Walt Whitman (1819-1892)
A fantasy in free verse, inspired and directed by “Ontario’s Blue Shore”
After the rain,
I sat outside with Leaves of Grass on my knees,
I’d intended to take it into the woods with me to a gnarly old maple,
With a split trunk contour’d just right for lying back,
And straddling, but I’ve been stress’d ,
And the mosquitoes would’ve chew’d—
Bloody hell! An explosion caught my ear, a split’d second after,
The lightning ball that flared near the clematis and raspberry tangle,
Nearly six feet tall and fathoms broad with a recitating voice that boom’d,
Give up the apostrophes and the end line commas, would you?
We have bigger work to do.
I leaped to my feet and in my sudden apoplex threw Leaves of Grass at him.
The book flew through the ectoplas that metamorphed while my eyes boggled
Into Whit, the man, himself. He handed the book back.
Yours, I believe?
Making your acquaintance has been a trial were his next words. How long have
I slept, deprived of affection, upon your shelf? How many months, ignored,
Beside your pillow? That might work with Fried and Rainer, but I—he punched
His barrel chest—am of sterner blood.
The floorboards of cedar and I trembled.
Spectral or no, he made a fine specimen, hair and beard a silver nimbus, eyes a
Crackling blue-gray (Confederate and Union came to mind), the winds and
Currents of reconciled tensions in their interior as great as the lakes that bound
His land to mine.
The air smelled of blackberries and basil, and the corkscrew willow
Showered droplets across the shoulders of his blue cambric shirt
That was mostly unbuttoned.
What work—my voice squeaked like a pubescent country boy’s.
I tried again. He knew, of course, had to, that I’d been trying to pull
Whitman in through my veins, to create online what he wrote in lines
Of verse that gave voice to a continent, and iconized a name—
Sensuality as prayer and nation.
What work are you and I to do?
He helped himself to the glider chair beside mine.
His feet were bare and high-arched, the toes broad, well-formed.
He lifted one foot onto the knee of his dark dungarees.
I have not come on my own behalf, he said, nor for the poets with whom you
Keep broad and lively discourse. I come for a greater welfare.
The sinisterium of the nether realms grows crowded,
Seams bulge and stretch, and we have need of one who would liberate
Her thought and mind and body that the passages might be freed again.
Before I could jest or question this hallucination,
He thrust a pointing finger toward the woods into which
A trail had been tamped by suburban dogs and Nikes.
Here he comes now.
I craned my neck to watch what appeared to be a thin ginger reed stoppered
At both ends hopping toward me, and thought of Castaneda and his
Nope, he’s organic and his organs, one in particular, are practic’d and perfect,
Though he could be an ally if you played your cards right.
(Where is the practic’d and perfect organ? where is the develop’d soul? Lines
From Whitman’s “Vocalism” came to my rescue, though I couldn’t be sure he
Was speaking, in this instance, of a voice box.)
The reed grew closer, sprouted wavy hair, limbs and a chiseled jaw.
A cloud surrounded it that reeked of Brut and apple pie.
Charisma, I thought, held past its prime.
As the jaw became sterner and the face recognizable,
Three thoughts pitchforked my tissue-thin civility:
What the hell is he doing here?
He must have been pissed to reach heaven and find the lusty poet-bard reciting,
Firm-footed and erect, through the multi-roomed mansions,
And what the frig was a sinisterium?
(I tugged the neckline of my scanty yellow top upward.)
Walt swung open the gate of my deck and invited
The energetic-being-turned-man in with large, liberal gestures.
Good to see you, pal! They guy-hugged with slaps and laughs
From the belly.
The new arrival turned to me. Hi, I’m Billy.
I understand you’re having trouble with erotica.
My body electric went into shock.
Even if you never knew him, you’d know him.
He’d been pastor to presidents, his surname the same as a certain sweet cracker.
His fear of cheesecake (female temptors) was so notorious that he never sat in a
Room with a woman not his wife unless the door was propped open.
Over the years he became even crustier!
Blame it on my saturnine nature to jump to the lowest possible solid ground.
Look, Mister, Doctor, Reverend, I don’t know why or how Walt Whitman
Conjured you, but if you’ve come to judge or convert—
No, no, I know where you’re going, and nothing can change that.
I know what you think too, but I love what God created,
Women as helpmeets, sweet fragrant companions to men.
I glared at Walt. Get him the hell outta here!
The old horndog was slapping his thigh and laughing like a foghorn,
Giving off sparks like the Fourth of July. Billy kept talking.
It was those snooty pictures. They never stopped coming.
I was losing, had already lost poetic control of this piece.
I’d wanted to intone, Whitman-esque, of soybeans and corporate slaves.
I’d want’d … er, wanted to fill up my chest and sing to spheres and distances,
principalities and peace—what do you mean, snooty pictures?
I have them here. From the back pocket of his neatly pressed gray pants,
The preacher pulled a stack of photos and fanned them like a deck of cards.
These women are naked! I intoned, knowing with a poet’s surety that
Naked in a sentence will always shout loudest.
That’s what I said, nudie pictures. Women snuck them into Bibles and lemon
Pies, handing them to me sometimes while their husbands were right there!
Because they wanted to—they wanted me to—
(and here he blushed copper to the roots)
To f-f-f-, to fuh-fuh—
Fuck them? Fornicate. We spoke our respective F’s in the same moment,
Then shuddered at very much the same velocity. Whitman doubled over,
Weeping with laughter.
A ladybug, bless her, landed on my bare calf, and I leaned forward to take her
On my finger. Straightening, I heard a rumble, a quiet steady thrumming,
The sound, it struck me, of masculine power surrounding and abounding me.
I crossed my legs. Leaves of Grass fell to the wet deck
And the ladybug, her job done, flew away.
I picked up the book, wiped off the wet,
And invited the preacher to sit.
Why do you still have the photos? Aren’t you—
Dead? Yes. But you’ve heard of people taking secrets to the grave.
These are my secrets. I never told a soul, not a single living soul
What I did in rooms where the doors weren’t propped. I couldn’t.
My flock of millions, lifetime after lifetime, saw me as perfect.
I couldn’t let them down.
Part of me was listening.
Part of me was wondering how one snuck photos into lemon pie.
I recalled then that his wife had passed on, not so long ago.
Doesn’t she know?
She knows, she knew, women always know.
But it’s not about the knowing, it’s the holding in.
I never confided, never loved my fellow man and woman
As much as I loved . . .
God? I said.
No. The voices in my head.
The smoke of my own breath circles us. Audacity and sublime turbulence,
Walt’s oh so perfect Leaves remind me that there are millions of suns left
And this moment, in the presence of a sinister dilemma, requiring that I
Minister to a minister I’ve deplored all my life must nonetheless be deployed.
“O take my hand, Walt Whitman!”
To the man of God, I said, you have now told a living soul. Is that enough?
Replied he to Walt and me, a moment’s patience is all I ask.
Though you warned us, poet, I shirked many parts of myself.
Of every urge and demi-urge I made false gods and true demons,
Doomed to eternal conflict overseen by that which I deemed not-me.
The largest disowned fragment, silence, I called God.
Time has not run out for me but space.
The turnings of the soul I thought limitless have spun their final revolutions,
And the sweet blue Earth I disdained in the name of good and evil will not open
Her thighs to me again.
He looked at me and I felt a rush, salty with an acid rub,
Of the most profound regret.
Walt, he said, you sing of multitudes, your multi-selves contained
And living peacably, lion, lamb, in eternal contradiction.
In my worship of the One, I exiled the Many and created in their place a
Swelling congregation, the fruit of aching loins turned lion devouring lamb.
I have mislaid, and I mourn my multitudes.
Understanding, like a rose in the perfect august month, opened.
You’ve sent them to the sinisterium, I said. They await you now
At the left, the abandoned side, where the heart,
The perfect spacious organ, resides.
Surprise and colour came to his face, and he glanced astonished at his friend
Who was eyeing, I noted, the neckline that had fallen on my flimsy yellow top.
Multitudes of the ministerial single form smiled upon the multitudes
Of this single form. I held out my free hand, he took it, and we merged.
I don’t look upon those days and nights of the poet with wonder
Though he did to my delight congress with me awhile.
Perhaps you find it baffling that I picked him out by secret and divine signs,
Though, having read your verse, I think not.
We are all lovers and perfect equals.
Whitman and the bards of every age meant that you should
Discover me—and I you—by faint indirections,
And that in this perfect time, I would find myself
Here in your embrace again,
By blue Ontario’s shore.
© Elaine Stirling 2011
If you enjoyed this narrative free verse, you might also like The Mexican Saga: A Poetic Journey of the 20-Count that recounts the exploits and imploits of a reluctant shamaness in the Castaneda tradition. The e-book is available here for your Kindle or Kobo reader.