An interdisciplinary journal about regions, places, and cultures of the US South and their global connections

Walt Whitman in Alabama

Maybe on his way to Gadsden,
Queen City of the Coosa,
to speak with the pilots and inland sailors,
to cross the fords Jackson ran with blood
or meet the mayor who
bought the ladies' favors with river quartz,
maybe east from some trip west to see
or returning north from New Orleans
or just lost in those years after The War
as legend has it, after the bannings,
when he'd grown tired of puffs and plates,
after he'd grown the beard and begun
to catch things there he had to walk off
or sing unwritten, maybe when the open road
opened on mockingbirds two and two—
no one knows, though the stories have him here
recapturing Attalla, shaking poems from his hair
on the steps of local churches. Maybe
it was the end of many letters, the last
of hospital days, another sleight
to make his hand come alive
when he couldn't bring some Southron home.
I see him there remembering his poems,
his back to the door, singing
out to the garden of the world,
the tropical spring of pine and jasmine,
how wondrous it was the pent-up river
washed to green their farms, the creeks swole
with mountain dew to sprout the corn,
herbage of poke and collard,
spinach and bean, to wash the roots
of every leaf to come. But more
I wonder what he did not say,
whether the doors were closed on the room
where none thought Jesus ever naked,
whether he went down Gadsden's Broad
to the bluff where a hundred years thence
someone fabled a child lost from the arms
of his hispanic mother and almost saved
by a cop who brought from his pocket
a shirt's worth of proof before the woman
vanished with her English, before the psychics
started rowing down the channel
to listen for the baby's dreams — all years after
the whorehouses, the fires, Reconstruction
and true religion came, after Whitman said his piece
and left the county to its mayors,
its wars and local dramas, Broad Street
and its theatres to opening and closing
and being torn down to photograph and rumor
where Vaudeville variety traveled
in those years before the world became real
and history stilled, before the dams stalled
the yearly flood that washed the roots
and made new fields from catfish and shit
and the mountain dead, before
the sun in the tassels was wormed to shine,
before shine dried into the hills
with the snakes, the poetry, the legend.
I imagine him here in the different city,
bathing in the yellow light as the river slips
beneath the bridge, flickering like a candle
or like the body or like the bodies
lit up with gasoline and beer, tremble of taillights,
while the statue of the Civil War heroine
points fingerless down Broad, down the stream
of headlamps and embers of burning weed,
a congregation in which his secrets and his song
would be unwelcome, though he slake
some secret thirsts, his orotund voice
tune our ears to the river's whisper,
a baby cradled in branches
deep beneath the bridge.
Its ribs filter the Coosa's brown.
Its arms raise the crops.
And every night it whispers the town
in some new forgotten tongue.

 

Published in Murder Ballads (2005).
Text may vary slightly from the video reading.

Published: 1 April 2008
© 2008 Jake Adam York and Southern Spaces