Monday, September 28th, 2009 | Author:

Again, Sharon Olds:

You move between the soldiers’ cots

the way I move among my dead,

their white bodies laid out in lines.


You bathe the forehead, you bathe the lip, the cock,

as I touch my father, as if the language

were a form of life.


You write their letters home, I take the dictation

of his firm dream lips, this boy

I love as you love your boys.


They die and you still feel them.  Time

becomes unpertinent to love,

to the male bodies in beds.


We bend over them, Walt, taking their breath

soft on our faces, wiping their domed brows,

stroking back the coal-black Union hair.


We lean down, our pointed breasts

heavy as plummets with fresh spermy milk–

we conceive, Walt, with the men we love, thus, now,

we bring to fruit.

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  1. I love Sharon Olds.
    And every one of these posts reminds me why.

  2. Avatar of nataliesayth nataliesayth says:

    Ditto, Chelsea.

    Dr. Scanlon, were you saving this poem to supplement this week’s reading? It really goes with Whitman’s exploration of caregiving and how it overlaps with romantic love and erotic sensation.

    Furthermore, this poem and this week’s reading made me wonder how much a part of love/nurturing pity is. Or maybe not quite pity, but at least a recognition that another needs you to help them heal or speak. I hate to be cynical, but I can’t really defend Whitman against sounding at least a little full of himself when he writes,

    “I have come to adapt myself to each emergency, after its kind or call, however trivial, however solemn, every one justified and made real under its circumstances–not only visits and cheering talk and little gifts–not only washing and dressing wounds, (I have some cases where the patient is unwilling any one should do this but me)–but passages from the Bible, expounding them, prayer at the bedside, explanations of doctrine, &c. (I think I see my friends smiling at this confession, but I was never more earnest in my life.)” (767).

    Can a person be matter-of-fact when relaying that some people insist on having that one person care for them? Is Whitman an exception to a typical person’s ego trip because he had such an eye for human beauty and affection? Does it change anything if he did gain a sense of purpose from them? Maybe I’m looking at things this way because I just came from work at a hotel, the business of making people happy and comfortable. I’m fed up with lonely travelers who are forever looking for people to validate them and enjoy their company, and sometimes Whitman doesn’t seem too different from them. (Emphasis on SOMETIMES. I promise I still love Whitman.)

  3. This is kind of a two-pronged response. For Natalie’s comment: I don’t know; I couldn’t find as much fault with Whitman for claiming that some of his patients wanted none but him. During the summer, I work as a waitress, and I have several customers whom I can definitely claim ask for no one but me to serve them. In fact, sometimes we have customers at our Diner who will only take certain waitresses. To me, it’s a reflection of my good work, and I think it was the same for Whitman; he has a sense of pride in his tenderness that he’s developed. For the soldiers, I imagine that it was incredible that someone in the midst of all that hustle actually took time to care and talk to them, without thinking it was some sort of duty.

    I also wanted to comment on the poem, and add a “me three” to the Sharon Olds love. I love her use of pronouns here, especially at the end. Initially, the speaker and Whitman are separate entities, body and soul. When they unite with “we” at the end, it’s so Whitmanesque that I can’t help but sigh.

  4. Avatar of Mara Scanlon Mara Scanlon says:

    Natalie and all- yes, I did hold on to the poem for this week after remembering it at the start of the semester. But I think we have to experience both Whitman’s propensity for talking about the “father-stuff” and his tender nursing (doesn’t the breastmilk of this poem make you think differently about that? I know I’m an infamous lactivist, but the word strikes me every time and I need to remember that in my Womanly Whitman portrait) before getting Olds’ poem fully.

    I get your point about Whitman’s boasting, Natalie, and you frame it well with your own experience in service. But mostly I forgive it because, finally, he visited the hospitals night after night after night, at great risk and cost to himself, with no real notice or praise for it, and if that is how he convinces himself it’s worth it, it’s okay with me. It feels a little sad to me, in that way that Whitman can be a bit of a lost dog looking for pats (my shelter dog Groundhog has her head in my lap this moment looking for the same; like Whitman, she can never be reassured enough, and I am not diminishing Whitman by this comparison). Maybe I’m influenced here too by Dr. Earnhart’s descriptions of Whitman’s forlorn and unrequited love letters to a few soldiers he loved (listen to the interview audio for this)– we’ll read some of these letters next week.

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