Steven Ratiner, Arlington’s Poet Laureate, is today’s guest blogger.
“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 fifty-two 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.
Red Letter Poem #52:
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: email@example.com 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