Friday, January 26, 2024

Red Letter Poem #192

  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 #192




Some days, I want to withdraw my submission to the world,

and write a note that says Sorry, but I’ve been taken elsewhere.

But where? Three hundred million potentially habitable planets,

according to the latest NASA research, and not one of them

within reach.

Here, on earth, my left hand rests in sunlight and

my right hand rests in shade. These stained New England granites,

lying in their fencerows since the golden years of the Enlightenment,

make good places to sit and watch the ecosystem collapse.

Which it does, but very slowly, like crown glass flowing in a windowpane,

or in staccato bursts, like hydrocarbon fire.

The oxidizing rivers,

the dried-up streams, the dream of an eternal Arden blown

like milkweed silk that settles on the mirror of an algaed lake,

the sun reclining in its bowl of beaten gold—so beautiful,

these end-of-the-millennium days. I think of Newark seen in passing

from the interstate, when sunlight floods the scalped terrain

adjacent to the marshlands, smearing all the factories with titian,

verdigris, and rose.

Suppose I dug a hole and sowed my poem,

deep in an alluvium of peat and ash, and someone in the aftertime

unearthed it, legible despite the stains and degradation, and read it,

if they could. That reader—dark, intelligent, a little smaller than a human,

clad in homemade boots and a range coat made of tawny leather—

might recognize how much I loved the world, although the language

might have sounded strange, and how some days I carried hope

in my mouth like a small gray stone, and how some days

I could hardly stand it, how the world had changed,

and how despite it all I never gave in. This is that person’s poem.

I submit it to them.



                         ––Jonathan Weinert



For years, I had a favorite New Yorker cartoon pinned beside my writing desk.  Sadly, dear reader, I may have to spoil the punchline with explanation since, I fear, only older writers will even remember the subject matter being portrayed.  In ancient days, before services like Submittable were established (through which most current magazines electronically receive writers’ literary offerings), we’d have to manually reproduce our poems and stories by pounding with fingertips on devices called typewriters (perhaps you’ve seen them in old movies.)  Then we’d neatly fold the printed pages into envelopes, remembering to squeeze in an additional ‘self-addressed stamped envelope’ so that a rejected manuscript could be returned.  And when that SASE showed up in the mailbox (sadly far too often), usually the only communication from the magazine was a printed form letter or card, usually with the same annoyingly-disingenuous apology.  Now, picture this: in the cartoon, a writer’s wall is plastered with a hundred notes of various shapes and sizes––with one small vacant spot in the center.  Prominent on his desk is a full-sized newly-received letter whose stationery logo resembles that of the New Yorker itself.  The poet (as I like to imagine him) is busy typing out his response: “Dear Editor, Regretfully, I have to return your recent rejection slip.  It does not meet our current needs.”

The cartoon produced a rueful laugh, our shared desperation turned to levity.  Jonathan Weinert’s new poem cheekily relies on a more current bit of jargon: when, in this age of mass electronic submissions, your poem is miraculously accepted by one journal, the power dynamic is quietly reversed.  You are now obligated to write to all the other magazines, letting those benighted editors know: sorry, your magazine could have relished my recent masterpiece, but you’re too late.  Except, in this case, Jonathan seems to be withdrawing––not simply a poem––but the contribution of his whole being to this failed human endeavor.  Questions abound: is this poet resting in some Colonial churchyard, gazing at the New England landscape?  Is he living still or a tremulous shadow?  Did you thrill, as I did, to his vivid descriptions of a once-unsullied world?  Did you begin to feel a little unmoored in time, our Edenic past and devastating present interwoven?  “Suppose I dug a hole and sowed my poem,” the speaker proposes, mired in his quiet Thoreauvian desperation––and now an imagined future-world enters the picture.  And what would some being from the “aftertime” make of our angst (poetic and otherwise)?  How painful, to look back to a time when a shift in our behavior might have saved the planet––yet we remained (blindly or selfishly) unchanged? 

Jonathan is hardly alone in his despair nor in his appeal to some future listener, likely confounded by our choices.  I immediately thought of Jane Hirshfield’s marvelous poem “Let Them Not Say” which became something of an international Green anthem: “Let them not say: we did not see it./ We saw. . ./ Let them not say: they did nothing./ We did not-enough.”  Jonathan––let me hurry to say–– is the author of three fine poetry collections.  A Slow Green Sleep was the winner of Saturnalia Books’ Editors Prize; and In the Mode of Disappearance was awarded the Nightboat Poetry Prize.  He is also the co-editor of Until Everything Is Continuous Again: American Poets on the Recent Work of W. S. Merwin, celebrating that masterly American visionary.   But fearing the insufficiency of his efforts, the speaker here is in danger of submitting to the overwhelming forces (and don’t those double entendres like ‘withdraw’ and ‘submit’ attain a marvelous resonance!)  He offers his heart instead to those who may follow our failed efforts, still clinging to the wounded Earth.  This poem is, by his own admission, far more discursive than his customary style, arising perhaps from his frustration; but he’s leavened the pain with a dash of humor and a still-flickering hope.  So, for this occasion, I’ve dusted off my old Smith Corona: “Dear Mr. Weinert, I am writing on behalf of Red Letter readers.  It is without regret that I must reject the interment of your poetry.  We find it bracing and beautiful and absolutely necessary.  If we are to have any chance of survival, we need honest voices that remind us of our humanity, of our stewardship of this green world.  Your poem, most assuredly, meets our current needs.”





Red Letters 3.0


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Monday, January 22, 2024

Uyghur Poems, ed.Aziz Isa Elkun, trans.Aziz Isa Elkun & Others

 Uyghur Poems, ed.Aziz Isa Elkun, trans.Aziz Isa Elkun & Others, Everyman Library

Pocket Poets, Alfred A. Knopf: New York, London, Toronto, 2023

Reviewed by Karen Klein

This publication is significant as it is not only the first English language anthology of

Uyghur poetry, but also an overview of the history, culture, and poetics of the Uyghur people, which is admirably provided in the introduction by poet, editor, and translator Aziz Isa Elkun. Most English speaking persons in the West are only aware of the Uyghurs due to media reports of Chinese oppression and persecution of them. Confined to their native Xinjiang region, put in reeducation camps, their children taken from them to boarding schools, not allowed to practice Islam, their language and customs discour- aged, they are subjected to forced assimilation. To open our minds to this Turkic group, once an empire in Central Asia through which the ancient Silk Road passed, carrying material goods and knowledge cross continents and cultures, and to expand our knowledge of their rich poetic tradition is this anthology’s gift.

The editor has divided Uyghur poems into three time periods: Classic Poems(BCE to 1900),Modern Poems(1900 to 1960), Contemporary Poems(1960 to 2022) with the most

famous in the period of Classic poems. Uyghur poetry, like that of most ancient cultures, begins in the epic poems of the oral tradition. Tales of rulers, wars, heroes and saints were recited publicly by bards and sung by musicians. Carried down through generations, these poems carried Uyghur history. Script came in the Sixth Century BCE; by the Tenth Century CE, the epic Oghuzname, the exploits of Oghuz Khan, was preserved in Uyghur script. The Bard writes of a woman ”as beautiful as a fairy” whom the hero marries and the ferocity of his warriors: “The grey wolf will be our battle spirit.” Similar themes of love and war dominate the Homeric epics. This anthology includes fragments of Oghuz story and that of Alp Er Tunga, meaning Warrior Man Tiger, a mythical hero possibly historic, and several examples of wisdom poetry, similar to instruction for young noblemen, e.g. the Mirror for Princes, in Western Europe.

Uyghur acceptance of Islam in the Tenth Century CE brought new poetic subjects of spirituality and religion; script gradually became more widespread in the Tenth and Eleventh Centuries, including the formerly oral folk poetry, now written in quatrains, a poetic form Uyghur poets of the Modern and Contemporary Periods continue to use.

Persian and Arabic traditions, including Arabic script, influenced Uyghur poets as did their adaptation in the Thirteenth and Fourteenth Centuries of the Sufi poetic tradition into Turkic language. Poems of the Central Asian poet of Uyghur descent, Ali-Shir Nava’i are still recited and he is venerated as among the best of their poets. Writing in the formal poetic style of the ghazal, the most common verse form in the Sufi tradition, a style contemporary American poets, for example Adrienne Rich, have used, limits the poet up to fifteen couplets with a rhyme scheme of AA, BA, CA, DA, EA, FA, GA, etc. The same end word in the two lines of the first couplet is repeated as the end word in each second line of the successive couplets. Formal limitations do not, however, limit the emotional impact of these poems of love, beauty, and loss or separation from the beloved. This loss can operate metaphorically--the beloved as a beautiful woman or the beloved as Divine love.

Fourteen ghazals by Ali-Shir Nava’i are included in this anthology, thirteen of them are translated from Uzbek by Dennis Daly and taken from his Twenty-one Ghazals by Alishir Navoiy(Cervena Barva Press, 2016). Daly, a well-known writer and poet, is admired by many friends and fellow poets in the Greater Boston area. His translations follow the ghazal form to the letter; the A words reflect the themes of these love poems: eyes, heart, face, fire, fate, night, beauty, heaven, one, beloved, pearl, joy, and pain. It is curious that only one of the thirteen ghazals has pain as its end word on all the lines when so many ofthese poems speak to the misery of the poet, often addressing himself:

Speak up, Navoiy, has love injured your very soul?

Do you bleed your love? Is there no help from heaven?

I don’t read Uyghur, so can’t comment on the accuracy of Daly’s translations. But he has remained faithful to the form Ali-Shir Nava’i chose, and the translations work on their own as poems with wonderful, sometimes startling, images: Your eyelashes found a fatalspot in my heart, or the love song with the end word eyes where the image extends into a bizarre action, explicable only, perhaps, as the eye of heaven, the dark, infinite eyes, an exchange of spiritual love, a mystical exchange of tears, the beloved the image of Divine Love:

Your eyes

Burn into mine until brimmed with salt-spiked tears

Which flow, unburdened, into the channels of your eyes.

Navoiy’s poems of yearning love, of joining Those who suffer, lovers all, are not always laments. In a couplet that poignantly universalizes an emotional state which ends one of the Love Songs, he again addresses himself: Navoiy, why do you complain of meetings and partings? Give thanks for those long moments that still fill your heart.

There are noticeable changes when moving from the poets in the large section of Classic Poems(BCE to 1900)to fewer poems in the Modern section(1900-1960). The strict ghazal form isn’t used, but there are couplets and quatrains in the poems, many are political and speak of the resistance struggle of Uyghurs against the Chinese. Lutpulla Mutellip, poet and journalist, before Chinese police executed him at 22, wrote on a wall with his blood:

This bloodthirsty devil has turned the bloom of my youth into

a withered leaf…

Women appear not only as symbols of the earthly or Divine beloved, but also as fightersA poem from 1943 is addressed To My Daughter, the War Nurse. She was Rizwange who died at 19 on the front lines rescuing wounded by the Chinese Nationalist Army. And the first woman poet included, Melike Ziyawudun, with a love poem from 1957in which she confesses I always read your poems, I learned your secrets from your poems, and teases that she might not only love his poems, but him as well.


Most of the anthologized poets are included in the largest section Contemporary Poems(1960 to 2022). These young poets, born in the Twentieth Century, are the continuance of an old culture, now under suppression. Many have fled or left for different countries. Mahmut Abduramanov speaks for so many, writes of their diaspora My Uyghurs, you are scattered all over the world, but the longing for their formerly immense Motherland for the river Tarim, the is intense: We are moths drawn to the fire of our homeland. In his famous poem, The World in the  City of Kashgar, Abdul Tunyaz writes Every night in the Berlin sky/You see Uyghur eyes in every star and concludes his poem:

The homeless birds

Cry for the seasons, calling for their homeland

While the wandering wind carries

Leaves of its own.

The editor notes that in the last decades of the Twentieth Century, Uyghur poems show the influence of Russian poetry with modernism, post-modernism, free verse. Many women poets are included; their stories of fighting the Chinese, of persecution, of being taken away to re-education camps, of their deaths are heartbreaking. Some are like the Blue Shirt, whom Armet Igamberdi commemorated in his poem for the unknown heroine of the protest on July 5, 2009 when women came out to demand where family members were. Like the Russian women poets they might have read, Akmatova, Tsveteva, they show resistance and love. Zeynure Isa writes: I wish to become the flagpole/Of a flag we wave for freedom; as the editor of a publishing house, Chemingul Awut was sent to a Chines re-education camp in July 2018 and poet/activist Muyesser Abdul’ehed’s debut novel depicts the detention camps. Rahile Kamal writes Because I miss you, I fall like rain. Teacher Risalet Merdan claims Today is a day to write poems, while Gunisa Imin Gulkhan, sentenced to seventeen years in prison for her ‘separatist’ poetry writes of women prisoners: They don’t want to shed their tears…. They want to talk about it with someone on the outside. Gunaz Saydullayeva’s poem begins Mother cut her own umbilical cord because the strict Chinese policy of birth-control makes couples hide one too many. Since 2017, that policy has relaxed, but forced sterilization of Uyghur women has been reported.

The forms of these contemporary poems are stanzaic, mostly quatrains, but I must mention a single, perfect ghazal by Ekhmetian Osman that shows the persistence for love poetry of a traditional form and includes an image from the old battle poems: The wolf of life begins to howl each time I take you in my arms.

Editor Aziz Isa Elkun has done a commendable job in compiling this book, translating many of the poems, writing a splendid introduction, providing biographies for most of the poets and important facts from contemporary Uyghur history of resistance to Chinese attempts to deny them a state and to obliterate their cultural identity. He concludes the anthology with several of his own poems, so he should have the last word. The final poem, about the roses he planted, concludes:

My roses are blossoming with hope

Singing a song of freedom