Saturday, February 04, 2006

When Walt Whitman Was A Little Girl

When Walt Whitman was a little girl, she’d never let the ordinariness of things box her in. Things others never had time or desire to see. She sat on her swing making up songs for hours until one day, Walt’s mama called out to her, “Walt! Walt, honey, what is that song you are singing?” To which Walt replied, “This is just the song of myself. The song my heart makes with every beat. The one that it sings when no one is looking at me.”

Sometimes Walt would head up to Huntington Bay and sit amid the tall slender grass and she would use her pocketknife to cut away some of the taller blades. Then she would run home all the way shouting, “Mama! Mama! Come see the leaves of grass I got!” and together they would sit and pretend to read poetry from the fronds of grass. Poetry, Walt insisted, which was sent by the universe to Walt. She sat day after day, alone, in among the hushing winds until her father, a gruff alcoholic mass of a man with a vision that ended at the end of his drinking arm, would chastise her. He wanted to know why she liked to be alone so much and why didn’t she have any friends, and didn’t she ever get lonely? Walt just shrugged her shoulders and smiled. She knew it was her destiny to write and that writers were always just a little bit lonely and that it was okay. When her Daddy died, Walt barely even remarked about it.

She went to school and eventually moved to Brooklyn where she was known as a child who would strike up a conversation with anyone. She celebrated qualities that were different from hers: she sought out vagrants and bums down on their luck, or debutantes in their latest fashions or working men, grimy from their days of labor. On hot summer days, Walt would go to the wharfs and watch the sailors readying ships bound for exotic and far off places. She loved to watch the large sun bronzed backs of the sailors sweating in the sea and land breezes, alternating in and out, morning and evening. She secretly hoped that one day she might marry one of these sailors because to be a sailor’s wife must be a glorious thing, she reasoned.

So then the day finally arrived when Walt had to become a man. He grew a full beard, never having been taught the ways of men. It was said that he filled out softly, more like a woman than a man.

Then there was that terrible war. That war which Walt could never bring himself to call “civil” – for there was nothing civil about this fighting that he could see. True to his temperament, he became a nurse and started caring for the dying and wounded men; these men who needed a woman’s love; these men who needed a woman’s touch. All of this grief simply opened Walt’s heart even wider, like a shoehorn and these men touched Walt’s heart in deeply mysterious ways. They evoked the feelings in him of the times when Walt was a little girl, sitting alone among sand dunes, watching the rising and falling tides and the terns race up and down the beaches. As a little girl, he would catch and race fiddler crabs.

He thought of these things as he made his way through the white bandaged ghostly souls that lay everywhere in medical tents. He thought of these whenever he witnessed another amputation.

Walt never let the ordinariness of things – the simple accidentals of sex, color and shapes - define the universe he bore witness to. To Walt, the great songs he made up as a little girl ran through every electron and proton in everything that surrounded him. Walt felt everything in that accursed war and it took its toll on him. So much so that his hair and beard – now wiry and out of control – turned a doughy white.

Then President Abraham Lincoln befriended the poet and when Abe got migraines Walt would feel them too. When Abe’s melancholy took over, it overtook Walt as well. When Abe and Mary lost their child to illness, it nearly killed Walt as well. But Walt used to think, as he did so growing up as a little girl, that by grieving this way, perhaps there would be less grief for Abe and Mary to consume by themselves. That was just how he thought of things.

Walt and I both are native sons of Long Island. What would he think of his island today? From Sheepshead Bay to Orient point? From Throgs Neck to Montauk? How would Walt’s limitless heart have absorbed the “strip mall” culture that was now Long Island?

When Walt died, his last thoughts were of America and how he grew up as a little girl, hiding among the sand dunes. “The greatest things I ever did,” he was overheard to say on his deathbed, “were the things I did growing up as a little girl.”

When he gave up his ghost she floated downstream, by herself, alone again; making her way through the tall grasses singing another one of those made up songs of the universe; a song, one of many, that made up the universe. This was a song she knew to be part of the song of herself.

M C Biegner

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