Et in Arcadia Ego

Poetry is an art of imitation... that is to say, a representing, counterfeiting, or figuring forth--to speak metaphorically,
a speaking picture...
--Sir Philip Sidney, The Defence of Poesie

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Sunday
Nov092008

THE BETTER ANGELS CATCH A BREAK

 

By the time Cross made his way upstairs, the room above the bar in Fraunces Tavern was packed. It wasn’t the Long Room, where General Washington said farewell to his officers at the end of the Revolutionary War (and after so many reconstructions, even the Long Room itself wasn’t itself), but it was big enough to hold a SRO crowd—for a poetry reading, no less. Cross had seen Mark Strand read many times, but he’d never seen Paul Muldoon. It was part of a series of monthly poetry readings, sponsored by the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council, and it soon turned out that Muldoon had insisted on going ahead with the date even after the organizers realized it was that November 4th. Cross was happy for that—it would not have occurred to him to spend Election Night at such an appropriate venue if not for the reading. Whatever happened after Strand and Muldoon were finished, and the crowd descended to the bar to gaze up at two flat-screen TVs, one tuned to MSNBC and the other to CNN, Cross knew it was a good choice for either a celebration or a wake. Cross suspected celebration; he knew, however, that a wake was more than probable.

As it turned out, though, the crowds didn’t descend upon the tavern. While the reading was packed, everyone seemed to speedily drift out toward uptown and Brooklyn at 7:30, doubtless heading to bigger, more crowded, swankier parties. The reading was good. Strand occasionally befuddled the audience with his elliptical elegies, and Muldoon indulged in his lyrical word play, each poem punctuated by a cheeky pursing of his lips after every stanza (Muldoon, under his curly mop, looked for all the world like a Mike Myers character; every purse of his lips recalled Dieter from “Sprockets” to Cross’s mind). But only two dozen or so souls ordered another round of pints or well-olived martinis (Cross nearly ordered a Guinness, but ordered a Sam Adams instead—he was a stickler with sticking to a theme once he’d hit upon it, like any respectable geek).

Cross was puzzled at first, but soon warmed to the thought that only a handful were sticking around to watch the returns. After an hour, the group at the bar—two or three intersecting circles of friends, with Cross the only soloist—became fast friends, their running commentary glancing off the network bloviation like stones skipped across a river. Cross drank and watched, his skepticism and dread waning every time a state turned blue. His hope waxed accordingly, and as the hours wore on, he felt something swell inside (his heart? idealism?) that he scarcely remembered was within him.

By the time Ohio and Florida turned blue (Ohio! Florida! Come home, all is forgiven), Cross’s compatriots at the bar were staring at the screens as if they’d never seen them before. The bartender had earlier declared that they’d stay open past 11; he now set up twenty shot glasses and poured some sort of libation the color of Windex into each, in honor of the blue that swallowed the Northeast and upper Midwest and was slowly turning North Carolina and Virginia—Virginia, the capital of the Confederacy—into a cobalt map of momentous, historical, astounding change.

All such words, benumbed by cliché, were the only ones anyone, whether in a TV studio or at the end of the bar, could reach for—once again, the most extreme emotions, the greatest passions, could only be put into the most mundane vocabulary. But the bears were indeed dancing as the random souls gathered at the bar beat the kettle drums of language. Cross drank down his sticky sweet blue shot—vodka and blue Curacao, surely—and chased it with a grin. For once, politics seemed escape the bounds of irony that held it earthbound. Cross felt as giddy as if he’d just stepped out of a showing of Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.

By 10 P.M., the outcome was obvious; the math of the Electoral College could not be denied. But the anchors could not say so, not until the polls on the West Coast closed, even though they were clearly bursting with glee at what everyone knew but could not officially declare. An hour later, the announced it like a sudden cloudburst on a sunny day: Barack Obama projected winner—Barack Obama elected the 44th President of the United States.

Pandemonium—the sweet release of pure, uncalculated joy—burst across the screens, from Grant Park in Chicago to 125th Street in Harlem. Cross found he really was astounded; he was speechless, he couldn’t find the words that matches his feelings; he turned to the crowd at the bar and found himself paraphrasing Auden:

—Friends, raise your glasses to the end of a low, dishonest decade. Good riddance, and don’t let the door hit you in the ass on the way out.

People laughed, toasted, hugged each other. A woman said in a lilting Italian accent, shaking her head in wonder at the revelers on the screen, “You would never, ever see a celebration like this in Italy.” Another woman bemoaned the fact that her sister was on her way from work to the tavern, and was missing it all. But she arrived soon enough, just minutes after McCain’s gracious concession speech (for, the distortions and deformities of having to be his party’s standard bearer aside, Cross suspected he was still an honorable man). There was another round, of drinks and exclamations of astonishment, while everyone waited for President-elect Obama’s victory speech.

President-elect Obama... the very words gave Cross deep pleasure. He was under no illusions about the difficulties that lay ahead; he knew Obama, after all, was only going to be the President, and would find himself hampered and hemmed in as all presidents are. Cross knew that the best thing the nation could do in the morning was to lower their expectations. But to have such high expectations at all, about a political candidate, seemed the rarest gift. Cross still couldn’t liken the experience to anything having to do with American politics—his memory of the fall of the Berlin Wall came closest. This might be what it was like to live under FDR or Lincoln, Cross thought to himself; ruefully, he reminded himself that that was all hindsight. Still. Cross marveled that he could have such feelings, after nearly a life-time of watching as cynicism, greed and arrogance rode high in the saddle of the American ideal.

And to see such a thing, as was obvious yet still seemed incredible, forty years after Martin Luther King’s assassination. Cross thought back to the passage in Invisible Man, about the white paint mingled with the black to create the proper mixture, and shook his head in wonder; he shook his head in wonder again at the ordinariness of it—not that the stain, the original sin of America, had in any way been erased—but that it had been, somehow, superseded, if only for a moment. A little voice in the back of Cross’s mind whispered that this was a fundamentally racist nation, and always would be; Cross knew that voice was likely right, but so what? For once, it wasn’t one step forward, two steps back, but its inverse. All those blue states that once voted Republican was proof enough that this moment was exceptional—that this moment signaled a renewal that no doubt would be betrayed, somehow... but the renewal was real. Without that renewal, it was nothing, nothing, nothing but betrayal.

At last, at midnight—one day crossing over into a day that had never before existed—the President-elect appeared. Obama’s speech did not disappoint—sober and soaring, it spoke volumes both to the moment, and to the terrors of the future. Cross felt as if he could have heard a pin drop over the whole of the city while Obama spoke. When it was over, as Obama’s and Biden’s families spilled across the stage (someone in the back said of the knot of black and white faces, Look at that, it’s America), the whole of Fraunces Tavern, with its mural of the Revolutionary Army on horseback, its buff and blue, its red and white like streaks of morning light, seemed to exhale in profound relief.

Cross did not linger. He shook a few hands, exchanged a few smiles, and exited out onto Pearl Street, not far from where Wall Street still shuddered in spasms at the consequences of its heedless, wanton excess. No one in sight but street cleaners as he walked toward the neon marquee of the Staten Island Ferry and the train that would take him uptown to the party unfolding in Harlem. He knew, as he walked a little unsteady, that his hangover would not be pretty. But it would be the most surprisingly sublime hangover of his life.

 

 

Reader Comments (1)

The world is being infected with hope and optimism and as a cynic I am feeing unsteady and unsure but enjoying every moment of the internal struggle!

November 9, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterLiz

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