Friday, July 12, 2024

Red Letter Poem #215

 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 #215





On the Road to Lviv



When Zagajewski read at Vilenica,

In the courtyard of a medieval castle

That fell to ruin long ago, to the poets

Seated beneath a chestnut tree, which rained

Ripe chestnuts on their heads at intervals

No one could time, their attention may have wandered,

For they kept looking up, as if in prayer,

Since poetry is prayer. This festival

In the Karst region of Slovenia

Brought kindred spirits from around the world

To revel in the word made manifest,

Here in the courtyard and later in a cave

The organizers called their tectonic cathedral.

Say amen to the poets, then, who savor

A blaze of words under the chestnut tree.



             ––Christopher Merrill





To leave   

in haste for Lvov, night or day, in September   

or in March.  But only if Lvov exists,

if it is to be found within the frontiers and not just   

in my new passport. . .


––Adam Zagajewski

                                       “To Go to Lvov”



Christopher Merrill has been speaking to people who aren’t there.  Of course, this seems to be something of an occupational hazard for poets.  After all one could argue that, in some cases, the self which composes a poem and the one who, later on, stops to make coffee are, at best, distant relatives.  And, of course, there’s always some imagined readership whose eyes might someday interact with the written text.  But, in Christopher’s case, his poems have, as part of their very conception, a broader invisible audience––and this is especially true for his recently-published On the Road to Lviv (Arrowsmith Press.)  It’s a book-length poem, written in short sections, depicting his deepening connection with the people and culture of Ukraine.  It evolved over time, beginning during a trip to that country in 2006; continuing with a visit after the Maidan Revolution ousted their corrupt president; and culminating with the 2022 start of the Russian invasion.  He has undertaken these often-hazardous journeys because––in addition to being an acclaimed poet, essayist, journalist, and translator––he’s currently the director of the International Writing Program at the University of Iowa.  A cultural diplomat, he began recording his impressions of that beleaguered nation, and soon found himself in conversation with the much-loved Polish writer Adam Zagajewski––even though he died one year prior.  As Christopher slowly made his way toward Lviv, how could he not think of what is perhaps Zagajewski’s most famous poem, “To Go to Lvov”–– the city of that poet’s birth, and one that’s changed hands numerous times over the years, from Polish to Soviet to Ukrainian (the old ‘Lvov’ spelling reflecting the Russian influence.)  Zagajewski’s was a dream-pilgrimage to a city where his soul resides; Christopher Merrill’s was a nightmarish odyssey through the ruins of history.


I love how the poet’s diction is constantly shifting throughout the verses; one moment he is reporting, with journalistic exactitude, the way a Russian thermobaric bomb “is capable/ Of vaporizing bodies,” and how it “Explodes in a bright flash that sucks the air/ Up from the ground and out of human lungs.”  And the next, his speech is that of a political scientist, describing the theater bombing in Mariupol where “at least 600 citizens were killed/ That day in March in what investigators/ Concluded was not only the most heinous/ War crime in the first month of the invasion/ But the most visible in modern warfare.”  But before we can even catch our breath, his utterance shifts, becoming that of the broken-hearted poet who zeroes in on just the precise image, just the critical detail to shake readers’ hearts as well: 


For a set designer had inscribed the word

CHILDREN in white paint on the pavement outside

The entrances in front and back, in Cyrillic

Letters large enough for satellites

To register, and journalists to broadcast

Around the world, and Russian pilots to read

Before they followed their orders.  Bombs away.  


Christopher’s collection Watch Fire earned him the Lavan Younger Poets Award from the Academy of American Poets.  His writing since has been translated into nearly forty languages; and among his many honors are a Chevalier des Arts et des Lettres from the French government, and fellowships from the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial and Ingram Merrill Foundations.  In April of 2012, he was appointed to the National Council on the Humanities by President Barack Obama.  Reading On the Road to Lviv, and seeing the facing-page translations into Ukrainian, it becomes plain that his new book is also intended to speak––not for, but to––the people of that country, both the brutalized survivors and the all-too-silent dead.  Christopher is attempting to stand as a witness to that suffering, to make sure that politicians never attempt to take refuge behind the deceitful shield: we didn’t know.  In her landmark anthology Against Forgetting: Twentieth Century Poetry of Witness, Carolyn Forché writes of that earlier time: “These poems will not permit us diseased complacency.  They come to us with claims that have yet to be filled, as attempts to mark us as they have themselves been marked.”  Certainly, there are children being born into the 21st century for whom names like Mariupol and Kharkiv and Lviv will not be coupled with the sting of tears.  This poet is speaking to them as well.






Red Letters 3.0


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Sunday, July 07, 2024

Interview with poet Chares Coe: New and Selected Works

Charles Coe is a wonderful poet, jazz singer, teacher, and literary activist. He has a new collection of poetry out titled "Charles Coe: New and Selected Works." I caught up with my fellow New England Poetry Club Board member, and he generously agreed to this interview.

There seems to be a fair amount of food in your work. And you do a wonderful job of bringing things like tomatoes, berries, steaks with Duke Ellington , a high holy status.

I grew up in a very food-centered family. My father was a Mess Sergeant in the Army, stateside in Texas during the Korean War. In the sixties when my late Sister Carol and I were kids he worked at the Chevy plant during the week and did all the weekend and holiday cooking. Mother cooked because it was in the job description but didn't love it the way he did. She was more than happy to stretch out on the sofa with "Reader's Digest" or watch the tube while he rattled the pots and pans. And I worked in a lot of restaurant kitchens in my younger days.

I've been pecking away at a family memoir called "Room at the Table" for the last few years, where I'm using food as a way of looking at my family's history. So yes, you can accurately call me food-obsessed.

Your work is often prose/narrative poetry. You are a well-regarded storyteller. How was this talent honed?

I think the first and best piece of training for any storyteller is to read a boxcar full of books. All kinds of books. Literary fiction, mystery novels, romances, memoirs. And not just books: magazines, cereal boxes...whatever. Or listen to books if that's your thing. It's not mine, but if that's how you best engage with stories go for it.

I shake my head sometimes at writers and poets--especially young ones--who don't read much because they don't want their "artistic voice" distracted by other writers' work.

You face age squarely on—from a late night look in the mirror, to a narrative of an over-the-hill bull that is beaten in a fight with a brash younger bull. Do you feel like that old bull sometimes—a King Lear raging at his fate, which is all our fate?

We're all in line to get on that bus but few of us know when. How often have we passed someone on the street who didn't know they were spending their last day on Earth? Being in my early seventies I have a lot more road behind than ahead, and of course I think about that. Which is why the older I get the less willing I am to get caught up in stuff that doesn't really matter. I'm interested in spending time with friends, smiling at supermarket cashiers, and trying to write with much honesty and craft as I can muster.

You have a great love of jazz. This is often reflected in your work. Talk about this affinity for the music. Is poetry music, and music poetry?

I'm a singer as well as a writer--since I was a teenager I've done rock, blues, jazz, and a bit of classical, so for me the membrane between music and poetry is permeable. I've written a lot of songs, but most of my poetry is free verse so it's not structured or rhymed like my song lyrics. But I try for a musical flow in my poems, more like a sax or horn solo.

Why should we read your collection?

A free model Winnebago Sunstar to everybody who buys my book? Or, how about this: I want people to feel the "shock of recognition" when they read my poetry and maybe think, "Yeah, I've experienced or observed something like that, but never would have thought about it from that perspective. Makes me think about it in a new way."

Before we begin, may I ask you a question?
Would it bother you if at some point
I forgot to remember the illusion that we
are made of solid matter? That we instead
consist of atoms and electrical charges,
are ninety-nine percent empty space?

Would it bother you to look through
my suddenly spectral form and see
the backrest of this chair?

It wouldn’t be intentional, a parlor trick.
It’s just that when I think about broken children
lying in the rubble of bombed-out buildings
I sometimes find it difficult to remain tied to this world.

So if I seem to fade please don’t judge or be alarmed.
Just hold out your hand. We can touch, palm-to-palm,
to keep ourselves connected to this terrible and beautiful place,
to remind us we are made of the same stuff as the stars.

Charles Coe
© 2024