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The American Left: Seven Poems

These poems follow from my fieldwork in oral history, both the Oral History of the American Left, which I founded at New York University in 1976, and an ongoing project in Rhode Island from the late 1970s through the 1990s.  They are not a literal transcript but an attempt to condense meanings.

Irish American Patriot

My grandfather, he owned a funeral parlor
right near the downtown.
And when an IRA supporter died—
this would be in the 1910s, 1920s—
He sent the casket home to Ireland
It would be full of rifles.

Grizzled Bolshevik, Pawtucket, Rhode Island

Only two of us from the Lincoln Battalion are still around here.
The Spanish Civil War: we could have stopped fascism
if we’d been given the chance.
Then time passed.
We figured, in 1948, it was time for a
big political move.
I, myself, collected 634 signatures to get
Henry Wallace on the ballot.
But as I entered working class homes
I noted something very interesting.
Now they had new rugs and bedroom sets
and real refrigerators, for the first time!
We were going to get five millions votes?
I don’t think so. That started the downfall
of Leftwing America.

Italian radical and sub shop owner

I wanted to be a doctor, my parents
sent me back to Italy in 1925.
Mussolini made it impossible.
And I am stuck selling submarine sandwiches
to high school kids.
We call our hall the Matteotti Club
after the parliamentarian who was assassinated.
Carlo Tresca spoke here!
Our mentor, as far as I can remember as a kid
Was Luigi Galleani, editor of the supposedly
dangerous anarchist newspaper Cronoca Sovversiva.
Several times he came here, a distinguished looking man
and a fine speaker.
He was expelled from the US in 1921
and died in Mussolini’s prisons.
That’s what the old-timers told me, anyway.
What I remember best is Sacco-Vanzetti
I was a young actor, a natural ham.
Our plays were in Italian, to raise money
for the legal defense.
I remember the night of the execution.
Special trains took hundreds to Boston.
Here in Providence, there were people on the street crying.
Our martyrs had been electrocuted.

Hungarian-American avant-gardiste

I am the last Masses artist still around
but I wasn’t much like the others, personally.
My family was Hungarian, Left Socialists
They encouraged my art and I got a scholarship
to study in Paris! But I sat in class looking outside
And there was a giant Michelin ad.
It was so dynamic, I could not take my eyes off it.
I came back changed, we had great times
In Greenwich Village in those days.
Then it was 1919 and I returned to Hungary
and walked through the country for months.
That experience made me a Communist.
Pretty soon, my work became more realistic.
And the New Yorker wanted me to make Horthy a hero!
After that it was the Communist press and artistic
work on my own time, what I wanted to do.
There were murals, sculpture, whatever I had in front of my
interest and attention.
I still like my little book, Marx’s Capital in Lithographs.

Humorist of the Daily Worker

I had a column, light stuff
I used to say that I tortured them
for their pompousness, when they were pompous.
They tortured me back for my indiscipline
They were revolutionaries for sure
But too few of them had a sense of humor.

Hollywood Communist

William Z. Foster, the big leader, came out
to raise some money for a Party cause.
But he really wanted to meet cowboy movie stars.
We tried to say: these are not the people
On our side.
He was let down, disappointed.


Small town socialist in the Slovenian Hall

I have been waiting for you
or someone like you,
for many years.
I wrote a history of our group and here it is.
Your wife played her piano recitals as a kid
in the next room, thirty years ago?
She could have looked in the library:
Big portrait of Karl Marx.
We didn’t make socialism
but we had wonderful cooperatives
for twenty or thirty years.
The Finns delivered milk, we ran
the savings bank.
The Croats were our friends back then
Even if they were more Communistic
We all worshipped Tito
He led the Resistance!
And saved the country from bloodshed.
When he died, Yugoslavia died.
Soon the Hall will be closed
and our children won’t remember our socialism
out in the white suburbs, to the West.

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Paul Buhle is a retired historian, and co-founder, with Scott Molloy, of an oral history project on blue collar Rhode Islanders.

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