Prose | Sophia Naz

Walking in Whitman’s Wake
Artwork : Divya Adusumilli 

I arrived in New York City from Bangkok in November of ‘88. Winter’s icy fingers had just begun to file her wind-borne nails into sharp instruments of torture. I was 24-year-old and had never experienced such bitter cold in my life. Moreover, the abrupt change of temperature from tropical Thailand, coupled with the loneliness of a newly transplanted existence in Manhattan, plunged me into deep depression. The windows of my tiny walk-up apartment on MacDougal Street all faced brick walls; only the tiniest knife-thin sliver of sky glinted from the bedroom window. The only remedy was to spend as much time outside that claustrophobic space as possible. Fortunately, I lived above Cafe Danté, where both the cappuccino and the tiramisu were excellent. One day, as I was easing into my favorite spot at the café, I noticed that someone had left a book on one of the chairs. It had a well-worn grey hardbound cover. The title, printed in green ink, read Leaves of Grass. Like many of my peers schooled in an Anglophone manner, I had been brought up on a diet of Shakespeare, Byron, Keats, Shelley, Wordsworth and the likes. Who, or more precisely, what, was Walt Whitman? I opened the book at random onto these lines:

Walt Whitman, a kosmos, of Manhattan the son,
Turbulent, fleshy, sensual, eating, drinking and breeding.

Through me many long dumb voices,
Voices of the interminable generation of prisoners and slaves,
Voices of the diseas’d and despairing and of thieves and dwarfs,
Voices of cycles of preparation and accretion,
And of the threads that connect the stars, and of wombs and
     of the father-stuff,
And of the rights of them the others are down upon,
Of the deform’d, trivial, flat, foolish, despised,
Fog in the air, beetles rolling balls of dung.

Those were the lines, that was New York and there was gobsmacked me, a throbbing atom in Walt’s cosmos, landed in that selfsame Manhattan, plunging headlong into God and “rolling balls of dung” jostling cheek by jowl!  I flipped back to the beginning of “Song of Myself”…

Morning was thawing to a tepid noon. Seized by a sudden desire to explore Manhattan with Walt, I still felt a twinge of guilt at taking the book with me instead of leaving it at the café in case its rightful owner came to claim it. Finally, I wrote a note to the owner with my phone number on it and gave it to Grace, a Maltese waitress at Dante that I had befriended. Thus began the first of my many journeys walking in Whitman’s wake. 

Going north on MacDougal Street, the first left turn onto Bleecker Street brought me to  Father Demo Square. In those days, the West Village was still a very Italian neighbourhood. I sat down on a bench and continued reading Leaves of Grass. In between, I would stop and write my own lines. “Father Demo Square” is a long poem I wrote, inspired by Whitman’s “blab of the pave”. Here are  brief excerpts:

Father Demo Square

No neat square this, tiny tangled triangle, fat-cat trash cans, black-dressed matrons, bag ladies plastic bellies glint-clinking transient occupants of green park benches where
the last pale coins of winter afternoon sun are counted one by one while beggars hold out paper cups
the Angelus bells at Our Lady of Pompeii 
day’s end, all return to concrete coops
while pigeons roam the hexagon cobblestone

These lines are not remarkable by any means but they are the very first that I wrote in the open air, sitting in a public place attuned to my environment. Until I encountered Walt, I had been habituated, since my early years, to write a very different kind of poetry. My lines were necessarily clandestine, written in a closed room, always at night. They were the mute cries of a suffocated self, flapping wings uselessly in the confines of my room. I don’t believe I had ever read my lines out loud, even to myself. When I was 22-year-old, I ran away from my oppressive life in Pakistan to Thailand. The departure was liberating but in my poetry another kind of sadness, that of exile, took over. Reading Walt broke me out of my poetic shell, as I became aware of not just his unabashed pan-sexuality but the un-zippered, rambling, almost-prose-like quality of his lines: no perfectly measured iambic pentameters, no odes on Grecian urns, just the messy sweaty world and words, words, words tumbling out at a breathless pace -
I have no chair, no church, no philosophy,
I lead no man to a dinner-table, library, exchange,
But each man and each woman of you I lead upon a knoll,
My left hand hooking you round the waist,
My right hand pointing to landscapes of continents and the public 

Not I, not anyone else can travel that road for you,
You must travel it for yourself.

I would get overwhelmed, close the book and walk some more. New York and Whitman were beginning to grow on me. I began to discover the grittier neighbourhoods of the Village, the meat-packing district, with its worn-out cobblestone streets, the gay pick-up scene and homeless drug addicts. The Florent was an iconic restaurant open 24-hours-a-day. It was there, taking a break from a long nocturnal stroll that I met Carmen and Umberto, a Spanish couple who were making a film on Cuban music. Noticing the book that rested open on the bar, face up at “I sing the Body Electric” with my scribbled poem partially covering the text, they asked if I knew that the Spanish poet Federico Garcia Lorca had also visited New York and had similarly been entranced by Walt. I replied that the only Spanish language poets I knew were Pablo Neruda and Octavio Paz. The next thing I knew, we were at their fifth-floor walk-up on Gansevoort Street and Umberto was reading Lorca’s “Ode To Walt Whitman” in sonorous Spanish followed by Carmen’s free-form English translation:

Not for a single moment, Walt Whitman, lovely old man,
have I ceased to see your beard filled with butterflies,
nor your corduroy shoulders frayed by the moon,
nor your thighs of virgin Apollo,
nor your voice like a column of ash;
ancient beautiful as the mist,
who moaned as a bird does
its sex pierced by a needle.
Enemy of the satyr,
enemy of the vine
and lover of the body under rough cloth.

Many glasses of sangria later, we watched the dawn ascend over the Hudson like Lorca’s “circumcised rose” as the electric synapses of streetlights jacked off, one by lonely one.

The next summer, I enrolled in the Summer Program at Naropa Institute in Boulder, Colorado. Leaves of Grass travelled with me to Naropa. One day, on a class picnic, a bald, bespectacled man with a salt-pepper beard noticed me reading Leaves of Grass. He introduced himself as Allen Ginsberg, a poet who loved Walt Whitman and asked where I was from. When he found out that my parents came Allahabad and Bhopal, he grew animated: he had been to Bhopal and had fond memories of the city and also of the Buddhist stupas of Sanchi. It was  only after returning to New York that I read the Beats and Ginsberg and it was some 27 years later, after I enrolled in ModPo, U Penn’s amazing free massive open online course on Modern and Contemporary American poetry, taught by Al Filreis, that I  read  “A  Supermarket in California” in which Ginsberg invokes Whitman like Khizr, the traveller’s patron saint:

Where are we going, Walt Whitman?  The doors close in a hour.  Which way does your beard point tonight?

During my nine years in Manhattan, I read Leaves of Grass many times over and walked most of New York City’s streets and avenues, and like Whitman grew fond of her hordes. No one ever came to collect the book. I like to think that it was a gift from Walt himself.

Missing me one place search another,
I stop somewhere waiting for you.

1 comment:

  1. You're so awesome Sophia :D Thank you for sharing - This - wonderful story!