David Biespiel’s Poetry Wire: Something’s Happening Out There
Taking the Red Line from Central Square to Park Street Station a few days before the November election to get to the Mondale rally at the Boston Common, Giff and I started up a lively conversation with a woman carrying a guitar. Like us she was standing up in the crowded car, but she was sort of dancing as the train swayed over the Charles River. The T bore us away through the monstrous heap of the city. In the distance you could see the streets of glass-windowed buildings, the brick siding of MIT and BU facing each other across the river like star-crossed lovers. The weather had been cold, but we were still weeks away from the winter’s stretch of blackened snow.
The woman had an ethereal black face and stunning sets of cornrows. The woman said her name was Tracy. She said she was going to the rally too. She said she had just come back from playing a gig at Nameless Coffeehouse. As we moved slowly through the two cities of Cambridge and Boston, we passed the clapboard houses that seemed to me mysterious and familiar, their high roofs pulled tight like a cap. At the front of one house I could see an older woman shaking out a blanket. She looked up as the T passed, and I wanted to catch her eye. But I didn’t. And I could see in her drudgery that she had an exhausted look on her face. Something desolate. Tracy asked what I was looking at. The houses, I said. We got to win this election, Giff said.
At Park Street we all got off with the large crowd. Tracy was suddenly in a rush, and so we headed over separately to the demonstration. Children, couples, students all streaming over and pushing. It was like a city-sized pub-crawl of union workers and leftists and academics and anti-war veterans. When we couldn’t get very close to the stage, Giff and I decided to shimmy up a tree and watch the spectacle from there, fifteen feet up. The whole mood was festive. The big crowd stretched form the gold-domed State House to Park Street. I had the urgent feeling that we were part of something. That we counted.
From the branches high in the tree you could see a lot of the hand-made signs. A lady in a white blouse and a perm raised one and kept swinging and waving it: RONALD REAGAN, HE’S NO GOOD: SEND HIM BACK TO HOLLYWOOD! Another woman in a Fourth of July fireworks patterned blouse held a sign over head that read: MONDALE WE LOVE YOU. Another: FREAKS FOR FRITZ. Hundreds and hundreds of people were holding up the campaign’s official red, white, and blue MONDALE FERRARO sign, designed to look like a flag waving in the breeze with a single white star. Lots of people were taking pictures. There were small American flags everywhere. And a long banner on a pole with the words: RETIRE RONALD REAGAN.
All the handmade haiku-like signs made me smile:
NO ONE POLLED US
DON’T LET REAGAN INSULT YOUR INTELLIGENCE
MONDALE’S GOT BEEF
That’s when we caught sight of Tracy again—she was coming onto the stage and taking the microphone. It would be a few years until Tracy Chapman had her first album with a song like “Talkin’ Bout a Revolution”—
Poor people gonna rise up
And get their share
Poor people gonna rise up
And take what’s theirs
We would never run into her again, but I remember the funny coincidence of seeing her on the T and then onstage—and the husky sincerity of her voice. Then Tracy introduced Peter Yarrow and Mary Travers who came on and they all led us in a rendition of “This Land Is Your Land.” Stephen Stills came on next and sang “Our House.” There was a long, dull break before the politicians came on next. Giff and I started talking about Whitman and how much he would have adored the spectacle. What’s that passage I love, Giff asked, and I quoted the first line to him: “I am of old and young, of the foolish as much as the wise.” It was from Song of Myself, and the rest goes:
Regardless of others, ever regardful of others,
Maternal as well as paternal, a child as well as a man,
Stuffed with the stuff that is coarse, and stuffed with the stuff that is fine,
One of the great nation, the nation of many nations — the smallest the same and the largest the same,
A southerner soon as a northerner, a planter nonchalant and hospitable,
A Yankee bound my own way . . . . ready for trade . . . . my joints the limberest joints on earth and the
sternest joints on earth,
A Kentuckian walking the vale of the Elkhorn in my deerskin leggings,
A boatman over the lakes or bays or along coasts . . . . a Hoosier, a Badger, a Buckeye,
A Louisianian or Georgian, a poke-easy from sandhills and pines,
At home on Canadian snowshoes or up in the bush, or with fishermen off Newfoundland,
At home in the fleet of iceboats, sailing with the rest and tacking,
At home on the hills of Vermont or in the woods of Maine or the Texan ranch,
Comrade of Californians . . . . comrade of free northwesterners, loving their big proportions,
Comrade of raftsmen and coalmen — comrade of all who shake hands and welcome to drink and meat;
A learner with the simplest, a teacher of the thoughtfulest,
A novice beginning experient of myriads of seasons,
Of every hue and trade and rank, of every caste and religion…
Then out came Mondale, flanked by the two senators, Ted Kennedy and Paul Tsongas; the Speaker of the House, Tip O’Neil; and the governor, Mike Dukakis. O’Neill took the microphone first and started getting nostalgic. “The first Democrat I came into Boston to see in 1928,” he was saying, “was Al Smith.” He says, “I have seen them all. I have seen our own Jack Kennedy. I saw Roosevelt. I saw them, and this rally today reminds me of the week before the election in 1948 when Harry Truman came to Boston. This is exactly what it was like. It was 20 to 1. He wasn’t going to be President of the United States. Look at this crowd!”
We cheered for ourselves. Now O’Neil was claiming our crowd was ten times larger than the one that turned out for Reagan a few blocks away a few days earlier. He says, “We haven’t forgotten compassion in this country!”
Then Dukakis was talking. He was saying, “Something’s happening out there that the pollsters just aren’t picking up!”
There was wave upon wave of cheering.
When Teddy Kennedy took the microphone we went into a swoon. Teddy! Teddy! Teddy! “Ronald Reagan may come to Boston”—Kennedy was is in a Nantucket bellow right from the start—“and he may speak in the shadow of the J.F.K. Building, but I only wish he also stood in the light of the principles in which John F. Kennedy believed! Fairness and justice and progress toward peace!”
Others were now climbing up the tree Giff and I were in and trying to jostle us out of place. As the crowd cheered Kennedy, he kept whipping us up: “And so I’ve traveled this nation, he was saying, and I come home to Boston to say that Ronald Wilson Reagan has no right to quote John Fitzgerald Kennedy!”
After Teddy finished, we all started chanting—
We want Fritz!
We want Fritz!
Out he came. He was hoarse but shouting too, “There’s a smell of victory in the air!” And then we all went crazy again.
Four more days!
Four more days!
Mondale quieted us down. “When Reagan was inaugurated,” Mondale was saying, “let history record that the first thing he did when he went into the White House was to take down Harry Truman’s portrait and replace it with that great Boston strikebreaker, Calvin Coolidge. Now I make a pledge to you”—he was saying to us and you could tell he was smiling—“that the first thing I’m going to do is to take down Calvin Coolidge’s picture and put Harry’s back where it belongs.”
You forgot Mondale’s faults in moments like that, and finally he was finishing up by telling us that “Reagan’s message to America is that when you’re in trouble, you’re told you’re on your own”—
If you’re unemployed, it’s too bad.
If you’re old, it’s tough luck.
If you’re sick, good luck.
If you’re black or Hispanic, you’re out of luck.
I don’t believe that for a minute.
In America you’re not alone!
We’re all in this together!
When the rally came to a sudden halt, Giff and I climbed down out of the tree and decided to walk back to Allston. Giff was saying we were going to win, he was sure of it. We were joyful. We were hugging strangers on the sidewalk. But I was saying, wasn’t it weird that Mondale was even in Boston just a few days before the election? Didn’t the campaign know Boston was going to vote Democratic? I mean, shouldn’t he be in Pennsylvania or Michigan?
The coming landslide blindsided us, that’s how much we were living in our leftist bubble. Listening to the results a few nights later on the radio in the kitchen at Glenville, surrounded by friends who’d come over to listen to the returns, I kept turning to the roomful of downcast liberals, saying, Do you know anyone who voted for Reagan? Anyone? Paul and Nick arrived with a couple cases of beer and we all decided to head up to the roof with a boombox and play some tapes of Talking Heads and Prince and UB40. We rushed upstairs and began to roll around up there. Leaning against each other, swinging with the music. There were about a couple dozen of us by now and people were beginning to come up even from the street. It was a raucous and yet funereal rebellion of dancing. One woman was pulling at her hair and shouting, Nancy Reagan is blowing my world! Then she threw her arms around my neck and tried to bite my hand when I moved to remove her from me. I didn’t even know whether she was drunk. Then she let go and collapsed onto the deck and her face grew calmer.
I made an apologetic bow and headed back downstairs and closed the door to my room. I sat on the bed and I tried to relax and looked at my hands. There was a small bruise where she’d bit me. I felt I was in flux between my mind and the society upstairs, the nation beyond, like I was in a world of fire and some new, original experience. It was something I was going to have to work out for myself. Either I would or I wouldn’t, I knew that much. And I knew I didn’t have to go far to find it but that I did have to go to where there was some solitude. If it took courage to face this trial of the spirit and to bring a whole new understanding of my experiences, then that was just going to have to be the deed I had to pay. All I could have said then was that I was in need of a single intention. And so Walt Whitman says—
I am he that walks with the tender and growing night;
I call to the earth and sea half-held by the night.
I thought to try to write for a little while in my journal, but it was impossible to find my mind. And anyway I knew I’d need some time to reflect about the last few days and Reagan’s landslide reelection. So I just wrote down some more words from the Whitman passage in my notebook—
I am the poet of commonsense and of the demonstrable and of immortality;
And am not the poet of goodness only . . . . I do not decline to be the poet of wickedness also.
And then I left the notebook on my bed. I was sure I was needed elsewhere.
“Something’s Happening Out There” is the fifteenth in a sequence of autobiographical portraits to be published on Poetry Wire on the subject of my beginnings as a writer.