Friday, June 12, 2009

Walt Whitman's Summer Wander Across North America

Walt Whitman is watching the young men again, where they play a sandlot baseball game in windy green-hilled Iowa in early summer.
Walt Whitman is silently watching the game, his eye following every catch, and lusting in his heart after the long clean limbs exposed to the open air, the strong wrists and thighs of the players, their bent backs and arcing shoulders as they throw or pause in running between the bases.
He is sitting in the top row of bleachers at Wrigley Field, at Shea Stadium, his eyebrows leaping as the crowds surge and dance with every action of the players on the field.
He is standing unobserved behind the chain-link fence around a basketball court in Oklahoma City. It's a sunny humid
summer afternoon and the boys have taken off their shirts as they dance with the ball, their shoulders and flanks
and thighs and breasts and white-socked ankles slick with their own sweat, a sheen of mist on the body
catching the gold-amber light of the setting sun.
Walt Whitman is watching the dark-skinned and and brown-skinned boys sitting on the neighborhood stoops
in Chicago and East LA and Detroit, just hanging out doing nothing, their mocking laughter ringing out
and echoing off the brownstone windows across the way. He knows the long future
belongs to all the brown and tan black-haired people, and is glad.
He spends his early summers in the silver waterfalls of the Finger Lakes in New York.
He sets out on the open road from his city home in New York, and spreads his gaze
across the many roads West and North and South from his Long Island home.
Walt Whitman sets out on the open road late each spring and wanders all summer, watching the men and boys
play their summer games.
He sits under a shade umbrella at poolside in every suburban metro swimming pool in the Great Plains states,
where the young men and old men and their sisters and mothers reveal their near-nudity to the sun and endless wind, and frolic
in the clean clear blue chlorinated waters while the lifeguard in his red skimpy shorts watches over all with his whistle and gaze, his sunburned nose smeared with white zinc oxide cream.
Walk Whitman wanders down the street in a small town in Idaho where the skateboarding boys
jump their boards again and again on the concrete and steel of the public library steps
till some authority figure chases them away, and they return again after an hour's pause for sodas and rest.
He sits on a boulder at the south fork of the American River near Auburn California where all the swimmers, men and women, remove
their clothing to frolic nude in the whitewater deep swimming holes, the root-beer foam below the falls.
He watches the swimmers play unselfconciously under the cliffs and boulders, emerging with wet foreheads that shine radiantly in the noon sun. He watches them lie back
to sun themselves dry on the flat sheets of stone.
Walt Whitman contemplates the naked torsos of the men and women he sees all across North America, revealed to the summer sun, in heat haze or blaze of light, and loves them equally as the beautiful expressions of physical grace that lasts only a few brief summers before growing stolid or flabby.
He marvels at the perfect form of the human collarbone, the heart beating beneath, the ribs expanding with short deep athletic breath.
He sees the naked muscles and long limbs of the bathers and athletes and sees in their revelation of their own flesh a godlike animal beauty
made more sensual still when flung into wild motion.

Walt Whitman sets out on the long roads every summer in search of the naked and near-naked beauty of men revealed in play, in hope, in forgetfulness of winter and inwardness, each summer the world made open anew.
Walt Whitman seeks a revelation of the sunbright beauty of the godbody-self in every place he visits along his sojourn.
He finds it in the western slot canyons where only the adventurous hike, to finally strip off their sweat-soaked shirts and dive into the clear still pools of rainwater that rush down from the mountain steppes.
He finds it in the shallow rivers, banked and hidden behind groves of aspen and maple
where someone has hung a rope tire swing over a blackwater swimming hole
just upstream of a small Wisconsin farm town.
He finds it at Coney Island, where the beach is covered with swarms of city people escaping the smog on a Sunday afternoon,
with ice cream stands and carnival rides and puffy white clouds overhead.
He finds it south of San Francisco, at the gay nude beach between two coastal state parks, sheltered
by cliffs and open to the Pacific Ocean, with tunneled caves in the rock formations at the north end
where men steal together nude for hidden trysts as the surf washes their ankles and thighs.
He finds it at a placid beach inside Florida's Gulf Coast, on a grey day under a grey sky
before hurricane season has reached its peak, with a stiff wind
raising goosebumps on the arms and breasts of boys and girls playing together making sand castles.
He finds it under spreading ferns along the Appalachian Trail.
He finds it where the white-flanked magpies soar over the Rio Grande canyon in New Mexico, the whitewater
rafters have pulled into shore, beaching their Kevlar inflatables to serve the midday meal, suddenly
in the heat everyone has stripped off their clothes to dive into the refreshing cold waters,
their shouts echoing back and forth on the canyon walls.
He finds it at a hidden geothermal spring in Wyoming, in Oregon, in Montana, where the scalding waters rise to make a pool
hidden down a dirt road a few miles off the state two-lane highway stitching itself
across the long arid highlands.
He finds it at an isolated mountain stream at Granite Pass in the Bighorn Mountains, at the Temperance River above Lake Superior in Minnesota, around the curve of sheltered trout waters near the headlands of the Hudson River in the Adirondacks.
He finds it wherever overheated outdoor summer hikers and trout fisherman stop for a moment to bathe nude in the refreshing cool waters.
He finds it where the young men race their bicycles in Illinois.
He finds it at the top of a gold sandstone cliff overlooking the highway hundreds of feet below at the apex of a long slickrock trail in Utah, in Arizona, in Texas.
He finds it on a flooded state park trail in southern Indiana after heavy rains have spilled the river over its banks, where young men
take off their clothes to wade in the hot dappled shade and catch with their hands fish swimming around the bases of threes.
He finds it along the desert Rio Grande where owls watch nude swimmers cross at midnight, arriving as pilgrims to Gold Mountain to begin the long dry walk towards a dream of freedom.
He finds it under an overhang of shelfrock in Tennessee where a small stream waterfall cascades into the deep gorge
and undercuts the cliff just far enough for two to sit together and hold hands.
He finds it on a 100 degree day in Brooklyn when the city opens up a fire hydrant so the neighborhood kids can soak themselves and play in the cool high-pressure water for half an hour.
He finds it at the foot of the sinuous Henry Moore bronze in city hall plaza in Toronto, where tourists run with their children between attractions and views while young businessmen loosen their ties and sit crosslegged to eat their lunches.
He finds it under the shelter of a shade tree hanging over the Brandywine River in Pennsylvania, where a group of college students have drifted out of the sun after rafting all morning in oversize truck innertubes. The day has stilled,
the air completely calm, everywhere is silence in which tufts of cottonwood seed float in the air, and a humming cicada call only deepens the silence. After a long nap, the young men wake at the same moment, and with no words passing between them, look into each other's eyes and as if with one will strip off their remaining clothes and float nude into the river current, only to fall back in couples under the shade other trees reaching out over the river bank, and come together, and kiss.

Walt Whitman knows how the summer heat rises through the long limbed flesh and roots in the loins,
making the heart race and the eyes widen as the Great God Pan wanders like a wind-devil tornado
through the dusty streets, over the riverbank, in an empty city lot, among the wild mustangs of the
wide basins between tall ranges.
Walt Whitman knows that at any moment the langorous afternoon nap might waken into erotic self-pleasure, and afterwards lapse back into a deeper sea of sleep.
Walt Whitman knows from long contemplation that love is inescapable.
What Whitman knows with every fiber of his being that it doesn't matter who you love, only that you Love.

Your hope and love haven't been lost, Walt Whitman, although many poets and graffiti artists
imagine it's been betrayed and buried under decades of swill and hate and war.
Your love and honor haven't died, Walt Whitman, not even where people have forgotten how to understand and forgive each other.
Your courage and your still-radical freedom haven't been murdered, Walt Whitman, not even by the worst efforts of corporate greed and political corrupt fear-mongering and religious homophobia and fear of the earth-rooted strength of the women.
Your message and your living will endure, Walt Whitman, wherever lovers or strangers take off their clothes and reveal themselves naked to each other across the shieldlands of North America, wherever they emerge wet and shining from the waters, wherever they sweat their prayers in ecstatic dance.
Your love and your lustful gaze can never fade away or be concealed, Walt Whitman, wherever lovers or strangers merge, body mind and spirit, in the erotic lifelove sensual eternal dancing force of the worship and oneness of nature, of nature striding like coyote packs through even the most unnatural technological quarters of the naked cities, wherever Pan arises to disturb your universe, wherever lovers or strangers meet to look into each other, to kiss the splendor of each other's hearts eyes lips shoulders breasts thighs fingers knees and napes of neck.

Walt Whitman stands unobserved watching the erotic play of the tall prairie grass and sunflowers against the red sky of South Dakota evening.
He invisibly caresses the hair of joggers in Central Park.
His spirit rests silently on the Indian burial mounds of southern Ohio.
He walks between the tall pines never logged in central Michigan and contemplates the upraised prayer faces of shaded trillium.
He smiles upon Lake Erie as it returns to unpolluted life brimful with perch and returning salmon.
He leans against a basalt hexagon above Yellowstone Falls and watches the eagles cavort and play.
Walt Whitman sighs near the end of afternoon, and open his arms to wrestle with dandelions.
He says nothing to the ditch-lilies emerging orange near the railroad tracks.
He shakes his head and smiles at the play of water-sprinklers on the unnatural lawns of retired Arizona.
He strolls unseen along the streets of Minneapolis.
Walt Whitman wanders along the summer blue highways till at last he stops to watch a pickup game in the last light of summer's end, in the heat of the night, where the dusk picks out
the last reflected sheen of stars on wet skin and heaven looks down on the poet at last at peace, his breast
full of visions memories and cherished locker-room smells.
Walt Whitman sleeps through the winter and rises again, a god of summer, to watch
again the young men play through their lives in the heat and lingering sunlight
and sweat of long summer evenings.

I was sitting on my porch in the mid-morning drinking my orange juice and reading Thomas Keating on contemplative prayer and the practice of Lectio Divina, when I put the book down, and sat watching the sunlight warm the lawn, the breeze quivering the pear tree's leaves, when this poem started to form in my mind. Words started to appear, full sentences already written. I immediately sat down to write, and out it poured for an hour, writing itself at white heat. Then I stepped away from it for awhile, to let it sit, and came back to it again and again during the day. I added to it, revised it, changed it, let it tell me the shapes of each section, emerging from the blank page of its own will, in its own timing. Throughout the day I have listened for more, and a few more words have arisen. Throughout the day I've sat down to read through the poem again from its beginning, and change a word or phrase here and there, clarify a line, add a detail, subtract a useless adjective. I'll probably come back to it and revise it some more, as time passes; to clean up its form, to smooth out any rough spots, to makes sure all the joints connect properly. First the overwhelming white heat surge dump impulse of first writing; and later the carpenter-like craft of shaping the given words to flow with the grain rather than against it.

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