Image Credit: Eliza Moore
I imagine Walt Whitman’s body
Walt Whitman, an. American, one of the roughs, a kosmos,
Disorderly fleshy and sensual, eating and drinking and breeding…
As if he were beside me. Reading. His big voice like a voice out a cave, echoing
through the halls of his lungs. I rest my head on his ribs. I hear his exclamations rattle; I hear
them expand through his pectorals and obliges.
Unscrew the locks on the doors!
Unscrew the doors themselves from their jambs!
Lately, I’ve been reading Leaves of Grass out loud in bed. Sometimes I fall asleep with the little paperback resting on my heart like folded hands, light as a sparrow. In my dreams my body spreads over the bed like a river. It is high summer and my skin is tan, like the muddy Mississippi, like the slow old Connecticut where I baptize myself each afternoon, washed clean of straw chaff, soil, squash spit, tomato pollen, oil, and my own salty sweat after a day’s work at the farm. My brown river body in the white cotton spreading, my toes taking hold of folds, my arms reaching. Reaching. Climbing the walls.
I wake with a start. My eyes rolled back straight toward the heavens. Through the windows above my bed, a thunderhead sails as high as clouds can, at the top of its bruised, blooming masses it flattens and drifts fine through the atmosphere. It is a giant of August. It drums its own beat, a heart that can shake mountain and river. I am fixed. Glued. I know that it has come for me, to show me its magnificent white belly and robes of blue and purple. I know it woke me just then to see the light against it. It’s an exclamation.
…and what is called love reason, and what is called love, and what is called life?
Walt Whitman’s body, perhaps the most beloved, body in American poetry, is not a body I long for lustfully. I confess that sometimes he repulses me with his body. But when I was a little girl I was always looking for places to hide. I dug a deep pit in the sandy soil of our backyard. I constructed a teepee in a dense hemlock grove. More than anything I wanted to be small enough to crawl into the black rot heart of a massive oak tree. I called this tree “the Father Tree” and I imagined all of its memories, 200 years of them I guessed from its size and species. Peaking into the Father Tree I could see that it was rotted almost straight up but the opening was too small to climb inside. But I dreamed of being embraced by that tree, its stinking sweet wood, its decay, and richness. And so his sweat, his flesh, would surround me his long beard tickling like moss.
Sprouts take and accumulate – stand by the curb prolific and vital,
Landscapes projected masculine full-size and golden.
He might call me daughter (for I have always dreamed of having a father of mighty strength like Samson). He might call me a countrywoman, an American (for I love the land like a great geographic beloved, not the politics, no the waving of flags but the mass of it, the deserts, the mountains, the plains, and coastlines). He might call me sister (since I have always been oldest, strongest of my family and dreamed of a brother who might beat up on bad boyfriends for me, or help me change a tire, or hush me and say ‘everything is going to be alright, I’m here’).
Whitman’s words tattoo across my brain. Drum tapped. Heart beaten. How to speak with so much exclamation! One hot afternoon I am sitting in a poetry workshop dreaming. My skin is darkening, I can smell it. Everyone seems to have words but in the heat, I am just skin, skin and smell and I melt into it. I keep brushing my shoulder blades. I keep feeling the bones there. On the margins of my notebook I write, “I sing the body electric”. I write it again and again. I think maybe I’ll get those lines tattooed on my shoulder blades like a scarf. But then I would forever have to explain ‘sing’ and ‘the body’ and ‘electric’, a word that must have lost potency in this age of electricity. And the ‘I’ might make me seem as if I was swallowing up Whitman’s words, not singing them.
A minute and a drop of me settle my brain,
I believe the soggy clods shall become lovers and lamps.
Electric. Illuminating. My body brightens and starts to hum!
I was born with asthma tight in my lungs. My back grew curved, not straight. This body is beloved my body but it is not perfect, it is healing, or in the process of being broken almost continually. The inhalers. The aspirin. The heat pads. I beat it up. I love it.
Do I contradict myself?
Very well then, I contradict myself,
I am large – I contain multitudes.
I imagine being born differently, being born perfectly. Or maybe I am better off this way; maybe I am more powerful for it. I have always been an outsider. An isolated child in a big loud family. But I sat at the shore of their noise and laughter. I lapped it up hungrily.
Fact: A relative of mine, on my mother’s side, walked from Georgia to Vermont when he was released from Andersonville Prison.
Fact: No one can tell me why he walked and didn’t take a troop transport train back up through the broken valleys, back to Washington where he could have marched victorious, where he could have caught a train up North. Most men were too weak to walk. Whitman said one in three could walk. Seeing them unloaded at Annapolis he wrote:
Can those be men – those little brown, ash-streak’d, monkey-looking dwarfs? – are they really not mummied, dwindled corpses? They lay there, most of them, quiet still, but with a horrible look in their eyes and skinny lips, often with not enough flesh on the lips to cover their teeth. Probably no more appalling sight was ever seen on this earth.
I imagine writing his story but I am not so bold. I don’t even know which of the graves is his in our family cemetery or if he is even buried there under the thick, green grass. Every Memorial Day the local Boy Scout troops collect the flags from the bronze stars near every veteran’s grave, solemnly burn them (their young heads bowed, their uniforms crisp, buttons shining) and then replace them with starched new flags. They fluttery brightly in the Vermont spring, red and blue against the yellow dandelion blossoms. I go there when I am lost. When I am unmoored and floating. I tell myself a song of bones. I take my shoes off and walk barefoot on the grave grass. The Jersey cows, which my family has bred for generations come up to the fence line and watch me with their big brown eyes (my mother says I have their eyes, deep brown pools, quiet eyes that reflect more than narrate).
Whitman loved to imagine himself in everything. I laugh at him sometimes when I’m in an honest mood to the book on my heart. I think he would have enough humility to receive my giggles, his ego too big to be broken. There are whole sections, pages of Leaves of Grass where he simply imagines places and people, listing them in long lines that march to the edge of the page. But why do I feel wrong about imaging my relative’s walk? His bones so close to the edge of his body. His stomach so tight, a throbbing rock in his gut. Would he, I wonder, have walked close to where I live now in the foothills of South Carolina? A boy of the mountains he might have chosen to follow the spine of the Appalachians home. His feet on the red iron soil becoming red themselves from walking, sweating red, blood of earth and mineral, a bitter soil to grow in, not sweet like the loam of home. Was he strong or lucky? Smart? Perhaps he found a way to live in that hell, where dogs were lured close to the fence line then strangled and ripped to pieces. Where wells were dug with tablespoons. Whitman wrote that twenty years later Andersonville was a peaceful place of grass and birdsong. I have not brought myself to drive there yet.
I was born with this body and I have made it what it is. No one can say natural or unnatural. The immeasurable hours of sweat and labor that have gone into shaping this body.
If I worship one thing more than another it shall be the spread of my
own body, or any part of it.
When I read out loud his words move my body. What power! This shaking through language. Is this then what I mean when I say I want it all?
The power through my chests and arms, pulling. The push and jump of my legs and glutes. The ball of my calf. The muscles, hundreds, named but unknown in all their complexity to me, contracting, fibers bunched together like sheaves of straw, like bouquets of flower stems, bound by shining fascia, bound to bone, chalk colored, hollow. In the right lighting, I am marble cut, I am made of harder things than a body can be made of but I quiver too, I soften. I become woman around the hips, around the waistline. I am in love with my own power, with my own body. Is it wrong to admit this? Is it wrong to see myself with passion, look at the flesh, the bones, the blood of this body!
Prodigal! You have given me love! Therefore I to you give love!
O, unspeakable passionate love!
I can’t connect these two things, the body, and the mind. I work with bodies all day, near sweating, beautiful and unbeautiful, straining, hard, soft, bodies. My own body I press into new shapes, I break down my muscles slowly under the barbell that they might grow again larger and stronger. They rub against each other like two trees playing each other in the night, like a dog and its master, like lovers who will only be one physically but remain oh mysterious strangers of the everyday! It is Whitman that draws them together, pulling together muscle and mind, puppeteer of flesh and poetry. He seems unconcerned by the boundary lines. Careless over borders. Perhaps the exclamation point is a cut and a puncture. It slices and penetrates, most masculine of punctuation. It inhabits.
I teach straying from me, yet who can stray from me?
I follow you whoever you are from the present hour,
My words itch at your eyes till you understand them.
Megan Baxter holds an MFA in creative nonfiction from Vermont College of Fine Arts. Her essays have won numerous national awards including a Pushcart Prize. She has been published in such journals as The Threepenny Review, The Florida Review, Hotel Amerika, and Creative Nonfiction Magazine’s True Story Editions. Her debut essay collection The Coolest Monsters was published by Texas Review Press in 2018. She currently lives outside of Syracuse, NY, with her fiancé and their beloved dogs.
If writing defies “common sense,” if it seems to go against traditional modes of thought, norms, and histories, the idea of that common sense no longer makes sense, or might make sense if we’re allowed to reinvent ourselves. That’s what I’m looking at with the literacy narrative. I want to hear yours: when you first “clicked” with a language, whatever it is; why you questioned the modes of your Englishes; how you wrote “poetry,” but looked at it again and called it “lyric essay.” I want to see your literacy narrative in its scholarly, creative, and hybrid forms. Send your literacy narratives to Sylvia Chan at firstname.lastname@example.org. Stay tuned for more literacy narratives from yours truly and others.