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Walt Whitman Wrestling Naked With the Young Trees


ISSUE:  Winter 2003
       Every time I pass
the old sycamore on our corner, I touch its muscled
       dappled torso

where the smooth flesh emerges from the bark’s
       rough scales.
Its branches drop on the ground their curled sheets

       of old skin,
crumbled parchment or torn fine-grit sandpaper,
       and where they were

the secret greeny-white flesh shines. Today I saw
       how one of its highest
boughs had been blown down across the sidewalk

       by last night’s
storm whose winds gusted over eighty miles per hour.
       I stopped

and reached down to break off two of the twigs
       with their three-pointed
maple-like leaves and examined the gash

       where the limb
had been wrenched from its socket. Touching the ragged
        splinters

of live wood wet with sap, I thought of
       Walt Whitman
in 1877, after the two strokes that paralyzed

       first the left,
then the right side of his body, and between them
       the death of Louisa,

his mother. To heal his mind and fumbling
       body, Whitman
at fifty-eight hobbled out to Timber

       Creek, where he stripped
naked except for his boots and broad-brimmed
       straw hat.

There he sunbathed and walked through “the stiff-
       elastic bristles”
of chest-high weeds and bushes that “rasped arms, breast, sides

       till they turn’d
scarlet.” He then would wade into the creek and sink his feet
       into the mud’s

cool luxurious black ooze. Thus cleansed, every day
       for two summers,
he wrestled hickory saplings naked, pulling down

       the young trunks,
bending them into the shape of bows—his “natural gymnasia.” He swayed
       and yielded

to the “tough-limber upright stems,” just as he wrestled
       fully clothed
with Harry Stafford, the eighteen-year-old who helped to set

       his book Two Rivulets
in type and who accepted his ring, then gave it back, then accepted
       it again before

finally saying goodbye that summer. Those hickory saplings
       and later beech
and holly boughs he bent until each muscle quivered

       made him “feel
the sap and sinew rising through me, like mercury
       to heat.”

Spanish moss-bearded father, you wrestled Harry and all those young trees
       like Jacob
with his angel. Though you once pinned Harry

       to the floor,
you couldn’t pin the trees. They sprang back up
       almost as straight

as they had been before they met you. They left you
       old and broken.
Old man, it’s you and my own life I touch

       when I touch
the sycamore. Be whole again. Let your sap run through
       the torn branch and into me.

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