Friday, June 07, 2024

Red Letter Poem #210

 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 #210






The Gap  



"Then felt I like some watcher of the skies...
 Or like stout Cortez when with eagle eyes
 He stared at the Pacific...
 Silent, upon a peak in Darien."


––John Keats

         “On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer”




She grabbed her six-year-old daughter and ran.

She’d heard the USA would let them in––

a new rule; some special dispensation––

safe harbor, for hapless Venezuelans.


Smugglers herded them across rough mountains;

thick, sucking jungle mud.  A hostile land,

impenetrable Gap of Darien,

which engineers had tried––but failed––to span.


Separated for days, in abject fear––

mother and child, reunited at last.

They stumbled, but made it to Honduras,

where other migrants gathered.  It was here

they learned the news that US heads of state

had made sanctuary evaporate.



                                  ––Denise Provost




The subject at hand is complex.  What I’m about to do is far less so: I am making simple declarative statements, enumerating facts, raising questions.  I do not pretend to possess certainty; in truth, even clarity eludes me.  Strange enough, something as ambiguous as a poem can often provide the impetus for carving a new path through the emotional thicket, confronting our own conflicted opinions.  I am talking about the calamity of migrants massing at our borders, especially the fate of refugees fleeing from wars and disasters.  Clearly, this is one of the most divisive hot-button issues roiling the upcoming Presidential contest.  At the same time, I am thinking about the moral character of a people, as embodied by their laws and the officers charged with enforcing them.


Denise Provost’s new poem, “The Gap”, is what’s compelled me into this troubling place of self-examination.  Though it is written in the form of a sonnet––with all the artistry and complex history that calls to mind––it is a fairly straightforward piece of verse.  It conjures the presence of an unnamed migrant mother fleeing the political and economic upheaval of her homeland.  The woman has a young daughter she wants desperately to protect.  If she is to find safe harbor in the North, she needs to traverse a nearly impassable 60-mile swath of mountainous jungle known as the Darien Gap––so treacherous a territory, it is the lone break in the 18,600-mile Pan-American Highway.  Her journey has been inspired by a burst of clarity in the often-tangled history of immigration law.  Word had spread of a new American policy aimed specifically at the situation in Venezuela.  Simply by adding a brief epigraph, the poet has allowed us to liken this woman’s imaginative urgency to that of Keats, expressed in his 1816 sonnet––where Chapman’s luminous translation grants the poet sudden passage into the ancient world of Homer.  There are odysseys implied in both sonnets––geographical, metaphorical, emotional.  All this is clear.  But then what?  Republicans will rail against ‘open borders’ saying the first duty of every nation is to safeguard its citizens––but too often come across as lacking in humanity.  The Democrats will speak of the legal and humanitarian responsibilities for responding to any refugee crisis––but then they will quake at the political and economic consequences.  Simple statements.  Here is another: the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) estimates that, in 2024, there are 130 million individuals forcibly displaced by wars, famine, political collapse, environmental disaster.  Statistics do not convey the precarious situation of the human body and mind; poems often do.  Again, I ask: now what?  International maritime law demands that, when a vessel is sinking, any nearby ship must do everything possible to rescue survivors.  What must we do––legally, ethically––when it is a ship of state foundering in the storm?


Denise is a poet, lawyer, and former Massachusetts State Representative.  Her chapbook Curious Peach was published by Ibbetson Street Press, followed by a full-length collection, City of Stories, from Cervena Barva.  She was awarded the Samuel Washington Allen Prize in 2021 from the New England Poetry Club––perhaps America’s oldest literary association––and was elected its co-president the following year.  Today’s Letter is from a manuscript-in-progress with the alluring working title, Box Marked 'Other'.  With it, Denise has attempted to lay claim, momentarily, to our hearts and imaginations.  She has affirmed the power of articulation as a primary human impulse, fortifying our need to understand.   She has made an appeal to the ear and its intuitive emotional resources––while the conscious intellect is still hurrying to catch up.  Indeed, the poet has ably demonstrated the comfort that we find in form, orderliness, and the lovely chiming of spoken syllables (though the situation being described offers anything but.)  As I claimed at the outset: what I am doing here is easy.  What Denise has done––artful, restrained, while still challenging the conscience––is more arduous.  What you will do now in response––harder still.





Red Letters 3.0


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Tuesday, June 04, 2024

The Apartment


Just thinking.. I just turned 69...

In a few years I will have to leave my apartment for decades-- my landlords have been great--but they are getting older--and need my space. Thanks to them I have had a great space at a very reasonable rent. I have had my most creative and productive years in this flat. So I am starting to downsize. My landlord and I will take down this large table that has been a bulwark in my living room, and has accumulated all kinds of stuff--one friend opined, " Your apartment is a throwback to an old Greenwich Village Bohemian flat --a museum of Doug Holder"--with books littered all around it-- artwork, antique furniture, the severe bust of Dante staring at me every morning, a large framed photograph of the old elevated tracks above Harrison Ave, the ashes of my late wife, a row of framed photos of my beloved cats who passed over the years, awards, stacks of the magazines and newspapers where my work has appeared, pictures of my late father with Jack Dempsey and Yogi Berra. There are pictures of Peddlers from the Lower East Side, who are frozen in a perpetual pose--hawking knishes, men's wear-- Sig Klein's fat man shop, with a fat man in large white underwear in the store's window, there is a fit for every man. I am looking at a painting of Toot Shores--the venerable NYC bar/eatery of yore--with a signature from Joe DiMaggio, an ashtray from the Stork Club... In a way that bulwark of a table seemed to keep me rooted in the past--it held things together--but as I have learned in life--all things must pass. Eventually you have to let go. I don't think I will ever have a place that I loved so much, a dark refuge, a beaten couch listening to jazz every evening, the tapestries, the Chinese calligraphy, a lot of things will go-the way of all things-- to dust. I am probably going to have to move from Somerville-as the rents are outrageous.... but the years I spent here, the work I have done-- my love will always remain.... Slowly I will downsize, like we all do--whether body or home, and as Shakespeare said in the seven ages of man, " Sans Everything."