Saturday, December 30, 2023

Red Letter Poem #188


The Red Letters



In 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.


––Steven Ratiner







Red Letter Poem #188







   for Craig


Maybe it was the billboards promising

paradise, maybe those fifty-nine miles

with your hand in mine, maybe my sexy

roadster, the top down, maybe the wind

fingering your hair, sun on your thighs

and bare chest, maybe it was just the ride

over the sea split in two by the highway

to Key Largo, or the idea of Key Largo.

Maybe I was finally in the right place

at the right time with the right person.

Maybe there’d finally be a house, a dog

named Chu, a lawn to mow, neighbors,

dinner parties, and you forever obsessed

with crossword puzzles and Carl Jung,

reading in the dark by the moonlight,

at my bedside every night.  Maybe.  Maybe

it was the clouds paused at the horizon,

the blinding fields of golden sawgrass,

the mangrove islands tangled, inseparable

as we might be. Maybe I should’ve said

something, promised you something,

asked you to stay a while, maybe.



                              ––Richard Blanco




“And now we welcome the new year, full of things that have never been.”

––Rainer Maria Rilke


If only.  Even a quick glance at today’s headlines––fulminating with news about: ongoing wars; intensified political division (not only in the US but globally); uncertain economic predictions; and a persistent sense of anxiety which the holidays could only momentarily assuage––will stand in stark contrast to such a hopeful attitude.  But this oft-quoted extract (from a letter the great German poet wrote to his wife Clara in 1907) is typical of the avalanche of bon mots and uplifting aphoristic lines that pop up in the media near the end of each year.  It’s a testament, perhaps, to how badly we wish to believe that we are always given a new chance––to change our own fate if not that of the beleaguered planet.  Here’s another quotation I believe I read in an op-ed last year, as pandemic-stressed 2022 dragged itself to a close: “What a wonderful thought it is that some of the best days of our lives haven't even happened yet.”  The uplifting intent of the commentator had to be tempered, of course, when we considered the source (Anne Frank) and the circumstance (penned in her diary while in hiding from the Nazis) behind this observation.  Still, I love that the teenaged girl believed in this idea, while all around her the world seemed hellbent on destruction.  Perhaps she was simply echoing Ralph Waldo Emerson ("Write it on your heart that every day is the best day in the year”), determined to make a glory of any day in which armed soldiers did not come crashing into her life.  There are many right now in Ukraine, Sudan, Gaza who would understand that sentiment.


So, in hunting for a poem to help welcome 2024 for Red Letter readers, I wanted a piece in which hope as well as clear-eyed observation genuinely coexisted.  Fortunately for me, I was given permission to reprint a selection from Richard Blanco’s Homeland Of My Body: New & Selected Poems, recently issued by Beacon Press.  And I happily settled on one of my favorite love poems from this distinguished writer: author of a dozen award-winning books of poetry and memoir; the first-ever Poet Laureate of Miami-Dade County; and, uniquely, the youngest and  the first Latinx, immigrant, and gay person to serve in the role of Presidential Inaugural Poet, chosen by Barack Obama in 2013.  More recently, President Biden said this of Richard in conferring upon him the National Humanities Medal: “An engineer, poet, Cuban American… his poetry bridges cultures and languages––a mosaic of our past, our present, and our future––reflecting a nation that is hectic, colorful, and still becoming.”


“Maybe” appears to be a blissful memory of falling in love, driving south into the Florida Keys, where the simplest elements of landscape and circumstance feel like nothing less than a benediction conferred.  But then there’s that litany of maybe’s. . .  And we realize that there are many ways of interpreting an individual situation, of assessing the accuracy of desire. “Maybe/ it was. . .the blinding fields of golden sawgrass,/ the mangrove islands tangled, inseparable/ as we might be.”  Every moment is conditional, depending on how much self-knowledge we bring to bear, and how much vulnerability we are willing to risk.  This could be the brink of a new year, a new life, a radical departure.  But love’s compass is, admittedly, not the easiest one to follow.  “No matter how hard the past, you can always begin again.”  So said the Buddha who, I believe, never owned a convertible roadster but understood quite well what drives the human heart.





Red Letters 3.0


* 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:



To learn more about the origins of the Red Letter Project, check out an essay I wrote for Arrowsmith Magazine:


and the Boston Area Small Press and Poetry Scene


For updates and announcements about Red Letter projects and poetry readings, please follow me on Twitter          



Thursday, December 28, 2023

Somerville: Mysteries of the Grand Union Flag


Somerville: Mysteries of the Grand Union Flag

BY J. L. Bell: Correspondent for Off the Shelf

The raising of the “Grand Union Flag” on Prospect Hill in January 1776 is a proud historic moment for Somerville. But a lot of mysteries still surround that event.

The standard story is that after the Continental Congress established a navy in October 1775, it also approved a flag for that navy. Under the rules of war, a ship had to fly its country’s flag as it went into battle (though it could maneuver under a “false flag” until that moment). Some American warships were sailing under banners produced by individual states, but the Congress’s fleet needed its own ensign.

The design provided for the Continental Navy had the Union Jack in the upper left corner with thirteen red and white stripes below. Ships in the Chesapeake Bay flew this emblem by December. Britain’s Royal Navy fought under a similar flag: a Union Jack over a solid red field.

Meanwhile, up in Massachusetts, most Continental Army soldiers’ enlistments were running out. The New England men who had begun the siege of Boston in April 1775 had promised to serve only through December. Working from his headquarters in Cambridge, General George Washington oversaw a tense process of convincing some troops to reenlist, recruiting more, and reorganizing the regiments that remained.

To celebrate the relaunch of the Continental Army, Washington wrote, “we had hoisted the Union Flag in compliment to the United Colonies.” This banner appeared above Prospect Hill, center of one of the besieging army’s largest camps. A couple of days later, the general heard that British officials in Boston had interpreted this new flag, so like their own, “as a signal of Submission.” But they soon learned the Continentals would fight on.

Here are questions about this event with no definite answers in the surviving historical records.

Who designed the new Continental Navy flag? The Congress’s papers don’t say. We therefore don’t know what the delegates meant by authorizing a flag so similar to the British navy’s banner. We can guess it symbolized how they weren’t yet ready for a complete break with Britain. The thirteen stripes surely represented the thirteen colonies at that Congress, though delegates hoped to add Canada to the mix.

Was the Continental Navy flag the same as Washington’s “Union Flag”? For decades, the phrase “Union flag” had referred to the British flag, symbolizing the union of England and Scotland. Washington saw his “Union Flag” as honoring the thirteen united colonies. Two British witnesses inside Boston, a ship captain and a marine officer, wrote of seeing a new “Union flag” over the Americans’ camp, but they left no clear description of that banner. Most historians, but not all, conclude that this was the Continental Navy flag.

How did Washington receive the new flag? The Congress never voted to send its naval flag to its army commander. No document shows a flag being transported from Philadelphia to Cambridge. The most likely candidate for sending the banner is Joseph Reed, a Philadelphia lawyer who had been Washington’s military secretary in the summer and early fall. Washington wrote to Reed on January 4 describing how the army had flown the new flag. Unfortunately, Reed’s letters to Washington in this period went missing after the two men had a falling-out in late 1776.

Who reported on the new flag in the January 15 Pennsylvania Packet newspaper? A compilation of news from the Continental Army camp described how “the great Union flag was hoisted on Prospect-Hill.” This is the evidence locating the flag at that site since Washington’s letter and the British observations did not specify a place. However, that article also stated that event occurred on January 2, not January 1. Again, Reed seems like the best candidate for writing this report since he adapted some of the general’s other letters for the newspapers. But he should have known the right date.

Did British officials really think the flag meant the rebels were ready to surrender? No source from inside Boston suggests that. Instead, the ship captain and marine officer both described the new flag as a signal of defiance. Washington said he heard about the expectations of surrender from “a person out of Boston last Night.” Also on January 4, the general reported information he had recently received from “a very Intelligent Gentleman, a Mr Hutchinson from Boston”—perhaps merchant Shrimpton Hutchinson. He may have told a different story about reactions to the flag.

Where did the label “Grand Union Flag” come from? Washington called the new banner “the Union Flag.” The Pennsylvania Packet called it “the great Union flag,” as did other newspapers reprinting the same article. So where did the present term come from? In 1852 the Philadelphia journalist Thompson Westcott wrote to the London magazine Notes and Queries with information about early American flags. Among other things, he quoted the Pennsylvania Gazette as reporting, “The grand union flag was raised on the 2nd.” This was an error for the phrase that had appeared in newspapers in 1776, but the word “grand” was repeated by other magazines and eventually the flag historian George Henry Preble.

Thus, we probably owe the resonant phrase “Grand Union Flag” to a transcription error seventy-six years later.

J. L. Bell is the author of The Road to Concord: How Four Stolen Cannon Ignited the Revolutionary War (Westholme, 2016). He maintains the website, dedicated to history, analysis, and unabashed gossip about the start of the American Revolution in New England

Saturday, December 23, 2023

Red Letter Poem(s) #187

 The Red Letters



In 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(s) #187





A Quilted Red Letter for the Mid-winter Holidays



“Quand je lou tans refroidier/ voi et geleir/ et les arbres despoillier/ et iverneir…”–– writes this anonymous French poet/soldier in “On the Approach of Winter”.  He was returning from the decades-long wars in the south of his country at the start of the 13th century.  “When I see the weather/ turning cold/ and starting to freeze/ and the trees going bare/ and winter coming…”. sings the poet in this surprisingly modern translation.  He is left feeling much the way many of us are these days––“then I want to ease up/ and spend time/ with a good fire beside the brazier,/ and a glass of claret/ in a warm house.”  This is not only because the land is in the grip of the cold but because our hearts are tormented by the ubiquitous and most certainly needless bloodshed that abounds.  I wish I was prepared to offer some wisdom right now concerning the appalling brutality taking place in the Middle East, but likely I am feeling as horrified and helpless as you.  Recently, though, I’ve been remembering how my sister Elaine, a fine quiltmaker, could take remnants of disparate materials and somehow make a grander vision emerge from their conjoining.  I’d like to offer a patchwork of some poems that have been circulating in my mind these days and see what they feel like, taken together.


Beside the French verse, I’ll stitch something from my favorite Israeli poet, Yehuda Amichai.  He was a decorated soldier during World War II and the campaign that’s known as the 1948 ‘War for Independence’ (though that title is certainly dependent on which designation is on your identity papers.) Returning, he went back to school and became an educator and an exceptional poet, one of the first writing in colloquial Hebrew.  He became one of that country’s most celebrated authors––but then his radical transformation into a peace activist, whose poems make the case for understanding and reconciliation between the Israeli and Palestinian peoples, made him equally controversial.  Here is a simple piece from him that I love:



An Arab Shepherd is Searching for His Goat on Mount Zion

by Yehuda Amichai



An Arab shepherd is searching for his goat on Mount Zion and,

on the opposite mountain, I am searching for my little boy.

An Arab shepherd and a Jewish father

both trapped within their momentary failure.

Our voices meet above the Sultan's Pool

in the valley between us.  Neither of us wants

the child or the goat to get chewed up in the gears

of the terrible Had Gadya machine.


Afterward we found them among the bushes

and our voices re-entered our bodies, laughing and crying.


Searching for a goat or a son––

it’s always been the beginning

of a new religion in these mountains.


Protecting those we most dearly love: assuredly, this amounts to the most sacred oath for either parent or shepherd––and few responsibilities will ever feel more consequential.  How can we not cry out to the encompassing powers of the universe at such a moment, pleading for help, and keenly aware of our own limitations?


And dovetailing with Amichai, I’ll sew in this poem from Mahmoud Darwish, generally regarded as Palestine’s national poet.  Again, I’ve chosen a simple lyric but one with tremendous resonance, especially now.  He, too, is a poet whose resume overflows with honors, but I’ll highlight just one: he was the author of the Palestinian Declaration of Independence which formally brought that state into being.



I Come From There

     by Mahmoud Darwish


I come from there and I have memoriesBorn as mortals are, I have a motherAnd a house with many windows,I have brothers, friends,And a prison cell with a cold window.Mine is the wave, snatched by sea-gulls,I have my own view,And an extra blade of grass.Mine is the moon at the far edge of the words,And the bounty of birds,And the immortal olive tree.I walked this land before the swordsTurned its living body into a laden table.I come from there. I render the sky unto her motherWhen the sky weeps for her mother.And I weep to make myself knownTo a returning cloud.I learnt all the words worthy of the court of bloodSo that I could break the rule.I learnt all the words and broke them upTo make a single word: Homeland...


Two poets from the Abrahamic tradition––whose lineage, according to the Old Testament and the Koran, is inextricably intertwined (as are their futures.)  And each attempted during their lifetimes to create lyrics that would imagine what peace might look like for their peoples––even as their two governments continued to wage endless war.


The French poet quoted at the start of this Letter fought in what came to be known as the “Albigensian crusade.”  Backed by hardline Cistercians, Pope Innocent III offered lands to northern rulers who would attack those aristocrats in places like Albi, Toulouse, Caracasonne, considered too lax in their ‘tolerance of heretics’ (read: Muslims and Jews.)  The poet goes on to say: “I don’t want to ride out/ and burn places down,/ and so I really hate going to war/ and the battle cries/ and piling up great pillage/ and robbing people;/ it’s a crazy enough business/ to waste everything;/ for little gain/ the masters in charge counseled with lies/ start wars and disputes.”  Sound familiar?  The French poet dreams of spending time before a warm fire, sipping in comfort, and relishing the simple pleasure of peace.  As do the Israelis and the Palestinians––as do we all.  And yet someone in power always seems to know the perfect lever to pull in order to threaten our children, our goats, our homeland––to convince us that taking up arms and attacking our enemies will ultimately grant us what we most desire…even though all that’s ever been delivered is more bloodshed, more suffering.  Today, I’m allowing these songs to play inside my mind, finding connections I hadn’t made before.  I’m offering them to your attention as well.  May some wisdom, somewhere, arise from these ashes.





Red Letters 3.0


* 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:



To learn more about the origins of the Red Letter Project, check out an essay I wrote for Arrowsmith Magazine:


and the Boston Area Small Press and Poetry Scene


For updates and announcements about Red Letter projects and poetry readings, please follow me on Twitter