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No. 55: Red Letter Poems: Sanctuary

UPDATED, April 16: 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 remain 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. 

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 #55

We parked in a nearby field.  September; Assisi; bird song; olive trees.  Entering the 13th-century Basilica of St. Francis – built not far from the spot the Christian friar established his first tiny stone chapel – eyes can’t help but rise.  Above us, and along both sides of the nave, are Giotto’s famous series of 28 frescos depicting Francis’ life, glowing in Umbrian sunlight filtered through stained glass.  Breathtaking.  At the time they were painted, most worshipers attending this church would have been illiterate – yet walking the central aisle, they could read the life of their beloved saint through the artist’s images, a wordless but entrancing narrative.

Julia Lisella teaches at Regis College and has published a poetry chapbook and two full-length collections; the most recent, Always (WordTech Editions), contains an interwoven set of poems with a double focus: the life of the saint and the death of her father.  Though he was in his mid-80s, her father was quite a vigorous man and so his cancer diagnosis still came as a shock.  The grief of impending loss silenced the poet and magnified her inner turmoil.

An artist-friend, Adele Travisano, told her about a series of paintings she was working on about the father of the Franciscan order and, desperate for release, Julia’s poems came tumbling out.  When her mother reminded her that Francis was her father’s favorite saint, it felt something like a mission confirmed.  Julia’s writing sometimes feels to me like a series of frescos – fragments of story, vivid images, feathery brushstrokes – as if, like Giotto, she needed to work quickly before the plaster dried.  At times, as we read, we’re not sure which man is the subject of a passage or even which century we’re standing in.  Here, the boundaries between flesh and myth blur as Julia attempts to come to terms with impending loss, depicting the ways our lives alternately veil and then reveal the depth of meaning.

Having lost my own father when I was quite young, perhaps I was especially susceptible to Julia’s materials.  But after many readings, I began to view her poems as if from a distance; as with all successful pieces, the deftness of description and her emotional restraint elevate the personal into a more communal realm, moving them from being hers to ours.  We sit quietly with them.  This year more than most, I believe we can use just such a sanctuary.

Like St. Francis     

He lives in his body but he watches it
changing shape. He remembers
the words to songs. He can’t
sing them. He hugs us like it’s
the last time. His embrace
alters my footpath, my scent,
my measure, my frail breath.
He releases a sparrow
from the coffee canister
he lodged beneath the patio awning a year ago
for them to burrow in and to come alive.
He reminds me of you, St. Francis.
Or I wish him to be you. Or I wish
he had you lighting on his shoulder
like a bird.

                                          –– Julia Lisella

Red Letter Poem #54

The Jewish Passover; Christianity’s Easter; Islamic Ramadan; Hindu’s Holi; the Wiccan Ostara; the April festival referred to as Buddha’s Birthday; and countless others.  One aspect of the holiness inherent in these holidays focuses on that most human of experiences: winter has released its grip – the Earth is becoming green again.  No matter where you make your home on this planet, there are the hard and fallow seasons of the year, and others where fertility and renewal are ascendant.  The angel of death passes over our community – and then we rejoice at our survival.

America and the world are slowly moving through the cruelest and most unyielding of winters in recent memory; the pandemic drove us indoors to hunker down in isolation, desperate for that invisible storm to finally pass us by.  We are presently going through our second Covid spring – and with vaccinations becoming more widespread, we have reason to pray (however you interpret that word, and whatever your family’s tradition) that spring will bring us reason to celebrate.

Charles Coe’s writing is filled with celebration: of family, memory, history; of the beauty surrounding us and those inner clearings we retreat to for a sense of peace.  Poet, educator, singer, blogger, raconteur, he published his third collection, Memento Mori (Leapfrog Press) in 2019.  Running all through the poet’s work there is praise for endurance, continuity; but the challenge is how can we endure while still keeping our hearts intact in an often-brutal world?

The answer, his poems seem to suggest, involves more than stubborn determination; you have to find a way to love the world despite its failings, despite the obstacles placed in your path.  It’s by no means an easy discipline, but necessary nonetheless.  Sometimes the insight contained in a poem strengthens our resolve.  When I first read Charles’ simple and simply beautiful poem, “Prayer,” in the recent collection, I felt he’d managed to transform the ordinary into a Red Letter day.  Holy. 


In a quiet corner of the supermarket parking lot
an employee in red t-shirt
kneels on a piece of cardboard,
bows, then rises to speak the holy words,
his view of Mecca unimpeded
by the dumpster and unpainted wooden fence.

                                         –– Charles Coe


Red Letter Poem #53

“The one constant through all the years, Ray, has been baseball.”  And right now, if you’re like me, you’re recalling the smell of movie popcorn and reciting the lines along with the Terrence Mann character from A Field of Dreams.  “America has rolled by like an army of steamrollers. It’s been erased like a blackboard, rebuilt, and erased again. But baseball has marked the time.”  Here, just in time for Opening Day at Fenway Park and stadiums across the country, is a poem to celebrate baseball’s return, marking the true beginning of spring.  Even in this age of sports magnification and acceleration – designed to appeal to generations raised on video-game-extravaganza – baseball, that most American of pastimes, somehow endures in its quietude.

And Gail Mazur’s piece – which appears in her recent collection Land’s End: New and Selected Poems (The University of Chicago Press) – isn’t just about baseball; it moves with the same deliberate pace, carefully considers each signal call and infield shift as the scene evolves.  Both possess a tremendous depth of thought hidden beneath the surface – all before the ball even leaves the pitcher’s hand.  In baseball – and unlike most other sports today – emotion too tends to be subdued, only occasionally bursting into view with breathtaking surprise.  

Gail’s poem keeps its heart veiled, but we receive brief and tantalizing glimpses: there’s the “Easter egg” allusion to the cherished John Updike essay, “Hub Fans Bid the Kid Adieu”, about Ted Williams’ final game.  And though it’s surely a Red Sox home game, the Boston team is never mentioned – even as the name of the dreaded opponent appears twice.  I wasn’t surprised by the bitter outburst from the old woman in the stands, wishing utter destruction upon the Yankee player.  But contrast that with the tenderly-observed boy in the Yankees cap sleeping against his father.  Baseball – and poetry – become occasions where our long-standing traditions provide us with the means for checking the score and examining how our lives have changed.  

Poet and educator, Gail Mazur is the author of seven poetry collections, finalist for the National Book Award, and recipient of numerous fellowships and honors.  But in my mind, at the top of that list must be her role as the creator of the Blacksmith House Poetry Series in Cambridge, still going strong since 1973; for half a century, it’s been the spiritual hub of our poetry community.  Any long practice that’s built upon deep attention, by its nature, reflects the heart – both that of the maker and spectator.  That famous movie speech concludes: baseball “reminds us of all that once was good, and that could be again. Oh, people will come, Ray. People will most definitely come."  True for both baseball and poetry.  Play ball! 


The game of baseball is not a metaphor
and I know it’s not really life.
The chalky green diamond, the lovely
dusty brown lanes I see from airplanes
multiplying around the cities 
are only neat playing fields.
Their structure is not the frame
of history carved out of forest, 
that is not what I see on my ascent.

And down in the stadium,
the veteran catcher guiding the young
pitcher through the innings, the line
of concentration between them,
that delicate filament is not
like the way you are helping me,
only it reminds me when I strain
for analogies, the way a rookie strains
for perfection, and the veteran,
in his wisdom, seems to promise it,
it glows from his upheld glove,

and the man in front of me
in the grandstand, drinking banana
daiquiris from a thermos,
continuing through a whole dinner
to the aromatic cigar even as our team
is shut out, nearly hitless, he is
not like the farmer that Auden speaks
of in Breughel’s Icarus,
or the four inevitable woman-hating
drunkards, yelling, hugging
each other and moving up and down
continuously for more beer

and the young wife trying to understand
what a full count could be
to please her husband happy in
his old dreams, or the little boy
in the Yankees cap already nodding
off to sleep against his father,
program and popcorn memories
sliding into the future,
and the old woman from Lincoln, Maine,
screaming at the Yankee slugger
with wounded knees to break his leg

this is not a microcosm,
not even a slice of life

and the terrible slumps,
when the greatest hitter mysteriously
goes hitless for weeks, or
the pitcher’s stuff is all junk
who threw like a magician all last month,
or the days when our guys look
like Sennett cops, slipping, bumping
each other, then suddenly, the play
that wasn’t humanly possible, the Kid
we know isn’t ready for the big leagues,
leaps into the air to catch a ball
that should have gone downtown,
and coming off the field is hugged
and bottom-slapped by the sudden
sorcerers, the winning team

the question of what makes a man
slump when his form, his eye,
his power aren’t to blame, this isn’t
like the bad luck that hounds us,
and his frustration in the games
not like our deep rage
for disappointing ourselves

the ballpark is an artifact,
manicured, safe, “scene in an Easter egg”,
and the order of the ball game,
the firm structure with the mystery
of accidents always contained, 
not the wild field we wander in,
where I’m trying to recite the rules,
to repeat the statistics of the game,
and the wind keeps carrying my words away

                                    –– Gail Mazur

Red Letter Poem #52

“Americans had put on blindfolds when they should have put on masks.”  The bitter quip comes from Nicholas A. Christakis’ recent book Apollo’s Arrow: The Profound and Enduring Impact of Coronavirus on the Way We Live.  We are one year into a new reality, brought about by the collision between the power of the micro-world of viruses and the macro-dangers presented by our poor understanding of global interdependence.

A little over 52 weeks ago, the Covid lockdown had been declared and – confined to our houses, unsure how to keep our families safe while still acquiring things like milk, bread, and toilet paper – we were all confused, and terribly fearful.  It only took a week of isolation to convince me that individuals needed to actively seek out ways of supporting each other in those dark times if we were to survive together.  Knowing how poems have always offered me a life preserver in stormy seas, I decided this might be a small way for Arlington’s Laureate to offer comfort to my community. 

So the Red Letter Project was born – a virtual version of what was originally intended to be a one-off mailing of actual red envelopes containing poems from local writers.  Drawing on the wealth of poetic talent in Arlington, I began sending out a new poem each Friday – offering a brief oasis amid the week’s troubled news, echoing Frost’s notion that poetry represents “a momentary stay against confusion.”  Partnering with seven arts and community organizations, each week’s installment had a potential readership in the thousands.  Of course, at the time I only expected that the crisis – and thus the need for Red Letters – would last a month, two at the most.  Perhaps we all shared a failure of the imagination.

Then George Floyd was killed; and protests erupted across the nation; and the economy went into meltdown; and the already-rancorous political discourse became even more toxic.  So I began inviting the participation of poets from all across the Commonwealth, while broadening the subjects being addressed, moving from themes of consolation and community to include ones that would challenge, surprise, inspire.  And since the poems were being re-shared and re-posted, we soon found we had readers spanning the country; I recently heard from one reader in Turkey and another in South Korea.  I should never be surprised that poems manage to travel wherever they are needed.

I’ve been thinking a lot about all I’ve learned from this project in the past year: how precious to us are those everyday places and moments we previously took for granted (as in Fred Marchant’s visit to Pinckney Street, RLP #1; Susan Donnelly coming upon music in a Red Line station, #3; Polly Brown’s return to her familial Maine farmhouse in #12.)  And how our worlds can be thoroughly shaken in a single instant (as Ellen Steinbaum’s was by a ‘Covid dream’, RLP #10; or Martín Espada’s after an accident suffered by his wife, #23; or Teresa Cader’s meditation on contagion while sitting in the little garden beside Arlington’s Town Hall, #29.)  I marveled at the many unexpected resources that sustain us during crisis (as Adnan Adam Onart demonstrated, recalling his great-grandmother’s prayers, RLP #31; or Lloyd Schwartz, remembering the sound of rain at Moosehead Lake, #37; or Enzo Silon reflecting on the protective umbrella of community he found during his childhood, #51.)  Some elegiac poems shared personal grief (Jo Pitkin remembering her father, RLP #19; Jenny Xie’s loss of homeland, #45; or Martha Collins’ loss of her spouse, #50) – but then there were poems detailing the myriad ways in which we find the strength to go on (as John Pijewski did, waking to hear bird song at dawn in RLP #17; or Christopher Jane Corkery found, sipping the waters of memory, #48; or Alice Kociemba practiced in #28, making a list of her reasons to be thankful.)

Perhaps I’m making my own list here, a roll call of gratitudes – which, I believe, is the chief lesson we can learn from this pandemic: we must not wait to lose what we love in order to know its value.  I’m mindful that, for well over 500,000 families in our country, the word Covid will forever signify the loss of some beloved presence in their lives; my own extended family is included in that least exclusive of societies.  And yet again and again, even they find ways to be thankful for the love that endures, often extending it with a renewed generosity.

And so I am grateful for all the poets and readers who’ve become a part of this ‘community of voices’, and all the individuals and groups whose continued energies help to widen its borders.  I’ve made the following two sentences a part of every RLP installment since the very first: 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.  This year has only reaffirmed the truth of that declaration.  May we, each day, remove our blindfolds and seek to promote a lasting healing; may we always come across the very poems we are in need of, or else go ahead and write them ourselves; and may tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow continue to bring us Red Letter days.


While sleet scarred the dark pane white,
she sat at a back table in Starbucks
sipping slow from her empty cup, hour
after hour – and, judging by the look on her face,
each sip was more delicious than the last.


Mathematics: ten from Guatemala
shared the two-room fourth-floor walk-up.
The five from the night shift returned home
each morning at 8, waiting for the day shift workers
to vacate their beds so they too could partake
in sleep’s modest infinite.  And still Hector
managed to wire thirty-five dollars most weeks
to Antigua, making sure the clerk spelled it correctly:
te amo, mi querida.


Hands pressed together, palm to palm, with
the pane of the nursing home window
between them.  When, reluctantly, they each drew away
from this brief everlasting, the woman’s larger imprint
and the child’s small, took a half-second to vanish
from the cooling glass.


After the third surgery – her bald head
creased like a dry river bed – the doctors
let my sister know she was out of options.
She proved them wrong, continued caring for
her gathered family, loving the small mercies
and even the waning days.  Nowhere in medicine
do they explain that joy, too, is an option.    


I can see now that
the never-enough I’ve
lived with all my life
was always (and much
to my chagrin) more than.

          –– Steven Ratiner

Red Letter Poem #51

It’s a paradox: Every poem is an otherness.  It represents a point-of-view, personal history, approach to language, rhythmic sensibility, dance with despair and embrace of beauty – all of which are wholly distinct from that of the person reading the poem.  And yet, again and again, we find poets whose unique voices somehow resonate with our own, enlarge our boundaries, shine light into parts of our lives we may not have even realized were there.

Walt Whitman, in that revolutionary book Leaves of Grass, begins his poetic accounting of the American experience: “I celebrate myself,/ And what I assume you shall assume,/ For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.”  Centuries later, that declaration, that belief in a radical commonality, still strikes me as being central in determining America’s survival, and humanity’s.

Enzo Silon Surin is certainly a son of Whitman – and the American panorama he surveys is in some respects remarkably different from that of the good gray poet, and in other ways devastatingly unchanged. Haitian-born, he grew up in Queens, N.Y., and that experience is a visceral presence in his first full-length collection, When My Body Was A Clinched Fist (Black Lawrence Press, 2020), as well as a brand-new manuscript from which today’s poem is taken, making its debut as a Red Letter.  

Enzo is a poet, educator, speaker and social advocate; as the founding editor and publisher of Central Square Press in the Boston-area, he’s created a small, independent literary press that publishes thought-provoking and high-quality poetry reflecting a commitment to social justice. Even when race is not the explicit subject of one of Enzo’s poems, it is a context that illuminates every situation. 

I too grew up in Queens; that I did not have to be so acutely aware of such things during my formative years is an essential element of the privilege I’d been afforded.  Reading a poem like “The Block …,”I can’t help thinking of all the wild, stupid, utterly normal moments of my adolescence – and how different they’d have been if suddenly the police – or even the threat of such scrutiny – had been involved.  That Enzo survived that circumstance – in large part due to the way his community embraced its members – and developed from it a creative force that would not be suppressed or co-opted, is something every lover of language can celebrate.

The Block Before Columbus

The neighbors never called nine-one-
one on us.  Not when I spent a summer
learning to ride a bike in the hallways
of our apartment building.  Not when

a neighbor’s door played goalpost and
we took turns launching penalty kicks.
Not when we threw water balloons off
the fire escapes in bombardment of rats

below –– if we got too close to humans
they knew who our families were and
some had permission to scold and shame
us out of bedlam –– Not then and not when

we littered the air of the front stoop with
laughter way past dusk, trying to expel
a summer heat that made a kiln out of
upper-floor apartments.  Not one, ever. &

someone was always watching us.  & when
the police stopped to interrogate our laughter,
flipping the lint out of our pockets & breaking
up what didn’t need to be broken, the neighbors

vouched & pleaded.  Some of us were still taken
for questioning, for good measure –– the rest often
kept vigil in the lobby.  & and on most nights, we
avoided the stoop altogether.  & some pled & fled

& stopped laughing as loud & hung out less.  Still
the police kept coming though no one called 9-1-1.

                     –– Enzo Silon Surin


Red Letter Poem #50

The elegy presents us with a curious amalgam: the ascendant eye anchored to the leaden heart; the privacy of grief enacted upon a public stage; an attempt to grasp the evanescent nature of memory using the matter-of-fact instruments of nouns and verbs. And when the loss is sudden and devastating – like that suffered by the acclaimed poet Martha Collins with the death of her husband – often the easier path is a retreat into silence.  Unless, of course, that voice cannot be silenced.

It did not come as a surprise to hear Martha explain that, when she wrote this sequence of poems – eventually published as Because What Else Could I Do (Pittsburgh, 2019) – they were intended solely for herself.  After all (as the title declares), what other hope for comfort does a poet have but the ability to speak. 

When friends encouraged her to share these pieces, she eventually took that risk. Anyone who has experienced loss – anyone who believes in the regenerative force that poetry represents – will be grateful that she did.  Some of the poems in this book present the mind’s complex struggle to even confront the incomprehensible; others are so painful because they are so utterly mundane: “what will I do with my one// spoon and my wide bed.”Martha’s book is part of a long poetic tradition of such elaborate elegiac creations; Eugenio Montale’s Xenia and Donald Hall’s Without are among the titles I most value. 

Hers was eventually awarded the William Carlos Williams Award from the Poetry Society of America.  The poem I selected (#39 – all the poems are simply designated by their number) has a simple interlocking rhythmical structure that reminds me of children’s verse, as the poet leads us into a familiar scene. Step by step, image by image, we enter the waters of this remembered everydayness, possessing now the knowledge that everything is precious and nothing guaranteed.

I would be doing her a disservice if I left the impression that grief is the only territory that Martha has explored. A prolific poet, translator, and editor, she has authored nine collections that tackle issues like history, race, memory, and the elliptical nature of thought. She has been the recipient of numerous fellowships and awards, and was also the founder of the creative writing program at the University of Massachusetts at Boston 


the winding road
the bare trees

through bare trees
the gray pond

beside the pond
the bench where you sat

the empty bench
the still pond

across the pond
the two white chairs

the chairs reflected
where I would swim

and when I’d swum
almost back in

you’d get in the water
and meet me there

         –– Martha Collins

Red Letter Poem #49

Sonnet.  To some, the word itself is a pure musicality, conjuring what’s often thought of as the jewel of Western poetry.  To others – who perhaps endured less-than-cherished high school English classes (unlucky souls), where the poetic form was used as an instrument of torment or a cruel measure of intelligence – the word makes the little hairs across the neck stand up stiffly.

Yet biologists and anthropologists tell us that the human mind relishes the experience of pattern; it promises security, anticipation, rhythmic pleasure, a sense of resolution. A sonnet is all that and more.

The form in formal poetry just means there’s a distant music guiding the poet’s ear, and a set of dance steps that have been handed down. But for contemporary practitioners of the art form, there is a certain pleasure in showing up for the grand ball dressed, not in tux or taffeta, but in comfy jeans and old Nikes. They play against our old expectations by focusing on more down-to-earth subject matter, and adopting a tone of voice more colloquial than Cavalcanti or Shakespeare ever imagined.

So it is with Denise Provost whose collection, Curious Peach (published by Ibbetson Street Press in 2019), is chock-full of sonnets that carry us through the year’s seasonal progression, uncovering beauty in simple events that might normally pass beneath our attention.  To a person for whom snow-shoveling is the least poetic of activities, somehow she reminded me of that marvelous sense of dislocation a storm can bring, as even our own street can be transformed overnight into strange territory. 

And then there’s that sense camaraderie a blizzard instills – all of us in it together, dwarfed by the immensity of something as simple as weather, and perhaps humbled by our powerlessness before natural phenomena. So Denise allows her pentameters to breathe a bit, and uses the matrix of line breaks to make what seems like ordinary speech feel like an intimate meditation. She has a new collection, City of Stories, set to appear next year from Cervena Barva Press. And now that she is no longer a state representative from Somerville, I forecast future blizzards of verse along with New England’s yearly snowfall.


It looks as though the snow has ceased to fall.
I hear the shovel’s scrape, then the dull growl
of small snow-blowers, followed by the plow
that shifts the snowfall higher on the tall
banks which enclose us. What we see is all
distorted; once familiar sights effaced,
street grid and landmarks gradually encased
in deepening piles and drifts, into which small
children venture at their peril. I walk
into a place of surrealistic shapes;
the sun is out, people have come to gawk
at how one storm has altered the landscape
and placed on ordinary life a lock
that we, so outmatched, struggle to escape.

                                        –– Denise Provost

Red Letter Poem #48

“When you die, God and the angels will hold you accountable for all the pleasures you were allowed in life that you denied yourself.” My wife cut out this anonymous quote from a magazine and posted it on our fridge.  At the time, I believed (foolish man!) it was meant as justification for her beloved indulgence: shoe shopping.  Endlessly frugal, I’d spent most of my life turning denial into a veritable artform.  Later, when it came out in conversation that the quote was intended, not for herself, but for me – my tears were extravagant and, over time, transformative.

Christopher Jane Corkery’s poem takes us to a tiny Italian hill town near Florence where she savors what seems the simplest of memories: sun, taste, the generosity of the body, those times in life when we’re able to be blissfully unaware of the price time exacts from us all.  Three times she mentions “danger” yet, despite some hints of darkness, she plunges ahead, plumbing memory’s irresistible depths – because, back then, that little coltish spring seemed a symbol of ultimate abundance.  But what should we make of that old man she meets, squatting on the boundary between the mundane and the mythological?  And his offer/command that she – “Bevi!” – drink?

Do we ever understand what we’ve been given – or fully appreciate what we’ve lost?  Perhaps that’s the poet’s job: to reclaim that lost day – for herself, for her readers – with the gently-inflected music I’ve come to trust in Christopher’s writing.  Savoring the poem, we are each, then, left on our own to take account of what beauty our flickering days contain.

My dog-eared copy of her first collection, Blessing (Princeton University Press) remains a favorite of mine. Christopher’s new book, Love Took the Words (Slant Books, 2020) from which “Il Cavallino…” was taken, carries us to faraway places – Ireland, Mexico, Greece, Italy (much appreciated during these homebound days) – as well as towns a mere stone’s throw from Arlington.  Poet, educator, essayist, proud grandmother, Christopher is widely published, richly honored, and determined to continue following wherever her pen leads.

Il Cavallino, Little Horse

How dangerous can it be to sit on a terrace
high on a hill near Doccia, which is silent as ever,
minding one’s business, which is not much,
and thinking about the garden even higher
above the old, old house…

how full it was
of rucula, how later the parmeggian’
thinly shaved over the top of the greens,
and redolent, would be finished by only drops
from a quarter lemon squeezed by your husband’s hand.

That hand was brown, and long-fingered, and graceful.
And the wrist as well -- oh how these memories feed us
and starve us at the same time!

No danger then in remembering -- surely no danger? --
the now-dry spring that was called Il Cavallino,
at the bottom of a gully reached by our friends’ dark path.

I got water from it, squatting by an old man
who said “Prendi! Bevi!” offering me one of his bottles.
He was old as any of the guardians of the sacred 
yet, unlike many of those, he was kind.
Or perhaps he was like all of them in this:
face to face offering/demanding/saying:
“Drink! Take and drink. Do it now!”

                              –– Christopher Jane Corkery

See poems from No. 40 to 47 here >>

This poetic outreach was updated March 12, 2021.

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