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.





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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