Red Letter Poem #33

Steven Ratiner, Arlington’s Poet Laureate, is today’s guest blogger.

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.

Red Letter Poem #33:

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. 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: 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

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