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No. 127: Red Letter Poems 3.0: Performer, audience

UPDATED Sept. 9: Steven Ratiner, Arlington’s poet laureate, sought submissions in February 2020 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. In June 2021, he offers Red Letters 3.0.

PUBLISHED:  I was asked to write an essay for Askold Melnyczuk’s Arrowsmith Journal about what I learned from the first year of the Red Letter Project.  It also became a meditation about the relationship between poet and reader.  If you’d like to take a look, here is a link – -- and you’ll also be able to check out the variety of marvelous literary projects that appear under Askold’s Arrowsmith imprint.  Enjoy!

Steven RatinerSteven Ratiner / David Andrews photo 

The Red Letter Poem Project

The Red Letters 3.0: A New Beginning (Perhaps)   

At the outset of the Covid pandemic, when fear was at its highest, the Red Letter Project was intended to remind us of community: that, even isolated in our separate homes, we could still face this challenge together.  As Arlington’s Poet Laureate, I began sending out a poem of comfort each Friday, featuring the fine talents from our town and its neighbors.  Because I enlisted the partnership of seven local arts and community organizations, distribution of the poems spread quickly – and, with subscribers sharing and re-posting the installments, soon we had readers, not only throughout the Commonwealth, but across the country.  And I delighted in the weekly e-mails I’d receive with praise for the poets; as one reader recently commented: “You give me the gift of a quiet, contemplative break—with something to take away and reflect on.” 

Then our circumstance changed dramatically again: following the murder of George Floyd, the massive social and political unrest, and the national economic catastrophe, the distress of the pandemic was magnified.  Red Letter 2.0 announced that I would seek out as diverse a set of voices as I could find – from Massachusetts and beyond – so that their poems might inspire, challenge, deepen the conversation we were, by necessity, engaged in.

Now, with widespread vaccination, an economic rebound, and a shift in the political landscape, I intend to help this forum continue to evolve – Red Letter 3.0.  For the last 15 months, I’ve heard one question again and again: when will we get back our old lives?  It may pain us to admit it, but that is little more than a fantasy.  Our lives have been altered irrevocably – not only our understanding of how thoroughly interdependent we are, both locally and globally, but how fragile and utterly precious is all that we love.  Weren’t you bowled over recently by how good it felt just to hug a friend or family member?  Or to walk unmasked through a grocery, noticing all the faces?

So I think the question we must wrestle with is this: Knowing what we know, how will we begin shaping our new life? Will we quickly forget how grateful we felt that strangers put themselves at risk, every day, so that we might purchase milk and bread, ride the bus to work, or be cared for by a doctor or nurse? Will we slip back into our old drowse and look away from the pain so many are forced to endure – in this, the wealthiest nation on the planet? Will we stop noticing those simple beauties all around us?

The poet Mary Oliver said it plainly: “Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?” I will continue to offer RLP readers the work of poets who are engaged in these questions, hoping their voices will fortify all of ours.

Two of our partner sites will continue reposting each Red Letter weekly: at YourArlington and the Boston Area Small Press and Poetry Scene.  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: steven.arlingtonlaureate at

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 #127

It’s at the heart of every magician’s trick: misdirection – distracting the audience with some feint, some attention-grabbing gesture so that, while their minds are elsewhere, the ‘feat of magic’ can suddenly take place. It’s an act of self-conscious deception designed to provoke wonder in the onlooker. Ta-da! Cue the applause and the appreciative ooh’s and ah’s!

Is that what’s taking place here, in this new poem from Miriam Levine? Not quite. She begins by following her mind’s attention as it wends its way into the world, noticing bits of ordinary beauty (darting birds, blue-veiled Mt. Monadnock) and elements of the modern urban landscape (the half-way house, the cars struggling uphill). And suddenly, the startling news – and nothing seems quite the same after that. While her carefully observed images lead us onward, we’re more than a little shocked when, out of nowhere, the great 19th-century poet of Amherst steps from behind the scrim; and then a closing couplet materializes that is both beautiful and haunting. 

The difference between the magician’s legerdemain and the poet’s conjuring: I think the poet is both performer and audience. I don’t think Miriam set out to lay a trap for our hearts, but, lured on by her own exploring consciousness, was herself caught off-guard. Was she, too, quietly stunned by where those flitting birds eventually settled down – as we were?

The magic within the contemporary poem is the daring (or unbridled curiosity? or intuitive skill?) that allows the writer to travel – not to what she thought, at the outset, was her intended destination, but where the poem (with a mind of its own) was leading her all along. Or maybe I’m wrong, and these were a set of artful moves, designed to unsettle and surprise. That, too, is the great pleasure in such a performance: we can reread a poem again and again and, each time, try to see how the trick was done – or to simply sit back and enjoy what appears out of that sudden flash of light and puff of smoke. 

Making a return appearance to the Red Letters, Miriam is that sort of bracing poet that seems to welcome her readers into the substance of her days, trusting that we will savor both the kinship to our own experience as well as moments extending beyond our reach. In that manner, her work reminds me of Ruth Stone’s – another poet whose writing I prize. The author of five poetry collections – the most recent being Saving Daylight – as well as a novel and a memoir, Miriam was Arlington’s first poet laureate, but now divides her time between New Hampshire and Florida.

Watching Birds                                   

Birds flit low in early morning across School Street
past the half-way house for released convicts

as a lone car strains up the steep hill
toward Monadnock in the blue distance.

And now another car, electric, soundless,
empty except for the obscured driver.

The clear, clean light and scent of lilacs
make the fast-disappearing birds so

piercing now.  Another friend is dead!
He who was supposed to outlive us all.

I think of the verve and flash of robins Dickinson
watched from the edge of her garden,

breathing in the spice of lilacs while the morning
sun found a cold space in her and filled it.

                                  –– Miriam Levine

Red Letter Poem #126

Under Postmodernism, poets often (and gleefully) severed ties with tradition – whether it be cultural, formal or even familial. Their collective aim was toward forging a new language and imagination without antecedents. Certainly, many bracing innovations came about because of those experiments – but also a lot of poetry that, bearing few ties to the shared experience of readers, was often quickly (sometimes disdainfully) forgotten. And that quality of memorability has long been one of the bedrock experiences of poetry – phrasing and imagery that, once read or heard aloud, insinuate themselves into our consciousness as if they were ours in the first place. And then, over time, they become just that.

Thank goodness, poets in recent decades have been reenergized by their connection to family history, poetic lineage, cultural legacy. Case in point: the excellent Boston-area poet George Kalogeris, who always writes as if he were rooted in multiple worlds. There’s the one revolving around his long commitment to contemporary poetry – and not only his own work (for which he was awarded the James Dickey Poetry Prize), but that of the most vital talents in America and abroad. For example: He’s created dynamic English translations of the Greek Nobelist George Seferis, bringing his poetry to new audiences. There’s also George’s life as a scholar and educator; currently an associate professor at Suffolk University, he teaches English, creative writing and classics in translation, while also directing its Poetry Center. This is the proving ground where literature is either rejuvenated, generation after generation or it withers on the sacred vine.   

But a third realm (and perhaps the one most relevant to today’s Red Letter): He is a vessel for the immigrant experience and the varied stories it engenders. As a Greek-American, his imagination has long and tangled roots, extending from contemporary New England back to the ‘old country’ of his family, and then deeper still into the ancient Hellenic tradition which became the rootstock of much of Western civilization.

In his recent collection Winthropos, (Louisiana State University Press), I love his portrayals of relatives and family lore – and how, subtly, all three of his worlds come into play. Today, in a brand new poem, his recollection of visiting for the first time his father’s birthplace, the impoverished village of Akovos, high in the Peloponnese. In this brief narrative, his aunts somehow manage to school him in both the wellsprings of history and poetry while simultaneously puncturing (with good humor) the pretensions of a young man bearing his own poetic aspirations.

Though it’s hard to pin down, there is a quality in much of George’s work that is, I believe, an essential element in what’s best in contemporary poetry: It’s the gravity that comes from what we love and honor in our lives. It may sound naïve – and will certainly ruffle the feathers of some academics – but to me it’s one of the truest measures of the work we create. And what we are most deeply connected to, in turn, connects us to the universal, charges our creative endeavors with more than just our private desires. It’s tantamount to a sacred wellspring for writers and, to my mind, it cannot help but fortify the ink.   


Nereidivrisi. “Wellspring of the Nereids.”
At least that’s what it’s called in my father’s village.

Cobblestone shaft whose mossy tremulous darkness
I once looked way down into. Ice-cold water

From melting peaks of the Peloponnese. And me
The shaky balance that tries to keep two buckets

From spilling over as back down the slope I carry
One for witty Evgenikí, the other

For shrewd Yiannoúla, my aunts from Ákovos—
Who never fled their house when Hitler invaded, 

Or during the civil war that was even worse.
My father’s tiny, black-shawled, older sisters,

So eager to know if their young American nephew,
With all those books of poetry in his backpack,

Had seen the lovely ladies swimming up
From the bottom of the well…Before I can answer,

Their elderly elfin kerchiefed heads are already
Bobbing up and down with mischievous laughter.

O murky depths and open upturned faces!
Wrinkled water aglitter in brimming buckets

Whose wire handles carved this line in my palms:
Nereidivrisi. Wellspring of the Nereids.

                                  –– George Kalogeris

See poems from No. 119 through 125 here >>

This poetic outreach was updated Sept. 9, 2022.

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