Eugene Debs Leaving Atlanta Penitentiary

A newsreel.  1922.

 

In the background a high block-long building

With hundreds of windows –

A sidewalk leads away from it diagonally,

Toward the camera.

 

A tall upright older man

In a dark overcoat, wearing a dark felt hat,

Walks forward, away from the building.

 

Abruptly, at 16 b&w frames per second,

He stops, turns back to the building,

Looks up at those windows,

Raises his hat in salute,

And stand there, stands there, hat in air.

 

A thousand convicts are cheering

The release of Eugene Debs from prison.

  – And it is all silent.

 

 

from Touch: Poems

by Karl Patten

 

Commentary

 

This little poem is simply what it says it is: a few frames from a 1922 newsreel.  It is representative, a description, nothing more.  And yet it becomes metaphoric overall.  This change occurs because the poem is motivated by emotion: first, my choosing it out of a world of dense phenomena; second, my very strong feeling in response to its single action; and, third, my imagined presence at the scene, which brings the total silence alive.  My admiration for Debs matters, too.  He had been imprisoned for opposing the draft in World War I.  In the 1920 election he received 2 million votes while in his jail cell.  In this newsreel, we see that huge bleak prison, a fair distance from Debs; then we “hear” in silence the cries of applause and praise, and we realize that those windows are crowded with prisoners and that their cheers are so loud that Debs hears them and turns to salute his fellow felons.

            What a different world.  Today, how many Americans would vote for a convict?  And the solidarity manifest is alien to us.  Finally, in the game of determining our Worst President, Harding’s pardon of Debs – a recognition of justice – raises him far above the Bush league.

 

Karl Patten

 

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