Red Letter Poem #47

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

If you’re not familiar with the work of Afaa Michael Weaver – award-winning poet, fiction writer, educator, and soon-to-be memoirist – you might want to dive right in to the three books of his monumental verse achievement, Plum Flower Trilogy.  But when he offered me a Red Letter contribution, my mind went immediately to a modest-looking 13-poem chapbook, A Hard Summation, published by Central Square Press in Cambridge, MA.  Hard?  I’d have said nearly impossible – because Afaa set himself the challenge of weaving together 400 years of the African-American experience in this brief sequence – stretching from the Middle Passage to the Great Migration and up into our contemporary city landscapes.  He conjures a host of voices and scenarios, clothed in dictions that range from the rural South to the patois of Northern urban streets – inflected, at times, by Gospel chant, the formal stance of the sonnet, or his own style of musically-charged free verse.  As our country, at last, begins to wrestle with its troubled racial history, A Hard Summation should be an essential resource in the deepening conversation.

Throughout the sequence, we’re introduced to a litany of names and voices: from children listed on a slave ship manifest, to cultural and civil rights figures, to those anonymous men and women just trying to make it through another day.  In this, the closing poem of the collection, we feel the presence of Heaven Sutton, a seven-year-old girl shot and killed in her West Side Chicago neighborhood, the collateral damage of gang violence.  As in all the poems here, the losses, the fleeting joys are individual, intimate, rich with the sort of visceral impressions that history books often fail to document.  Afaa’s writing offers us (as the poem says) “a respite from history”, the chance to be moved by the music and emotional valence of these thoughts, so that we might begin to make our own peace with what we’re carrying within us.

Red Letter Poem #47: 

Red Letter 47

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: steven.arlingtonlaureate@gmail.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

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