Red Letter Poem #51

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

It’s a paradox: every poem is an otherness.  It represents a point-of-view, personal history, approach to language, rhythmic sensibility, dance with despair and embrace of beauty – all of which are wholly distinct from that of the person reading the poem.  And yet, again and again, we find poets whose unique voices somehow resonate with our own, enlarge our boundaries, shine light into parts of our lives we may not have even realized were there.  Walt Whitman, in that revolutionary book Leaves of Grass, begins his poetic accounting of the American experience: “I celebrate myself,/ And what I assume you shall assume,/ For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.”  Centuries later, that declaration, that belief in a radical commonality, still strikes me as being central in determining America’s survival, and humanity’s.

Enzo Silon Surin is certainly a son of Whitman – and the American panorama he surveys is in some respects remarkably different from that of the good gray poet, and in other ways devastatingly unchanged.  Haitian-born, he grew up in Queens, New York City and that experience is a visceral presence in his first full-length collection, When My Body Was A Clinched Fist (Black Lawrence Press, 2020), as well as a brand-new manuscript from which today’s poem is taken, making its debut as a Red Letter.  Enzo is a poet, educator, speaker, and social advocate; as the founding editor and publisher of Central Square Press here in the Boston-area, he’s created a small, independent literary press that publishes thought-provoking and high-quality poetry reflecting a commitment to social justice.  Even when race is not the explicit subject of one of Enzo’s poems, it is a context that illuminates every situation.  I too grew up in Queens; that I did not have to be so acutely aware of such things during my formative years is an essential element of the privilege I’d been afforded.  Reading a poem like “The Block…”, I can’t help thinking of all the wild, stupid, utterly normal moments of my adolescence – and how different they’d have been if suddenly the police – or even the threat of such scrutiny – had been involved.  That Enzo survived that circumstance – in large part due to the way his community embraced its members – and developed from it a creative force that would not be suppressed or co-opted, is something every lover of language can celebrate.

Red Letter Poem #51: 

Red Letter 51

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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