The Book of the Wilderness and Whitmania
The Book of the Wilderness
When we enter, it is no wilderness.
There are posters marking the path
with pertinent information, easy bearings.
Still we quickly lose our way and blame
winter runoff, lax moral compass, inept sign
painters, and the germinating dark--
some worker who quit, when dark
descended, gravelling over this wilderness.
Should we take this as a sign
presaging some unavoidable path-
ology and end up heaping blame
upon ourselves, after baring
our souls? “Seduce her, speak to her heart, bearing
her into the deep pit where only the dark
can save”—Hosea says, who’s not to blame
for the leaf-mush and bottom-slime wilderness
that jinks and then confiscates the path.
Soon we encounter fellow hikers, a sign
we’re not alone. They say it’s a bad sign
that branches ripped your jacket, baring
bruised flesh. They point to a path
back to the lot, there’s nothing to see in the dark.
Believe us, your friends, leave the wilderness
while you can, keep quiet, they warn, they’re blame-
less--as if blaspheme preceded blame.
Stumps emerge from the swamp and sign
off before replenishing the wilderness,
leafless like demon children bearing
stunted fruit served up in dark
reliquaries left strewn along the obliterated path.
It is our good fortune that we’ve lost the path,
and no one is to blame
for driving us into the dark
wood, where everything is a sign
of everything and all bearings
are pointless, until we emerge from this wilderness.
I celebrate Whitman’s birth
by walking across the bridge named after him,
stopping by his two-story row house
on Mickle Street in Camden, New Jersey, a stone’s
throw from the Delaware River, where a band of kids
gathered, gazing and pointing, poking at some body
floating face-down in the water. It was not Whitman’s body,
of course, who died a century earlier, but the berth
it made in the wharf, that enthralled the kids,
who tossed sticks and flowers, chanted an improvised hymn
based on nursery rhymes and church, then got stoned
and left. I loitered back to Whitman’s house,
its only visitor besides the guide who doubled as house-
keeper, who showed me the metal tub he soaked his body
in, too small to contain it, filled to the brim now with stones
saved for renovation. And a few sentimental things from birth
or soon after—christening gown, spoon, family hymnal—
quaint beside bearded portraits and folios bound in kid
skin. I once tried to teach Whitman to middle school kids,
substitute teacher, they wouldn’t get the why’s or how’s
of his greatness. Why name all those things after him—
high school, hospital, hotel, wildlife habitat? His body’s
buried nearby, and he’s had favorable rebirths.
I’m sure we’ve passed, city of orgies, walks, and joys, cobblestones
unremoved. His mausoleum with its imported stone
seems less garish now than then, but he wasn’t kidding
about his own magnitude and the secure berth
he’d hold in the pantheon. His Mickle Street house
is a reliquary for his bloated, abscessed, tubercular body
pageant. Pensive and I silent I proclaim my love for him,
my unashamed, possessive, acquisitive thralldom of him,
till I get halfway across the bridge, as I fling stones
from the grave into the river. Ways to lighten the body,
I’m always seeking, like a mother dropping a kid
from her womb, how this creates an ever-expanding house
of poetry, the only thing that can sustain continuous birth.