On Veteran’s Day my mind goes to the grass. This is shortgrass country and mostly the bones of soldiers found here are the bones of warriors in the 19th century or earlier. But also I think of Walt Whitman, who worked for the Indian department at the time of the Prairie Clearances that accompanied and followed the Civil War, in a job that gave him time to write poems and the work in the hospitals that were improvised in every part of Washington, D.C., even among the class cases of inventions in the Patent Office. Said Whitman, ‘a curious scene, especially at night when lit up. The glass cases, the beds, the forms lying there, the gallery above, and the marble pavement under foot -- the suffering and the fortitude to bear it in various degrees -- occasionally, from some, the groan that could not be repress’d.’
The great killer in those days was diarrhea, miserable and humiliating, with bad water for washing -- much less drinking -- and not enough hands to wash bodies and bedding. Only the hardest of women nursed those men. Walt Whitman helped. Philip Callow said: “. . . he had found his true vocation: as nurse, consoler, and psychic wound dresser, who wrote poems on the side. He was released by the hospitals, saved from his doubts and the uncertainty of his lonely path. Not only did he find he was a born nurse, he found it wonderful to be so wanted, to feel his love instantly returned. . . . ‘To many of the wounded and sick,’ he told his Times readers, “especially the youngsters, there is something in personal love, caresses , and the magnet flood of sympathy and friendship, that does more good than all the medicines in the world.’” He sat alongside them, reading letters, playing twenty questions, sharing memories, reflecting on religious questions, until they died. When they had amputations, he went with them to hold their hands. Sometimes they recovered.
I have a whole shelf of Transcendentalist biography and analysis, plus another one of the James family, which in my mind are somehow related. I came to Whitman through my high school junior year teacher, Katherine Tyler, a tiny bird of an old lady with huge eyes peering through her spectacles. She was not afraid of the “naughty bits” of Whitman but restrained herself because she knew what would happen if parents and administrators ever caught on. She taught us to buy beautiful books and to write in them to make them our own, but with a beautiful instrument, like a green-leaded pencil for my grassy bound “Leaves of Grass.” When she was old and retired and I was stumped and stuck in Portland, we made a little bargain that I would drive her to the theatre and dance if she bought the tickets. I recall a vigorous erotic ballet on the theme of sexuality, and how she was particularly interested in the same-sex pairs. “What do you think that sequence MEANT?” she would ask, and I’d be at a loss what to say.
I love the chapter heading epigrams in Gay Wilson Allen’s book, “The Solitary Singer.”
“This then is life,
here is what has come to the surface
after so many throes and convulsions.”
“Come , I am determined to unbare this broad breast
of mine -- I have long enough stifled and choked;
Emblematic and capricious blades . . .you hide in
these shifting forms of life, for reasons . . . “
“Long, long I muse, then on my way go wandering;
Many a changeful season to follow, and many a scene of life;
Yet at times through changeful season and scene, abrupt, alone,
or in the crowded street,
Comes before me the unknown soldier’s grave, comes the
inscription rude in Virginia’s woods,
Bold, cautious, true, and my loving comrade.”
From Katherine Tyler I never got the idea that Whitman was writing just for same-sex lovers or that that’s what he was. Rather, I believed then as I believe now, that he was for all human beings and that his struggles to keep his “little white ships” of books afloat and sailing were on behalf of all peoples, to give them voices. He might have shocked Emerson and startled Thoreau, but my impulse is to open arms wide and look around.
Veteran’s Day in France, they say, is much more sombre than it is here, where our small towns sometimes see it as an excuse for triumphalism, the sensation of being indomitable no matter the cost. In France they know better -- THEIR plows still turn up the bones of their grandfathers. It is in their fields that the poppies bloom in the grass. Occasionally someone finds an ancient unexploded bomb and if they are lucky it doesn’t explode.
It’s a great irony that Whitman is a child of Long Island, location of the Manhattan that has been the scene of two of the biggest disasters of this new 21st century: one the terrorist attack on the World Trade Towers and the other the self-inflicted collapse of the financial industry, though they tell me that the clued-in moved to Connecticut a few years ago. Neither event was so sudden or unexpected as it seemed from Montana. Neither was the sort of war to have veterans -- just survivors. Whitman had no use for racism, his religion was inclusive of all religions and he had no use for money -- rarely had enough of it to matter.
He said, “My right hand is time, and my left hand is space -- both are ample -- a few quintillions of cycles, a few sextillions of cubic leagues, are not of importance to me -- what I shall attain to I can never tell, for there is something that underlies me, of whom I am a part and instrument.” A theologian would note that word “underlies,” for it denotes immanence as contrasted with transcendence. It means that the Power comes up from below in the grass, through being itself, rather than being figured out like math by thinkers such as Emerson, who was a little frightened by “Leaves of Grass,” that transgressive, disturbing book of poems. Maybe Whitman wasn’t a transcendalist -- maybe he was an immanentalist. I declare that so am I, here on the shortgrass prairie far from Mannahatta, next door to Indians.