Saturday, November 25, 2023

Red Letter Poem #183

 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.









Red Letter Poem #183





Two Apartments and the Moon



Those years I slept narrow

on a pushed-shut sofa bed,

apartment house rooflines

packed both sides of the close street.

The moon never claimed the night

in that room.  Streetlight neutered

its traces, as did the tired bedsheet,

abandoned by someone else’s

onetime apartment-mate,

curtaining my single window.




When, in my decades shared with you,

I come to my feet at one a.m.,

pause at the kitchen window, moon-

light’s full expanse drapes the floor.

Lifts the previous day’s diseased news

like a draw of bad blood.

It will find me at four if again

I’m restless, up and wandering

to the front window and the still

street.  If I pretend to speak for it,

it says stop and look up now.

Fullness is not always with you.



––David P. Miller





Drinking alone, I raise my cup

to the bright moon.  Nowmoon, my shadow, and me, a party of three. . .


                                    ––Li Bai

                                          (Tang Dynasty, China)


“I’ve always thought that––no matter what some say––there are not too many poems about the moon.”  David Miller told me this in an e-exchange about his first Red Letter appearance, “Two Apartments and the Moon”––and I heartily agree.  The moon seems an eternal presence in poetry: as subject matter, source of inspiration, sly obfuscation or tender reflection of our internal states of consciousness.  Still, poets keep finding new ways of allowing that lunar light to grace their lines.  And like their subject, famous moon poems traverse all borders, shine into windows everywhere: Li Bai, Rumi, and Basho; Shakespeare, Shelley, Dickinson, Whitman; Cummings, Plath, Langston Hughes, and continuing all through the contemporary masters.  In David’s piece, the moon is both absence (in the first section where, after a painful divorce, he finds himself in a depleted living situation more reminiscent of his student days), and presence (after the speaker is happily re-married and his life feels more like the fullness of an April moon.)  Reading the poem, I have no trouble remembering the loneliness depicted in that first section, where it seems that even the rooftops conspire to keep the poet in darkness.  David’s word choices––neutered. . .tired. . .abandoned––make me feel a void inside my chest, dark as a new moon.  But in the second section, I am able to feel gratitude (along with the speaker) for a more luminous circumstance––even if that variable orb provides a quiet warning about the changeable nature of things to which we human are subject.  And there, between those two worlds, a simple asterisk, like a single early star––where we each can pause and make our fragile wish.


David’s “life in the arts” began, not with literature, but theater: for 25 years, he was a member of the interdisciplinary Mobius Artists Group, a Boston-based collective still creating experimental new works.  For much of that time, he was also employed as a college librarian, and perhaps that helped prompt a new creative phase when, in his mid-fifties, he began to work seriously in poetry, a form he’d loved for years.  He has since published a chapbook and two full-length collections, (the most recent being Bend in the Stair from Lily Poetry Review Press.)  He is currently a member of the Jamaica Pond Poets group, and sits on the board of the venerable New England Poetry Club.


In her astonishing essay “Poetry and the Moon”, poet Mary Ruefle writes: “On the other hand, stars were the first text, the first instance of gabbiness; connecting the stars, making a pattern out of them, was the first story, sacred to storytellers.  But the moon was the first poem, in the lyric sense, an entity complete in itself, recognizable at a glance, one that played upon the emotions so strongly that the context of time and place hardly seemed to matter.”  In that same way, David offers us two theatrical tableaux, linked by a single protagonist who wanders alone in each room, trying to make sense of the narrative threads tangled through his days.  No, maybe not alone: there’s also the moon, looking in, and the voice of a poem slowly emerging.  I’ll gladly raise my cup to such companions.  






Red Letters 3.0


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Monday, November 20, 2023




Cervena Barva Press, 2023

—Review by Lee Varon

Der Hohannesian’s latest book, published by Cervena Barva Press, is a tribute to the human spirit.

Many of the poems in this moving collection refer to the Armenian genocide. The poet reminds us, “the ‘Armenian Question,’ is more than a question. Der Hohannesian, himself an Armenian American, calls it what it is—"hatred’s euphemism.” The poet makes it clear that those who suffered through this terrible time are still with us: “it is their blood/ that courses the deltas of our veins,” and “…blood carries memories downstream.”

These memories sometimes come quite close to home, as when, “They killed a Turkish consul in Union Square.” These dark memories are always with the poet. Even years from the initial massacres, when the perpetrators are hunted down all over the world—Vienna, Paris, Somerville—the poet admits he feels “a frisson/ of satisfaction, an ephemeral vengeance.”

I often write about dark subjects and I always wonder if such subjects will invariably depress the reader. De Hohannesian offers insight into this question.

In these meticulously crafted poems full of gorgeous imagery, this gifted poet brings us a book that speaks to our shared humanity and offers a way to deal with darkness through the transcendent beauty of art itself.

Many of the poems in the collection are about loss and death—whether of the poet’s family members as in “Saying Goodbye” a moving poem about the death of the poet’s father: “He, the artist, who graced me/ with a love of the aesthetic. Whatever/ his failings, this was no small thing.”

Or a small animal’s life suddenly cut off by a bird of prey: “Of a sudden serrated wings slice/ the night air on a glide path, / a graceful swoop toward dawn’s promise/ some creature, unwitting, living its last night.”

There is the slower, unrelenting loss caused by illness as in “Shrinkage” which speaks of a friend brought low by Parkinson’s disease. And there is sudden loss as in “The Day Approaching,” which describes a friend’s sudden terminal prognosis: “As sudden as a summer squall/ the prognosis eclipses the sun, / a cloud of surety/ that your days/ will never again be the same. // “Of a sudden, life is rudely finite…”

Even the demise of those he barely knows, touch the poet deeply— a workman who suddenly falls to his death while sandblasting brick on a church: “I stare up, watch the swallows and wrens.” We feel the suddenness of this event in such lyrical lines as: “the bells toll three, the birds/ whoosh off the plangent peal.”

In the face of sickness, old age, and death, the poet’s wry humor perseveres. In “Small Deaths” he writes, “…I watch the insults/ pile up and give them names, / like ‘Arthur’ for arthritis, ‘Nolan’/ for no language as I search/ for a lost word, ‘Stenny’ for stenosis/ when my legs don’t work quite right. / All this we might call aging, / these losses one by one, / or we might call them small deaths.”

Still, despite these losses the poet, imagining next year’s crocuses, vows “I shall dig holes for plantings nonetheless.”

In the final poem, “To the Author of My Epitaph” I feel as if the poet speaks directly to us asking the question, we all grapple with: “How long does the spirit linger/ like dust motes dancing/in cones of sunlight/ before it is all forgotten?”

Although these ultimate questions remain, we are fortunate that we have poets like Der Hohannessian to illuminate us as we navigate life’s mysteries.

.Lee Varon is a social worker and writer. Her children’s book: “My Brother is Not a Monster: A Story of Addiction and Recovery” was published in 2021. She is co-editor of “Spare Change News Poems: An Anthology by Homeless People and Those Touched by Homelessness.”