For a long time I've wanted to do sound and visuals projects with some of my old poems. This weekend I got a chance to start learning how, thanks to Radio Boot Camp. I went up to New York with colleagues in order to get a first taste of how we might start incorporating audio elements into our reporting, getting to use what I learned for personal projects is a nice side benefit.
I'm excited about the possibilities on multiple fronts, but the first thing I thought I'd try out was working with this odd Whitman poem I wrote some years back, one in which two voices (and two stories) are cut into each other forming a new, more difficult story. Linebreak published and did a marvelous job with the recording, but I always wanted to hear what would happen if this poem was done in layers, in rounds like old folk songs, with the two threads of death and life not coming one after the other but woven so closely they can scarcely be separated.
That was part of what I was trying to get at in this poem: an intermingling of the threads of Whitman: his boisterous voice and sexuality with the anguish of the Civil War, the intermingling (and eventual effacement) of Whitman's voice with the voices of the soldiers he nursed, an act of mercy that was at once generous and destructive.
I moved some lines around in the recording, as I found that following the interspersed voices was more difficult without the visual cues that the page provides, but maybe I can get someone with a dramatically different voice than mine to record with me at some point.
Whitman at Armory Square
People came to him—in the streets, in the alleys.
Always, his appetite had been huge, his capacity for
Flesh clung to him like sunlight coats wheat fields.
Taking others into himself. Now he had them
Knowing its home, its resting place, its canvas.
By the hundreds, boys and men brought in
They would greet him with kisses. Friends wrote
On stretchers: shredded arms, exposed brain matter;
Of how beautiful he was bathing, of his proud form;
Some saved by an hour with the saw. On their lips,
How it moved and flexed; they lost, within his sight,
A whimper for Christ or mother, sometimes
All shame. And he in turn would tongue
Bloodied spittle. Most surgeries were amputations.
Their bodies onto leaves of paper, spilling
The pus was drawn into roll on roll of cotton.
Rivers of ink through the soft belly of evening,
His work was to cleanse, to comfort these ruins
Touching, exquisitely, himself and those nearby
Dying in the wake of the cut: dysentery, infection.
Until his seed splashed onto the page in long lines,
Many simply wished to dictate a letter home.
Nothing like any poetry that had been seen before
He would write the words they could no longer form
A psalm drawn from dirt and kernel,
With their hands. His own tongue curled up and dropped,
From sweat and wood smoke, from the root.
A shriveling sinew in a filthy pile of gauze.