The year is 1993; it is summer; I am in Taiwan. I have recently bought a copy of Leaves of Grass. It is very hot, and at first I am very reluctant to sing the body electric. I had read a few poems in high school and seen Dead Poet’s Society, and Whitman had always reminded me of Rococo revival, of class oral reports that lasted way too long, of Steven Spielberg movies, of anything that involved a great deal more inspiration than perspiration. I believe in editing. I thought Whitman didn’t.
Of Life immense in passion, pulse, and power,
Cheerful, for freest action form’d under the laws divine,
The Modern Man I sing
And I think, once again, “Who is this clown?” He reminds me of the American bike-dealers who had lived in the city for decades and never bothered with a word of Chinese. The words seem more than ugly – they seem rude and stupid and delusional. I still think that.
But then I read “Vigil Strange I Kept On The Field One Night”, about spending the night next to a dead friend. It finishes
Vigil for comrade swiftly slain, vigil I never forget, how as day brighten’d
I rose from the chill ground and folded my soldier well in his blanket,
And I buried him where he fell.
I hear the sounds of the different missiles, the short t-h-t! t-h-t! of the rifle balls.
This battle is more horrifying in retrospect, for the war never ends. Whitman is a poet of predawn visions. His language creates an alternate world that is sometimes fantasia and often hell. I’d always imagined his reveries as obnoxious, public affairs, chants before the crowd in the matter of preacher or cadre. In Taiwan I came to think of him differently, as a poet of the moments when nobody else is around, when talking about yourself is talking to yourself, when sense and nonsense are not entirely clear.
That’s what I felt like for a time in Taiwan. I was awake at the wrong hours, speaking the wrong language, moving in nonsensical rhythms. It lasted about three months. It rained a lot. I tried to teach English, tried to learn Chinese, tried to pay attention to the world at hand. It was useless. I was mostly alone, and all I had with me was Whitman. I couldn’t generate his passion, but in those moments when it felt like I was beyond any point of contact, it was nice to have a travel companion. Finally, after three months, I moved, and began to talk to people instead of myself, or Whitman. I’ve always been grateful for his help.