Tuesday, August 24, 2010

We Live in/and Work

I have been away from the ol' blog and ol' Whitman since the end of July. Let's see if I can pick up things again.

On page 20 of the 1855 Leaves of Grass, we conclude what I'll call the swimming hole episode of the poem. It's, well, the climax of the episode, with a lonely woman mysteriously unobserved as she swims among the young men-folk:
The young men float on their backs, their white bellies swell to the sun . . . . they do not ask who seizes fast to them,
They do not know who puffs and declines with pendant and bending arch,
They do not think whom they souse with spray.
The poet then visits a butcher-boy and some balcksmiths:
The butcher-boy puts off his killing-clothes, or sharpens his knife at the stall in the market,
I loiter enjoying his repartee and his shuffle and breakdown.
Blacksmiths with grimed and hairy chests environ the anvil,
Each has his main-sledge . . . . they are all out . . . . there is a great heat in the fire.

From the cinder-strewed threshold I follow their movements,
The lithe sheer of their waists plays even with their massive arms,
Overhand the hammers roll—overhand so slow—overhand so sure,
They do not hasten, each man hits in his place.
That "or" at the top of the line fascinates me. Whitman's poet, the conjunction reminds us, is a conjurer or is perhaps straining to see the poetic vision. The scenes we get are not simply given. They are not just "there." The poet works as surely as the subjects in/of the poem work. As readers, our role is seemingly to follow the poet's labor as the poet follows the labor of others. Each following provides a lesson, a feature of living worth admiration and note.

The poet keeps us thinking about the work itself as well as the active bodies performing the work:
The negro holds firmly the reins of his four horses . . . . the block swags underneath on its tied-over chain,
The negro that drives the huge dray of the stoneyard . . . . steady and tall he stands poised on one leg on the stringpiece,
His blue shirt exposes his ample neck and breast and loosens over his hipband,
His glance is calm and commanding . . . . he tosses the slouch of his hat away from his forehead,
The sun falls on his crispy hair and moustache . . . . falls on the black of his polish'd and perfect limbs.

I behold the picturesque giant and love him . . . . and I do not stop there,
I go with the team also.

In me the caresser of life wherever moving . . . . backward as well as forward slueing,
To niches aside and junior bending.

Oxen that rattle the yoke or halt in the shade, what is that you express in your eyes?
It seems to me more than all the print I have read in my life.
The body at work is vitally expressive for Whitman. Poetry--"in me," in the poet--moves too, swerves too. Poetry is a "caresser of life," or perhaps a deity is meant here. But it is the body, the conjured body that acts, which makes value.

Come to the end of the page and we're contemplating animals. We've seen horses and oxen. Now, we see birds:
My tread scares the wood-drake and wood-duck on my distant and daylong ramble,
They rise together, they slowly circle around.
. . . . I believe in those winged purposes,
And acknowledge the red yellow and white playing within me,
And consider the green and violet and the tufted crown intentional;
And do not call the tortoise unworthy because she is not something else,
And the mockingbird in the swamp never studied the gamut, yet trills pretty well to me,
And the look of the bay mare shames silliness out of me.
The striking line is "I believe in those winged purposes." What can be meant here? Does it relate to the "intentional" crown of the birds' heads? Is the poet talking about a designed and ordered world, a world in the guiding hands of God? Do the ellipses preceding the assertion of belief signify a gathering certainty or a moment of doubt?

By the end of this page, the poet has brought us back to a sense of grandeur and urgency. These expressions, these labors, are not just beautiful and mighty. They are terrible and serious also.

As readers, we are never allowed by the poet to get lost, although we may get immersed. We must ever recall our purposes and fulfill the roles we can. We will not "call the tortoise unworthy because she is not something else," and we will not reject our role as reader because it is not another one--the role of poet, for example. In other words, we will accept our role for what it is, for what doing it allows us to express.

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