Saturday, December 23, 2023

Red Letter Poem(s) #187

 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(s) #187





A Quilted Red Letter for the Mid-winter Holidays



“Quand je lou tans refroidier/ voi et geleir/ et les arbres despoillier/ et iverneir…”–– writes this anonymous French poet/soldier in “On the Approach of Winter”.  He was returning from the decades-long wars in the south of his country at the start of the 13th century.  “When I see the weather/ turning cold/ and starting to freeze/ and the trees going bare/ and winter coming…”. sings the poet in this surprisingly modern translation.  He is left feeling much the way many of us are these days––“then I want to ease up/ and spend time/ with a good fire beside the brazier,/ and a glass of claret/ in a warm house.”  This is not only because the land is in the grip of the cold but because our hearts are tormented by the ubiquitous and most certainly needless bloodshed that abounds.  I wish I was prepared to offer some wisdom right now concerning the appalling brutality taking place in the Middle East, but likely I am feeling as horrified and helpless as you.  Recently, though, I’ve been remembering how my sister Elaine, a fine quiltmaker, could take remnants of disparate materials and somehow make a grander vision emerge from their conjoining.  I’d like to offer a patchwork of some poems that have been circulating in my mind these days and see what they feel like, taken together.


Beside the French verse, I’ll stitch something from my favorite Israeli poet, Yehuda Amichai.  He was a decorated soldier during World War II and the campaign that’s known as the 1948 ‘War for Independence’ (though that title is certainly dependent on which designation is on your identity papers.) Returning, he went back to school and became an educator and an exceptional poet, one of the first writing in colloquial Hebrew.  He became one of that country’s most celebrated authors––but then his radical transformation into a peace activist, whose poems make the case for understanding and reconciliation between the Israeli and Palestinian peoples, made him equally controversial.  Here is a simple piece from him that I love:



An Arab Shepherd is Searching for His Goat on Mount Zion

by Yehuda Amichai



An Arab shepherd is searching for his goat on Mount Zion and,

on the opposite mountain, I am searching for my little boy.

An Arab shepherd and a Jewish father

both trapped within their momentary failure.

Our voices meet above the Sultan's Pool

in the valley between us.  Neither of us wants

the child or the goat to get chewed up in the gears

of the terrible Had Gadya machine.


Afterward we found them among the bushes

and our voices re-entered our bodies, laughing and crying.


Searching for a goat or a son––

it’s always been the beginning

of a new religion in these mountains.


Protecting those we most dearly love: assuredly, this amounts to the most sacred oath for either parent or shepherd––and few responsibilities will ever feel more consequential.  How can we not cry out to the encompassing powers of the universe at such a moment, pleading for help, and keenly aware of our own limitations?


And dovetailing with Amichai, I’ll sew in this poem from Mahmoud Darwish, generally regarded as Palestine’s national poet.  Again, I’ve chosen a simple lyric but one with tremendous resonance, especially now.  He, too, is a poet whose resume overflows with honors, but I’ll highlight just one: he was the author of the Palestinian Declaration of Independence which formally brought that state into being.



I Come From There

     by Mahmoud Darwish


I come from there and I have memoriesBorn as mortals are, I have a motherAnd a house with many windows,I have brothers, friends,And a prison cell with a cold window.Mine is the wave, snatched by sea-gulls,I have my own view,And an extra blade of grass.Mine is the moon at the far edge of the words,And the bounty of birds,And the immortal olive tree.I walked this land before the swordsTurned its living body into a laden table.I come from there. I render the sky unto her motherWhen the sky weeps for her mother.And I weep to make myself knownTo a returning cloud.I learnt all the words worthy of the court of bloodSo that I could break the rule.I learnt all the words and broke them upTo make a single word: Homeland...


Two poets from the Abrahamic tradition––whose lineage, according to the Old Testament and the Koran, is inextricably intertwined (as are their futures.)  And each attempted during their lifetimes to create lyrics that would imagine what peace might look like for their peoples––even as their two governments continued to wage endless war.


The French poet quoted at the start of this Letter fought in what came to be known as the “Albigensian crusade.”  Backed by hardline Cistercians, Pope Innocent III offered lands to northern rulers who would attack those aristocrats in places like Albi, Toulouse, Caracasonne, considered too lax in their ‘tolerance of heretics’ (read: Muslims and Jews.)  The poet goes on to say: “I don’t want to ride out/ and burn places down,/ and so I really hate going to war/ and the battle cries/ and piling up great pillage/ and robbing people;/ it’s a crazy enough business/ to waste everything;/ for little gain/ the masters in charge counseled with lies/ start wars and disputes.”  Sound familiar?  The French poet dreams of spending time before a warm fire, sipping in comfort, and relishing the simple pleasure of peace.  As do the Israelis and the Palestinians––as do we all.  And yet someone in power always seems to know the perfect lever to pull in order to threaten our children, our goats, our homeland––to convince us that taking up arms and attacking our enemies will ultimately grant us what we most desire…even though all that’s ever been delivered is more bloodshed, more suffering.  Today, I’m allowing these songs to play inside my mind, finding connections I hadn’t made before.  I’m offering them to your attention as well.  May some wisdom, somewhere, arise from these ashes.





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:


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Wednesday, December 20, 2023

Review of Story & Bone by Deborah Leipziger


Review by Steven Stark

I first encountered the poetry of Deborah Leipziger when we both attended a week-long workshop run by Marge Piercy a year ago and I was immediately impressed by the range of her voice and the grace of her verse. Now, I’m delighted to discover – and to tell others – about her new book, Story & Bone (Lily Poetry Review Books) where in almost fifty poems, she displays her lyrical mastery in poems both accessible and profound.

The poems are short – few cover more than a page (and I mean that as a compliment) – but they consistently summon memorable imagery and emotion in a flash. Take The Creation of Turquoise:

It didn’t happen all at once the elders would say.
Then it seldom does.

It was the inexorable chipping away of the sky one kernel at a time.

When the sky touched the earth the impact created
to tell the story

of sky and earth colliding

As for range, there are love poems, breakup poems, a tribute to Ukraine, a reverie about Plum Island, and poems about mourning, wolves, maple sugaring, San Juan, and the Northern Lights. This is a poetry book for people who think they don’t like poetry; for those who read it every day; for those trying to hone their craft, and I can’t think of a better book to introduce high school and college students to what poetry can do and mean.

Boston and New England have always been home to some of the nation’s finest poets. You can add Deborah Leipziger to that distinguished list.