David Biespiel’s Poetry Wire: The Whitman Notebook: Which Is Ahead


Last night I heard the trains slip past with their lights off. My name was pulled under and didn’t recognize me anymore. My name was like an invisible sleep rolled up under a tree at the side of the building with the darkness hammering.

In another other city the voters will arrive soon to cast their ballots. They’ll dip their fingers in dark ink—

Urge and urge and urge
Always the procreant urge of the world.

I read about how their nights are punctuated by gunfire and explosions. The marginalized minorities clap and sing, and the opposition candidates promise to boycott the vote.

I have seen this piece of theater before, but I hope the opposition candidates will not withdraw from the race, and, instead, they will suddenly come to their senses and say, “I and this mystery here we stand.”


We are a multiplicity of identities. An individual person is not just a single thing. One—as it were—is not one. To say I am an X, to speak for the Xs, is perilous. Presumptions rise up. They eliminate the many of whom I am.

Says Walt Whitman: “Clear and sweet is my soul, and clear and sweet is all that is not my soul.”

When Whitman writes “Clear and sweet is my soul, and clear and sweet is all that is not my soul,” he is all daylight: monotonous and crucial. In this way, “Song of Myself” is banal. In its “talk of the beginning and the end,” it represents banality. It embraces a verdict on the mysteries—

There was never any more inception than there is now,
Nor any more youth or age than there is now;
And will never be any more perfection than there is now,
Nor any more heaven or hell than there is now.


To come back to this poem is to come back to my own life—or now my life has come back to me with ink on its finger.

I read in the newspaper about how, in the other city, protestors are being shot, and the radio stations have been off-air since they came under rocket and arson attack after the government coup. And now a trumpet, and blasts of footsteps, and nothing visible comes quickly to save the people.

The news carries me out to the street:

Out of the dimness opposite equals advance, always substance
        and increase, always sex,
Always a knit of identity, always distinction, always a breed of life.


When I was a boy, my Depression-era grandmother had patchwork blankets. When canned peas or canned peaches went on sale at the market, she bought extra at the lower price. You never know, she would say. It could all fall apart. She took pieces of old cloth, patches of materials, and sewed them together into quilts.

Walt Whitman says that to be an American is to be a poet. Are poets quilt makers? Sewing together cultures and beauty and power? Like Americans, each poet, says Whitman, brings a patch with, “Exactly the value of one and exactly the value of two, and which is ahead?”


Reverend Jesse Jackson talks about patchwork blankets:

Farmers, you seek fair prices and you are right—but you cannot stand alone. Your patch is not big enough. Workers, you fight for fair wages, you are right—but your patch of labor is not big enough. Women, you seek comparable worth and pay equity, you are right—but your patch is not big enough. Women, mothers, who seek Head Start, and day care and prenatal care on the front side of life, relevant jail care and welfare on the back side of life—you are right—but your patch is not big enough. Students, you seek scholarships, you are right—but your patch is not big enough. Blacks and Hispanics, when we fight for civil rights, we are right—but our patch is not big enough. Gays and lesbians, when you fight against discrimination, you are right—but your patch is not big enough. Conservatives and progressives, when you fight for what you believe, right wing, left wing, hawk, dove, you are right from your point of view, but your point of view is not enough. But don’t despair. Be as wise. Pull the patches and the pieces together, bound by a common thread. When we form a great quilt of unity and common ground, we’ll have the power to bring about health care and housing and jobs and education and hope to our Nation.

Walt Whitman says—

Welcome is every organ and attribute of me, and of any man
       hearty and clean,
Not an inch nor a particle of an inch is vile, and none shall be less
       familiar than the rest.


Two nights ago a crow stood on my back fence and considered the sky, like Ulysses looking at the shores of Greece after ten years at sea. All around the garden were what was left of the hot peppers and green tomatoes and dry flowers. Above us was a cry of rain above the only city I am witness to now.

If ever a crow knew beginnings and endings, knew life in death, knew a grave that will never belong to the spirit, it was this one with its black genius for immortality, with its black claws skirting the wooden fence in this shadowy city of trees, with its exotic notion of folk and friendship and harsh songs.

The crow departed—and I was only its disciple, left to the pages of my stone-faced, white-bearded ancestor, thinking, should I look into the secrets of my own eyes?


Rumpus original logo art by Genevieve Tyrrell.


In celebration of the two-hundredth anniversary of Walt Whitman’s birth in 1819, Poetry Wire will post David Biespiel’s serialized Whitman Notebook, his journal of reading the 1855 edition of “Song of Myself.” Read more entries here.

David Biespiel is a poet, literary critic, memoirist, and contributing writer at American Poetry Review, New Republic, New York Times, Poetry, Politico, The Rumpus, and Slate, among other publications. He is the author of numerous books, most recently The Education of a Young Poet, which was selected a Best Books for Writers by Poets & Writers, A Long High Whistle, which received the 2016 Oregon Book Award for General Nonfiction, and The Book of Men and Women, which was chosen for Best Books of the Year by the Poetry Foundation and received the 2011 Oregon Book Award for Poetry. More from this author →