Walt Whitman Suite
I. I Came to Find My Brother
I traveled to the front to find my brother.
I found an army of brothers, in truth,
two armies of brothers, for our enemy,
broken and dis-limbed boys, we also cared for—
I clean and dress their wounds, the minié ball’s
devastation to a shoulder, or the stub of a leg.
Boys, I know you well, I find me in you,
brother of Rochester, Passaic, Missouri, Georgia—
in torment, the moon vague behind dark clouds.
O, such a night to dance with your love!
Here time and reverie bloat like a corpse,
peace becomes a limb severed by the surgeon.
You lie in our nation’s capital on rotten straw.
You beg me for water in the monuments’ shadow,
in Judiciary Square, below the scales of Justice,
weighing your lives, weighing what I am to you.
I wet your lips with a sponge; your quizzical look
as you wonder who I am while the shock of death
and degradation creep closer. Boy, I will write
to your Mother. At last light, I will close your eyes.
II. Washington at War
I often see the President, his brown doughnut
complexion, the deep etched lines that reflect
the dead piled up from this war: corpses floating
downriver, lost in gullies, in cold unknown graves
all across our nation, ragged corpses, bleached
bones, tarnished brass, rictus of grinning teeth.
My lodging house on Pennsylvania Avenue smells bad;
aroma of cabbage from the Irishwoman’s quarters below.
I lingered by the bed of a Georgia boy this morning;
shot through the lung, death soothed his brow.
I held his hot soft hand, tenderly, for an hour;
at his request, read to him about Resurrection.
Now the war is over, the victorious blue army marches
down the wide boulevards. The President removes his hat
in respect to the thousands of troops who parade
with battleworn uniforms, brass bands, fifes, drums,
their regimental flags tattered memorials to the dead,
each ensign a beautiful woman, heart broken by battle.
III. Wheeling the Prophet to the River
In his wide-brimmed hat and rambling beard,
Mr Whitman revels to be out in his cane chair
headed for Camden wharf, if aging, recovering
from stroke. I push him over the uneven brick
sidewalk rimed with frost. Our breath starts
ahead of us. It’s an effort for him as much
as for me; his thin legs jiggle-dance under
the plaid blanket. Soon we are overlooking
the Delaware; a ripe smell of sawn pine suffuses
our nostrils. He says, “Breathe the scent, devour
the river air!” Walt Whitman, I nurse you now,
as you nursed others. He mumbles an oft-told
memory of his youth. “A wonderful story, Sir.”
He wafts his hat to a baritone sawmill worker
who calls, “Sing, Prophet, we hunger for song!”