Miriam Levine and Thomas DeFrietas talk about his poems at Robbins Library.Miriam Levine and Thomas DeFreitas discuss his poetry at Robbins in 2015.

UPDATED Feb. 5: Arlington poet Thomas DeFreitas was having a very good 2021.

His first book,Winter in Halifax, was published by Kelsay Books. His poems were featured twice in Red Letter Poems, a pandemic-spanning series by town Poet Laureate Steven Ratiner. 

Then the 4 a.m. fire swept Chestnut Manor on Jan. 22, starting in the apartment next to his and displacing 16 residents, among them DeFreitas.

Town raises nearly $35k to support 21 >>

In a note to friends, the poet reported the early fire-alarm wake-up and finding smoke coming in over the top of his door.  He told Ratiner that he “yelled for his neighbors to wake and then made his way through a 30-foot tunnel of black smoke to race down the corridor and escape.”

He mentioned that he feared the loss of his most precious possessions -- his shelves of poetry books, some signed to him by friends.  That spurred members of the Beehive group, poets who have met at Robbins Library since 2015, to seek ways to help. The name of the group comes from a beehive outside the third-floor window where they meet.

As group members began talking, they thought they might get a gift certificate from a local bookshop to help replenish his shelves. “But when I spoke with him the next day, “ Ratiner told YourArlington, “I was shocked to learn how large the devastation was. 

“When he was allowed back inside to try to salvage some of his possessions, he had to slog through four inches of black water. Smoke and water damage was extensive.”

More aid needed

The help he required needed to be on a larger scale. He had to replace everything from bedding and towels to clothes and kitchenware.

Ratiner contacted Beehive members and set a more ambitious goal: $1,000.

In the next day or two, members learned that the Arlington Housing Authority had found apartments for all the displaced people and there were funds established to help with acquiring furniture. 

DeFreitas would still need a good deal of help, just getting the very basics for his new home, and “so we hoped we might be able to not only help him through these awful times but remind him he was not alone in his struggle.”

Once pledges from Beehive members were in, word went out to the broader literary community in town.

Both former laureates, Miriam Levine and Cathie Desjardins, wanted to contribute and help spread the word, as did others.

On Jan. 27, Ratiner met with DeFreitas outside his new apartment and presented him with a jar of organic New Zealand honey – to represent the sweetness of the Beehive and the arts community  -- plus a $1,000 check.

DeFreitas's response? Ratiner told the group: "One could argue that his wet eyes were due only to the whipping of the cold gusts, but I know otherwise." 


DeFreitas told YourArlington on Jan. 31:  "I am overwhelmed in the best possible way to be the recipient of so much kindness from the poets and artists of Arlington. Everyone who contributed is a living breathing blessing to me, and my gratitude is beyond immense."

After that, Ratiner provided an update: An unexpected, large donation has increased the total raised to more than $2,625 as of Feb. 2. A second check has been delivered. 

Ratiner commented: “I feel quite gratified that so many individuals wanted to step up and show they had Tom's back.

“A poet's life is precarious in the best of times, but especially so after an unexpected crisis. Poets carry their spiritual homes inside of words -- but they need a roof over their heads and food on the table like any one of us.  We are so pleased we can help Tom begin to make a new home, still with us in Arlington.”

Jan. 22, 2022: Fatality ID'd in Chestnut Manor fire caused by heater; 1st in state in '22
Sept. 20, 2015: Listen in as our poet laureate conducts a class

This news summary was published Wednesday, Feb. 2, 2022. Freelancer Melanie Gilbert contributed to this report. It was updated Feb. 5, to add a link to town effort.