THE WHITMAN ISSUE
....................VIEWING THE RELICS
"My darling boy," the letter ends, tremblingly.
This leaf of your leathery hand, Walt Whitman, and still warm
Like your vision--shepherd of the Brooklyn hills,
Wondrous icon of pond-light and pasture-shine.
These last words to your longest lover and deathless comrade--
Peter Doyle, Rebel soldier and streetcar driver--
Rough-grained and faintly yellowed, are still clear
Clean and sweet-smelling.
The fluid script speaks to me even now:
......"Broadway is more crowded and gayer than ever, the women more
......richly-dressed, the new buildings grander..."
You write from Long Island, like yesterday.
I sound your mind.
I taste your breath.
The librarian raises a walking stick, the gift of naturalist
John Burroughs, a reddish cane like polished rosewood
Though genuine calamus root, the Sweet Flag you adored,
Long and tapered with a large tarnished knob of silver
And triple-screwed at mid-section--
"A token of manly friendship."
And the haversack of Specimen Days,
A dull-black bag, cracked and broken, rests in an acrylic case.
You carried your heart in this sack
During the War Years, appearing 'in hospital'
Flushed robust and full-bearded, a believable St. Nicholas
To your loving boys--"all the soldiers, North and South"--neglecting
No one, including the 'contraband' too, you appeared
With presents of figs and licorice, raspberry jam
And crabapple jelly, or a bottle of cherry brandy,
Tobacco, sweet cracker and ginger cake,
And envelopes, and reams and reams of paper
For all the letters home--frailest leaves!--
Wounded words to sweethearts and soulmates
From the illiterate and invalid
And the dying.
"I am conscious of saving so many lives..."
Two unframed daguerreotypes from your home in the Heights.
(When the secular Puritan, Thoreau, visited
He said, "It was as if the beasts spoke.")
One is an ardent satyr, goat-bearded and hairy-hoofed;
The other photo is Herakles in repose--
I see in the first the hirsute beauty of man-loving sex
Unshamed, and unashamed. In the second,
Naked grace, and the near-maternal tenderness
Of a Herculean heart.
Now I hold on my finger the paper butterfly
You held on your finger for Mathew Brady
(O shameless self-publicist! Eternal boyish prankster!)
Posing as a New World Dionysos, a pantheist god
Neither Greek nor Indian, but born here the same
In the unfenced fields of Long Island, near the whispering Sound,
A boy growing green-hearted with the lilacs, and later
Gazing out over the brave rivers and joyful tumult
Of the Clipper City, youthful barbaric New York--
These two islands, the mythic poles of your global life--
"Fish-shaped Paumanok" and "million-foot Mannahatta."
This painted butterfly, tiger-striped, is an 'eidolon'
For your fierce and fragile soul, fired by visions--
Of Democracy, "The City of Friends"--
Of America one sole land united by love, not law--
Of Adhesiveness, "the beautiful and sane affection of man for man"--
Visions of a higher creed reborn in human lives, female and male alike,
In all ages colors creeds, in the simple separate Person
"Unpent and glad and strong."
At last, the priest reveals to the pilgrims
The sole surviving leaf of the original Leaves
(The remainder 'lost' or 'accidentally destroyed')
A single self-written page from "Song of Myself"!
In the husky muscular script, I hear again
The hum of your valved voice:
......"What is commonest and cheapest and nearest and easiest is Me,
......Me going in for my chances...spending for vast returns,
......Adorning myself to bestow myself on the first that will take me,
......Not asking the sky to come down to my good will,
......Scattering it freely forever."
Penned in the fluent flame of genius,
Spelled to us hot from your spirit!
It survives, and you survive in it,
And we survive because.
At sixteen I first read your songs
And I knew they spoke to me, to me alone
(And with no one to tell my Secret, especially to me
They spoke, and to people like me).
I knew you dreamed of me then and fathered me
In your century of solitude, longing for me
Long before my own great-grandfather was born;
You identified me--and us, your sons--not as 'homosexuals'
Nor in the modern fashion as 'gays'--
But simply "camerados" the whole world round
In all times all places to come,
With no affectation, without outward symbol
But a kiss on the mouth by the only sign
Of the man-loving men.
Full of life now, we incarnate your creed
Of brotherhood--your dreams are fleshed in us,
In us! in the hot pulse and push, like-sexed by your vision.
Vividly alive, we are the New World you promised
St. Walt--Columbus of the Soul--discovering
In the beloved, in the luxurious grass,
In the rapture of that transparent summer morning
"The peace and knowledge that pass all the argument of the earth...
That all men ever born are also my brothers...and lovers,
And that a kelson of the creation is love."
Richard Sharp works full-time at the Library of Congress, and also teaches literature part-time at a variety of universities in the area: George Washington, Howard, Montgomery College, and currently, at Catholic University and UDC. He teaches American literature primarily as the American Renaissance is his area of specialization; his dissertation is titled The Poet's Witness: A Comparative Study of the Civil War Poetry of Walt Whitman and Herman Melville. He has published several chapters as articles. He also published a chapbook, Regenesis: Mass for the Poor, in 1976. He is a member of DC Poets Against the War and the Washington Friends of Walt Whitman. He calls himself a "certified Whitmaniac."