“Whitman at Armory Square” up on Linebreak. Many thanks to the journal, and to Jason McCall for as powerful reading as I could possibly hope for. It’s Linebreak’s treatment of poems, presenting recordings along with the text, that had me hoping they'd take this piece.
I don’t believe in “explaining” poems. It’s a bit like explaining jokes: If you have to explain them, they didn’t work. And Walt Whitman’s place in American poetry requires no explanation; he is a touchstone figure, often perceived as the towering life-force who changed the landscape of poetry and brought it into a true “American” voice after decades of British emulation. (A brief pop culture aside: Given the relatively marginalized place poetry holds in the mainstream these days, it says something that Whitman’s poem “When I Heard the Learn’d Astronomer” was quoted in full in an episode of Breaking Bad, and I love that it may end up being Leaves of Grass that brings down Walter White’s House of Meth.)
But to explain why I went to this subject and this form: Whitman worked as a nurse, tending to the wounded during the Civil War, and there seems to be little doubt that what he saw at Armory Square hospital changed him permanently. A few years ago, I read that after his experience, he stopped writing poetry. That struck me as so telling, so poignant—this man who had been welling with life, with love of people and deep carnality, with words, struck dumb by seeing the country turned against itself. And how it almost seemed as though his own voice had been taken over by those of the soldiers who wanted him to “speak” for them by writing their letters home, some of them the last words they’d ever utter.
I wanted to write something that showed what happened when Whitman’s life instinct came up against the carnage of the Civil War, and that’s the reason for this form: the non-italicized lines are the life instinct, the italicized ones the voice of the death he encountered, how it might have transformed his relationship with the body. It was designed, in a way, to be a dialogue between Freud’s concepts of Eros (the drive for life, love, creativity, sex) and Thanatos (the drive of aggression, sadism, violence, death) through the figure of Whitman.
The poem can be read straight through, but also as two stanzas one after the other, if you pull them apart at the spots where they mesh. I considered setting them that way, but in the end, I decided, I wanted them touching, blending, to form one narrative as well as two separate ones.
It’s a form I’ve been working with a lot due to the fact that conceptualizing America sometimes seems to require it: voices in opposition to each other, entertwining to make a whole that may be harmonious or acrimonious. Sometimes these voices even come from within a single person. Can these voices coexist? If not, which one will win out?