Letter to Walt Whitman

Mark Doty 

Dear Walt, 
          I hope this finds you—telegraphed 
by etheric mail, some celestial fax 
 relayed by atmospheric transmission— 
finds you, I won’t say well, since where you are 

health I presume is immaterial: 
you’re entirely body, incorporated 
in a vitality without ceasing, 
or else utterly incorporeal: 

are you more than editions, or the grave’s 
uncondition’d hair? (More likely, these days, 
permed and mowed to chemical perfection.) 
I hope this reaches you. I know I set 

my hand to a somewhat tired task; 
you’ve been bothered all century, poets 
lining up to claim lineage. And not just 
poets—even a photobook, brand new, 

andsome lads wrestling in sepia, 
freshly laved by some historic stream: 
the roughs are models now, and pose in nothing 
on the opposite pages from stanzas 

of your verse, a twentieth century 
letter to you. As are, I’m convinced, 
the scrawls beneath the underpass, ruby 
and golden cuneiform writ and re- 

inscribed on traincar sides: songs of myself 
and my troops, spraypainted to our prophet, 
who enjoins us to follow—what else?— 
our own lights, glimmered intuitions 

in the body’s liquid meshes, our own 
bodies and the bodies beside us. . . . 
I am so far from you, Uncle, and yet 
in this way emboldened: 

Last summer, in the year of our ______ 
nineteen hundred ninety-six, Paul and I 
drove to Camden, the green and pleasant burb 
of your last days. Your house still stands—modest, 

clapboard, dwarfed by the prison glowering 
across the tympanic street, where trucks shock 
themselves percussively on outrageous 
potholes. Jail, detox, welfare:Jersey dumps

whatever it doesn’t want and Camden 
accepts it all, Camden’s the hole in which 
we throw anything, neighborhood so torched 
it doesn’t even have a restaurant. 

You dwelt here, honored, half-confined, hailed 
in your bed as a sage by a country 
you helped to misunderstand you. But I 
get ahead of myself, Walt; the docent 

unbolted the door to your manila 
rooms, honey of June sun through shades the tint 
of old newsprint: mahogany, hooked rugs. 
Rotogravures fired by that filtering 

amber. We loved the evidence of you, 
even while the swoops of car alarms 
decibeled to heaven outside, and rips 
and crashes by the curb made us sure 

our car’d been stripped to the chassis. 
Here your backpack, crumpled like a leather 
sigh; a bit of your handwriting, framed; 
a menu for a testimonial, 

and far too many photos of your tomb: 
the stuff of image, ceremonial, 
useless pomp in which you readily 
partook—was this what we’d come to see? 

Then one thing made you seem alive: 
your parrot, Walt, friend of the last years, 
a hand-span tall, yellow and a vivid 
demonstration of what is meant by 

parrot green, lusters preserved 
by the taxidermist’s wax, or the box 
in which he perched, or by feathers’ sheer 
propensity to last. Your bird, man, 

who ate from your own hand! And sat astride 
your shoulder—did he?—while you read the mail. 
On whose bright eye’s skim (glass now, of course, 
liquid original long lost to time) 

curved this room, light through—could they have been?— 
these shades, while you crooked a finger to chuck 
his ruffed neck. He’s jaunty, brave, the painted 
jungle behind him gloamed in darkening. 

linseed, little head crooked toward the future, 
ambiguous as a construction by Cornell. . . . 
I thought if I bent near that glass I bent, 
patriarch, closer to you—that bird 

had your ear, didn’t he, and if I leaned 
toward his still-inquiring, precious eye . . . 
I hardly heard the racket outside, 
diminishing tremolo of sirens, 

names the boys broke, laughing, as a bottle 
smashed: I bent toward your glassed companion 
still these ninety years in his sealed vitrine; 
suddenly I seemed to see, tender, as 

if I could smell it, Walt, vulnerable, 
powdered, warm, the skin of your neck. . . . 
this intimacy, I have some questions 
for you. Did you mean it? The vision, I mean, 

democratic America joined by 
mutual delight in the beauty of boys, 
especially working-class ones? I joke. 
I know you meant adhesiveness, the bond 

of flesh to equal flesh, might be basis 
of an order—a compact founded on 
 skin’s durable, knowable flame. I’ve felt 
what I think you meant, in the steam, of course, 

when gay men go (or went) to lay down 
every vestige of identity save 
skin, and find in that stripping to bare fact 
delight and unity which sometimes blur 

all differences, at least until you’ve come 
and gone. I don’t mean to romance this, Walt, 
but much of what I’ve known of fellowship 
I’ve apprehended in the basest church, 

—where we’re seldom dressed, and the affable 
equality among worshippers is 
something like your democratic vista, 
men held in common by our common skin. 

Though it needn’t take sex to understand: 
once, in a beach-side shed packed with men, 
all girths and degrees of furred and smooth, firm 
and softened, muscled, skinny, fishbelly 

to warm rose to midnight’s dimmest spaces 
between stars, sunburnt on my bench, waiting 
my turn in the mist of shower steam, 
I thought, we’re all here, every one of us, 

the men of the world in the men’s house, nude, 
bathed, buffed with towels, the young men and old 
and boys bathing together, so much flesh 
in one place it seemed to be of the soul . . . 

as if I stood in that fogged, common room 
through which each individual enters 
the world, and each of us, nameless, already 
in the body that would be ours, would 

be ourselves, was awaiting our turn, 
and so we stood in sympathy, since we 
understood that our fellows would suffer, 
knew we each were entering our pathless, 
singular, mutual lot. . . .  And I can 
understand how you might base on that 
a social vision, Walt, though, each of us 
left the warm and darkened shed in separate 

clothes, in separate cars which drained out 
of the parking lot onto the blacktop 
nd then the expressway back to the city, 
headed home to the song of my self, self, 

self. That common moment, unguarded, 
skin to skin, why didn’t it make us change? 

—I confess I have been interrupted 
here by two Jehovah’s Witnesses— 
men in skinny neckwear with a boy in tow, 
his dad’s blonde miniature—knocking 

with millennial threats and promises. 
Walt, I was not polite. Our poets fear 
the didactic, the sweeping claim; we let 
the televangelists and door-to-door 

preachers talk hope and apocalypse 
while we tend more private gardens. You saw 
shattered soldier boys bound up in their beds, 
lost your day job for writing scandalous 

verse; you knew no one would base a world 
upon what you believed: incendiary, 
peculiar, nothing a “good gray poet” 
could avow. Imagine being called that, 

imagine liking it . . . Your little parrot’s 
ghost tweaks my ear, cautionary note: 
how could I know the price you had to pay, 
what you had to say to get away with 

what you did, astonishing: you made it 
plain it was no conflation to mistake 
the nipple for the soul, spray and souse 
of ejaculate for the warm rain of heaven. 

It stops my breath, to think of what you said. 
How? Walt, I am writing you now from 
Columbus, Ohio, the fourteenth floor, 
Hyatt Regency Hotel, tower attached to 
a convention center bland as a tomb, 
though the simile lends a gravity 
actuality lacks: acres of carpet, 
humming fluorescent tubes, artfully buoyed 

air, all of it waiting for someone to sell 
somebody something. It’s Sunday. I am 
a visiting poet here, currently 
off-duty. I’d like you to see my view: 

candescent sky, fueled with orange plumes 
and smudgings of a darkling plum, one of 
Rothko’s brooding visions of what it was 
Moses heard, all of it spread over 

the financial district of Columbus, 
which just now I find strangely lovely. 
Down there in the nearly vacant civic 
plazas a few figures hurry against 

a vicious spring wind, random Ohioans, 
black sparks from an original flame. Men 
and women crowding fast in the streets, if 
they are not flashes and specks what are they? 

I’ve traveled, Signor, these states, and write you 
now from home, most of the day gone. Paul’s done 

the laundry, and downstairs on the couch reads 
Proust. Soon we’ll go for Viet Namese. 
This to say we have what amounts to 
marriage, at once sexy, serviceable, 

pleasant, plain. You might have live liked this 
a while with Peter Doyle, who now can say? 
Of our company in your century, 
dust and silence almost all erase. Walt, 

I wonder if you’d like those boys 
in underpants looming huge on billboards 
over Seventh Avenue? We’re freer now, 
despite pockets of provinciality, 

and move from ghetto to turbid mainstream. 
And—explain this to a ghost!—our theorists 
question fixed notions of identity, 
insist that sex is in more ways than one 

slippery. Are you who you love, or can 
you dwell in categorical ambiguity? 
Our numbers divide, merge and multiply; 
shoulder to shoulder with our fellow folk, 

who’s to say just who anyone is? You 
couldn’t have imagined how many of us, 
—not just men who love men, I mean all we 
uncountable specks and flares, powerless, 

ferociously uncertain. . . . You would not 
like it here, despite the grassy persistence 
of your name: I’ve crossed the Walt Whitman Bridge, 
PA to Jersey, past Walt Whitman High, 

have even stopped on the Turnpike at 
(denigration of our brightest hopes) 
the Walt Whitman Service Area: shakes 
and fries, glide on the open freeway 

splitting what’s left of your American 
night, red sparks thrown from semi windows arced 
in Independence Day contrails . . . flashes 
and specks? What could it mean, for a vision 

to come true? Clearly not the child’s-dream 
polychrome of these Jehovah’s Witness tracts— 
happy people in sparkling nature, 
a sparkling city welcoming. . . . Vision’s 

an internal text, meaning you wrote 
in your elusive ink a book which reads 
us, against which we are read. Poems 
are written on the back of time, 

inscriptions on the wrong side of a photograph: 
scribbled flourish of our possibility. 
Is it true then, what your descendant said, 
that poetry’s what makes nothing happen? 

Just yesterday we worked in the garden, 
earliest spring, brave sky, our apricot 
newly burst into the first of seven 
burning days. (This week I saw a comet 

from a plane, ancient tail a slurred flame; 
it trailed these petals’ icy double 
through the midnight air.) We took off our shirts, 
raked the dregs of winter leaves, glad for the sun, 

Uncle, while slender bees worried the blooms 
in sun-buzzed endeavoring. We drove 
to Fred Meyer, a sort of omnistore, 
for saline solution, gym shorts, a rake. 

In the big store’s warmth and open embrace 
who could I think of but you? We were all 
Americans there—working, corporate, 
bikers, fancy wives, Hispanic ladies 

with seriously loaded shopping carts, 
one deftly accessorized crossdresser, 
Indian kids with armloads of Easter 
candy, all of us standing, khakis 

to jeans, in the bond of our common needs 
Everyone that sleeps is beautiful, 
you wrote; I say everyone who shops is 
also lovely: we go out together 

to try on what the world is made of, to 
accommodate all that bounty, to know 
what it is our fellows praise and appraise, 
to see what’s new. As if to purchase were 

to celebrate. I stand close with the other 
shoppers, each in turn, I dream in my dream 
all the dreams. . . . Who could be hopeful, most days, 
for the sheer ascending numbers of us, 

the poisoned sky and trees? But still I thought 
of our apricot’s brandished, upright flame, 
white scintillation held to the face 
of the ether, new bees about their work 

as though there’d never been a winter. 
You answer me as the dead do. 
And the poem stops here, Walt, while Paul 
and I load the car with more than we’d ever 

thought we’d need, white plastic bags flapping 
in the breeze—the poem stops here, 
in the parking lot, waiting for you.