Posts tagged poetry

Thank you for reading poems with us this month. As a farewell, a piece by Wallace Stevens. Until we meet again, we hope you find yourself surrounded by his “gaiety that is being, not merely knowing,” and plenty of good verse.          - The Knopf Poetry Team

Of Bright & Blue Birds & The Gala Sun   Some things, niño, some things are like this, That instantly and in themselves are gay And you and I are such things, O most miserable…   For a moment they are gay and are a part Of an element, the exactest element for us, In which we pronounce joy like a word of our own.   It is there, being imperfect, and with these things And erudite in happiness, with nothing learned, That we are joyously ourselves and we think   Without the labor of thought, in that element, And we feel, in a way apart, for a moment, as if There was a bright scienza outside of ourselves,   A gaiety that is being, not merely knowing, The will to be and to be total in belief, Provoking a laughter, an agreement, by surprise.

Thank you for reading poems with us this month. As a farewell, a piece by Wallace Stevens. Until we meet again, we hope you find yourself surrounded by his “gaiety that is being, not merely knowing,” and plenty of good verse.
          - The Knopf Poetry Team

Of Bright & Blue Birds & The Gala Sun
 
Some things, niño, some things are like this,
That instantly and in themselves are gay
And you and I are such things, O most miserable…
 
For a moment they are gay and are a part
Of an element, the exactest element for us,
In which we pronounce joy like a word of our own.
 
It is there, being imperfect, and with these things
And erudite in happiness, with nothing learned,
That we are joyously ourselves and we think
 
Without the labor of thought, in that element,
And we feel, in a way apart, for a moment, as if
There was a bright scienza outside of ourselves,
 
A gaiety that is being, not merely knowing,
The will to be and to be total in belief,
Provoking a laughter, an agreement, by surprise.

Jane Mayhall (1918-2009) wrote some of her most significant poetry in her eighties, after the death of her husband Leslie George Katz, the founder of the Eakins Press, to whom she was married for more than fifty years. Her grief poems are nearly always love poems; here, in the aftermath, she looks back on the anticipatory grief – the stunning invitation to loss – that coexists with true love.



The Risk All the lovers, denying, pretendingthey didn’t know what wascoming. I knew ahead I might lose you.Your coat sleeve, presences, topography, pricked myrecognition, through soul, alost stability. Path to light, that angles darkness,our lying in the grass on amountain, hoisted biographies in the fragmented cloudswe watched, it was clear as the windsthat changed them. Face offate, that didn’t either have to be.  Our incalculableharmonies, bodies’ lithe fabrication, seascape,weather, mountains, the luckwhatever of place. Fulfillment swathed likeammunition in the breeze, your familiar warm shoulder, prescience —so good there was nothing to say,just the right pages turning,beyond the storm, threat to our love,their harbor risk.

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Jane Mayhall (1918-2009) wrote some of her most significant poetry in her eighties, after the death of her husband Leslie George Katz, the founder of the Eakins Press, to whom she was married for more than fifty years. Her grief poems are nearly always love poems; here, in the aftermath, she looks back on the anticipatory grief – the stunning invitation to loss – that coexists with true love.

The Risk
 
All the lovers, denying, pretending
they didn’t know what was
coming. I knew ahead I might lose you.
Your coat sleeve, presences, topography, pricked my
recognition, through soul, a
lost stability.
 
Path to light, that angles darkness,
our lying in the grass on a
mountain, hoisted biographies in the fragmented clouds
we watched, it was clear as the winds
that changed them. Face of
fate, that didn’t
 
either have to be.  Our incalculable
harmonies, bodies’ lithe fabrication, seascape,
weather, mountains, the luck
whatever of place. Fulfillment swathed like
ammunition in the breeze,
 
your familiar warm shoulder, prescience —
so good there was nothing to say,
just the right pages turning,
beyond the storm, threat to our love,
their harbor risk.

To share the poem-a-day experience, pass along this link »

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In 2009, Daniel Mendelsohn published new translations of the poems of the Alexandrine Greek poet C. P. Cavafy (1863-1933), including not only his published work but work that he had left finished but unpublished, or unfinished, in draft form. Cavafy’s poems, Mendelsohn reminds us, “bear witness to a deep, even scholarly interest in all phases of Greek history”; his other great subject was desire between men. A selection of Mendelsohn’s translations is now available in a Pocket Poets edition, and today we feature “On the Stairs,” a strikingly modern poem which comes from the “Unpublished” group.

Click play above to hear J. D. McClatchy read “On The Stairs”

On the Stairs
 
As I was going down the shameful stair,
you came in the door, and for moment
I saw your unfamiliar face and you saw me.
Then I hid so you wouldn’t see me again, and you
passed by quickly as you hid your face,
and stole inside the shameful house
where you likely found no pleasure, just as I found none.
 
And yet the love you wanted, I had to give you;
the love I wanted – your eyes told me so,
tired and suspicious – you had to give me.
Our bodies sensed and sought each other out;
our blood and skin understood.
 
But we hid from each other, we two, terrified.

From Marge Piercy’s 2006 volume The Crooked Inheritance – who can argue with this one?

In praise of joe   I love you hot I love you iced and in a pinch I will even consume you tepid.   Dark brown as wet bark of an apple tree, dark as the waters flowing out of a spooky swamp rich with tannin and smelling of thick life —   but you have your own scent that even rising as steam kicks my brain into gear. I drink you rancid out of vending machines,   I drink you at coffee bars for $6 a hit, I drink you dribbling down my chin from a thermos in cars, in stadiums, on the moonwashed beach.   Mornings you go off in my mouth like an electric siren, radiating to my fingertips and toes. You rattle my spine and buzz in my brain.   Whether latte, cappuccino, black or Greek you keep me cooking, you keep me on line. Without you, I would never get out of bed   but spend my life pressing the snooze button. I would creep through wan days in the form of a large shiny slug.   You waken in me the gift of speech when I am dumb as a rock buried in damp earth. It is you who make me human every dawn. All my books are written with your ink.


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From Marge Piercy’s 2006 volume The Crooked Inheritance – who can argue with this one?

In praise of joe

I love you hot
I love you iced and in a pinch
I will even consume you tepid.
 
Dark brown as wet bark of an apple tree,
dark as the waters flowing out of a spooky swamp
rich with tannin and smelling of thick life —
 
but you have your own scent that even
rising as steam kicks my brain into gear.
I drink you rancid out of vending machines,
 
I drink you at coffee bars for $6 a hit,
I drink you dribbling down my chin from a thermos
in cars, in stadiums, on the moonwashed beach.
 
Mornings you go off in my mouth like an electric
siren, radiating to my fingertips and toes.
You rattle my spine and buzz in my brain.
 
Whether latte, cappuccino, black or Greek
you keep me cooking, you keep me on line.
Without you, I would never get out of bed
 
but spend my life pressing the snooze
button. I would creep through wan days
in the form of a large shiny slug.
 
You waken in me the gift of speech when I
am dumb as a rock buried in damp earth.
It is you who make me human every dawn.
All my books are written with your ink.

To share the poem-a-day experience, pass along this link »

Click here to download a printable version of this broadside.
The poet Anne Michaels and the artist Bernice Eisenstein have created a unique accordion book that is both a book-length poem and a haunting portrait gallery. On one side of the accordion’s pages, a historical and personal elegy by Michaels unfolds, while on the other, in unison with the poem and in deep conversation with it, are Eisenstein’s portraits of the twentieth-century writers and thinkers the poem summons. One such is Etty Hillesum (1914-1943), a Dutch Jewish woman whose diaries and letters from the several years before her death in Auschwitz are a remarkable document of witnessing and personal growth. The excerpt from Michaels’s poem speaks to how we are accompanied, always, whether by our own, or by people whose chairs have surrounded ours at the table set by history. (Though we can’t possibly reproduce here the shape and experience of this unusual book, we offer today’s material as the month’s final printable broadside)

Come, it’s time to set the table, dusk is bruised with rain, the water is alive under the wind, evening is upon us. Outside, the animals make their accommodation, the lake loses its reflection, settles deeper. Set down the brush on the saucer, leave off the book, open, with its words against the pillow. The washing of hands, the tea kettle, the whisky, stocking feet on the wooden floor. Help me carry the chairs, never enough chairs, through the narrow doorway, chairs borrowed from the sewing table, from the desk, from the work table – paint-spattered and mended with wire. Bring the piano bench. Find the perfect symphony for parsing vegetables into broth. No need for candles, we’ll see each other well enough in the dark. Draw close your father’s chair next to my father’s, and I’ll fetch a book for the orphan’s chair, so she can reach the table. And last, a chair for the mourner who accompanies the body, so the soul is never, not for a single moment, alone.

To share the poem-a-day experience, pass along this link »

The poet Anne Michaels and the artist Bernice Eisenstein have created a unique accordion book that is both a book-length poem and a haunting portrait gallery. On one side of the accordion’s pages, a historical and personal elegy by Michaels unfolds, while on the other, in unison with the poem and in deep conversation with it, are Eisenstein’s portraits of the twentieth-century writers and thinkers the poem summons. One such is Etty Hillesum (1914-1943), a Dutch Jewish woman whose diaries and letters from the several years before her death in Auschwitz are a remarkable document of witnessing and personal growth. The excerpt from Michaels’s poem speaks to how we are accompanied, always, whether by our own, or by people whose chairs have surrounded ours at the table set by history. (Though we can’t possibly reproduce here the shape and experience of this unusual book, we offer today’s material as the month’s final printable broadside)

Come, it’s time to set the table,
dusk is bruised with rain, the water is alive
under the wind, evening is
upon us. Outside, the animals make their
accommodation, the lake loses its reflection,
settles deeper. Set down the brush
on the saucer, leave off the book,
open, with its words against the pillow.
The washing of hands, the tea kettle,
the whisky, stocking feet
on the wooden floor. Help me carry
the chairs, never enough chairs,
through the narrow doorway, chairs
borrowed from the sewing table,
from the desk, from the work table –
paint-spattered and mended with wire.
Bring the piano bench. Find the perfect
symphony for parsing vegetables into broth.
No need for candles, we’ll see each other well enough
in the dark. Draw close
your father’s chair next to my father’s,
and I’ll fetch a book for the orphan’s chair,
so she can reach the table.
And last, a chair for the mourner
who accompanies the body, so the soul is never,
not for a single moment, alone.

To share the poem-a-day experience, pass along this link »

In Anne Caron’s 1998 Autobiography of Red, the red-winged boy Geryon fell in love with Herakles. Now in her Red Doc>, another book-length verse adventure, we meet them again in later life — Geryon, now called simply “G,” reencounters his old friend, who is a war veteran nicknamed “Sad” (short for “Sad But Great”), and the two journey in new and far-flung settings, from green pastures where musk oxen roam to a landscape of glacial ice. Along the way, G faces the death of his mother, whom he elegizes in this excerpt.

Shuffling recipes coupons horoscopes in a kitchen drawer he turns up an old B&W photograph of her posed in dashing swim costume on some long ago back porch. One leg forward like a Greek kouros a cigarette in the other hand she glows as a drop of water glows in sun. She looks sexually astute in a way that terrifies him he puts this aside and all at once the grainy photograph the early marvel of her life flung up at him a thing hardly believable! knocks him to his knees. He grips his arms and weeps. Pain catches the whole insides of him and wrings it. Oddly now remembering his grandmother’s wringer washer silvergreen and upright on a platform of wet boards in her back kitchen beside the washing tubs. How carefully he’d been taught to feed a piece of dripping cloth between the two big lips of the rollers while she cranked the handle and the cloth grabbed forward to emerge on the other side as a weird compressed pane of itself. He hadn’t known his grandmother long or well. She smelled of Noxzema. Didn’t like doctors. Believed in herbs and the Bible. When the apostles walked down the street she said their shadows would heal people. His mother once told him a story about her dying. They never liked each other hadn’t visited for years but someone arranged a phone call. So there they were mother and daughter on the telephone separate cities separate nights both suffering from asthma and so moved they couldn’t speak. I heard her breathing I knew what it was his mother said. He looks up. He’d almost forgot about the rain. Unloading on the roof and squandering down the gutters. Rain continuous since the funeral a wrecking rattling bewildering Lethe- knuckling mob of rain. A rain with no instructions.   Listening to rain he thinks how strange all its surfaces sound like they’re sliding up. How strange his mother is lying out there in her little soaked Chanel suit. The weeping has been arriving about every seven minutes. In the days to come it will grow less.

To share the poem-a-day experience, pass along this link »

In Anne Caron’s 1998 Autobiography of Red, the red-winged boy Geryon fell in love with Herakles. Now in her Red Doc>, another book-length verse adventure, we meet them again in later life Geryon, now called simply “G,” reencounters his old friend, who is a war veteran nicknamed “Sad” (short for “Sad But Great”), and the two journey in new and far-flung settings, from green pastures where musk oxen roam to a landscape of glacial ice. Along the way, G faces the death of his mother, whom he elegizes in this excerpt.

Shuffling recipes
coupons horoscopes in
a kitchen drawer he turns
up an old B&W
photograph of her posed in
dashing swim costume on
some long ago back porch.
One leg forward like a
Greek kouros a cigarette
in the other hand she
glows as a drop of water
glows in sun. She looks
sexually astute in a way
that terrifies him he puts
this aside and all at once
the grainy photograph the
early marvel of her life
flung up at him a thing
hardly believable! knocks
him to his knees. He grips
his arms and weeps. Pain
catches the whole insides
of him and wrings it.
Oddly now remembering
his grandmother’s wringer
washer silvergreen and
upright on a platform of
wet boards in her back
kitchen beside the
washing tubs. How
carefully he’d been taught
to feed a piece of dripping
cloth between the two big
lips of the rollers while
she cranked the handle
and the cloth grabbed
forward to emerge on the
other side as a weird
compressed pane of itself.
He hadn’t known his
grandmother long or well.
She smelled of Noxzema.
Didn’t like doctors.
Believed in herbs and the
Bible. When the apostles
walked down the street
she said their shadows
would heal people. His
mother once told him a
story about her dying.
They never liked each
other hadn’t visited for
years but someone
arranged a phone call. So
there they were mother
and daughter on the
telephone separate cities
separate nights both
suffering from asthma and
so moved they couldn’t
speak. I heard her
breathing I knew what it
was his mother said. He
looks up. He’d almost
forgot about the rain.
Unloading on the roof and
squandering down the
gutters. Rain continuous
since the funeral a
wrecking rattling
bewildering Lethe-
knuckling mob of rain. A
rain with no instructions.
 
Listening to rain
he thinks how strange all
its surfaces sound like
they’re sliding up. How
strange his mother is lying
out there in her little
soaked Chanel suit. The
weeping has been arriving
about every seven
minutes. In the days to
come it will grow less.

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The ocean in its many guises figures prominently in Nancy Willard’s most recent collection, The Sea at Truro.

The Water Seamstress   The bride admires the pleats on the skin of the sea. So smooth! So cool! She fingers the waves, some quilted, some smocked and gathered   like the dress her mother made for herself to wear at the wedding, and for the pleasure of making it and for the company of the light at play on the satin as it poured through her hands,   and for the white frills on the sleeve of each wave as it sped along the shore, knitting itself, row after row, then exploding with joy and unraveling everything.

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The ocean in its many guises figures prominently in Nancy Willard’s most recent collection, The Sea at Truro.

The Water Seamstress
 
The bride admires the pleats on the skin
of the sea. So smooth! So cool!
She fingers the waves, some quilted,
some smocked and gathered
 
like the dress her mother made for herself
to wear at the wedding, and for the pleasure
of making it and for the company of the light
at play on the satin as it poured through her hands,
 
and for the white frills on the sleeve of each wave
as it sped along the shore, knitting itself,
row after row, then exploding with joy
and unraveling everything.

To share the poem-a-day experience, pass along this link »

As we’re celebrating the publication of The Sibley Guide to Birds in its Second Edition this year, we offer birders (and readers) a pair of poems on the subject of our feathered friends, from two of our great English poets.


Three Things to Remember   A robin redbreast in a cage Puts all Heaven in a rage.   A skylark wounded on the wing Doth make a cherub cease to sing.   He who shall hurt the little wren Shall never be beloved by men.
— William Blake  Bird-Language   Trying to understand the words         Uttered on all sides by birds, I recognize in what I hear         Noises that betoken fear.   Though some of them, I’m certain, must         Stand for rage, bravado, lust, All other notes that birds employ         Sound like synonyms for joy.
— W. H. Auden


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As we’re celebrating the publication of The Sibley Guide to Birds in its Second Edition this year, we offer birders (and readers) a pair of poems on the subject of our feathered friends, from two of our great English poets.

image

Three Things to Remember
 
A robin redbreast in a cage
Puts all Heaven in a rage.
 
A skylark wounded on the wing
Doth make a cherub cease to sing.
 
He who shall hurt the little wren
Shall never be beloved by men.

— William Blake
 
Bird-Language
 
Trying to understand the words
        Uttered on all sides by birds,
I recognize in what I hear
        Noises that betoken fear.
 
Though some of them, I’m certain, must
        Stand for rage, bravado, lust,
All other notes that birds employ
        Sound like synonyms for joy.

W. H. Auden


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Today we offer a brief excerpt from Dennis McFarland’s Nostalgia, a novel of the Civil War which features among its characters Walt Whitman, who regularly visits and comforts the wounded in the Washington military hospital that is the setting of the scene below. Summerfield Hayes, a nineteen-year-old private in the Union army, has been rendered mute and unable to write or identify himself in the wake of the horrors he has seen in the Battle of the Wilderness, where he was abandoned by his unit after an exploding shell temporarily deafened him; he is suffering from what we now call PTSD, a condition then little understood, and referred to as “nostalgia.” As we learn here, the silent Hayes is a favorite of the visiting poet, though neither knows the identity of the other, and Hayes is at risk of being considered a malingerer, or worse, a deserter. The poetry of Whitman enters McFarland’s novel in significant ways – not just his actual poetry, but the deeper poetic intuition Whitman brings to bear on his work with the wounded soldiers and his capacious understanding of life itself. 
——

He takes off the saggy-brimmed hat and wearily lifts the strap to his haversack over his head. Struck again by the man’s blending of youth and old age, Hayes believes Walt looks more played-out than he has yet seen him. Walt smiles, crinkling his eyes, then reaches forward and pats Hayes’s head as if he were a puppy. “ ‘Some feelings are to mortals given,’ ” he says, in an altered voice, “ ‘with less of earth in them than heaven.’ ”
“That’s the idea,” says Dr. Bliss, moving around to the other side of the bed and leaning in close to Hayes. “Recite us some poetry, Walt. Cheer us up.”
“ ‘And if there be a human tear,’ ” Walt continues, “ ‘From passion’s dross refined and clear …’ ”
“May I see inside your mouth?” says Dr. Bliss, and Hayes opens his mouth. “Stick out your tongue, please,” says the doctor. “Turn a bit toward the light.”
“ ‘A tear so limpid and so meek,’ ” continues Walt, “ ‘It would not stain an angel’s cheek — ’ ”
Apparently satisfied with the looks of Hayes’s throat, the surgeon takes out a pocket watch, places his fingers on Hayes’s wrist, and times his pulse. Mortified, Hayes cannot make his hand stop quivering. Still touching Hayes’s wrist, the doctor says, “Try to ease yourself, son. You’ve nothing to fear from us.”
When the examination is finished and Dr. Bliss returns to the end of the bed, Walt looks at Hayes sadly and says, “ ‘’Tis that which pious fathers shed / Upon a duteous soldier’s head.’ ”
“Shakespeare?” says Dr. Bliss.
“Walter Scott,” answers Walt, “though I’ve bent him some to the occasion.”
“Ah, here’s one of our invited guests now,” says the surgeon, as Dr. Drum arrives and stands next to him at the footrail.
Clean shaven and balding (the line of his steel-gray hair starting somewhere near the crown), Dr. Drum rises not quite to Dr. Bliss’s shoulder.
“This gentleman,” says Dr. Bliss to Hayes, “is Dr. Drum. I don’t believe you’ve been properly introduced.”
Hayes nods, but Drum only gazes at him blankly.
“I understand you administered ether to this young soldier today,” says Dr. Bliss.
Drum, who appears cheerfully prepared for the interview, blinks his eyes and picks at a loose thread on the cuff of his black suit coat. “That is true,” he says, aloof. “As requested to by your own Captain Gracie.”
“Our own Captain Gracie?” says Dr. Bliss. “And why would a contract surgeon perform a procedure at the behest of a line officer? Is that how you do things in Philadelphia?”
Drum lifts his chin and smiles at Hayes with a kind of patronizing cordiality, as if Hayes were the source of a frivolous complaint. “Oh, I don’t think we’ve done him any harm,” he says.
“I didn’t say you had,” says Dr. Bliss. “Though I doubt you’ve done him any good. He’s already wasting from lack of appetite.”
“I secured the ward surgeon’s authorization,” says Drum. “And I believe we’ve gained some useful intelligence besides.”
Dr. Bliss starts to answer, but utters only the word intelligence, when, at that moment, Dr. Dinkle and the angry captain arrive at the footrail. Walt takes Hayes’s hand and gives him a reassuring wink as Dr. Bliss makes the necessary greetings and thanks the others for joining him. Then each of the men at the end of the bed turns his attention to Hayes in an auxiliary way, as if Hayes were a fire around which they’ve gathered to chat. Most disconcerting to Hayes, the light from the nearby window keeps coming and going — likely the effect of passing afternoon clouds — and the scene is bright one moment and dim the next. As he studies the men’s faces, he believes he reads contrition in Dr. Dinkle’s but clear defiance in the angry captain’s.
“Here’s the situation as I understand it,” says Dr. Bliss. “Captain Gracie requested ether be administered to this patient, and Dr. Drum did so with the permission of Dr. Dinkle. But what I most fail to grasp is why the captain would make such an unusual request.”
Obviously Dr. Bliss means to draw a response from the captain, but before the captain can speak, Drum says, “It’s not a conspiracy, Major Bliss. The captain and I fell into conversation, over the course of which I told him something of my work at the Christian Street Hospital. I happened to mention that we’d developed a good test for malingerers, and he told me he knew a likely candidate.”
Dr. Bliss allows his gaze to dwell on Drum for a moment, apparently absorbing what he has been told, and then he turns to Dr. Dinkle. “In the future,” he says, “I should like any such nonmedical procedure to be cleared with me.”
“Naturally, sir,” says Dr. Dinkle. “It was never my — ”
“Nonmedical?” says Drum. “Why do you characterize it so?”
“Because it’s designed to probe a disciplinary concern,” says Dr. Bliss, “and not to cure illness.”
“Oh, make no mistake,” says Drum. “We’ve cured many a soldier this way of what ‘ailed’ him. The lame walk again, the deaf hear, and the dumb speak. Why, there’s been more than one idler who — ”
“All right, Dr. Drum,” says Dr. Bliss, “I don’t mean to debate you, certainly not here and not now. I am this hospital’s surgeon in chief. I only aim to hone a point of protocol with my ward surgeons. Now, I thank you for your time.”
“But this soldier has proved authentic,” says Drum quickly, “the genuine article, red-hot nostalgia. I’m told he suffers delusions to boot. I’m keen to have him moved to my own hospital, where we’re doing marvelous things on our own hook … marvelous things with a great range of nervous disorders and — ”
“It is a reasonable course,” says Dr. Dinkle, clasping Drum by the elbow — evidently intending to rein him in even while supporting his cause.
“I’ll take it under consideration,” says Dr. Bliss, with a conclusive tone.
Dr. Dinkle thanks Dr. Bliss and against some noticeable resistance escorts Dr. Drum away.
The captain, seeing the party break up without his having contributed, faces the surgeon in chief and stands very tall. “I wonder if it has occurred to you, Major Bliss, that you might be harboring a deserter.”
The surgeon smiles impassively and says, “I wonder if it has occurred to you that you might be impugning a hero.”
Hayes, neither a deserter nor a hero, suppresses an urge to laugh — it suddenly strikes him as comical, his being fought over this way; likewise, in equal parts absurd and fitting, his name tag, which reads UNKNOWN.
“We want that bed,” says the captain, narrowing his eyes at the surgeon. “I don’t need to tell you what we’ve got landing at our doors daily … landing daily and by the hundreds.”
“No, Captain Gracie,” says Dr. Bliss, “you don’t need to tell me.”
“If you won’t let him go to Philadelphia, at least there’s the asylum. Surely — ”
“Yes, Captain,” says Dr. Bliss. “Thank you very much.”
Walt, who has released Hayes’s hand, now takes out his handkerchief and wipes his own brow; he lets out a long sigh and shifts in his chair, agitated and indignant. “Do you not outrank that man, that insufferable Captain Gracie?”
“Of course I do, Walt,” answers Dr. Bliss, “but rank isn’t everything. One has to maintain relations. The men in these beds are patients and soldiers. I can’t be drawn into constant squabbles over who’s in charge of them.”
“But you won’t give our friend over to that nippent little Drum, will you, and let him be carted off to Philadelphia? And surely you won’t send him to the asylum?”
Dr. Bliss pulls on his whiskers thoughtfully and looks at Hayes. “I’m not certain I can prevent it,” he says. “He can’t stay here indefinitely.”
“But he won’t stay indefinitely,” says Walt. “After all, the war will end. If it’s a case of not knowing what to do with him — which I believe it is — why can’t we leave him be for now? If we don’t yet have our answer, let’s wait for it to come clear. Things often do, you know … come clear with ample time and tolerance.”
“I’m beginning to see the nature of your attraction to this young man,” says Dr. Bliss. “It’s philosophical.”
“Not at all,” says Walt, and looks out the window. “He attracts me the same way they all do — which is to say, affectively. How can I fail to be attracted when my feelings are so thoroughly and permanently absorbed?”
He looks back at the doctor and says, “If it’s merely the question of a bed, I can bring him to my own rooms and give him one.”
“Now that would be irregular,” says Dr. Bliss. “Look, Walt, I want you to go home, and I don’t mean back to your rooms. I mean for you to get back to Brooklyn, at least for a few months. Otherwise, you’re bound for a full collapse.”
Walt closes his eyes for a moment and bows his head. “I’ll not deny that I’m sleeping less than first-rate,” he says softly. “And more and more I feel I must have an intermission. But I won’t be going tonight. Nor tomorrow. Tomorrow’s my birthday.”
Bliss moves between the beds and puts a hand on Walt’s shoulder. “Well, he’s not going anywhere tonight or tomorrow either,” he says. “I’ll do what I can for him, Walt. A direct opposition’s not always the best strategy. Have you never said yes and meant no?”
“Probably,” says Walt, “once or twice.” He laughs and adds, “But not nearly so often as I’ve said no and meant yes.”
“I want you to go to your rooms,” says the surgeon, after a moment. “Have yourself a good supper and bath and a good night’s rest. Don’t return to the hospital this evening.”
For another moment, the two men seem to ponder Hayes — the surgeon with his hand still resting on Walt’s shoulder, and Walt with cloudy eyes. At last Dr. Bliss says, “Don’t you think you might write your name for us now, son? There’s no physical reason why you shouldn’t.”
Walt bends, reaches into his bag, pulls out first a large orange and a pair of suspenders, both of which he lays aside, and then his scrapbook and a pencil. He offers these last two to Hayes, one in each hand.
Hayes, shocked to be addressed so suddenly, believes he can in fact write his name, and might do it, despite his ambivalence about revealing his identity. But as he looks at the scrapbook and the pencil, the two hands holding them are horribly charred, tumid with great watery blisters, and he shudders and draws his knees toward his chest. A burnt and sickening sweet smell invades his nostrils. He rolls onto his side and puts his back to the men.
“Did you see the blood leave his face?” he hears Walt say, somewhere behind him, far away. “He’s terrified. Never mind, dear boy, never mind.”
Hayes doesn’t move, willing his limbs to stay frozen, despite a sharp sting of boots smacking his ribs. He fears his shrapnel wounds have started to bleed.
He thinks, I’m told he suffers delusions to boot, and encounters a peculiar puzzlement over the word boot.
Back to the front, he thinks, an absurd yet fascinating phrase.
He thinks, I mean for you to get back to Brooklyn, and envisions himself seated alongside Walt in a railcar, Walt patting him on the knee, and saying with his curious compound of maternal maleness, “We’re almost home, my dear.”
“Now, Walt,” says Dr. Bliss. “Here’s a thorny question: should we wish for our young friend to gain back his speech, or wish for him not to?”
“Ah, yes,” says Walt. “Down one road waits a Gracie, down the other a Drum. Scylla and Charybdis. I wonder … have you seen this thing before — what you call nostalgia — and coupled with loss of speech?”
“Twice before,” answers the doctor. “Each suffered temporary loss of hearing as well … symptoms associated with a shell exploding close-by. But I’ve heard of others—soldiers released from Confederate prisons, for example — who’d simply gone mute in the face of unspeakable horror.”
“Unspeakable horror?” says Walt. “If that’s the case, I’m surprised you don’t see more of them.”
“We very well might,” says the doctor, “if more of them survived.”
“Oh, of course,” says Walt, “they would have to survive, wouldn’t they?”
After a long pause, Walt adds, “Maybe it’s not so bad, losing the so-called art of speech. Most of life gives language the slip anyway, I find. Look at me: I rattle all day long and into the night and say only a fraction of what I feel, a fraction of what I know in my heart.”
“Well,” says Dr. Bliss, “maybe some men’s fractions are better than other men’s sums.”
“Ha!” says Walt. “Let me assure you — for each of my fractions, there are worlds and worlds and worlds of uncertainties. It’s almost enough to make me wish I’d been a doctor.”
——

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Today we offer a brief excerpt from Dennis McFarland’s Nostalgia, a novel of the Civil War which features among its characters Walt Whitman, who regularly visits and comforts the wounded in the Washington military hospital that is the setting of the scene below. Summerfield Hayes, a nineteen-year-old private in the Union army, has been rendered mute and unable to write or identify himself in the wake of the horrors he has seen in the Battle of the Wilderness, where he was abandoned by his unit after an exploding shell temporarily deafened him; he is suffering from what we now call PTSD, a condition then little understood, and referred to as “nostalgia.” As we learn here, the silent Hayes is a favorite of the visiting poet, though neither knows the identity of the other, and Hayes is at risk of being considered a malingerer, or worse, a deserter. The poetry of Whitman enters McFarland’s novel in significant ways – not just his actual poetry, but the deeper poetic intuition Whitman brings to bear on his work with the wounded soldiers and his capacious understanding of life itself. 

——


He takes off the saggy-brimmed hat and wearily lifts the strap to his haversack over his head. Struck again by the man’s blending of youth and old age, Hayes believes Walt looks more played-out than he has yet seen him. Walt smiles, crinkling his eyes, then reaches forward and pats Hayes’s head as if he were a puppy. “ ‘Some feelings are to mortals given,’ ” he says, in an altered voice, “ ‘with less of earth in them than heaven.’ ”

“That’s the idea,” says Dr. Bliss, moving around to the other side of the bed and leaning in close to Hayes. “Recite us some poetry, Walt. Cheer us up.”

“ ‘And if there be a human tear,’ ” Walt continues, “ ‘From passion’s dross refined and clear …’ ”

“May I see inside your mouth?” says Dr. Bliss, and Hayes opens his mouth. “Stick out your tongue, please,” says the doctor. “Turn a bit toward the light.”

“ ‘A tear so limpid and so meek,’ ” continues Walt, “ ‘It would not stain an angel’s cheek — ’ ”

Apparently satisfied with the looks of Hayes’s throat, the surgeon takes out a pocket watch, places his fingers on Hayes’s wrist, and times his pulse. Mortified, Hayes cannot make his hand stop quivering. Still touching Hayes’s wrist, the doctor says, “Try to ease yourself, son. You’ve nothing to fear from us.”

When the examination is finished and Dr. Bliss returns to the end of the bed, Walt looks at Hayes sadly and says, “ ‘’Tis that which pious fathers shed / Upon a duteous soldier’s head.’ ”

“Shakespeare?” says Dr. Bliss.

“Walter Scott,” answers Walt, “though I’ve bent him some to the occasion.”

“Ah, here’s one of our invited guests now,” says the surgeon, as Dr. Drum arrives and stands next to him at the footrail.

Clean shaven and balding (the line of his steel-gray hair starting somewhere near the crown), Dr. Drum rises not quite to Dr. Bliss’s shoulder.

“This gentleman,” says Dr. Bliss to Hayes, “is Dr. Drum. I don’t believe you’ve been properly introduced.”

Hayes nods, but Drum only gazes at him blankly.

“I understand you administered ether to this young soldier today,” says Dr. Bliss.

Drum, who appears cheerfully prepared for the interview, blinks his eyes and picks at a loose thread on the cuff of his black suit coat. “That is true,” he says, aloof. “As requested to by your own Captain Gracie.”

“Our own Captain Gracie?” says Dr. Bliss. “And why would a contract surgeon perform a procedure at the behest of a line officer? Is that how you do things in Philadelphia?”

Drum lifts his chin and smiles at Hayes with a kind of patronizing cordiality, as if Hayes were the source of a frivolous complaint. “Oh, I don’t think we’ve done him any harm,” he says.

“I didn’t say you had,” says Dr. Bliss. “Though I doubt you’ve done him any good. He’s already wasting from lack of appetite.”

“I secured the ward surgeon’s authorization,” says Drum. “And I believe we’ve gained some useful intelligence besides.”

Dr. Bliss starts to answer, but utters only the word intelligence, when, at that moment, Dr. Dinkle and the angry captain arrive at the footrail. Walt takes Hayes’s hand and gives him a reassuring wink as Dr. Bliss makes the necessary greetings and thanks the others for joining him. Then each of the men at the end of the bed turns his attention to Hayes in an auxiliary way, as if Hayes were a fire around which they’ve gathered to chat. Most disconcerting to Hayes, the light from the nearby window keeps coming and going — likely the effect of passing afternoon clouds — and the scene is bright one moment and dim the next. As he studies the men’s faces, he believes he reads contrition in Dr. Dinkle’s but clear defiance in the angry captain’s.

“Here’s the situation as I understand it,” says Dr. Bliss. “Captain Gracie requested ether be administered to this patient, and Dr. Drum did so with the permission of Dr. Dinkle. But what I most fail to grasp is why the captain would make such an unusual request.”

Obviously Dr. Bliss means to draw a response from the captain, but before the captain can speak, Drum says, “It’s not a conspiracy, Major Bliss. The captain and I fell into conversation, over the course of which I told him something of my work at the Christian Street Hospital. I happened to mention that we’d developed a good test for malingerers, and he told me he knew a likely candidate.”

Dr. Bliss allows his gaze to dwell on Drum for a moment, apparently absorbing what he has been told, and then he turns to Dr. Dinkle. “In the future,” he says, “I should like any such nonmedical procedure to be cleared with me.”

“Naturally, sir,” says Dr. Dinkle. “It was never my — ”

“Nonmedical?” says Drum. “Why do you characterize it so?”

“Because it’s designed to probe a disciplinary concern,” says Dr. Bliss, “and not to cure illness.”

“Oh, make no mistake,” says Drum. “We’ve cured many a soldier this way of what ‘ailed’ him. The lame walk again, the deaf hear, and the dumb speak. Why, there’s been more than one idler who — ”

“All right, Dr. Drum,” says Dr. Bliss, “I don’t mean to debate you, certainly not here and not now. I am this hospital’s surgeon in chief. I only aim to hone a point of protocol with my ward surgeons. Now, I thank you for your time.”

“But this soldier has proved authentic,” says Drum quickly, “the genuine article, red-hot nostalgia. I’m told he suffers delusions to boot. I’m keen to have him moved to my own hospital, where we’re doing marvelous things on our own hook … marvelous things with a great range of nervous disorders and — ”

“It is a reasonable course,” says Dr. Dinkle, clasping Drum by the elbow — evidently intending to rein him in even while supporting his cause.

“I’ll take it under consideration,” says Dr. Bliss, with a conclusive tone.

Dr. Dinkle thanks Dr. Bliss and against some noticeable resistance escorts Dr. Drum away.

The captain, seeing the party break up without his having contributed, faces the surgeon in chief and stands very tall. “I wonder if it has occurred to you, Major Bliss, that you might be harboring a deserter.”

The surgeon smiles impassively and says, “I wonder if it has occurred to you that you might be impugning a hero.”

Hayes, neither a deserter nor a hero, suppresses an urge to laugh — it suddenly strikes him as comical, his being fought over this way; likewise, in equal parts absurd and fitting, his name tag, which reads UNKNOWN.

“We want that bed,” says the captain, narrowing his eyes at the surgeon. “I don’t need to tell you what we’ve got landing at our doors daily … landing daily and by the hundreds.”

“No, Captain Gracie,” says Dr. Bliss, “you don’t need to tell me.”

“If you won’t let him go to Philadelphia, at least there’s the asylum. Surely — ”

“Yes, Captain,” says Dr. Bliss. “Thank you very much.”

Walt, who has released Hayes’s hand, now takes out his handkerchief and wipes his own brow; he lets out a long sigh and shifts in his chair, agitated and indignant. “Do you not outrank that man, that insufferable Captain Gracie?”

“Of course I do, Walt,” answers Dr. Bliss, “but rank isn’t everything. One has to maintain relations. The men in these beds are patients and soldiers. I can’t be drawn into constant squabbles over who’s in charge of them.”

“But you won’t give our friend over to that nippent little Drum, will you, and let him be carted off to Philadelphia? And surely you won’t send him to the asylum?”

Dr. Bliss pulls on his whiskers thoughtfully and looks at Hayes. “I’m not certain I can prevent it,” he says. “He can’t stay here indefinitely.”

“But he won’t stay indefinitely,” says Walt. “After all, the war will end. If it’s a case of not knowing what to do with him — which I believe it is — why can’t we leave him be for now? If we don’t yet have our answer, let’s wait for it to come clear. Things often do, you know … come clear with ample time and tolerance.”

“I’m beginning to see the nature of your attraction to this young man,” says Dr. Bliss. “It’s philosophical.”

“Not at all,” says Walt, and looks out the window. “He attracts me the same way they all do — which is to say, affectively. How can I fail to be attracted when my feelings are so thoroughly and permanently absorbed?”

He looks back at the doctor and says, “If it’s merely the question of a bed, I can bring him to my own rooms and give him one.”

“Now that would be irregular,” says Dr. Bliss. “Look, Walt, I want you to go home, and I don’t mean back to your rooms. I mean for you to get back to Brooklyn, at least for a few months. Otherwise, you’re bound for a full collapse.”

Walt closes his eyes for a moment and bows his head. “I’ll not deny that I’m sleeping less than first-rate,” he says softly. “And more and more I feel I must have an intermission. But I won’t be going tonight. Nor tomorrow. Tomorrow’s my birthday.”

Bliss moves between the beds and puts a hand on Walt’s shoulder. “Well, he’s not going anywhere tonight or tomorrow either,” he says. “I’ll do what I can for him, Walt. A direct opposition’s not always the best strategy. Have you never said yes and meant no?”

“Probably,” says Walt, “once or twice.” He laughs and adds, “But not nearly so often as I’ve said no and meant yes.”

“I want you to go to your rooms,” says the surgeon, after a moment. “Have yourself a good supper and bath and a good night’s rest. Don’t return to the hospital this evening.”

For another moment, the two men seem to ponder Hayes — the surgeon with his hand still resting on Walt’s shoulder, and Walt with cloudy eyes. At last Dr. Bliss says, “Don’t you think you might write your name for us now, son? There’s no physical reason why you shouldn’t.”

Walt bends, reaches into his bag, pulls out first a large orange and a pair of suspenders, both of which he lays aside, and then his scrapbook and a pencil. He offers these last two to Hayes, one in each hand.

Hayes, shocked to be addressed so suddenly, believes he can in fact write his name, and might do it, despite his ambivalence about revealing his identity. But as he looks at the scrapbook and the pencil, the two hands holding them are horribly charred, tumid with great watery blisters, and he shudders and draws his knees toward his chest. A burnt and sickening sweet smell invades his nostrils. He rolls onto his side and puts his back to the men.

“Did you see the blood leave his face?” he hears Walt say, somewhere behind him, far away. “He’s terrified. Never mind, dear boy, never mind.”

Hayes doesn’t move, willing his limbs to stay frozen, despite a sharp sting of boots smacking his ribs. He fears his shrapnel wounds have started to bleed.

He thinks, I’m told he suffers delusions to boot, and encounters a peculiar puzzlement over the word boot.

Back to the front, he thinks, an absurd yet fascinating phrase.

He thinks, I mean for you to get back to Brooklyn, and envisions himself seated alongside Walt in a railcar, Walt patting him on the knee, and saying with his curious compound of maternal maleness, “We’re almost home, my dear.”

“Now, Walt,” says Dr. Bliss. “Here’s a thorny question: should we wish for our young friend to gain back his speech, or wish for him not to?”

“Ah, yes,” says Walt. “Down one road waits a Gracie, down the other a Drum. Scylla and Charybdis. I wonder … have you seen this thing before — what you call nostalgia — and coupled with loss of speech?”

“Twice before,” answers the doctor. “Each suffered temporary loss of hearing as well … symptoms associated with a shell exploding close-by. But I’ve heard of others—soldiers released from Confederate prisons, for example — who’d simply gone mute in the face of unspeakable horror.”

“Unspeakable horror?” says Walt. “If that’s the case, I’m surprised you don’t see more of them.”

“We very well might,” says the doctor, “if more of them survived.”

“Oh, of course,” says Walt, “they would have to survive, wouldn’t they?”

After a long pause, Walt adds, “Maybe it’s not so bad, losing the so-called art of speech. Most of life gives language the slip anyway, I find. Look at me: I rattle all day long and into the night and say only a fraction of what I feel, a fraction of what I know in my heart.”

“Well,” says Dr. Bliss, “maybe some men’s fractions are better than other men’s sums.”

“Ha!” says Walt. “Let me assure you — for each of my fractions, there are worlds and worlds and worlds of uncertainties. It’s almost enough to make me wish I’d been a doctor.”

——


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