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Poem-a-Day

Primary Campaign Footage: Wisconsin, 1960

PRIMARY CAMPAIGN FOOTAGE: WISCONSIN, 1960

I.
The young prince making his way
through the crowd to give his speech
is already dead. Therefore nothing
can hurt him. He will not remember
the sensation of their hands reaching
out to touch him, the way we do not
remember the rain falling as we slept.
Nor will the princess his wife remember
how they loved her husband here,
only their hatred. His smiling brother,
dead already also, already suffers
a subtle fear of kitchens. Their wounds
are well hidden in their boyish hair.
The young prince touches his from time
to time as he makes his way through
this crowd of Poles crammed into a banquet
hall in a hotel on Milwaukee's east side,
moving slowly towards his wife and brother
while wincing and shaking hands.

II.
Meanwhile on the other side of the state,
far from the glitz the city turns to the lake
as if to a mirror, homely Humphrey stands
in a church, trying to conjure a feeling
he had once while reading a biography
of Jefferson. Something made him
put the book down that night and go
walking out under the moon, over
the frozen Minnesota heartscape,
its lakes closed wounds time has healed.
And when his wife demanded to know
what it was he was thinking going out
in weather like that without a coat
he said, “I've been thinking about agrarianism”
and she covered her face with her hands
and said, “Hubert I'm very tired”
and went to bed. He read a while longer,
then climbed the stairs heavily
and did not wake her to make love,
but lay on his back, thinking about
the Minnesota Farmer-Labor Party.
Now he is standing in this church,
the pews filled with farmers waiting
for him to speak so they can get home
and finish milking, but for what is
beginning to seem like an hour
Humphrey has been standing there
with his head down like a priest praying
for the dead or dying. And then he hears it,
as when you wake to the insane cry
of the loon, and he lifts his face
no one has ever called beautiful
and begins softly to speak.

III.
The prince has been speaking
for an hour now and though he is
growing tired he knows he must go on
because he can feel the crowd leaning
towards him the better to hear him say:
“...I cannot believe that in these difficult
and changing times when we are surrounded
by revolution and hazard, that the American
people are going to choose to sit still,
that they are going to give their confidence
to a political party, the Republicans,
who have opposed every measure of progress
in the last 25 years, led by a candidate who
for the last 14 years has opposed progress.
[Applause.] Can you tell me one piece
of legislation of benefit to the people?
Housing? Civil rights? Aid for the farmer?
Aid for the retired? Rights for labor?
Can you tell me one program that either
Mr. Nixon or the Republicans
have supported. [Response from the audience.]
I said in Cleveland about 3 weeks ago
that I could not think of one program,
and the Cleveland paper said I had forgotten
what President Taft did about child labor.
All right. What have they done since then?
What have they done in the last 50 years?
[Response from the audience and applause.]
This fight is important, because unless
this country is moving ahead, this country
will not lead a world which is moving ahead.
The same political party, the Republicans,
who could vote against social security
in the thirties could vote unanimously
against medical care for the aged
in the sixties. The same political party
that could vote against the minimum wage
of 25 cents an hour in 1935 could vote
against $1.25 an hour in 1960, and this
goes to the heart of the issue, a party
which fights progress, a party which is not
prepared to associate with it, a party
which has stood athwart the great social,
international, and national movements
of this century, sponsored by Wilson
and Roosevelt and Truman - how can they
lead in the dangerous sixties? How can they
lead and move this country forward? How can they
demonstrate to a watching world that we
are a strong and vital society? In outer space,
in the world around us, in Latin America,
in Africa, in Asia, in Wisconsin, we are
associated with a forward motion
and they have stood still, and I believe
on November 8, the people of this country
are going to choose to move again.
[Applause.] I don't believe that
this generation of Americans wants it said
about us what T. S. Eliot in his poem
“The Rock” said: 'And the wind shall say:
“These were decent people, their only monument
the asphalt road and a thousand lost golf balls. ”'
I don't believe that is what the people want.
I think they want to move forward... ”

IV.
And as Humphrey talks the farmers stare
down at the plat maps of their hands,
their eyes dark under seed company caps.
The straps of their overalls are like
the straps of a sky diver's parachute
the moment before it fails to open.
They sit as if fallen into the pews,
the same pews they sat in as boys
and in which a few of their boys sit now,
wondering who this man is their fathers
made them come along and listen to.
He is saying, in the third-person,
as if observing himself from a distance,
that Humphrey will fight for them,
that no one in Washington gives a damn
about a farmer way out here in Wisconsin
but that Humphrey does and that Humphrey
will fight for them. But rather than rousing
them into cheers they seem to sadden,
as if all Humphrey is is a messenger come
to tell them how little their lives matter.
And in this boy's restless folding and
unfolding of the campaign literature is
the suppressed hatred he feels for this man,
this Humphrey, for having come all this
way to hurt his father, who sits
with his head bowed, as if praying
for him to shut up. And Humphrey,
recognizing he is losing them, takes
a step back and says, “Now, folks, folks,
lemme tell you why agriculture matters.
Jefferson said...”

V.
After the young prince has given his speech
like a gift to each of them, the reception
line passes through him. At first he tries
to stare into each face but in time they flicker
past so fast he can see the skulls under their skin.
They become ghosts to him. After, in the car
flexing his hand he wants to ask her
did she see it too but by the weight of
her head on his shoulder he knows
she's asleep. He wonders if she is
having that dream she has told him
about. It is a simple dream. He simply turns
around, to fill a glass of water at the sink,
or to walk to the edge of the garden,
and she sees the back half of his skull
is missing. At the hotel he carries her
up the great stairs to their suite to the delight
of the well-wishers in the lobby. They applaud
as if it's a campaign ploy, something that
was planned, but it's nothing but a man
carrying his tired wife up to bed.

VI.
The day Kennedy is shot Humphrey
disappears. He is gone so long she goes
out driving beneath the flags at half-mast
but she can't find him and goes back home
to wait. Deep in the night she hears
the doorknob turn, feels the familiar weight
of his body in the house, on the stairs,
but heavier somehow, as if in walking
he has taken into himself all the grief
of the city. Years later he will die
in a Minnesota hospital, but not before
calling friends to invite them to his funeral
as if to a party, even Nixon. And once
everyone has been invited he will begin
going from room to room telling jokes,
trying to cheer the last days of the dying.

VII.
You died and no one sweeps the snow
off your grave, Hubert Humphrey,
no flame burns for you forever, no soldiers
stand guard at your tomb. May you
rest in peace. You were no prince
but you had a good heart to stand
there in that cold church in Wisconsin
that April day in 1960, talking to those farmers
who, made nervous by your attention,
rifled through the hymnals out of habit
as you spoke to them about their lives,
you who knew enough to afterwards
descend amongst them to tousle
their boys' hair as if they were your sons.
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