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Friday, December 8, 2006

George Allen Addresses the Modern Language Association's Annual Conference

Jessica Francis Kane

MacacaMany of you are probably thinking: this is not a typical venue for a politician. But my life, since November, has been anything but typical. I’m honored to be here today.

As you’ve probably heard by now, the day after I conceded to James Webb, I went to the library. I walked into the stacks at the University of Richmond just to browse, just to get away from all the news. It seemed books had been turning up everywhere in my life. First Webb’s novels, you know, and then the news that two Virginia graduate students had discovered poems within a month of each other. I didn’t even know we had graduate students in Virginia! But welcome, I say. Welcome! You’re doing great work.

I was browsing in poetry because I like poetry. It’s short and sometimes rhymes. I picked a book off the shelf and immediately noticed there was some writing on the inside cover. Well, not the cover, but that first blank page. It has a name, but I don’t know what it is. Believe me: these days, if I can’t think of the right name, I don’t say anything at all!

My first thought was: Oooo, the previous borrower is so having their library privileges revoked! I mean, right? When I was growing up, we were told not to write in books! But then after I walked downstairs and found a librarian, I knew I was holding in my hands an extraordinary discovery: a new poem by Langston Hughes.

Well, not new, of course. He’s dead. You know that. New to us.

Now I don’t know much about the life of Langston Hughes, but the people who do, people who work at universities or want to work at universities, like all of you, are saying that at some point in the 1950s, Langston must have traveled on down to our great state of Virginia. While he was there, it seems he observed some things and scribbled this work, an early draft of another more famous poem he was to write later.

What happens to a vote deterred?

Does it flap off
like a newspaper in the street
Or creep like a shadow—
In full retreat?
Does it hang around the polls?
Or leave to wait for the bus—
The only way it got there in the first place, you fools.

Maybe it just falls
Like a heavy sack.

Or does it come back?

Isn’t this amazing? Fifty years ago Langston was wondering about something I know we in the Republican party have wondered about. What does happen to those voters? Certainly it’s annoying when they tape record our messages.

Many are saying that my discovery of this poem will renew my presidential bid. To them I say: I agree. It is a poem by a famous black man and Democratic voters love that stuff, so Karl Rove and I should probably talk. Did you notice? President Bush the other day referred to the poet as “Langy,” proof of what he believes this discovery can do for the party.

But whatever the future holds, today I just want to say that I’m proud to have found this poem in our great Virginia, birth place of presidents and now a treasure trove of undiscovered poetry.

Some of you will go on to write about this work as you build your files toward tenure at a university where you will then work hard for years, earn too little money, and write books not enough people read. I’m told a discovery like this for any one of you would have been enough to jumpstart a whole career. Well, I’m honored—no, humbled—to have been the finder. But let us believe that there are no “finders keepers” in the world of literature. And let us also be realistic. Which is better? A measly academic career or George Allen back in the presidential race? This poem is a gift to us all.

Jessica Francis Kane's essays appear in The Morning (where she is a contributing writer) and her fiction has been published in a number of literary magazines, including McSweeney's and Virginia Quarterly Review. Her first collection of stories, Bending Heaven, was published in 2002.