Saturday, February 03, 2024

Red Letter Poem #193



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 #193





Unveiling in Snow


                          (to my sister)



Because you and I never did sit on a park bench

chatting, or stroll happily along rowdy city streets

browsing, or hopscotch chalked sidewalks together,


or read the same articles or books; and because

in our so-called adult lives, we never sang together

except all of us at family birthdays; never said things


that implied love; also because, though for years

we shared our childhood bedroom, the twin spool beds

our mother doggedly sanded and refinished, we didn’t—


that I remember—share jokes or sisterly confidences;

because I was older, I who unwittingly determined

what we were together—we were more separate


in our bond than our differences would have made

inevitable; because together we weathered the tempests

of our mother’s house—because because because


because I can’t say the cause, these words I keep to myself

this raw February day your stone’s unveiled—I,

the elder, this Gail who tried to exonerate herself then,


still trying to forgive herself now.



                         ––Gail Mazur




Concerning the loss of someone dear to us––and between the time of the burial ceremony and the placement of a headstone––a certain interval must occur.  There seems to be less regulation in Christian practice about how long this period must be.  But in the Jewish tradition, the ‘unveiling’ ceremony––a familial gathering where the carved grave marker is uncovered, formally dedicated, and celebrated with prayer––takes place sometime between the end of Sheloshim (the first month of mourning) and Yahrzeit (the anniversary of that death.)  And in that gap, the bereaved are undergoing a sort of transformation: having first removed themselves from their customary day-to-day existence, they are focused on fully experiencing the absence of the deceased; then slowly, over time, they are both ritualizing remembrance while preparing to fully return to the communal world.  Case in point: Gail Mazur’s new poem is a lyrical meditation about the tribulations of sisterhood and the unfathomability of loss.  Having lost three sisters of my own, how could I not be captivated by Gail’s poetic unburdening––though, being male, I know the emotional connection to my siblings was different from what sisterhood entails.  But the poem, in its cyclical attempts at definition and expiation, will likely feel like familiar territory to anyone who has had to bury a loved one and was left to come to terms with all that follows.


Gail, I’m sure, needs little introduction to Red Letter readers; her eight fine volumes have become mainstays of contemporary poetry.  In 2020 she published Land’s End: New and Selected Poems (University of Chicago Press) which amply displays the richness and refined sensibility of this highly-regarded poet.  I would like to note, though, that she also had an exceptional career as a teacher of young writers––in Boston University’s MFA program and at the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown.  And as founder of the Blacksmith House Poetry Series (still going strong after five decades), she created an honored institution where both acclaimed and emerging talents could engage with the literary community and offer their new work.  


In today’s poem, I found myself taken by the litany of that word because, each mention heralding another new glimpse into the lives of these two girls––an agenda dominated (by the speaker’s own admission) by the strong will of that older sister.  Did you feel that tension between control and surrender all through the poem?  It’s as if the piece was trying to hold back some of the tidal guilt that now spills over the dam of old justifications.  The diction of the piece swings back and forth between a rational, almost legalistic tone (“because, though for years/ we shared our childhood bedroom. . .we didn’t—// that I remember—share jokes or sisterly confidences”), and the more expected childhood parlance of “rowdy city streets” and “chalked sidewalks” for games of hopscotch.  This inner conflict seems to both activate and undercut the thought process unfolding until, with that hammering iambic “because because because// because”, the barrier begins to crumble.  Even the tightly-bundled tercets must give way, at the end, for one solitary survivor estranged from the body of the poem.  Perhaps this piece suggests that, over and over––as the memories return to us, as the poem is read and reread, as snows blanket the land and then withdraw––we experience a succession of unveilings, each one bringing us a little closer to the devastating psychic wounds we all carry, even as we make another small gesture toward healing, toward that elusive forgiveness, and the possibility of peace.





Red Letters 3.0


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Tuesday, January 30, 2024

Review of A Case for the Existence of God, a play by Samuel D. Hunter


A Case For the Existence of God

Review of A Case for the Existence of God, a play by Samuel D. Hunter

Calderwood Pavilion through February 17, 2024

By Andy Hoffman

If you can, catch A Case for the Existence of God at Calderwood Pavilion, a production of the Speakeasy Stage. The two-person play by MacArthur Award winner Samuel D. Hunter hardly ever mentions God or God’s possible existence, but it does explore the birth and growth of male friendship, about which we have so few stories. Masterfully directed in a confined space by Melinda Lopez, A Case for the Existence of God delivers a surprising gut-punch as two men begin to build the foundation of a friendship.

Set in Twin Falls, Idaho, Keith and Ryan meet to discuss a mortgage. Keith – Black and gay in a community that embraces neither identity – is a mortgage broker. The son of a well-to-do lawyer. Keith does his job with efficient responsibility. He studied English and early music in college, but found no paying call for his passions, so he helps arrange loans for people buying property. Ryan needs such help: he wants to acquire some land near town, land that once belonged to his family. Ryan’s family, though, has a long and convoluted history of mental illness and drug abuse, so his anxiety over the deal leads him into uncertainty and confusion as Keith explains the mortgage process. Keith loses his patience and tells Ryan “You either play by the rules and pretend it all means something, or you don’t get anything. That’s most of what being an adult is.” 

The two men met at the day-care center their daughters attend. When the play begins, the girls are a bit over a year old, and the men are in their thirties. They both grew up in Twin Falls and it later emerges that Keith remembers Ryan from high school; he was a popular kid with no time or interest in a nerdy, gay, Black classmate. Having met again all these years later, they find common ground as fathers. Fatherhood has pressured Ryan into this land-ownership adventure: divorce looms for Ryan and his wife, and he realizes that he needs a more stable living situation if he hopes to maintain any custody right over Christa, his daughter. Keith also feels uncertain about his ties to daughter Willa. After years of unsuccessfully trying to adopt, Keith chooses to foster the infant daughter of a addict mother, with the ambition of eventually becoming the baby’s legal parent. Both men live on hope, but they live in a world short on deliverance. The play’s case for the existence of God depends on the realization of hope, but humans have limited vision into the workings of the divine.

The performance reveals the story over a period of months, as each man’s hopes encounter trouble. As their hopes fade and grow, so does the newborn friendship between them. Lighting changes signify movement from scene to scene. Most of the action takes place in Keith’s cubicle at work, but as their friendship grows the stage becomes first Keith’s home and then Ryan’s, a playground for the toddler girls and even the wide-open land Ryan wants to acquire. The audience follows the relationship as it transitions from the powder-keg of a mortgage broker’s office to the brightly lit Idaho landscape. A Case for the Existence of God both reveals and revels in the growth from the immediate and transactional first breath of friendship to the life-long and transcendent maturity of this bond. The final scene of the play takes us into a hopeful future, but I will allow you to experience that joy for yourself.

De’Lon Grant mesmerizes as the uptight Keith. You feel Keith’s hemmed in life, from the cubicle at work to his tenuous position with Willa. As he notes, Twin Falls does not have many romantic opportunities for him. He depends on the emotional support of his father, whom he mentions frequently. Grant portrays a man in need of the friendship he cultivates with Ryan despite the differences back in high school. Jesse Hinson embraces Ryan to such a degree that I felt worried for his mental stability and his resistance to his dead parents’ addictions. He feels victimized by the world and the lines on his face reveal a map of uncertainty as he negotiates adulthood dreadfully short on the personal resources he needs. I only realized the brilliance of his performance when he and his co-star came out for their applause and the lines on his face disappeared. 

Samuel D. Hunter has created a brilliant script that neatly slides from the pedestrian to the angelic. Best known for The Whale, the film version of which netted Brenden Fraser an Oscar for lead actor, Hunter’s script casually and captivatingly engages the audience in its difficult subjects with beauty, ease, and love. I hope you get to feel the wings of uplift he provides in A Case for the Existence of God.