Friday, May 30, 2014

Whitman's Voice

photo: ralph murre

Whitman’s Voice
by Susan M. Firer

He does not sing the poem like Yeats
reciting “The Lake Isle of Innisfree”;  he
simply continent speaks each word, & in between
each bump on the wax cylinder recording
Thomas Edison made of Whitman in 1890,
you hear another Whitman.

You hear Whitman
            interviewing P.T. Barnum,
            with Tom Thumb & the orangutan,
            Mlle. Jane, in the background.
You hear all the gaslight
            drenched operas he attended
            & even smell the peculiar
            l9th century perfumes.
You hear Whitman’s
            body kicks & swim splash & cold water scrubs
            at Gray’s Swimming Bath at the bottom
            of Fulton Street, and
You hear him
            at the corner of Fulton & Cranberry Streets
            in the Rome brothers’ print shop
            setting the type for the first
            LEAVES OF GRASS.
You hear all
            the Nor’easters he sat outside through
            under his tree in the healing country
            under his gray wool blanket
            recovering from a stroke, and
You can even hear the Civil War
            hospital kisses he soft lip-pressed on the often
            never-shaved cheeks of the dying
            soldiers he nursed.
You hear him ask them: “Stamps?
            Can I write a letter home for you?”

And in his American-formed voice inflected with canaries,
            locomotives, and turkeys,
            you hear electricity & his wild throat
            muscles.  Each syllable is a tableau:
Six year old Walter in the arms of Lafayette,
young teacher Walter playing baseball with his students,
Whitman at Poe’s reburial in Baltimore
            (the only literary figure to attend),
            Walter in Brooklyn purchasing his first
            silver watch, gold pencil, frock coat,
            & loud singing on top an omni-
            bus in New York.
You see Whitman in the Astor Library
            blowy from the ferry, a copy of CONSUELO
            in his hands, a bit of George Sand’s
            cigar smoke about his ears & beard.
            You see coffee & beefsteak eating Walt &
            l857 hard pressed for money Walt
            watching his Talbot painting and his
            few other belongings taken by lawyers
& carried out & through the streets –
            all for a $200 debt.
You see Walt visiting
            with brown velvet-suited Oscar
            Wilde, with Longfellow, with Thoreau,
            &, of course, with Emerson.
There’s Walt swimming & loping at Coney Island
            & writing: “The polka increases in popularity,”
            & even (I am not making this up) walking
            & loving walking the streets of Milwaukee!
You see nude sun-bathed, mud-bathed lame Walt
            at Timber Creek wrestling with saplings
            trying to strengthen his stroke-weakened
            arms & legs.
You even see old white-bearded Whitman
            napping in his wheelchair
            in front of his Mickle Street Camden window,
            like a “great old Angora Tom,”
            like a snowy owl.

And in each syllable, you hear transformation.
            You hear his dream
breath, his sighs
as he studies the night
            sky patterns, hieroglyphics,
            phrenology, & lexicology.
You hear him call through the centuries
            to all his young apprentices:  “Hen,
            oh, why, Hen.”
And if you are very still when listening,
            you can hear him rubbing lilacs
            in his beautiful, white beard, & I swear,
            you can hear him swallow a strawberry.

Here, on my CD made from Edison’s wax cylinders
is sapling planting Walt,
America’s great slang coloratura
word hero, plainly speaking; venerable Walt
saying his hymn of vowels & consonants.
And really his voice is much like the Long Island
pond and spring water he wrote about:
“The water itself has a character of its own,”
said Whitman, “It is deliciously sweet
--it almost has a flavor.”

~ previously published in Milwaukee Does Strange Things To People