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Celebrate our history; recognize our anger

Steven Ratiner

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Steven Ratiner, left, one of Arlington’s three former poets laureate, continues "Red Letter Poems," a weekly series begun in March 2020 with "The Battle of Menotomy."

This poem, No. 214 in the series, helps us celebrate Independence Day with words directly related to Arlington (once Menotomy) and provides the poet as well as the columnist opportunities to express anger about the current state of our nation.

The Battle of Menotomy

                                  West Cambridge

When I saunter to the mailbox in miserable sun,
a woman stares at the stone marker by my fence —

Site of the house of John Cutter set on fire
during the British retreat of April 19, 1775

Dogs piss on it.  A traffic box cautions
walkers at the crosswalk: wait, wait, wait.

Ambushed by 4,000 militia, the Brits torched
houses and barns during the day’s bloodiest fight,

royal bayonets gutting Jason and his friends
at the Jason Russell House across the street.

In third grade I fell in love with glossy books
about the founding fathers, the women in bonnets

churning butter in barrels, that righteous hunger.
What did I know of myths and facts? The Russells

and their kind owned servants, some diaries say.
Now our town fights over low-income housing.

Jazz on the Russell House lawn, pop-up beer
gardens in tents, the annual battle reenactments . . .

Nearby in the Old Burying Ground, unmarked
graves of Redcoats and the enslaved. Where

is Kate, owned by the Russells? Rose and Venus, 
by the Cutlers? Underground radar might locate

bones the way it finds water and sewer pipes.
Black soldiers battled here — Ishmael, Cato, Cuff . . .

I open the hot mailbox to town taxes, Viking tours,
and the ACLU wanting my vote. A fall leaf drops.

                                            ––Teresa Cader

Ratiner comments

I’m angry.  Let me start with that fact and pull no punches: I’m angry to see how, in an incredibly short amount of time, we’ve allowed certain small segments of American society to rewrite the national narrative in a manner that would shock George Orwell with its brazenness. 

And this revision is not intended to deepen our understanding of history, correct falsehoods with new research or highlight neglected characters in a more inclusive chronicle –– all valid and, in fact, necessary endeavors. No, these narrow constituencies have as their purpose a defense of generations of wealth and privilege; an enshrining of circumscribed beliefs and biases; a bolstering of their already-considerable and deeply-entrenched power.

And they believe they can, with this carefully orchestrated PR offensive, convince a majority of the electorate to swallow bitter lies and believe them honeyed; to vote against self-interest and call that a badge of freedom; to sink into the comfortable cushions of complacency and allow someone else to drive the bus of national policy. And we -– We the People –– must take responsibility for allowing this deceit to be successful. After all, it’s our country –– or at least it was.

Poet sees our casual neglect

A marvelous new poem by Teresa Cader, an Arlington resident, stings us with the results of our casual neglect. Just going out to check the mail, the poem’s protagonist feels compelled to confront one of her own blind spots: the historical marker outside her townhouse, intended to remind passersby of the political paroxysms and bloody battles that needed to be endured on the road to becoming (and, one hopes, remaining) these United States of America.

It’s human nature: How easy it is to take for granted what is present all around us. “Dogs piss on it,” the poet writes –– and I’m suddenly wondering about the mindset at the other end of the leash. In the background, the crosswalk traffic box squawks: “wait, wait, wait,” a mechanical Cassandra.  

I found myself imagining the research this poet undertook to ferret out some of the history upon which this town was built, this place we call home. A small village, it was christened Menotomy in 1635, and later renamed West Cambridge. Arlington only assumed its current name In 1867 to honor “the heroes buried at Arlington National Cemetery.”

Our town is preparing to celebrate Arlington 250, a project highlighting the vital role we played in the Revolutionary struggle toward independence. One of the key events of that enterprise is known as the Battle of Menotomy where militias assembled to attack to British forces retreating from the battles of Concord and Lexington –– the first day of our Revolution.

Legacy of slavery here

Yet the poet does not shrink from the knowledge that these patriots were themselves flawed individuals, and some households included slaves as an accepted feature of their Colonial life. This does not negate their achievement; it tempers it in reality. In this time when some want to sanitize history and make it a more palatable fairytale, Teresa’s poem encourages us to use our own intellectual radar to understand what is buried beneath our feet.

Teresa’s fourth book of poetry, AT RISK, won the 2023 Richard Snyder Memorial Award, selected by Mark Doty, and will be published this fall by the Ashland Poetry Press. This continues a distinguished career which began with the publication of her first collection, Guests, honored by The Journal/Charles B. Wheeler Poetry Prize and the Norma Farber First Book Award.

Her many honors include fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Bunting Institute at Radcliffe. She’s also spent years inviting younger writers into the literary tradition, teaching programs at MIT, the UMass-Boston MFA Program, the Emerson College Graduate Writing Program and, for a decade, in the low-residency MFA Program at Lesley University.

Searching for hope

Recently, as I’ve gone back and forth between reading poems from Teresa’s forthcoming collection and daily headlines in The Boston Globe, I’ve found myself growing angry . . . and afraid . . . and –– for reasons that defy explanation –– strangely hopeful.

 And so I invite you to share this poem, this Red Letter with friends and neighbors. Help sound the alarm, further this conversation, so that we each might have a hand in authoring what comes next in the American narrative –– for our own sakes, for that of my grandchild and yours, so they’ll come of age inside an enduring democracy. 

To forget history is a tragedy –– and, of course, as the philosopher Santayana warned: "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it." But far worse are those insidious forces that depend on a populace remaining uninformed, disengaged, hopeless, so that others might continue controlling the levers of power. They well know that, if we are awakened –– that capital-W We –– and grasp what is truly at stake in this fraught moment, we’ll find a way to continue our fitful march toward that more perfect union.  


This column of poetic opinion by Steven Ratiner was published Thursday, July 4, 2024. To receive these poems every Friday, email This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

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Comments

Guest - Robert Tosi Jr on Thursday, 04 July 2024 23:57
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Thanks, Steven, for sharing the work by Teresa Cader on the Battle of Menotomy and your comments on the lack of honoring all people of that time. I am happy to note that just last year in June of 2023 we dedicated a new memorial monument to commemorate the lives of 21 people of color, both enslaved and free, who were buried in unmarked graves in our old burying ground.

This year as part of remembering events of 1775 we will dedicate a memorial for the British Regulars who died as a result of the fighting that day and are also buried in unmarked graves in old burying ground. This dedication will take place on Saturday September 7th at 10AM.

Many people enjoyed the largest reenactment on Patriots Day Weekend and a similar large scale event will happen in 2025. As part of our multi year celebration some cleaning and attention will be made to the markers commemorating many of the events from the Battle of Menotomy that are around town. A larger project to upgrade the Foot of the Rocks park in Arlington heights is in progress. This project will also recognize the many communities that answered the call to come to Menotomy and fight for our rights.
To learn more of celebrations go to http://www.VisitArlingtonMA.org/Arlington-250 or to volunteer email Menotomy250@gmail.com So pleased to respond on this Independence Day.

Bob Tosi Jr, Arlington250 Committee Member

Thanks, Steven, for sharing the work by Teresa Cader on the Battle of Menotomy and your comments on the lack of honoring all people of that time. I am happy to note that just last year in June of 2023 we dedicated a new memorial monument to commemorate the lives of 21 people of color, both enslaved and free, who were buried in unmarked graves in our old burying ground. This year as part of remembering events of 1775 we will dedicate a memorial for the British Regulars who died as a result of the fighting that day and are also buried in unmarked graves in old burying ground. This dedication will take place on Saturday September 7th at 10AM. Many people enjoyed the largest reenactment on Patriots Day Weekend and a similar large scale event will happen in 2025. As part of our multi year celebration some cleaning and attention will be made to the markers commemorating many of the events from the Battle of Menotomy that are around town. A larger project to upgrade the Foot of the Rocks park in Arlington heights is in progress. This project will also recognize the many communities that answered the call to come to Menotomy and fight for our rights. To learn more of celebrations go to www.VisitArlingtonMA.org/Arlington-250 or to volunteer email Menotomy250@gmail.com So pleased to respond on this Independence Day. Bob Tosi Jr, Arlington250 Committee Member
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Tuesday, 23 July 2024

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