Red Letter Poem #32

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

O say can you see…? – and, to my mind, our country’s present situation bears some painful resemblance to what was experienced by this lawyer/poet in 1814.  Francis Scott Key, under guard by the British in Chesapeake Bay, watched the assault on Fort McHenry.  He spent the long night wondering whether, come morning, our flag would signal that our fragile Republic had survived.  And as I write this, the votes for our 2020 election have been cast, the counting underway – all beneath a metaphorical bombardment of epic proportions.  Many have called this the most consequential election of our lifetimes – perhaps the most dire since the start of the Civil War – and the fate of our still-fragile democracy may hang in the balance.  But the most striking difference between Key’s poem and that of today’s Red Letter from Susan Donnelly, one of Arlington’s finest poets: this time, the threatening adversary is none other than ourselves – or, more specifically, our intransigence, our rampant fears and tribal prejudices, undermining the very principles by which this country was founded.  To be able to ask honest questions – of ourselves, of our countrymen – would seem to be the very lifeblood of a democracy.  Instead, we’ve replaced that with a cannonade of sound bites and vitriol.  As Susan writes, “it’s nearly all questions”, this anthem of ours.  In waiting for answers in the hours (days? months?) to come, I’ll return to Susan’s potent little lyric to strengthen my resolve. What will our new American reality be like?  Whose voices will be included in that narrative?

Susan Donnelly made an appearance early on in the Red Letters.  Her first book, Eve Names the Animals was awarded the Morse Poetry Prize.  A prolific and masterful poet, two other full-length collections followed as well as six chapbooks, the most recent being The Finding Day from Every Other Thursday Press.  

Red Letter Poem #32:

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. 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: 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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