May 31, 2016KR BlogBlogEnthusiamsReadingRemembrances

Closer Yet He Approaches Us

I’ve made it a habit, from time to time on this blog, to note Whitman’s birthday. The day has come round again; the great gray celebrant is 197 years old. I probably think about Whitman in some small way every day (a reprint of one of his book announcements hangs over my daughter’s crib), but he’s been on my mind even more than usual this past week. I’ve been reading Ben Lerner’s 10:04, a novel that announces its ambitions in its opening pages. “I’ll project myself into several futures simultaneously,” Lerner’s narrator writes. “I’ll work my way from irony to sincerity in the sinking city, a would-be Whitman of the vulnerable grid.” Later in the novel, the would-be Whitman considers the Whitman of history:

I thought of Whitman looking across the East River late at night before the construction of the bridge, before the city was electrified, believing he was looking across time, emptying himself out so he could be filled by readers in the future; I took him up on his repeated invitations to correspond, however trivial a correspondent I might be.

The correspondence takes the form of a peripatetic poem that moves from Specimen Days to nuclear power to Back to the Future to the 1985 World Series to Jules Bastien-Lepage’s Joan of Arc to drone warfare. “Look,” Lerner’s narrator writes,

your president will be shot in a theater,
actors will be presidents, the small sums
will grow monstrous as they circulate, measure:
I have come from the future to warn you.

The full poem, called “The Dark Threw Patches Down Upon Me Also,” was first published in Lana Turner. Lerner’s dizzyingly refractive novel—“a work that, like a poem, is neither fiction nor nonfiction, but a flickering between them”—contains excerpts of the poem, along with an account of its composition.

The book ends on a note of both destruction and hope: “I am looking back at the totaled city in the second person plural. I know it’s hard to understand / I am with you, and I know how it is.” The form itself flickers: prose becomes verse. And that glimmer of verse (and this is surely by design) has only a flickering place in the Whitman canon. The full line from the 1860 version of “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry” reads: “I project myself—also I return—I am with you, and know how it is.” But Whitman deleted the line in later editions of Leaves of Grass.

In an interview published in BOMB, Lerner says, “10:04 is dedicated to my mom, is for her. Kind of quietly. But it’s to the second person plural on the perennial verge of extinction.” Whitman is the great poet of the second person plural. His imagination creates an audience; we’re the living proof of his power. (Quit your objections; it’s his birthday.) Who was to know what should come home to him? Who knows but he is enjoying this?

Walt, crib