Archive > Vol. 10 no. 2
For His Part: Walt Whitman (1863)
The soldiers in the hospital asked Walt Whitman
to tell them the story that would
make the hurt go away, the story about trust and reward.
They knew he knew the story, he was, after all,
a poet and, perforce (as poets put it), a member of
the tribe of the undeniable Ulysses,
a voyager in the realms of the soul.
For all his love, he winced because he knew
the words they wanted and he had tried to avoid
those words. He'd been another singer, one from the earth.
The sky was empty and distant. There was no human home there.
It pained him to have to tell that story. He touched
a forehead, placed a quiet kiss on a pale cheek
and murmured simple words that caressed the honor of
their pain, the sweetness of the most mangled flesh.
Perhaps they believed the poet. Perhaps for a time the sky
bowed to the earth, wings became legs, words became
more than earnest sounds. The poet, for his part, never
turned away. He saw his poems in the saddest eyes
and the briefest, most hopeless smiles. The poet voyaged
to the edge of human warmth and held the hand
as it turned cold. That was the poem the poet had always known
and from which he never turned away.