Thursday, May 21, 2009

Another Pilgrimage


Welcome to "The Gods Are Bored," your deity daily! Pay close attention to the "Worship Wanted" section -- we have some discount coupons for bargain pantheons.

Yesterday the weather was about as good as it gets in the Delaware Valley. There wasn't a cloud in the sky, the temperature stood at about 75 F, and a cool breeze blew up from the southwest. My daughter The Heir and I went to a Walt Whitman pilgrimage in Camden.

I'm sure you know who Walt Whitman is, but did you know that he spent the last years of his life in a two-story row house in Camden, New Jersey? He arrived in Camden in 1873 to be at the bedside of his dying mother, and he just stayed. His house is a museum now.

Our old friend the Monkey Man led the pilgrimage. He channeled his inner Walt and was dressed for the part. He can recite long sections of "Leaves of Grass" and "Song of Myself." He started the evening with "Crossing Brooklyn Ferry," since our pilgrimage began on the shore of the Delaware River, facing Philadelphia.

I wondered what Walt Whitman would think of Philadelphia, with its skyscrapers and huge steel bridges, one of them bearing his name into the here and now. I wondered what he would think of the giant tanker that edged up the river, and the busy little tugboat that arrived to guide it to shore. I suppose toward the end of his life there must have been ships that big. Not certain on that.

From the river we walked to Stephen Street, where Whitman's brother and mother lived. The house has been torn down. There's a plot of grass where it used to be, and a vacant lot across the street. The Monkey Man said a friend of his came upon the demolition of the house as it was commencing and snatched some architectural pieces from the property before it disappeared.

It is impossible to walk even a few blocks in Camden without being reminded that it's one of the most impoverished and desperate cities in America. The citizens who watched our progress looked grim or stoned, or they ignored us altogether (more googly-eyed white people, frothing over Walt Whitman).

Walt's house has been nicely restored. It wasn't open, so we lingered on the street, sharing poems. The Heir pointed out a nest of starlings in the eaves of the adjoining building.

What's most remarkable about this wonderful poet's house is the view from the front steps. The home of Walt Whitman is across the street from the Camden County Jail. This is the facility where prisoners are processed before they head off to the penitentiary. The Monkey Man pointed out that the last part of the real world the felons see is Walt Whitman's house.

He also mentioned another phenomenon, and while we were there, it happened.

Family members of the incarcerated come and stand in the street and use their own personal sign language to communicate with the prisoners, high up in the tower, peering through small windows. A woman and a girl about nine years old crossed in front of us and then stared up at the heights of the building and waved. Well, the woman waved. The little girl just stood there. After about two minutes, they turned and walked away in the direction from which they had come.

The Monkey Man, who spends a good deal of time in that location, has written a poem about the signers. I wouldn't presume to publish it without his permission, but I'll ask. His poems are wonderful, but they're best when he reads them aloud. He's quite dramatic.

The image that will stay with me from this pilgrimage is not that of Walt Whitman's quaint abode, but of the blight surrounding it, the hopelessness and dissatisfaction, the eerie quiet of deserted city streets that could be bustling with people, the woman waving good-bye. What song would Walt Whitman compose for this Camden? His ghost must mourn.

8 comments:

buddydon said...

verr nicely writ! felt lack i wuz along fer the ride. tiz a shame that such a house should be surrounded by decay ... twood be innerestin to see whut walt wood rite today ...

i sing the body polluted ...

by the say, the word verifcayshun is "cations" as in "vacations" n we are a bout to go on one!

THE Michael said...

If Walt were alive today, I don't think he'd be a poet, unless he got off on examining the pointless, hopelessness, and sorrow of destiny realized. He'd look at the world in general and beg to get off.

Hecate said...

What an amazing tour!

yellowdog granny said...

wow...pretty cool...i have a girlfriend who named her son camden new jersey..i asked why and she said i just thought it had a nice ring to it..

Goat Yoda said...

I think that if he were alive today, he'd either be part of the Andy Warhol-esk scene in NYC or live in San Francisco and be a gay rights activist.

Anne Johnson said...

Whoa, not Warhol scene! This is a guy who wrote letters home for dying Civil War soldiers. He had a deep soul. San Fran I can see.

Goat Yoda said...

I googled the Whitman/Warhol connection and got several hits from bloggers and such who find similar connections- the word 'emo' is used some, much like the deep soul expressions of poetry of Whitman's day.

I wonder how today's 'slam poetry' and emo poetry/music relates to deep soul writings from the 19th century in today's world?

Is 'lewort' (the verification word) a word that means some sort of leach plant that sucks at one's ankles when wearing the wrong shoes while having to hike through a mucky moor on a horribly moist day in late September? Or something one must substitute because all the mugwort is gone and the man at the alchemist shop can only speak French?

Sydney Hotels said...

Walt Whitman: from Song of Myself: opening quote

excerpted from OM, baby! a pilgrimage to the eternal self, by Jack Haas



"My faith is the greatest of faiths and the least of faiths,
Enclosing worship ancient and modern and all between ancient and modern,
Believing I shall come again upon the earth after five thousand years,
Waiting responses from oracles, honoring the gods, saluting the sun,
Making a fetish of the first rock or stump, powowing with sticks in
the circle of obis,
Helping the llama or brahmin as he trims the lamps of the idols,
Dancing yet through the streets in a phallic procession, rapt and
austere in the woods a gymnosophist,
Drinking mead from the skull-cap, to Shastas and Vedas admirant,
minding the Koran,
Walking the teokallis, spotted with gore from the stone and knife,
beating the serpent-skin drum,
Accepting the Gospels, accepting him that was crucified, knowing
assuredly that he is divine,
To the mass kneeling or the puritan's prayer rising, or sitting
patiently in a pew,
Ranting and frothing in my insane crisis, or waiting dead-like till
my spirit arouses me,
Looking forth on pavement and land, or outside of pavement and land,
Belonging to the winders of the circuit of circuits.

One of that centripetal and centrifugal gang I turn and talk like a
man leaving charges before a journey.

I too am not a bit tamed, I too am untranslatable,
I sound my barbaric yawp over the roofs of the world…

I bequeath myself to the dirt to grow from the grass I love,
If you want me again look for me under your boot-soles.

You will hardly know who I am or what I mean,
But I shall be good health to you nevertheless,
And filter and fibre your blood.

Failing to fetch me at first keep encouraged,
Missing me one place search another,
I stop somewhere waiting for you."

Walt Whitman