Red Letter Poem #50

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

The elegy presents us with a curious amalgam: the ascendant eye anchored to the leaden heart; the privacy of grief enacted upon a public stage; an attempt to grasp the evanescent nature of memory using the matter-of-fact instruments of nouns and verbs.  And when the loss is sudden and devastating – like that suffered by the acclaimed poet Martha Collins with the death of her husband – often the easier path is a retreat into silence.  Unless, of course, that voice cannot be silenced.

It did not come as a surprise to hear Martha explain that, when she wrote this sequence of poems – eventually published as Because What Else Could I Do (Pittsburgh, 2019) – they were intended solely for herself.  After all (as the title declares), what other hope for comfort does a poet have but the ability to speak.  When friends encouraged her to share these pieces, she eventually took that risk.  Anyone who has experienced loss – anyone who believes in the regenerative force that poetry represents – will be grateful that she did.  Some of the poems in this book present the mind’s complex struggle to even confront the incomprehensible; others are so painful because they are so utterly mundane: “what will I do with my one// spoon and my wide bed”.  Martha’s book is part of a long poetic tradition of such elaborate elegiac creations; Eugenio Montale’s Xenia and Donald Hall’s Without are among the titles I most value.  Hers was eventually awarded the William Carlos Williams Award from the Poetry Society of America.  The poem I selected (#39 – all the poems are simply designated by their number) has a simple interlocking rhythmical structure that reminds me of children’s verse, as the poet leads us into a familiar scene.  Step by step, image by image, we enter the waters of this remembered everydayness, possessing now the knowledge that everything is precious and nothing guaranteed.

I would be doing her a disservice if I left the impression that grief is the only territory that Martha has explored.  A prolific poet, translator, and editor, she has authored nine collections that tackle issues like history, race, memory, and the elliptical nature of thought.  She has been the recipient of numerous fellowships and awards, and was also the founder of the creative writing program at the University of Massachusetts at Boston

Red Letter Poem #50: 

Red Letter 50

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  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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