No. 105: Red Letter Poems 3.0: Ukraine ‘statistics’

UPDATED April 8: Steven Ratiner, Arlington’s poet laureate, sought submissions in February 2020 from Arlington residents to contribute to “a rather unconventional, utterly delightful way to inject poetry into the everyday.” It was to remain secret until its debut during April’s National Poetry Month. Then the coronavirus hit. In June 2021, he offers Red Letters 3.0.

PUBLISHED: I was asked to write an essay for Askold Melnyczuk’s Arrowsmith Journal about what I learned from the first year of the Red Letter Project. It also became a meditation about the relationship between poet and reader. If you’d like to take a look, here is a link – arrowsmithpress.com/community-of-voices — and you’ll also be able to check out the variety of marvelous literary projects that appear under Askold’s Arrowsmith imprint. Enjoy!

Steven Ratiner / David Andrews photo

The Red Letter Poem Project

The Red Letters 3.0: A New Beginning (Perhaps)

At the outset of the Covid pandemic, when fear was at its highest, the Red Letter Project was intended to remind us of community: that, even isolated in our separate homes, we could still face this challenge together. As Arlington’s Poet Laureate, I began sending out a poem of comfort each Friday, featuring the fine talents from our town and its neighbors. Because I enlisted the partnership of seven local arts and community organizations, distribution of the poems spread quickly – and, with subscribers sharing and re-posting the installations, soon we had readers, not only throughout the Commonwealth, but across the country. And I delighted in the weekly e-mails I’d receive with praise for the poets; as one reader recently commented: “You give me the gift of a quiet, contemplative break—with something to take away and reflect on.”

Then our circumstance changed dramatically again: following the murder of George Floyd, the massive social and political unrest, and the national economic catastrophe, the distress of the pandemic was magnified. Red Letter 2.0 announced that I would seek out as diverse a set of voices as I could find – from Massachusetts and beyond – so that their poems might inspire, challenge, deepen the conversation we were, by necessity, engaged in.

Now, with widespread vaccination, an economic rebound, and a shift in the political landscape, I intend to help this forum continue to evolve – Red Letter 3.0. For the last 15 months, I’ve heard one question again and again: when will we get back our old lives? It may pain us to admit it, but that is little more than a fantasy. Our lives have been irrevocably altered – not only our understanding of how thoroughly interdependent we are, both locally and globally, but how fragile and utterly precious is all that we love. Weren’t you bowled over recently by how good it felt just to hug a friend or family member? Or to walk unmasked through a grocery, noticing all the faces?

So I think the question we must wrestle with is this: Knowing what we know, how will we begin shaping our new life? Will we quickly forget how grateful we felt that strangers put themselves at risk, every day, so that we might buy milk and bread, ride the bus to work, or be cared for by a doctor or nurse? Will we slip back into our old drowse and look away from the pain so many are forced to endure – in this, the wealthiest nation on the planet? Will we stop noticing those simple beauties all around us?

The poet Mary Oliver said it plainly: “Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?” I will continue to offer RLP readers the work of poets who are engaged in these questions, hoping their voices will fortify all of ours.

Two of our partner sites will continue reposting each Red Letter weekly: at YourArlington and the Boston Area Small Press and Poetry Scene. If you would like to receive these poems every Friday in your own in-box – or would like to write in with comments or submissions – send correspondence to: steven.arlingtonlaureate at gmail.com.

IIn 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.

Red Letter Poem #105

I would like to believe that the signature statement of our age is this one: “the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice” — taken from Dr. King’s speech at the National Cathedral in 1968. But I fear it will end up being this — spoken at a crisis meeting of high-ranking Soviet officials focused on what came to be known as the Holodomor famine in the 1930s: “If only one man dies of hunger, that is a tragedy. If millions die, that’s only statistics.”

The speaker was, at the time, the Commissar of Munitions – but Joseph Stalin went on to become the supreme ruler of his nation, operating with that same heartless realpolitik, where power and control trumped all other concerns. It’s a cruel irony that the famine being addressed – and dismissed – at that meeting was taking place in Ukraine, another nation whose people had been swallowed up by the Soviet empire. It seems that, today, Vladimir Putin must be using Stalin’s statement as a political guide as he wages his remorseless war on the cities and towns of a neighboring country that refuses to bend to his will.

So I especially appreciate the reminder that poets provide – voices representing the ordinary and the marvelous within our shared existence: that enmeshed in the sweeping forces of history, ours is the living and dying at stake. Ours, too, the dreams we inherited from our parents – whose transmission to our own children is both a sacred duty and our deepest hope. And, of course, ours, this very conversation which despots have tried to control since the earliest human civilizations, hammering it down with darkness and brutality, but which somehow keeps managing to find some small path back into daylight.

Ukrainian writer Oksana Zabuzhko made her poetry debut at the age of 12, but, because her parents had been blacklisted during the Soviet purges of the 1970s, it took another dozen years and the advent of perestroika before her first book received publication. Since then, she has authored 20 works of fiction, nonfiction, poetry, literary and social analysis, which have been translated into a score of foreign languages.

Today’s Red Letter piece is taken from her Selected Poems, translated by Lisa Sapinkopf and published by Boston’s own Arrowsmith Press. Oksana has been called “without a doubt the most influential literary figure in Ukraine of the last half century”; one of her novels by her occupied a spot on her country’s best-seller list for a full decade. Her de ella honors de ella – in her native land and beyond – include MacArthur and Fulbright Fellowships, as well as the Antonovych International Foundation Prize, the Shevchenko National Prize of Ukraine, and the Order of Princess Olha.

In early March, she addressed the European Parliament about the threats to Ukrainian sovereignty and the dire situation, especially for the women there. But for decades even before this crisis, her writing de ella has borne witness to the myriad ways totalitarian regimes practice suppression in order to separate beleaguered people from their cultural inheritance and their imaginative freedom. And now, away from her beloved home and friends in Kyiv, she is doing everything within her powers de ella to support her country’s resistance to the Russian onslaught. In a sense, she is testing something of an Archimedean principle: with the heart as the fulcrum and a lever of fervid language, is it possible to move the world?

A Kingdom of Fallen Statues

Just as children scrawl self-portraits
With two figures, mom and dad,
Grasping them with unsteady stick-hands,
I’m drawing on the windowpane
A kingdom of fallen statues —
And the outlines, delicate, are quivering.
In the kingdom of fallen statues all gates hang open,
And even marauders no longer tread grass
That was overgrown in an instant.
vanished temples,
And yes, vanished dramas —
But how real, O God, how alive they are…
Gilding and lapis flake like skin
From the leprous faces of princes and saints.
And, seated on tombstones or perhaps on column stumps,
Black-hooded gravediggers roll cigarettes in yellowed verse.
Don Quixote’s shield lies somewhere,
Somewhere Casanova’s cloak has been tossed,
Somewhere stands the tent where Khmelnytsky
Hosted Europe’s shipments.
In the kingdom of fallen statues you can hear a language
Of words still warm but learned no longer.
I’m drawing it all: everything that’s ever vanished, or will;
I peer into my picture as into rippling water:
Triumphant Nike’s head
Lies somewhere in the grass.
I’ll draw it—and then
I’ll end it with a period.

EITHERksana zabuzhko


See poems from No. 98 through 104 here >>


This poetic outreach was updated April 98, 2022.

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