Steven Ratiner, Arlington’s Poet Laureate, is today’s guest blogger.
In praise of fathers and mothers. No, not the ones we are born to – I’d hope we need no reminder for that gratitude. I mean those cultural/spiritual/societal patriarchs and matriarchs that materialized somewhere in our lives and helped, by their example, form who we are. There are individuals whom we might never have met in the flesh and yet are beholden to just the same. I’d need more hands than I possess to count the number of poets and artists whose lives and works I so admired they catalyzed something in me that I might not have otherwise trusted – might not even have believed was there.
Bonnie Bishop, a poet of deep feeling, can list as many of these honored forebears in the musical world as she does in the realm of letters. It’s one of the reasons she and her husband spend so much time down in New Orleans, so they can be close to many of the jazz performers they love. Case in point: the ‘Ellis’ of her poem is, of course, Ellis Marsalis Jr.: gifted jazz pianist, educator, and patriarch of the famed Marsalis family, who died this past April at the age of 85, yet another light snuffed out by Covid-19. Not only did Ellis teach jazz improvisation to generations of young musicians, he made his home into something of a cultural salon and music academy for neighborhood kids – and along the way launched four of his sons into prominent musical careers of their own. But his focus was never solely on the sounds coming out from the instruments but on the excitement emanating from young hearts. And I think the lesson here is that we, in every generation, need to honor what we’ve been given by making sure we too have offered such gifts to other, more recent arrivals. To recognize those influences we carry within us is to comprehend more fully the constellation of energies we call a life. But to pass on some of that energy, in whatever form we are capable of shaping and focusing it, is to rebuff the atomized vision of contemporary existence and know we are interconnected in barely-imaginable ways. Lacking a musical instrument, Bonnie here uses careful observation and lyrical phrasing to invite us to tune in to a vast composition of which Mr. Marsalis’ songs were one small part.
Red Letter Poem #41:
The Red Letter Poems Project was created in grateful partnership with many of our town’s cultural resources: the Arlington Commission for Arts and Culture, the Arlington Center for the Arts, the Robbins Library, the Arlington International Film Festival, and Arlington Community Education. See the full archive of the project at http://artsarlington.org/red-letter-poems/. We’ll send out a poem from a new poet every week. If you enjoy them, we encourage you to forward them to friends – in Arlington and beyond – or to post them on your social media platforms with the hashtags: #RedLetterPoems, #ArlingtonPoetLaureate. If you want to make sure you receive these poems directly – or to receive notices about future poetry events – send an e-mail to: firstname.lastname@example.org 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 – and, in truth, even the COVID-19 crisis itself – serves as a reminder that every day we wake together beneath the sun is a red-letter day.
– Steven Ratiner