Saturday, March 23, 2024

Red Letter Poem #199

 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 #199






This Red Letter installment launches us into our fifth year of publication––cause, I believe, for some modest celebration and (especially for readers new to these electronic pages) a bit of explanation.  Every superhero franchise needs an origin story––so here’s ours.


On March 15th, 2020, the first Covid quarantine went into effect in Massachusetts, joining others around the country.  Likely you’ll remember how the fear in those days was palpable––especially since we did not get a sense that our national leaders were acting in a clear-eyed fashion, confronting this devastating challenge.  Still, we hoped the first mandated three-week isolation would allow the disease to ‘burn itself out.’  Three weeks!  Thinking back on those days, how na├»ve we seemed.  At the time, I was in the midst of my first term as Poet Laureate for Arlington, MA; I’d been busy concocting strategies for inserting poetry into civic life in playful ways and unexpected places.  The Red Letters was going to be a one-off mailing of poems in red envelopes to a thousand randomly-chosen residents, and I’d managed to recruit a dozen volunteers to help.  Who wouldn’t read a hand-addressed poem if it arrived in your mailbox amid the bills and adverts?  The lockdown quickly put an end to all that.  Yet It only took a week of isolation to convince me that poetry might be more necessary than ever: a reminder that we were not alone in all this, that human kind had faced such overwhelming problems before.  So I gathered, from local authors, poems that might offer comfort and inspiration, and began an electronic mailing every Friday.  Its popularity was immediate and word-of-mouth swelled the subscriber’s list.


Two month’s later, George Floyd was murdered.  Suddenly, our country was being dragged into a reckoning about its history and its future.  And I knew immediately that this poetry forum needed to expand––both geographically and in terms of its subject matter.  Over time, as additional crises mounted and it seemed the very nature of reality was being reshaped (often by insidious forces), I began seeking out poets from across the United States and beyond; I wanted to publish work that might contribute to this vital conversation––poems to inspire, surprise, challenge, and delight.  I’ve come to view the Red Letters as a poetry anthology evolving in real-time, reflecting the personal, societal, and imaginative territory we are all compelled to explore in order to take our bearings and choose a path forward.


Once a year, I’ll add a piece of my own verse to the mix (how can I not want to be included in this marvelous chorus of poetic voices!)  And so, to kick off our fifth year, here is a poem inspired by one of my favorite poets (who, I’m pleased to say, is also a Red Letter contributor): Jane Hirshfield.  I’m always impressed by how Jane’s work seems both tangible and ethereal––devastatingly honest about the condition of this battered planet, yet still able to focus on experiences worthy of praise.  I find my sense of hope bolstered by the work of poets like Jane.  On a visit to the small island of St. John in the US Virgin Islands––one of my wife’s and my favorite places on earth––this small poem erupted one morning, a cascade of run-on sentences tumbling down (as all water does) toward its source.  I hope its lyric momentum carries readers along, buoys the spirit.  Oh, and that superhero I mentioned at the start?  In case it was unclear: that’s you, this vital community of readers and writers who––despite the trauma of conflict and the dispiriting behavior some of our institutions exhibit in response––continue to affirm that we are each cultural vessels bearing the millennial history of human development.  Words matter to you; you’re aware that thoughts can be both weapon and shield; and poems reaffirm our desire to continue expanding our vision.  Though some days seem bleak, you and I still find ways to cherish those things that truly matter to us: faces, voices, ideas, landscapes, experiences of loss and replenishment.  Believing in the ultimate value of life, we try to make each new awakening a red-letter day.  (May there be endless sequels.)




A Soul


              (for Jane Hirshfield)


They call it a soul, it’s not a soul, it’s

the feeling in the hand, just so much

cardamom, so much thyme, how

the tongue knows to strike one syllable,

bend another, song and instrument one

and the same, how the current surges when

she, almost casually, makes music of my name,

makes urgency of the ordinary, her lips touching

here, or mine caressing there, the tide turning

rocks below us in the cove, turning the craggy

heart smooth as a stone the soul lifts in its hand,

had a soul a hand, and tosses far out into

the raveling, unraveling blue, they call it

a sea, it’s not a sea, it’s a soul.


             ––Steven Ratiner




Red Letters 3.0


* If you would like to receive these poems every Friday in your own in-box – or would like to write in with comments or submissions – send correspondence to:



To learn more about the origins of the Red Letter Project, check out an essay I wrote for Arrowsmith Magazine:


and the Boston Area Small Press and Poetry Scene


For updates and announcements about Red Letter projects and poetry readings, please follow me on Twitter          


Friday, March 22, 2024

Knock-knock By Owen Lewis


By Owen Lewis

Dos Madres Press

Loveland, Ohio

ISBN: 978-1-962847-01-8

35 Pages

Review by Dennis Daly

Does surpassing life’s expectancy bestow any extraordinary blessings of goodness or happiness or vitality? Probably not. What about wisdom, surely….? Sorry, jury’s out. The legendary Methuselar, at 969 biblical years old and righteous to a fault, died a natural death (with all its attendant horrors), apparently not long-lived enough for passage on his grandson’s just recently built ark, specifically that same ark’s gene-saving journey into mankind’s brave new world.

In his new poetry collection, Knock-knock, Owen Lewis notices the tragedy, the irony, and the humor in the impaired denouement of humankind. His protagonist, a card-carrying member of the AMA wanders through a fading landscape of imagination and perceptiveness bundled in symptomatic non sequiturs.

When attention to details devoid of context becomes one’s dominant focus, the many dimensions of the cosmos recede into the primordial but pointed littleness. Lewis begins this recession with his remarkable opening poem entitled “Prelude: How I Started to Use a Cane.” The piece lures the reader in with its curious hypnotic power. An umbrella serves the narrator as his transitional cane. Here’s the heart of the poem,

I was talking on the phone,

walking steadier, noticed the tap,

and after, the tap-step, a light

knock, a knock like someone’s

at the door come to visit,

like company’s always arriving

and I feel this step in my hand

and hear it keeping a nice beat.

If my feet are sock-swaddled

they get muffled and vague

and make a kind of shuffle-step,

shuffle-glide, instead of the steady

tap, the tap-step’s sure contact

with concrete. Some days I set out,

I’m half-way to downtown, and

I forget. All the names and numbers

are in the phone, I know, but when

the name goes blank, the phone

directory is no use, no use at all.

The tap-step’s the only sure thing.

Sandwiched in between fear and humor (two closely aligned subjects, if ever there were two closely aligned subjects), Lewis embeds key metaphysical elements in his poem “When I’m not losing things.” The poet’s persona perceives objects and actions in a deeper, more thoughtful way—somewhat satisfying, but not very practical. Consider these lines,

things often fall with a clatter and break,

but sometimes without a clash or clamor

they pass into another realm, quiet winter-

light draining the day.

Then I understand

they’re not lost.

They’ve moved ahead

without so much as a knock. A prep-team

is stocking up the next time zone.

Living life in the moment can be daunting at any age, but in one’s declining years, with enforced partitions separating crucial caches of knowledge, the notions of present, past, and future can be disconcerting in the extreme. Lewis’s piece, “I ask my doctor how one can remember” centers on the struggle for what the elderly need to know. Often humor and wordplay can bridge awkward gaps in the inquiry. Here’s an example,

… He’s one of the good ones,

holds my x-rays up to the window. Hmmm.

I can see through that. There’s a tree bough

growing right across my lungs. In my knees,

a bird nest, my shoulder of garden perennials.

From the MRI, I see a cloud inside my skull.

He’s asking about my aches—

I live with them. What does he do with his?

(My daughter glares. She comes with that nervous

Cough of hers that always makes me forget what,

What I want to ask. I should have made a list.)

What about the cumulus? What about sleep?

he insists. I insist. What about that cloud?

Am I a cloud? An i-cloud?

Lewis explores life with dementia in his piece entitled “Before my daughter leaves.” Within a nursing home a name tag takes on aggrandized significance as if branded into the elderly patient. Here, if one loses his identifying tag, he loses himself. The poet somehow keeps these scenes comic/tragic without caricature. The result begets intensification and human empathy. And, much like viewing a car crash, the reader cannot look away. The poem opens with well-meant directions opined by the patient’s health-care proxy,

she always promises she’ll be back

in a few days or a few months

and she pocket-pins my name tag

on my shirt and says always wear it

don’t take it off and she says Don’t

Worry and tells me she feels bad

since there’s no piano here but

my fingers don’t play it anymore

she says just hum the fugue song

but I’m only one voice we need

at least three others she says just

say Hi each time the attendant

comes by and start with him but

I know she’s even more worried

I’ll forget my name lose the tag

so I don’t take it off and I’m good

and even when I send the shirt

to the washers they don’t take it off

Nearing death most members of our species have concerns beyond the actual process of dying. These concerns vary from practical monetary issues before to the imagined meritocracy presumably set-up after. Lewis contemplates a split difference between these two needs. After paying the ferryman his due in preparation for a crossing of the River Styx, the soul of the dying patient returns to the body and imbues it with its forever name-tag. The arrangements continue,

… Was I redeemed? I am

still here, still counting—Doctor!

Doctor, your patient is calling.

If he’s dead he’ll want his eyes

closed. Or maybe, he’ll want one

left open, the secret, roving one,

the sacrilegious one. Only Moses

could look into G-d’s face. (Holy

Moly!) Afterward he glowed

in divine sunburn. If and when…

a coin on just one eye.


Poet Owen Lewis has given those of us still here, and still counting, stage directions for our long anticipated penultimate and final scenes. His collection towers as a tour de force for which we should be immensely grateful! Bravo! Exeunt Omnes.

Tuesday, March 19, 2024

Forget About Sleep, Miriam Levine

Forget About Sleep, Miriam Levine, NYQ Books, The New York Quarterly Foundation, Inc., P.O. Box 470, Beacon, NY 12508, 95 pages,

 Book Review by Sarah Stern

Miriam Levine's sixth book of poetry, Forget About Sleep, is a beautiful meditation on what it is to live a full and deeply-felt life. Her poems reinforce her keen observations about this broken world, and yet she finds the light in unexpected places. My favorite poems, and there are many, in Forget About Sleep, show us these moments we might miss because we are too busy with things that grab our precious attention. I love Levine's celebration of sensuality—her own and the world at large—her wonder of friends and family, and her exploration of her own mortality and by extension our own. She invites us to explore and we are happy to accompany her.

In "Ben's Rendezvous," one of Levine's opening poems, the subject, "wandered from home,/ though forbidden. "I was/ seven and small for my age./ It was twilight. It was spring," setting the tone for the whole collection. This poet not only ardently observes, but almost becomes the things themselves, as by the end of this poem:

"The light above the bar was pink,/ and the people in command/ of their swaying bodies. I/ swayed too, drunk on kisses,/ my fingers caught on/ the skirt of my dress held/ by sashes tied at the back."

Levine continues to wander and take in the world not shying away from the cruelty and haphazardness of it all. As in the title poem, Forget about Sleep. "Mim, why would/ you ever want to leave the earth?"

We would not, if only for pleasure. At the end of "Diamond Head," we get it. "We bit/ and sucked. I lived in you, eely tongue. It/ kills me, your scent, a mix of salty musk and bourbon./ If we had forgotten would we have to go on and on?"

In many of the poems, like the little girl who ran from home, early on in the collection, the speaker is traveling, and with that, we get the world anew, as in "Small Hotels."

"These seaside hotels with women's names/ take the surf's roar without answering back./ The Patricia, The Barbara, the Julia:/ I'd try them in turn, one for each year, south/ for the season at last at the Julia./ The elevator would have room for only / me and one suitcase. The windows could be/ opened. There'd be no wake-up call."

Levine asks in her poems what it would be like to be humble in a world that demands we shout about ourselves all day long. In the second stanza of "You Ask Yourself,"  "You think it may be time to leave your old self,/ not like the Carmelites who take a vow of silence,/ a new name and pray day and night for the world,/ but something like them, someone who speaks less."

Winner of the 2023 Laura Boss Poetry Foundation Narrative Poetry Award, Forget About Sleep, tells a story, but it's one of many surprising threads. Fun to come across Susan Sontag and Jean Rhys in "Lighten Up." Levine addresses the self. "Go ahead, Mim, be frivolous, spend/ an hour choosing a dress." In fact, you'll spend more than an hour with Forget About Sleep, and you'll be all the richer for it.


Sarah Stern is the author of We Have Been Lucky in the Midst of Misfortune, But Today Is Different, and Another Word for Love. Recipient of two Pushcart Prize nominations, Stern is also five-time winner of the Bronx Council on the Arts' BRIO Award for Poetry. More at