I spring from the pages into your arms.
Someone who once knew him said
Walt Whitman sang before breakfast
behind his bedroom door—
broken arias, bits of patriotic tunes,
the way my child sings this morning
in early spring, the way
the raucous mockingbirds fill the warming air
with their own borrowed songs.
The world is once again its hopeful green.
Bold forsythia bursts its spindly stalks.
The young trees again flicker on the slopes,
and when he ended his days on dusty
Mickle Street, Whitman must have remembered
mornings like this—
Nights, no longer really sleeping, confined
to the paralytic chair, say he remembered
that earlier, softer air, the light on the water
in that clearing he had called Timber Creek,
the idea of it—
Say he thought again of those days
when he was still fat & red & tanned,
when he’d strip off his clothes
and roll his great flesh in the pond’s black marl.
In the close, bug-ridden room in Camden,
he spoke, sometimes, of a grandson,
fine boy, a southern child who sometimes wrote,
once stopped by—
No one ever saw him.
An old poet. His invented child.
Though why shouldn’t a man
who’d always lived in words create something
to endure his sore, soiled world?
There, at Timber Creek, Whitman wrote about the trees,
their rough bark, the massive limbs and trunks,
as if they were the bodies of those he’d loved.
Some people believe the souls of unborn children
rest in trees. Say he saw them, then,
caught their soft breath
sweet as the spice bush, lush as the early crocus.
In the long, hard work of his imagination,
say he watched their disembodied hearts
sway among the new leaves,
watched the eager light shine on another fine morning
until the sky lifted above him
like exultant, fresh desire—
and the children descended,
and then the crowns of the trees were all on fire.
The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.