Thursday, February 8, 2007

A Visit from Uncle Walt

Yesterday, Walt Whitman roused himself from his slumber in the depths of my subconscious and knocked at the door of my conscious mind. He made his presence felt at an afterschool faculty meeting at which the visiting speaker was sketching out some ideas he has in his field of expertise, which is cognitive development and brain theory. As I sat, trying hard to stay with the flow of words, I suddenly heard Walt's voice whispering in my ear:
When I heard the learn'd astronomer,

When the proofs, the figures, were ranged in columns before me,

When I was shown the charts and diagrams, to add, divide, and measure them,

When I sitting heard the astronomer where he lectured with much applause in the lecture-room,

How soon unaccountable I became tired and sick,

Till rising and gliding out I wander'd off by myself,

In the mystical moist night-air, and from time to time,

Look'd up in perfect silence at the stars.

I've always liked the artfulness of this little one-sentence narrative, the way the first four lines are based on the same syntactical pattern repeated and getting progressively longer, like the accumulating freight of the flow of words in the lecture; and then the turn in the middle, where the narrator gets "tired and sick" and rises and glided and wanders outside, the loosening of the syntax, the apparently intentional awkwardness of the word "unaccountable" (which, in its adjective form suggests that the narrator himself is, unlike the proofs and figures and charts and diagrams and measurements, unable-to-be-captured-by-counting), the overlapping of the meanings of the sequence of verbs (rising, gliding, wandering) which taken in in that order depict and enact the narrator's disorientation; and then the way the whole thing snaps into focus in the last line, with the simplicity and elegance of looking up "in perfect silence at the stars."

Then as our guest speaker went on speaking about the developmental periods that the human brain goes through, and the predictable alternation of periods of earned competence as children grow into their brain functions and then fall behind as the brain physiology changes again, Walt came back to me again, this time intoning the final lines from "A Child Went Forth," in which uses topography as a metaphor for maturation:

The mother at home quietly placing the dishes on the supper-table,

The mother with mild words, clean her cap and gown,
a wholesome odor falling off her person and clothes as she walks by,

The father, strong, self-sufficient, manly, mean, anger'd, unjust,

The blow, the quick loud word, the tight bargain, the crafty lure,

The family usages, the language, the company,
the furniture, the yearning and swelling heart,

Affection that will not be gainsay'd, the sense of what is real,
the thought if after all it should prove unreal,

The doubts of day-time and the doubts of night-time,
the curious whether and how,

Whether that which appears so is so, or is it all flashes and specks?

Men and women crowding fast in the streets,
if they are not flashes and specks what are they?

The streets themselves and the facades of houses,
and goods in the windows,

Vehicles, teams, the heavy-plank'd wharves,
the huge crossing at the ferries,

The village on the highland seen from afar at sunset,
the river between,

Shadows, aureola and mist, the light falling on roofs
and gables of white or brown two miles off,

The schooner near by sleepily dropping down the tide,
the little boat slack-tow'd astern,

The hurrying tumbling waves, quick-broken crests, slapping,

The strata of color'd clouds, the long bar of maroon-tint away solitary by itself,
the spread of purity it lies motionless in,

The horizon's edge, the flying sea-crow,
the fragrance of salt marsh and shore mud,

These became part of that child who went forth every day,
and who now goes, and will always go forth every day.

There's a lot to pause and reflect on in this passage: the polar characterizations of the mother and the father, the perceptive and sympathetic rendering of the uncertainties of childhood (the doubts of day-time and the doubts of night-time, the curious whether and how), the careful attention to the light in the village. But what I like best about the passage is the last twenty lines, in which we follow Whitman's imaginative re-creation of the the family inside its home, and then move out into the street, then to the wharves, where we look out over the water, toward the boats, and then beyond them to the sky and clouds, to the horizon's edge. At which point we "breathe in the fragrance of the salt marsh and the shore mud," momentarily standing still, watchful and attentive, in the marginal zone between earth and sea, the known world and the unknown world, the past and the future: part of that child who went forth every day, who still goes forth every day, as we all must, looking out in front of us toward whatever comes next.

So then after dinner I opened one of the books I wrote about yesterday, Geoff Dyer's The Ongoing Moment. He begins the book by quoting the wonderful passage from Borges "from a certain Chinese Encycopedia" in which
animals are divided into: (a)those that belong to the emperor; (b)embalmed ones; (c)those that are trained; (d)suckling pigs; (e) mermaids; (f) fabulous ones; (g) stray dogs; (h) those that are included in this classification; (i) those that tremble as if they were mad; (j) innumerable ones; (k) those drawn with a very fine camel's-hair brush; (l) et cetera; (m) those that have just broken the flower vase; (n) those that at a distance resemble flies.
He uses this inventory as a metaphor for his intention in The Ongoing Moment, which is to sort through and attempt to organize the artifacts that taken together represent the history of the photography as an art form. His second paragraph reads as follows:

While the survey of photography undertaken in these pages can claim neither this degree of rigour nor eccentricity, it takes heart from earlier, well intended attempts to marshal the kind of infinite variety of photographic possibilities into some kind of order. Walker Evans said it was a 'pet subject' of his — how writers like James Joyce and Henry James were 'unconscious photographers'. In the case of Walt Whitman there was nothing unconscious about it. 'In these pages of Leaves [of Grass] every thing is literally photographed,' he insisted. 'Nothing is poeticized.' Keen to emulate the 'Priests of the Sun', Whitman created poems that, at times, read like extended captions in a huge, constantly evolving catalogue of photographs:

See, in my poems, cities, solid, vast, inland, with paved streets, with iron and stone edifices, ceaseless vehicles, and commerce,

See, the many-cylinder'd steam-printing press — see the electric telegraph stretching across the continent, [...]

See, the strong and quick locomotive as it departs, panting, blowing the steam whistle,

See ploughmen ploughing farms — see, miners digging mines — see, the numberless factories,

See mechanics busy a their benches with tools [...]

By this time Uncle Walt seemed to be intent on making himself at home in the antechamber of my brain. And he was still there, nodding and smiling, and talking to me in his friendly, open way about the convergences between poetry and photography, growing up and getting old, and "the curious whether and how" later that evening as I laid my head on my pillow and drifted off to sleep.

1 comment:

Sarah McIntosh Puglisi said...

All day I've been far away, drifting in and out of words, images, that seem to come to life then flee as I reach for them, and tonight decided to check your pages. This made me teary. Thanks. I need to look at the horizon.