a field, or sitting

above the traffic, or dropping

to the lawn of some temple to sun itself

or walk about on strong legs,

like a landlord. I think

they don’t envy anyone or anything—

not the tiger, not the emperor,

not even the philosopher.

Why should they?

The wind is their friend, the least tree is home.

Nor is melody, they have discovered, necessary.

Nor have they delicate palates…

I’ve found Oliver’s penetrating lines in my print version of Sept 4, 2023’s The New Yorker, sitting on a bus wondering if the person scrolling on their phone in the seat across from me is reading the online version. Me with the tactile text, I don’t have to scroll past other script to “flip through” the entity of my edition. As with a book of poems, I can jump ahead, go back—enact a little liberty from the constraints of an imposed order this way. I find a REPORTER AT LARGE article by David Grann, the author of Flowers of the Killer Moon, its film version soon to be out in theaters. Grann’s article here is called “The Squid Hunter.”

Back toward the front of the magazine I find a June 12, 1948 article by Vladimir Nabokov on “Butterflies.” Back the other way a good bound, Edmund Wilson’s September 7, 1946 piece on George Orwell’s Animal Farm. Confirming I’m onto something, I now concede to checking the Table of Contents, on page 1. At the top I find this is AN ARCHIVAL ISSUE on ANIMALS.

It’s a brow-raising gesture by The New Yorker we these days are attuned to the planet’s creatures perhaps with a little more sympathy than we have been.

Our cats and dogs (like poems) serve purpose, to be fussed and bothered over and over reminding us the universe is in love with us and, now and then, to communicate some warning to us about danger on their radar, their extraordinarily attuned senses that are extrasensory to us. In this way and in many others, animals importantly remind us of our limits and shortcomings, our need to stand with rather than on top of creation. Long before Einstein the world has been relative, the ant with its might, the moose with its delicate step and long ears twitching.

Still, after our young romance with nature conservation in the 1970s, with the official gestures of The Endangered Species Act, The Clean Air and Clean Water acts, in the hay day of Jacques Cousteau and then Green Peace, there came thudding along sundry movements with their solicitations, reminding us, annoying us, and with their great numbers perhaps giving us a false sense of security, that the problems of a poisoned planet and disappearing species were well in hand, or should be with all this attention. But that hasn’t been the case. The Emperor continues parading himself around.

As ubiquitous fundraising mechanisms have even made us weary and wary of causes not immediately within our reach, the news of planet Earth at large, our home, our garden, not least with climate change and its encompassing implications, is coming home to us all and has in fact telescoped from disconcerting to nightmarish.

The world of the poem, the poem of the world. James Merrill liked the revelations summonsed by flipping those terms around. The sleight of hand goes to the heart of animal poems. For ages, from Noah right up to Ogden Nash, our animals domestic and wild have been drawn on, to illustrate things in human nature, like industry vs. negligence and beauty, our claws, our wings.

Nobody in the 17th century was worried about the drama of life’s survival on the stage of the world. The versed fables of Jean de la Fontaine were certainly deciphered through wolf and lamb for our hunger and aggression vs. our innocence. Still, reading him, one could not help but fall into compassion for bullfrogs who puffed to be bulls, short-jumping foxes eschewing the trellis’s unattainable grapes for sour. When, realistically, the natural world appears abundant with no end in sight, we can accommodate it to the whims allowed by our “nature”.

When we are being convinced otherwise, as to the depletion of our habitat and resources, that works into our poetry to keep us, unlike the Emperor, or the boy who cried Wolf, in touch, honest, with a vision of likely outcomes rather than craning fantasies. In her well-known poem “Morning on the Island” Carolyn Forché, respected also as a humanitarian and environmentalist, sketches a world that strikes us with a solemnness about the future we’re heading for:

The lights across the water are the waking city.

The water shimmers with imaginary fish.

Not far from here lie the bones of conifers

washed from the sea and piled by wind.

Some mornings I walk upon them,

bone to bone, as far as the lighthouse.

A strange beetle has eaten most of the trees. 

It may have come here on the ships playing

music in the harbor, or it was always here, a winged

jewel, but in the past was kept still by the cold

of a winter that no longer comes.

The “imaginary fish” that make the water shimmer announce the subjective, wishful part of our brains that want to see the plentiful wellbeing of the world. But a few other details the poem renders up, “the bones of conifers” destroyed by the invasive musical beetle, or indigenous beetle that “was kept still by the cold/of a winter that no longer comes” strike home, ringing true to some looming facts of the condition of our world, a world of chimerical projections with data sheets for corroboration.

In essence, Forché presents us with our wishfulness vs. where we are more likely heading. And in the devastated habitat, the image of a sentient life at the porch step of farewell, in the form of a lone survivor and the last of its species:

There is an owl living in the firs behind us, but he is white,

meant to be mistaken for snow burdening a bough. 

They say he is the only owl remaining. I hear him at night

listening for the last of the mice and asking who of no other owl.

Forché rhymes this closing stanza, further admitting the poetry of the poem, the arrangement of details in the vision. What to believe? The choice will be ours, until the objective world undergoes so radical a change as to remove our compass of choices. (A glimpse of this has recently befallen Morocco and Libya.) Importantly, the poet has given us a glimpse at worse-scenario disappearance, an unwanted and therefore difficult vision. It’s what sets us “knowing ones” apart, having so many models of possible outcomes, best and worst, stored in our minds, because we have so many scenarios, so much fiction, so much poetry in mind to consider all the time. And a lot of consideration can figure into the simplest gesture, whether to buy another plastic bottle of water or fill a reusable thermos.

This curiously distinctive feature of choices pulses at the heart of one of my favorite animal poems, Elizabeth Bishop’s “The Fish.” Based perhaps on little more than a saying, “a whale of a story,” “the one that got away,” Bishop elaborates deftly drawing her subject in fine detail and suggestive comparison:

Here and there
his brown skin hung in strips
like ancient wallpaper,
and its pattern of darker brown
was like wallpaper:
shapes like full-blown roses
stained and lost through age.
He was speckled with barnacles,
fine rosettes of lime,
and infested
with tiny white sea-lice,
and underneath two or three
rags of green weed hung down.

The repetition of “wallpaper” makes something of a Jonah captive of the observer, as from the inside of her kitchen. Particulars from the water world, the barnacles, sea-lice and green weed are woven in to make the occasion vivid and convincing. The line of anecdote, “tremendous” as this fish is said to be, comes to the honesty of hanging

a grunting weight,
battered and venerable
and homely.

Of particular focus is Bishop’s relaying the mutual regard between artist and subject/inspiration:

I looked into his eyes

which were far larger than mine

but shallower and yellowed,

the irises backed and packed

with tarnished tinfoil

seen through the lenses

of old scratched isinglass.

They shifted a little

but not to return my stare.

That slight shift of its eyes, along with its fanning gills “breathing in/the terrible oxygen” make important inclusions to contradict what much else of the poem might be suggesting about Bishop’s catch here, of something dead. The emotional diapason of the poem volleys from extremes to a kind of normal perspective, between excitement and disappointment, the fantastic and the ordinary, with growing focus mostly only to see what is there, perhaps with a little distant admiration, and the realization, seeing the hooks of others lodged into the fish’s mouth, that she is far from unique in the homing of this trophy. The great altruistic choice of Bishop’s is undeniable, when we come back around to the necessity of the fish’s having got away. It is also with a wink of some humor and chagrin, letting her wondrous catch off the hook.

Michael Todd Steffen is the recipient of a Rotary International Fellowship, a Massachusetts Cultural Council Fellowship, and an Ibbetson Street Press Poetry Award. His poems and articles have appeared in journals including The Boston Globe, Taos Journal, E-Verse Radio, The Lyric, The Dark Horse, and North of Oxford. Of his second book, On Earth As It Is, now available from Cervena Barva Press, Joan Houlihan has noted Steffen’s intimate portraits, sense of history, surprising wit and the play of dark and light…the striking combination of the everyday and the transcendent.