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No. 39: Red Letter Poem: Universe from inside out

UPDATED, Dec. 25: Steven Ratiner, Arlington’s poet laureate, sought submissions in February from Arlington residents to contribute to "a rather unconventional, utterly delightful way to inject poetry into the everyday." It was to emain secret until its debut during April’s National Poetry Month. Then the coronavirus hit.

Steven RatinerSteven Ratiner / David Andrews photo 

Adults and students were invited to submit one to two poems -- no longer than 20 lines each -- they’d most like to share with potentially thousands of their Arlington neighbors.

The Red Letter Poem Project

The Red Letters 2.0: When I was first appointed as poet laureate for Arlington, one of my goals was to help bring the strength and delight of poetry into unexpected settings. The Red Letter Poems Project was going to be a novel way of sharing Arlington’s poetic voices, sent off in bright red envelopes, a one-off mass mailing intended to surprise and delight. 

Globe takes notice >>

But when the Corona crisis struck, and families everywhere were suffering a fearful uncertainty in enforced isolation, I converted the idea into an e-version which has gone out weekly ever since. Because of the partnership I forged with seven organizations, mainstays of our community, the poems have been able to reach tens of thousands of readers, throughout Arlington and far beyond its borders. 

I hope you too are grateful that these groups stepped up and reached out: The Arlington Commission for Arts and CultureThe Arlington Center for the ArtsThe Arlington Public LibraryThe Arlington International Film Festival, Arlington Community Education, The Council on Aging, and – each of which distributes or posts the new Red Letter installments and, in many cases, provide a space where all the poems of this evolving anthology continue to be available.  

But now we are experiencing a triple pandemic: the rapid spread of the Covid virus, which then created an economic catastrophe, and served to further expose our long-standing crises around race and social justice.  My hope is to have the Red Letters continue as a forum for poetic voices – from Arlington and all our neighboring communities – that will help us gain perspective on where we are at this crucial moment and how we envision a healing to emerge.  

So please: pass the word, submit new poems, continue sharing the installments with your own e-lists and social media sites (#RedLetterPoems, #ArlingtonPoetLaureate, #SeeingBeyondCorona), and help further the conversation.  Art-making has always been the way we human beings reflect on what is around us, work to alter our circumstances, and dream of what may still be possible.  In its own small way, the Red Letters intends to draw upon our deepest voices to promote just such a healing and share our enduring hope for something better.    

If you would like to receive these poems every Friday in your in-box plus notices about future poetry events, send an e-mail to: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. with the subject line ‘mailing list.’

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 #39

Everyone loves a good ghost story – Charles Dickens understood that – not to mention the dream of second chances. So when old Mr. Scrooge is visited by his phantom possibilities, we too believe we might reach across time and circumstance – to comprehend our own tangled narrative, to soothe old wounds, and prepare ourselves for what the new morning may offer. And for that reason, I love the matter-of-factness of Jeffrey Harrison’s writing; he offers a counterbalance to the strain of contemporary poems that seek to recreate the universe from the inside out.

He implicitly trusts that the materials of his life (which very much resemble the lives, landscapes, and histories we too inhabit) are sufficient for that most basic of challenges: how to bear the weight of our own past and still enter the new day clear-eyed and open-hearted.  Jeffrey shies away from rhetorical flourishes and works within the bedrock American idiom.  The music of his lines is only slightly heightened from that of earnest conversation or the voice of our internal monologue – and so the situations he presents possess a bracing actuality. 

“Double Visitation” – which appeared recently in Between Lakes (Four Way Books), his seventh volume of poetry – is a ghost story inside a ghost story.  And the questions it raises seem especially appropriate today, in the midst of the mid-winter holidays representing so many spiritual traditions.  So I am left wondering: what secret message am carrying inside me – and whose ears hunger to receive those words, right now, while such an exchange is still possible? 

Double Visitation

There I was with my father again alive
walking around the back yard together,
and I hardly noticed that it wasn’t our back yard
or that he looked like he was in his fifties.
We were laughing at something, joking around
each comment making us laugh even harder.
But then he was crying and I didn’t know why,
his face contorted, unable to speak. I turned
and hugged him and whispered in his ear

the words I wanted to say and he wanted to hear …
and as if I had uttered some magic formula
I found myself sitting in a movie theater
beside my suddenly alive again brother.
The movie ended, and as the credits rolled,
we both agreed that it was good. Then I said,
“But I think I fell asleep for part of it,”
and started telling him the dream I’d had,
how our father had visited from the dead,
and what I’d done—and, to show him, did again,
whispering those same words to my brother.

                                       — Jeffrey Harrison


Red Letter Poem #38

People are always creating systems to classify/categorize/pigeonhole individuals, often with little success. Yet I believe I can neatly divide humanity into two distinct groups: those who collect and those who disperse.  (I’m of the former category, though I don’t think my wife would be so charitable with that characterization; she might suggest pack rat as far more appropriate.)  Still, the dichotomy of these impulses is clear: One contingent is convinced that, at some later time, every one of these cherished items might again be pressed into service, yield new meaning. Members of the other group (far more practical and clear-eyed) not only know when an object’s utility has passed, they can imagine the clearing in a household such unburdening will create (not to mention the possibilities which arise to fill the void.)

Joyce Peseroff’s fine lyric not only fleshes out these two categories; she draws back the emotional veil on those seemingly simple choices: What are we ever able to hold onto from our past; and what might we gain from a graceful surrender?  Of course, Joyce may well be playing a double game with us: Just as she seems to be gently discarding these personal artifacts, she has preserved them in the unroofed attic of a poem.  And it’s we readers who might find ourselves reluctant to part with the recollections she’s coaxed us to unbox. Sly, these poets! 

Joyce herself has been a mainstay of the Massachusetts poetry scene for decades. Poet, teacher, editor, she’s been awarded grants from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Massachusetts Cultural Council.  Currently she blogs for her website SO I GAVE YOU QUARTZ ( and writes the poetry column for Arrowsmith Press.  “Limmer Boots” is borrowed from Petition (Carnegie Mellon University Press), Joyce’s sixth collection which, I must confess, will not be winnowed from my admittedly-crowded bookshelves. 

A Pair of Limmer Boots

The life that required custom leather
hiking boots is gone, and woolen
cross-country knickers with knee-
high socks—clothes that used to fit
for things we no longer do.
I bagged them for Goodwill

but you hid them with books
on beekeeping, a boat hook,
and ham radio—not ready
to admit that choices narrow,
that we can’t recalculate our turns
through the world’s dark wood.

You’d sent the shop in Intervale
a tracing of each foot the year
before they stopped taking orders.
The night you crept down the Cog
Railway’s trestle, the Great Gulf
of Mt. Washington behind you,

stars bright enough to glint
from your metal lace hooks—
what, on that hike, split before
from after, like maternity smocks
and baby clothes, or the mirrored
dress I wore when we first met?

­­               –– Joyce Peseroff

Red Letter Poem #37

"Songs are thoughts, sung out with the breath when people are moved by great forces and ordinary speech no longer suffices … And then … we, who always think we are small, will feel still smaller. And we will fear to use words. But it will happen that the words we need will come of themselves. When the words we want to use shoot up of themselves – we get a new song." This description comes from Orpingalik, a Netsilik hunter, shaman and poet, and they represent an experience documented in almost all early cultures: the roots of poetry and song are wholly intertwined. This proved true of the ancient Greek poets performing with lyre in hand, the Chinese court poets strumming the qin, or African griots plucking the harp-like kora or pounding the djembe drum to recite for the tribe. It applies right up through Nobel Laureate Bob Dylan’s verses sung over his jangly guitar or Jay-Z’s flow riding a thunderous beat.

Lloyd Schwartz is the poet laureate for neighboring Somerville, but that is just one of the many creative ‘hats’ he wears. Author, scholar and teacher, his voice is familiar as the longtime classical music critic for NPR’s Fresh Air. For three decades before that, he was the classical music editor of the Boston Phoenix for which he was awarded the Pulitzer Prize. Most often, the vocal register of his poems is closer to that of colloquial speech, but occasionally he cannot resist pure song.  He was inspired here, he explained, by a trip to Moosehead Lake in northern Maine, and the words arrived unexpectedly in a manner which, I believe, Orpingalik would heartily approve.  The poem is included in his forthcoming Who’s on First? New and Selected Poems (University of Chicago Press).  I was also delighted to learn that it is part of "Schwartzsongs", a musical setting of three of Lloyd’s poems by the great composer John Harbison.  Sometimes the Muse simply demands song and any seasoned poet needs to be ready.


rain on the lake
room at the lodge
alone in a room
in the lazy light

loons on the lake
geese in the air
moose in the woods
aware    awake

a cry dislodged
from the musty woods
the gamy musk
of the one aroused

the roaming moose
the rooms lit up
the woods awake
in the loony light

the moon dislodged
the lake aflame
the Muse amazed
amused    aroused

                  –– Lloyd Schwartz

Red Letter Poem #36

I’m baffled – let’s start with that. And often frustrated, angry and, yes, ashamed. We are forever living – all of us – inside the echo of George Floyd’s pleas for help. Inside the shadow of Breonna Taylor, Philando Castille, Sandra Bland, Ahmaud Arbery and an unscrolling list of names that serves as an awful reminder: In the land of all men are created equal, we’ve built durable systems hardwired to guarantee the very opposite. And each time I think about the magnitude of the challenges we’re facing, thought ties itself in knots.

Which is why I found Ellen Steinbaum’s poem so useful. Like a Cubist painting, she portrays multiple perspectives at once. After reading a blog post titled ‘Resist Numbness’ by David Howse (the Executive Director of Boston’s ArtsEmerson), the poet took an honest first step: She allowed his words to enter her consciousness, to locate her own knots and to begin pulling at the tangle. Ellen found herself deconstructing one of his lines, forming a prism through which she might examine her own confused feelings. And we, ours. I cannot help but believe that such an internal action will spur external ones, perhaps the next time a situation demands that a hard choice be made. 

Words matter. They are not so easily dispersed as, sadly, a breath can be. After all, our nation’s founding documents used them to solidify a grand promise: that if we as a people continued to envision that more perfect union, our thoughts, our path forward might always bring us closer.

Poet, journalist, blogger, undoer of knots, Ellen is making her second appearance in the Red Letters.  Her most recent collection is This Next Tenderness (CW Books).  “we have no words…” appeared originally in River Heron Review. 

we have no words it is all we want to talk about

we have no words
we have it all
it is all words
it is all no words
we want
we have
we have to talk
we want no words
we have words
to talk about
to have all
to have no
words to talk about
we have no we
all no
no all
we have words
we want to talk about it
it is all we want
it is all we have
we have want
we talk about want
we talk about no
it is all words
it is all talk
it is all we

                –– Ellen Steinbaum

Red Letter Poem #35

It’s not the turkey – though symbols and traditions do foster a sense of continuity.  It’s not just the table heaped high with all manner of delicacies – though it’s rare that many are permitted (or permit themselves) an occasion of sheer abundance.  All the loved faces gathered together – of course, that comes closer to the heart of the matter even if, this Thanksgiving, much of the gathering must be done via Zoom or through memory.  To my mind, the great gift of the holiday is how we’re ushered into experiencing gratitude – and that has deep transformative power.  Gratitude confirms to the body, to the expansive mind, that what is present is enough.  And even enduring the most difficult circumstances: enough. 

In Polly Brown’s lovely poem, Peggy has the courage to step away from safety’s embrace and, even facing the prospect of impending loss, she claims a moment of determination, quiet joy and gratitude.  The subject of this poem is Peggy Lawler (1929-1966) – an important figure in the modern dance movement, and a great-hearted woman whose friendship and generosity are things for which Polly is forever thankful.

And now, because of this beautiful lyric, so are we.  Peggy on the Hill is making its debut in these electronic pages but, I’m happy to say, Polly’s recent collection, Pebble Leaf Feather Knife (Cherry Grove) contains a wealth of finely-crafted, deeply-felt poems like this one.  And in keeping with the holiday, let me add that, after nine months of the Red Letter project – after having witnessed the generosity of spirit from poets and readers alike – and even as our country struggles mightily to find its way through our devastating challenges – I can say without hesitation: life is, indeed, more than enough. 

Peggy on the Hill

For a while she was able to live at home again,
and some days she had patience for walking slow,

stopping often – for roses of pale green lichen
on the stones, the season’s last violets

and early lilies. Where the long field crested,
opened to distant hills, a pair of hawks in an oak –

if she moved even two steps away
from the old friend on whom she leaned,

dance rose in her once more:
one arm reaching back

to all she must soon let go,
the other curved to gather in the sky.

                                                          –– Polly Brown


Red Letter Poem #34 

Let’s take a moment, shall we?  And perhaps another moment? 

A deceptively simple suggestion, but not all that far from the impetus behind the Japanese haiku. From the time of Basho onward – and fortified by the Buddhist emphasis on being present within even the simplest of experiences – the haiku became both a method of fully engaging with one’s surroundings and a way of reflecting such moments within a succinct but imaginatively charged poem.   

Rather than explaining the mind’s journey, the three-line poem arranges the sense-impressions to propel a reader along a similar path, allowing the power of implication, juxtaposition, surprise to strike the deepest possible chord. So right now: after one of the most contentious elections in American history; while the Covid pandemic rages anew and economic uncertainty makes our future feel more than a little tenuous; and even our prospects for a safe Thanksgiving dinner are fraught with genuine concern – Brad Bennett’s fine poems offer the reminder of what is actually ours: this moment.  And then, if we’re fortunate, the one after that. Not too small a reason for gratitude.

Beside the fact that Brad has made haiku writing a central feature in his life, it pleases me tremendously to know that he’s taught the practice as a regular feature in his third-grade classrooms.  I can only imagine the balm it provides to a young mind – not to mention the ability it develops to better participate in one’s own unfolding life.  Brad’s poems have appeared in dozens of the important haiku publications including Chrysanthemum, New England Letters, and Gratitude in the Time of COVID-19: The Haiku Hecameron (edited by Scott Mason) where some of these poems first appeared.  His two collections are: a drop of pond (which won a 2016 Touchstone Distinguished Book Award from The Haiku Foundation); and a turn in the river – both published by Red Moon Press. 

Four Haiku

feral orchard
a wooden basket
full of windfalls         

                             a seam of cinnamon
                             in my morning roll                 

empty beach…
crows pick through

                            autumn dwindles
                            the maple renders
                            more sky

  Brad Bennett 


Red Letter Poem #33

It’s an elemental gesture, the cairn – placing a stone atop a stone.  In a Jewish cemetery, stones balanced upon grave markers signify a mourner’s visit, remembrance.  On a mountain climb, rocky piles mark paths, offer direction for travelers.  I often see little precarious towers of beach stones along the shore, and watch other passersby taking pleasure in bolstering them: I too was here.   But in introducing his poem “A Cairn by the Cabin” for an upcoming RED LETTER LIVE video-reading, Fred Marchant focused on the massive cairn being perpetually erected beside the site where Henry David Thoreau’s cabin once stood at Walden – and he takes it as both a sign of gratitude and a commitment toward maintaining the psychic edifice that is our grand democratic experiment – something Thoreau spent so much of his energy fortifying.

The late Congressman John Lewis wrote, in what would become his final message to America: “Democracy is not a state.  It is an act, and each generation must do its part to help build what we called the Beloved Community, a nation and world society at peace with itself.”  Are we capable now of acting in just such a manner – choosing our words, our gestures carefully as if laying a stone upon the existing stones – to establish a marker, to stand before the doorway of Thoreau’s invisible home, believing we can find shelter there, and offer shelter to others?  In light of our contentious election, the Black Lives Matter movement, the rampant fear fanned by the pandemic and economic uncertainty – is such a presumption still viable?  I have no doubt most of the poets who have been featured in these virtual Red Letter pages would answer: yes.  And you reading these words: yes.  Acting for the sake of our children and grandchildren; and our neighbors’ children and grandchildren: indeed yes.  And again tomorrow morning, responding to that face staring back at us from the mirror: we build yes upon yes upon yes.  By this cairn we’ll know we were here, mark our path forward, and offer guidance to those travelers who follow after us.

I’m delighted to feature Fred Marchant’s poetry once again.  Author of five collections including the recent Said Not Said, he is the Emeritus Professor of English at Suffolk University where he founded their Poetry Center.  Fred continues to work tirelessly to develop younger talents and to keep the rootstock of American poetry refreshed.  

A Cairn by the Cabin

                                            Walden Pond

. . . the asphalt parking
lot, our summer high
thick heat, and children 
with towels, flip-flops, 
popsicle Rockets,

red white and blue ice . . .

 . . . how deep the hole
our country did fall
into while we slept
and how the dream
brought us locusts,
their whine the sound
of a someone strapped
to the table, cut open,
for the hoses and salt . . .

. . . impossible to say
where we stand now
on a path that circles
what HDT said was
the eye of God but
now feels like a corner
where a sparrow has
fallen from its nest
and looks up at us,
as bewildered as we are. . .

. . . while in the mud,
leafy pools, shallows,
deep within alluvial
history, our truths
unfolding beneath us,
so he wanted to find
out if there was after
all some granite there,
something we believed in,
that held us together . . . 

. . . He must have known
it was always tentative
ready to fall apart,
that we each would
have to believe enough
to build it over again
and that this is what
these stones are here for. . .

                   –– Fred Marchant

First published in Pangyrus V: The Resistance Issue (winter 2018)

This poetic outreach was updated Dec. 18, 2020.

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