Tuesday, August 31, 2010


Page 21 of the 1855 Leaves of Grass begins with one of the best words ever: Ya-honk!
Ya-honk! he says, and sounds it down to me like an invitation;
The pert may suppose it meaningless, but I listen closer,
I find its purpose and place up there toward the November sky.

The sharphoofed moose of the north, the cat on the housesill, the chickadee, the prairie-dog,
The litter of the grunting sow as they tug at her teats,
The brood of the turkeyhen, and she with her halfspread wings,
I see in them and myself the same old law.
Of course, the ya-honk sound is a single wild gander leading his flock in the night. Perhaps our wild gander is a figure of the poet. In any case, the poet takes the sound as an invitation to find meaning. That meaning is found suspended in the earth's heavens. The poet's attention moves to other creatures, as if we were considering an American bestiary. The poet claims to recognize something common in all these animals and himself, a "same old law." I suppose this law is consecrated by its age, but what is this law?

The poet seems not to say, but moves on.
The press of my foot to the earth springs a hundred affections,
They scorn the best I can do to relate them.

I am enamoured of growing outdoors,
Of men that live among cattle or taste of the ocean or woods,
Of the builders and steerers of ships, of the wielders of axes and mauls, of the drivers of horses,
I can eat and sleep with them week in and week out.

What is commonest and cheapest and nearest and easiest is Me,
Me going in for my chances, spending for vast returns,
Adorning myself to bestow myself on the first that will take me,
Not asking the sky to come down to my goodwill,
Scattering it freely forever.
We seem to oscillate between the sky of the gander and the earth of the working animals. I have mentioned before the poet's fondness for work for the body immersed in environment and working. The poet settles on the "Me" on the working, opportunistic Me. Goodness and connectedness are located in commonality of the Me, in the Me's relatively low value in another economy.

Now, it seems, the poet relates several variations of the occupied Me, the Me in and of work:
The pure contralto sings in the organloft,
The carpenter dresses his plank . . . . the tongue of his foreplane whistles its wild ascending lisp,
The married and unmarried children ride home to their thanksgiving dinner,
The pilot seizes the king-pin, he heaves down with a strong arm,
The mate stands braced in the whaleboat, lance and harpoon are ready,
The duck-shooter walks by silent and cautious stretches,
The deacons are ordained with crossed hands at the altar,
The spinning-girl retreats and advances to the hum of the big wheel,
The farmer stops by the bars of a Sunday and looks at the oats and rye,
The lunatic is carried at last to the asylum a confirmed case,
He will never sleep any more as he did in the cot in his mother's bedroom;
The jour printer with gray head and gaunt jaws works at his case,
He turns his quid of tobacco, his eyes get blurred with the manuscript;
The malformed limbs are tied to the anatomist's table,
What is removed drops horribly in a pail;
The quadroon girl is sold at the stand . . . . the drunkard nods by the barroom stove,
The machinist rolls up his sleeves . . . . the policeman travels his beat . . . . the gate-keeper marks who pass,
This is the poet scattering the Me freely. This is the Me as it gets spent in America, the investment made in hopes of a vast return. The poet's litany speaks of variety and difference, yet we still have the question of the "same old law" unresolved as the Me-list gets unfolded.

1 comment:

  1. Can you please add an atom/subscribe RSS link?
    Lovely blog by the way.


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