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