Owning Our Power: Walt Whitman’s Sister in Several Suites

Walt Whitman’s Sister in Several Suites

I was very pleased when my last essay on my friend and muse, Agha Shahid Ali, Phoenix in a Coffin of Light, got 1.5 K views in a few days within publication and was added to the Medium publication, “Noteworthy.” Who was it who said — was it William Saroyan? — ‘the door has opened. Now go in and take over.’

Shahid’s admission that he was for sale as a poet makes me hawk my own wares and impels me to weave myself and my own work into these essays about my many muses. His urgent “Write Something About me! Write Something about me!” has furthered my own resolve — after much dualistic back and forth — to write something about myself while I am still alive since no one may do it for me after I am gone. Muses, in their function as guiding spirits infuse something of themselves into us. We reflect their light and become them to the extent our own indelible identities and distinctness allows.

Just as I was led into writing the essay on Shahid, I was led to Walt Whitman. Providence works in our daily, hourly lives, and there are no coincidences, unless by coincidence we mean the co-occurring and commingling of events that destiny vectors. And my turning to Whitman again was destined. His metaphysical genes were intermingled with mine long ago, in graduate school. I have been Walt Whitman’s sister for fifty years without knowing it. I have to bring this vital relationship to consciousness now because I have so much to learn from him at this node of my life. Brother Walt’s words infuse strength and fearlessness into me at a time I need them most.

Above all Whitman’s poetry and life is teaching me to own my own power, acknowledge my ego, be fearless, vulnerable, throw caution to the winds.

Whoever said poetry makes nothing happen was wrong. Patterns inform our lives and guidance comes from many sources when we need it most. Poetry saves me — the reading, process, production and metabolism of it. Whitman’s poetry guides me, by rescuing me from the tedium of not having an author and a person other than myself to converse with, and by soliciting my passionate engagement with a powerful subject that stimulates my thinking, gifts my mind with happier, inclusive, enlarging thoughts and emotions.

I am one of those who hopes to be engaged thus till the end of my days. To that end I have attached myself, in addition to my own writing, to my many muses, to Whitman in this and hopefully a few more essays. I have been consumed with Brother Walt these days. With the very first lines of Song of Myself, I was hooked into him, consuming and consumed like a tick attached to the fatty tissue of his soul, burrowing and breeding. If Whitman is having such a profound influence on me now, at the age of 71, how must he have affected me when I was young, my heart wide open like a nutrient rich, recently ploughed field?

I celebrate myself, and sing myself,
And what I assume you shall assume,
For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.

My brain is churning from this encounter. I must give some shape and form to my many jumbled thoughts about my brother, me, and chunk them down into suites, however many or few there may be of them, to deal with this holy obsession. I am at an age when I cannot make time-dependent promises to myself, and much may remain incomplete. It’s time to live by the words of another of my great muses, Shakespeare, and his embodiment, Hamlet: if it is not now, it is to come; if it is not to come, it is now. Ripeness is all.

The synchronicity and back-story: I had been trying to eliminate the introduction of this essay because it smacked of ‘me, me, me,’ something I have been trying to avoid. But I had a hard time beginning this essay without it because so much of what I have to say is about the ego, mine in particular, which is, as everybody’s else’s, at once small and vast. Too much self-questioning and doubt had me in knots. In addition, I was also questioning in a journal entry my compulsion to write about myself in my essays, the genre I feel most at home with lately. Prose, though not as deep as poetry, is kinder and easier on my aging brain. I tried to ban my own ego and processes in an effort to be more ‘objective’ about Whitman. You know, scholarly. “Revealing your own story, process, concerns,” I addressed myself in my journal, where I love to dialogue with my various selves, “will make you too vulnerable. You will be charged with egoism and lack of humility. Stay within your defenses.”

But my ego, my devil springing bouncingly out of its box, always muscled its way back in. I was wondering whether this urge was narcissistic and exhibitionistic. I have shunned publicity, and also courted it, lived a reclusive life, peaceful for the most part, sometimes troubled by lack of ‘success’ and those other random occurrences in the ever-shifting weather of my bodysoul that ruffle my rest. I was reminded of Whitman while writing the following entry in my journal:

I fascinate myself. On the table, under the microscope of consciousness, I get to see as closely as I will ever get to see a specimen of humankind. My many ‘I’s’ in the shifting kaleidoscope of my mind fill me with wonder and questions. Who despairs, who hopes, who rejoices? Who, for example, is this imperative ‘I’ that sees me seeing myself? Who rises above this ‘I’ to look at it? Whose eye looks through my eye and wonders who it is that is looking, and what it is that it is looking at? I am in awe of myself.

The connection to Whitman seems obvious in retrospect. Loving, on the threshold of old age, to meander where my heart leads, I revisited Whitman’s Song of Myself. When I discovered he is 200 years old this year — how fortuitous is that? — I realized this conjunction was constellated. He, too, like my other brother, Shahid, wants me to write something about him, to let him know, wherever he is — and he is nowhere if not in his powerful words echoing down the centuries — that his future ‘anticipations’ of perpetuity are fulfilled. Towards the end of his life, or in his own image, in the early candlelight of old age, Whitman admitted: “I have not gain’d the acceptance of my time, but have fallen back on fond dreams of the future — anticipations.” In “A Backward Glance,” Whitman rues: “from a worldly and business point of view, Leaves of Grass was worse than a failure.”

These thoughts contrast sharply with Whitman’s confidence in himself as a specimen of humankind that contains the world, the macrocosm within the microcosm, his boundless wonder and supreme love of himself. This is not at all surprising for a man of so many dimensions, containing and embodying, like the globe, like the rest of us, all polarities. Ezra Pound said of him, “Whitman is America.” I amend that description: Whitman is the World. And our poet knew it, and called himself, “Walt Whitman, a kosmos.”

Above all Whitman’s poetry and life is teaching me to own my own power, acknowledge my ego, be fearless, vulnerable, throw caution to the winds, go where the going takes me, a sort of divine loafing, meandering through my days, my thoughts, my writing, assuming what he assumed. Whitman lauded the egotism that compels a poet to speak his/her heart and soul and hawk the utterances thereof.

I know perfectly well my own egotism,
Know my omnivorous lines and must not write any less,
And would fetch you whoever you are flush with myself.

He doesn’t believe anyone can be more wonderful than myself. While others argue and debate, I am silent, and go bathe and admire myself. It is not the narrow, narcissistic, sclerosed ego that sees itself as the center of all things, lives in an eternally self-referential universe, and drowns in the very pool in which it admires itself, that Whitman extolls. Whitman’s Vedantic soul stares into its own navel and comes up with I am that.

Nanak, the many-times-incarnated Guru of the Sikhs, the first of my poet muses, the one who breathes life into my frequently moribund spirits, says the ego contains its own cure. A certain amount of ego is necessary and healthy, for it is through our ego that the universe fulfills its own purposes. The cured ego does not separate but connects us to everything in the known world, to everyone, me to Brother Walt, for instance, and most of all, to ourselves, universes, as another of my muses, William Blake says, in a grain of sand.

There are layers of the human ego, and Whitman urges us not to live in the small ego that cuts off, isolates, but to own our ego, all the layers of it, and see its connection to the Ego of the Universe, the engorged human ego that includes instead of excludes, expands instead of contracts around the merely personal. Whitman is, and convinces us we all are, consanguine with everyone and everything. He is a pearl in Indra’s infinite net, like the rest of us, each pearl reflecting every other and also itself. It is not an easy notion to understand with brains that rely too heavily on linear reasoning; it defies dimensionality as we know it. We can only admit that spacetime and everything that defines it, is mysterious beyond articulation.

What I love about Whitman, and my many muses, is that his attempt at articulating the mystery of himself works. That, after all, is the function of the poet: to push the envelope of incoherence, to wrest some sense out of the chaos of himself, to shape the inchoate in the thick wilderness we call our psyches. Whitman invents an idiom for the mystery of himself that at once reveals and conceals.

I and this mystery here we stand.
Who goes there? hankering, gross, mystical, nude;
How is it I extract strength from the beef I eat?

The juxtaposition of the two lines are stunning, post-contemporary, eternal. We can see at once how they are relevant to all stages of human history, from our very beginnings as that first molecule that began to multiply and grow, to what we are today; to the ineluctable truth of us.

Whitman’s call to own our power is a call to all of us, to whatever profession we may belong, in any field of endeavor, ambition, career or vocation we may want to excel, and make a name for ourselves, to stand up, be recognized.

It is comforting to know that my muse, embodying in the bag of his skin the entire cosmos with all its contraries, too, hustled and hawked his wares, the sound of his belch’d words loos’d to the eddies of the wind; he self-published Leaves of Grass. He resolved “to enter with the rest into competition for the usual rewards . . . to take part in the great melee.” He found himself “possess’d with a certain desire and conviction to articulate and faithfully express, uncompromisingly, my own physical, emotional, moral, intellectual, and aesthetic Personality . . . and to exploit that Personality.” He capitalized by publicizing a private letter of praise from Emerson; wrote essays about himself; reviewed his own books. Apart from his prose, Whitman’s desire to be bought, taken, consumed, used, is everywhere evident in Song of Myself:

What is commonest, cheapest, nearest, easiest, is Me,
Me going in for my chances, spending for vast returns,
Adorning myself to bestow myself on the first that will take me.

Whitman’s call to own our power is a call to all of us, to whatever profession we may belong, in any field of endeavor, ambition, career or vocation we may want to excel, and make a name for ourselves, to stand up, be recognized. Every ego subserves the Universal Ego, whether it knows it or not. Every time we do something we love, the doing of which nullifies time, the making of something beautiful that gives delight to ourselves and others, the doing of anything with intention and attention, be it cooking for others and oneself, we enrich the universal ego. Creative expression is the manifestation of the individual, and the meta human soul. Whitman invites us to know this. To assume what he assumes. Brother Walt is brother to us all.

Of every hue and caste am I, of every rank and religion,
A farmer, mechanic, artist, gentleman, sailor, quaker,
Prisoner, fancy-man, rowdy, lawyer, physician, priest.

Whitman is connected to everything and everyone that is. His democracy is supremely egalitarian. He knows this because he extrapolates from what he is, and projects himself into the world. His shadow and light stretch across the globe.

This is the meal equally set, this the meat for natural hunger,
It is for the wicked just the same as the righteous, I make appointments with all,
I will not have a single person slighted or left away,
The kept-woman, sponger, thief, are hereby invited,
The heavy-lipp’d slave is invited, the venerealee is invited;
There shall be no difference between them and the rest.

While Shahid’s admission of being for sale made my ambition conscious — I had been pursuing it unconsciously all along — Whitman’s words gave my desire wings: I know that the hand of God is the promise of my own. Brother Walt is teaching me to let all of myself be, the way Whitman lets all of himself be, without conflict or doubt. After years of questioning, scolding, denigrating my ego, I must embrace it fully. It was Socrates’ female guru, Diotima of Mantinea who gave me the words that set me free. The struggles and sufferings of human life are all of them animated by the desire of immortality.

How should I alone, of all creatures that strive for immortality through children, or children of the soul, be without this struggle? I too am, in the words of another poet, John Updike, a small bead of ego, bright with appetite. I too, am gross and mystical — cannibalizing my muses to feather my essays, riding, grey hair flying, on their coattails, gleaning and stealing some light from their effulgence.

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