Charles Bernstein’s “On Election Day”

In 2012, filmmaker Gabe Rubin (see his short film, Boyland, another film centered around a poem) made a short video of Charles Bernstein’s poem, “On Election Day,” being read by the author around parts of, presumably, his hometown of Philadelphia (someone correct me if I’m wrong here). The mixed-media piece, which includes at times the author’s voice in a choral reading, is a dramatic example of how poetry can be combined with other genres to reach a wider audience. Perhaps we should see more of this kind of thing in the future.

The air is putrid, red, interpolating, quixotic, torpid, vulnerable, on
election day…

Charles Bernstein published his seventeenth full-length volume of poetry, Recalculating, in 2013, where “On Election Day” is found. In the vein of Walt Whitman, the poem repeats its “on election day” refrain in almost every line. It’s interesting to see how and where Bernstein shifts the phrase to change the poem’s speed and rhythm, sometimes slowing it down or speeding up the voice to amass power. To me, it’s as if the lines expand and contract like a faucet opening at various intervals to let water in, or a veil degrees of light. It would be interesting to compare it side by side to Whitman’s “I Hear America Singing,” the poem from which this one obviously takes its cue and organizational structure. Bernstein’s message is, of course, not as optimistic as Whitman’s — Whitman speaks for a collective America, note, in his poem, where Bernstein’s view is much more personal. In many ways, it’s a protest poem at its finest. In the end, the contrasting views suggest a lot about the way many Americans view our elected officials now and elections in general. Whitman’s poem was first published in 1860, over 150 years ago, just before the Civil War began.

On Election Day

I hear democracy weep, on election day.
The streets are filled with brokered promise, on election day.
The miscreant’s vote the same as saint’s, on election day.
The dead unleash their fury, on election day.
My brother crushed in sorrow, on election day.
The sister does her washing, on election day.
Slowly, I approach the voices dark, on election day.
The men prepare for dying, on election day.
The morning hush defends its brood, on election day.
So still, so kindly faltering, on election day.
On election day, the cats take tea with the marmoset.
On election day, the mother refuses her milk.
On election day, the frogs croak so fiercely you would think that Mars had
fallen into Earth.
On election day, the iron man meets her frozen gasp.
The air is putrid, red, interpolating, quixotic, torpid, vulnerable, on
election day.
Your eyes slide, on election day.
Still the mourners mourn, the weepers wept, the children sleep alone in
bed, on election day.
No doubt a comet came to see me, fiery and irreconciled, torrid, strummed,
on election day.
On election day, the trespass of the fatuous alarm and ignominious
aspiration fells the golden leap to girdled crest.
The tyrant becomes prince, on election day.
Neither friend nor foe, fear nor fate, on election day.
The liar lies with the lamb, on election day.
The last shall be the first and first sent to the back of the line, on election day.
The beggar made a king, on election day.
“Let him who is without my poems be assassinated!” on election day.
Let he who has not sinned, let him sin, on election
The ghosts wear suits, on election day.
On election day, sulfur smells like beer.
On election day, the minister quakes in fear.
On election day, the Pole and the Jew dance the foxtrot.
On election day, the shoe does not fit the foot, the bullet misfires in its
pistol, the hungry waiter reels before steadying himself on facts.
The grid does not gird the fiddler, on election day.
Galoshes and tears, on election day.
The sperm cannot find the egg, on election day.
The drum beat becomes bird song, on election day.
I feel like a nightmare is ending but can’t wake up, on election day.

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