Some Moonlight for Whitman
by Jessica Sequeira
Whitman, when I see you in my mind’s eye sometimes I confuse you with that other poet bard, that other guru of a nation, Tagore. But first I’d like to look a little more at your image, the one replicated in photos, mostly of you as an older man, sometimes accompanying your famous all-encompassing “deathbed edition”.
With your bristly beard trimmed into harsh lines (I’d almost say chopped) and your thick moustache, you appear to be a solid man, virile, ready for come what may, nature, erotic experience, death; you are unflinching, with a joy in steady accumulation, capable of effusiveness as it emerges through your lists; your eyes are hard, shining, eager and grasping for encounters, prepared not to dwell on badness or the nostalgia of memory.
You are delighted by your own choice to revel in surfaces, necks and breasts and foreheads and limbs, male or female, but especially those of the good common working man, beholding and appreciating, permitting your eyes to feast; you absorb all to yourself, absorb yourself in all.
The hair swept back leaves your forehead bold and bare, which suggests a plunge into the fray, and your lips, hard-set though they are, have a fleshiness too that suggests an easy caress, prepared to embrace life—and now I turn to what I didn’t notice before, those soft cheek-framing curls, one of your qualities perhaps which seduced Oscar Wilde.
I see you leaning forward, over your leaves, busy with description as a lapping of reality’s thick cream, a first, a second, a third lick, giving savour to the object, to the person, making it real to the senses; in this you find objective and meaning as a self, well-defined, well-made, creating from accumulative observation other selves, well-defined, well-made, all of them finding love with one another in a world-spanning City of Friends.
It is very robust, and I wonder why I do not feel quite comfortable in these hearty realms of good health and bodily activity. A century later Nabokov will capture the wryness that I treasure, wandering about American college campuses with their blonde, rosy-cheeked co-eds, taking it in, scribbling ironic bon mots. But maybe now is the moment for a detour to old Europe, by way of Poe.
You dreamt a “lurid dream” of him on the deck of a vessel at night, in a storm. You wrote: “For a long while, and until lately, I had a distaste for Poe’s writings. I wanted, and still want for poetry, the clear sun shining, and fresh air blowing—the strength and power of health, not of delirium, even amid the stormiest passions—with always the background of the eternal moralities.”
You claimed: “The exuberant and strange have taken an extraordinary possession of the nineteenth century lovers of verses.” You went on: “Poe’s verses illustrate an intense faculty for technical and abstract beauty, with the rhyming art to excess, an incorrigible propensity toward nocturnal themes, a demoniac undertone behind every page—and, by final judgment, probably belong among the electric lights of imaginative literature, brilliant and dazzling, but with no heat.”
In spite of this, for you he was, in your words, a “genius”, and you were at his funeral, the only poet in attendance, despite your wariness of that darkness. To understand a person, it is necessary to understand his or her dislikes and fears, so I am happy that we have paused for a moment.
But now let me take another detour, by way of India, for once again I return to my initial impression, the face of Tagore, and the memory of his work with its different sort of darkness: not the diseased darkness in which lurk shadows and terror and madness and artificial stimuli and the mechanical effects of a cuckoo-clock, but the soft darkness of a quiet night in swimming moonlight.
Tagore wrote: “the moonshine is vague, like some imperfectly known language…” His poems, like yours, ask for love among mankind, and for a consideration of the selves of all beings.
In “Passage to India”, in which you wrote of the journey of the free soul, you said that: “Along all history, down the slopes, / As a rivulet running, sinking now, and now again to the surface rising, / A ceaseless thought, a varied train.” This is what strikes me, the feverishness of your lines, with their gigantic, world-striding, enterprising ambitions, ready for the launch.
Tagore’s verses unfurl into equal vastnesses and infinities, without sinking into the melancholy or despair that you dreaded; yet they are less dominating, more drifting, and in him, there is a stillness that I do not find with you.
I have always loved that word, “stillness”, a quiet in oneself and one’s surroundings, not accumulation or blazing trumpets but a solitude that contemplates the pumpkins, the rose tree, the lady-of-the-night, the friends stopping by to share their doubts and stories, the sweet laugh of a dear one, and of course this too, and ultimately, one’s own song of the self…