Aug. 11, 2004

To Walt Whitman in Heaven

by Betsy Sholl

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Poem: "To Walt Whitman in Heaven" by Betsy Sholl from Late Psalm © The University of Wisconsin Press. Reprinted with permission.

To Walt Whitman In Heaven

Things that look good and aren't: high fashion,
Manifest Destiny, limp wires the electrician thinks
are dead till he grabs hold and then, O Infinite—
coursing-through-finite—thank God his spastic dance

is only a shock—one yelp and he shakes
it off. Not so easy for the girl next door
feeling her first kiss begin to fester
as the young man's buddies drive by hooting

and one calls out, how far did ya get? Whadda
we owe?
It's enough to make everything
look bad. So, a list then of what turns out
to be good: the loud-mouthed parrot

down the block that scared off two robbers,
the junior prom I spent alone in my room
reading you, Walt Whitman, your great
barbaric yawp entering my mind like salt

water coursing through fresh, stinging my wounds,
till every image was sharp—the lunatic,
the lily-faced boy in the makeshift hospital,
contralto, runaway, cloud scud, your voice

whispering through sea spray to ferry crowds,
just as you feel, so I felt ... What doesn't change
and remain, remain and grow strange? The lace
bodice from my mother's slip my daughter

now sews onto the cuffs of her new jeans,
the crooked front tooth that has traveled through
how many kisses from my mother's mouth
to mine, and on to my son. What is a list?

The neighbor girl goes through her catalog
of moves under the hoop—sky hooks, lay-ups,
fall-away jumpers. Long after dark, she's out there
dribbling her heart on the asphalt, tossing it up,

nothing but net. Painful, yes, but how else
will she get to that sweet agony within,
your great loitering contradictions? She dodges
and spins, as if shedding a skin, steps around

the driveway to keep the motion light flaring
as she passes from shadow into Technicolor,
banks a shot, jabs the air to cheer herself on,
point guard, center and crowd all in one,

and I almost see you in the dark,
on the fringe, though I can hardly say what
you mean, in the sweet mysterious night vapor
hovering over blacktop and lamp-green lawn.

Literary and Historical Notes:

It's the birthday of short story writer Andre Dubus, born in Lake Charles, Louisiana (1936). He wrote stories about regular people like bartenders, mechanics and waitresses in collections such as The Cage Keeper and Other Stories (1989) and Dancing after Hours (1996). In 1986, after publishing several books of short stories, Dubus stopped to help a woman and a man stranded on the side of the highway, and he was hit by a passing car. He saved the woman's life by throwing her out of the way, but he lost one of his legs and spent the rest of his life in a wheelchair. He said, "Some of my characters now feel more grateful about simple things—breathing, buying groceries, sunlight, because I do." He also said, "We don't have to live great lives, we just have to understand and survive the ones we've got."

It's the birthday of poet Louise Bogan, born in Livermore Falls, Maine (1897). She wrote many books of poetry, including The Blue Estuaries: Poems 1923-1968 (1968). For many years she was the poetry critic for The New Yorker magazine. Bogan said, "Surely the strange beauty of the world must somewhere rest on pure joy."

It's the birthday of British short story writer and novelist Angus Wilson, born in Bexhill, Sussex, England (1913). He's known for his satirical fiction about the English middle class in novels like Anglo-Saxon Attitudes (1956).

It's the birthday of the Scottish poet who wrote under the name Hugh MacDiarmid. He was born Christopher Murray Grieve, in Langholm, Scotland (1892). He started out writing poetry in English, but he felt there was something wrong with it. Then one day he tried writing poetry in the Scottish dialect that he had spoken when he was a child. Writing in dialect freed him from the restraint he felt when writing in English. At the time, the literary establishment looked down on people writing in Scottish dialect, so Grieve published his poetry under the name "Hugh MacDiarmid." His masterpiece was A Drunk Man Looks at the Thistle (1926).

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