Monday, August 3, 2009
Do I contradict myself? Very well then...
What a strange place, Walt Whitman's tomb. It's massive. Big granite plinths set into a shady (well, gloomy) hillside, with a huge stone door set ajar through which you can see a group of crypts, six of the Whitmans to be exact, though only Walt's name is chiseled on the stone outside for the world to see. Sometime, thirty or forty years ago, to judge by the style of the stone and the already-worn engraving, somebody placed another stone in front of the tomb, carved with some of the final lines of "Song of Myself":
I depart as air . . . . I shake my white locks at the runaway sun,
I effuse my flesh in eddies and drift it in lacy jags.
I bequeath myself to the dirt to grow from the grass I love,
If you want me again look for me under your bootsoles.
This had to be an attempt to resist the monumentality and finality the tomb seems to suggest. But it's a little disquieting, to think that the poem of the 35-year-old Walt sits so uncomfortably beside the tomb the 72-year-old poet commissioned. No grass is drawing nourishment from that chilly chamber, unless it has mighty tenacious and powerful roots indeed!
He is more under our bootsoles, sure enough, than he is in that stony vault, but I might make a temple of granite, too, if I were afraid of disappearing, afraid of my work vanishing with me. Maybe. It's hard to imagine wanting to memorialize oneself in this way. He knew better, the Whitman of "Crossing Brooklyn Ferry," but how could the man in Camden, stroke-shattered and tired and never-quite-recovered from the War, how could he know that, too?