Thursday, June 25th, 2009 | Author:

For me, the real highlights of our Camden trip were of course the graveyard and house visits.  What I can’t shake about the house on what used to be Mickle Street is the juxtaposition of signifiers: home of Walt Whitman, inspired, experimental communicator, Civil War nurse, poet-philosopher of democracy and national optimist    +     the broadened, relatively gutted street on which his house now sits    +    the renaming of that street for Martin Luther King, Jr., probably our most effective and iconic national leader on race ever who, like Whitman, dreamed of a better future for a nation he believed in    +    the hulking county jail directly across from Whitman’s house    +     the fact we learned that women stand on the median in the middle of MLK boulevard and communicate with their loved ones inside the jail with an invented sign language    +    the Whitman House guide Dick’s comment that at first an observer might think those women “just got religion or something”    +    the national statistics about the incarceration of African American men.  We heard that the jail might be torn down and the prisoners moved elsewhere because the building is crumbling around them.  We heard that there are finally concrete plans to make a visitor center and park beside the Whitman House in what is now a vacant lot if money really comes through this time.  We heard that after 9-11, a woman in Europe sent her letter of condolence for the United States to Whitman House.  We saw a sign pinned to a tree by the Whitman House facing the jail that said, “Love you.  Miss you.”

The threads, at a minimum:  freedom and limitation/slavery/imprisonment, inspiration, poverty,  inventive language and necessary communications, race, hope and despair, the American Dream, future of the nation, the city, war/violence. . .

This will have me thinking for a long time.

Walt Whitmans House

Whitman House in center

View of the Jail from the WW House

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  1. Brady says:

    I absolutely agree, Mara. The sign tacked to the tree outside Whitman’s house was especially thought-provoking for me.

    The following lines are from the 1855 “[Song of Myself]” and remained more or less the same in every edition:

    “I become any presence or truth of humanity here,
    And see myself in prison shaped like another man,
    And feel the dull unintermitted pain.

    For me the keepers of convicts shoulder their carbines and keep watch,
    It is I let out in the morning and barred at night.

    Not a mutineer walks handcuffed to the jail, but I am handcuffed to him and walk
    by his side,
    I am less the jolly one there, and more the silent one with sweat on my twitching

    Not a youngster is taken for larceny, but I go up too and am tried and sentenced.”

  2. Matt says:

    What an awesome post, Mara! You really captured the many serendipitous oddities of our experience there.

    My own list of thoughts ran on a somewhat different line. Here are some of the things I was thinking about:

    The I Love U and Miss U sign that Brady pointed out (also meant for a prisoner, I guess, though it seemed like it could have been for Walt) + the hawk tending gravestones + the bucolic gravesite + the names of lovers carved in the tree above Whitman’s grave + the spiders building webs on the gates in front of Whitman’s grave + Whitman’s bedroom and boots + NO PHOTOS IN THE WHITMAN HOUSE! + the Camden haiku poet near WW’s grave . . . .

    I think that, in the end, I’m getting at some of the same themes as you, many of which surround the sometimes-weird, sometimes-troubling legacy of Walt in the present moment.

    Anyway, great post! Thanks so much for writing it.

  3. Jim says:

    We heard that after 9-11, a woman in Europe sent her letter of condolence for the United States to Whitman House.

    we talked about this on the car ride home, but the whole idea of sending a letter of condolence to the Whitman house post-9/11 is such a wild thought. Not only along the ideas of Whitman as representative of American democracy, but somehow suggesting the idea of his democracy had somehow died post-9/11 and the increased police state of homeland security. The very act is a kind of singular poetry, a reaching across centuries to comment upon our moment with a simple act—and a speaking to history in a seemingly private letter to a dead guy. Crazy.

    The other thing that struck me, and you capture it so well here, is the city of Camden itself. It’s as if the promise of Whitman’s “Democratic Vistas” were casualties of the harsh realities of the disinvestment of the very place he had lived. A kind of shell of a city, burnt-out and depressed. How do we reconcile these visions, is this—in fact—where the Whitman House needs to be? I don’t know, but between those starkly conflicting visions and the whole story about Whitman’s brain being taken from his had and then dropped on the laboratory floor—I think this whole thing is already rife with poetry before it has begun. And it makes me think the commentary on place in this project may really be ever more important.

    BTW—was this an actual blog post by you? I mean you have posted before, I know, but this reads like a blog post. Unique to the medium, unpunctuated, experimental, and damn good. Hmmmmm, I wonder what’s happening here :)

  4. Avatar of Mara Scanlon Mara Scanlon says:

    Jim, you are a smart ass. Don’t think I couldn’t Twitter with the best of them too *IF* it was worth my time.

    I had utterly blocked out the part about WW’s brain being dropped when I wrote this post. That deserves its own serious reflection. Not just the brain being lost in that most mundane way, but the idea of Penn collecting genius brains for study and of the standoff at Whitman’s house between his brother and the head-robbers from the university who came to collect what was their due. This could keep me awake all week.

    I like Matt’s comment above also which offers a new equation, one that I think is more positive than mine in its balance finally, and yet with the haunting undertone of beautiful predators and loss. I like thinking about the ultimate compression of the haiku next to WW’s sprawling expansiveness–but look who got the podium at his website! If we reflect on that grave, the utterly planned nature of the park cemetery is also very evocative for Whitman and our own (private and national) sense of mortality and legacy.

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