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Thursday, December 10th, 2009 | Author:

The brown-sugar shortbread I’m baking for my Whitmaniacs is in the oven, the freshman final exams I should be grading are stacked beside me, my children are sleeping all snug in their beds, and I am melancholy that tomorrow effectively disbands the Digital Whitman Fellowship.  There is much work undone.  By Friday morning the heaviest of those burdens will be grading final projects, but tonight it’s the realization that I’ve never really blogged about the Womanly Whitman.  Since naming him in response to Dr. Earnhart’s famous James Bond Speech on our first night of class in August, God knows I’ve talked about him, I’ve watched students and two other professors at UMW pick up the term, I’ve mentioned him to Barbara Bair, the Library of Congress archivist who changed our semester.  But he deserves one final huzzah here on I Give You My Hand.

Before this project, I taught Whitman a lot, in three or four different courses, but had come to focus almost solely on “Song of Myself”– sometimes 1855, sometimes Deathbed, sometimes with humor, sometimes with aggravation, always with an appreciation for poetic genius, and always with a pretty clear picture in my head of the kind of guy I was dealing with: macho, swaggering, egotistical.  You know, this guy:

The Enhanced Manly Whitman

The Enhanced Manly Whitman

Even his radical inclusion had begun to feel at best appropriative, at worst cannibalistic, consuming the American people to feed his vast, virile self.  “Song of Myself” was like a poetic codpiece.  I couldn’t see the forest for the fibres of manly wheat.  You understand me.

I exaggerate, of course, but don’t entirely lie.  During the re-immersion in Whitman that I undertook about a year ago, something happened.  In between blaming Whitman for Charles Olson and rolling my eyes at his father-stuff, I began to see someone unexpected emerging–someone with soft hips and warm eyes, someone surprisingly quiet, a good listener, a bringer of lemons and ice cream, a moon-watcher.  This person:

The Marriage Photo

The Marriage Photo, with pleased smiles and fleshy hips

And this one:

Whitman, 1868, sad

Whitman, about 1869, sad

This Whitman appeared in the memoirs of his friends, in letters to his mother, and, powerfully, in the Civil War writings to which I was turning fresh and focused attention.   (To my surprise, when I went back to “Song of Myself,” of course this Whitman was all over it.)  Right now my favorite work of this Whitman may be “Vigil Strange I Kept on the Field One Night,” which is here.

“Vigil Strange” imagines a private wake for a young dead soldier, kept through the night by an older, grieving comrade.  It is not a perfect poem, being marred by weird syntactic inversions and being, arguably, maudlin.  But it is intensely moving in the quietness of its grief:

Till late in the night reliev’d to the place at last again I made my way,

Found you in death so cold dear comrade, found your body son of responding kisses, (never again on earth responding,)

and its acceptance of the unacceptable:

Passing sweet hours, immortal and mystic hours with you dearest comrade—not a tear, not a word,

Vigil of silence, love and death, vigil for you my son and my soldier,

As onward silently stars aloft, eastward new ones upward stole . . .

and in its exquisite, unbearable gentleness:

My comrade I wrapt in his blanket, envelop’d well his form,

Folded the blanket well, tucking it carefully over head and carefully under feet,

And there and then and bathed by the rising sun, my son in his grave, in his rude-dug grave I deposited. . .

“Vigil Strange” has a rhythm that approaches incantation or lullaby–long, frequently repetitive lines that are calming (cut short abrasively by the reality of war in the aborted rhythm of the final line/action: “And buried him where he fell”).  The swaddling of the “son,” “my soldier,” in his blanket is, I’m going to suggest, not masculine, not even paternal.  It is maternal, tender, womanly.

What problems arise from my assertion?  A lot, and two of them have to be addressed.  First, unquestionably my desire to call this voice the Womanly Whitman is rooted heavily in a construction of the womanly and the maternal that is traditional, nurturing, compassionate, the angel in the hospital ward.  It is the construction I invoked in the domestic scene that began this post.  It is a construction with which I am utterly at odds ideologically and which I have doggedly and sometimes fiercely interrogated in my teaching, my politics, and many of my life choices.  Second, there is a complication in casting the speaker of “Vigil Strange” as maternal, a Freudian complication best indicated by the title from Lawrence (curse, growl): “Sons and Lovers.”  My casting of this soldier as maternal effectively recontains the homoeroticism of the poem:

One look I but gave which your dear eyes return’d with a look I shall never forget,

One touch of your hand to mine O boy, reach’d up as you lay on the ground,

Then onward I sped in the battle, the even-contested battle,

Till late in the night reliev’d to the place at last again I made my way,

Found you in death so cold dear comrade, found your body son of responding kisses, (never again on earth responding,)

The language of “my son,” “dear eyes,” and “boy” can mask the power of that body, those kisses, the assertion of love that will transcend death (less so, perhaps, if you’ve read the repeated use of the word “son” in Whitman’s letters to his partner Peter Doyle).  OR, and this is equally problematic, I am mapping “gay” over “tender, feminine, womanly” as though they are fundamentally interchangeable.

Oy vey.  Now I’m really in the total animal soup of essentialism.

But I want that term.  Maybe because in some ways it is MY “womanly”– that is to say, “womanly” is a tag not unlike the “myWW” tag I append to certain posts to indicate a connection to Whitman that goes beyond admiration of the poetic line, the image, the nest of guarded duplicate eggs you have to have to throw over the literary establishment.  It is, I will say on safer ground, a non-patriarchal Whitman: tender, generous, nurturing, doubting, equalizing.  It’s the Whitman this semester has given me, and I’m grateful.

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Tuesday, November 10th, 2009 | Author:

John Burroughs in a letter about Whitman, 1864:

He bathed today while I was there–such a handsome body, and such delicate rosy flesh I never saw before.  I told him he looked good enough to eat, which, he said, he should consider a poor recommendation if he were among the cannibals.

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Tuesday, November 10th, 2009 | Author:

My reaction to our reading this week has been so mixed– in some ways, I feel a sense of closure, of finality as we focus on the last edition and the last days.  That reflects, I think, the personal, human Whitman we have gotten attached to this semester, since obviously as a literature professor I must have an unshakeable faith in the power of the work to outlive its maker and its time . . . right?  his work doesn’t reach closure because his body does.  But it doesn’t feel like it today.  Instead, my sense that with Whitman’s “death” (felt like checking the obits this a.m.) comes an unbreachable divide makes me frantic… don’t die now, Walt Whitman!  I have a lot left to read, to learn, to blog!  It’s too soon for me!  Maybe I am responding to the waning days of Digital Whitman more than the loss of Walt Whitman, but it’s crazy how those have become hard to separate lately.

Well, I include here something I found in our old friend Reynolds, a bit of letter WW sent with an advance copy of the deathbed edition on December 6, 1891 (intertextual note: 11 days before he took the “severe chill” that Longaker says marks “the invasion of the fatal sickness”):

L. of G. at last complete—after 33 y’rs of hackling at it, all times & moods of my life, fair weather & foul, all parts of the land, and peace & war, young & old—

O Whitman, Our Whitman (image from ExplorePAHistory.com)
O Whitman, Our Whitman (image from ExplorePAHistory.com)
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Monday, September 28th, 2009 | Author:

Again, Sharon Olds:

You move between the soldiers’ cots

the way I move among my dead,

their white bodies laid out in lines.


You bathe the forehead, you bathe the lip, the cock,

as I touch my father, as if the language

were a form of life.


You write their letters home, I take the dictation

of his firm dream lips, this boy

I love as you love your boys.


They die and you still feel them.  Time

becomes unpertinent to love,

to the male bodies in beds.


We bend over them, Walt, taking their breath

soft on our faces, wiping their domed brows,

stroking back the coal-black Union hair.


We lean down, our pointed breasts

heavy as plummets with fresh spermy milk–

we conceive, Walt, with the men we love, thus, now,

we bring to fruit.

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Sunday, September 27th, 2009 | Author:

As if that wasn’t enough: this one is actually Whitman!  Cut from the ad, the final two lines of the poem: “A grand, sane, towering, seated Mother, / Chair’d in the adamant of Time.”

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Sunday, September 27th, 2009 | Author:

A former student, Amanda Rutstein, just sent me this link to a Levi's commercial.  I think you will recognize the poem (indeed, I think some of us have trashed it--does this change your mind?), but the images, sound effects (gun shots?), homoeroticism, etc. call for some analysis.  Among other questions, would Whitman love this or feel co-opted by capitalism?  After all, Levi's are the working man's jeans...

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Monday, September 21st, 2009 | Author:

I came across this story and video (do NOT skip the video, which features the poem “Beat! Beat! Drums!”, t-shirts with Whitman in slouch hat, a bad rendition of “I Kissed a Girl,” people spouting such hate it will give you shivers, and the weirdest dancing religious prostester I’ve seen in a long time) about a protest at Walt Whitman School in Bethesda last April and the counter-protest staged by students and teachers.  Here’s what one protester says to sum it up:

“Walt Whitman is a f*g who died years ago and obviously has been worshiped to the degree that he has a school named after him.”

My friends, this, too, is Whitman under our bootsoles.

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Tuesday, September 15th, 2009 | Author:

Like many of you, I’ve been thinking a lot about the body-soul  claims of Whitman: does the emphasis on body objectify (as surely Whitman’s attempt to write the body does since it becomes basically a ludicrously detailed blazon)?  do we have souls that are separable from our bodies, in ways that Brendon detailed through philosophical history in a post last week, or as common love songs or mainstream religions would tell us?  is there a self for each of us that can transcend our material worlds, the social experiences of living in bodies marked, experienced, and interpreted by race, gender, sexuality, (dis)ability, etc etc etc?  (I kind of think no, but I live in a house with an active and basically communicative ghost–a story for another day when you are trying to put off real class discussion). . .  No one has yet taken up the “act-poems” of the flesh in tonight’s reading, where not only body and soul but poem become one, but we’ll talk them through tonight.

So, the title of this post is related to the place in which I find myself writing it, which has me thinking more about body-soul: a few hours shy of class, sitting on the playroom floor beside the couch on which my little girl, feverish, is trying to sleep (cold water in a non-spill cup, iced eye mask, sleepytime cd playing close by) but mostly fretting about.  And here is where My Walt Whitman, the nurse Whitman, begins to return to me from the lonely exile into which I banished him this week when I reread “A Woman Waits for Me,” a poem marred at its core by what I experience as rape imagery.  So to the maternal, a soul (body?) Whitman often claimed for himself and that the boys he nursed (okay, now thinking of that image he gives of himself suckling) gave to him as well.

At 7, my daughter is just beginning to understand/believe that she just may be a separate essence and body from her mother.  (I know, a little late according to Lacan, but whatever.)  Though she is (too) fully her own person, the bond is physical in a most intense way.  When she is sleepy or sick, she wants to rest full-length on my body.  When she is sad or happy or honestly just close by, she likes to press her the bridge of her nose into the flesh of my arm, singing little songs (primary words: “love” and “squishy”– okay, very embarassing, but the point is that those are not concepts she sees as different from one another on a very true level.  To touch her body to another’s is more than she can stand.)  She runs her hands over my face, she closes them around my arms or bare legs, she lays her cheek against my face or neck.  The body and soul, love, are all one to her.  So, in conclusion, I believe Whitman.

I feel like I’m in danger of naturalizing the maternal or the mother-child bond, and to be clear, I don’t want to.  I don’t believe in it one whit, man.  I’m speaking about one maternal body, one child, one childlike bearded maternal-man looking for a love pure and essential and unconditional.  A sickbed edition.

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