November 7, 2012
Whitman, poet of New Jersey and New York. Also poet of grass, the force of demographics, what comes up from the ground.
He would have been unsurprised by Hurricane Sandy, or by the rising sea levels that are now posing a threat to the entire east coast of the United States. For him such catastrophes are bound to happen: his ocean is a “fierce old mother,” not so much cradling her young as swamping it, beating tirelessly against Paumanok, the “fish-shaped island,” singing a lullaby that is also a “dirge, the voices of men and women wreck’d.”
The grass is what keeps the flood waters at bay.
In 1941 the Limited Editions Club commissioned Edward Weston to take a series of photographs across America for a two-volume edition of Leaves of Grass. Weston and his wife Charis spent almost 10 months on the road, traveling 24,000 miles in their Ford – nicknamed “Walt” – taking some 700 pictures with a large, 8 x 10 camera. 46 of these are now on exhibit at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.
The elegant, geometric Weston is very much there. But so too are ordinary people and humble structures not meant to be elegant: the sparse, cloth-draped Yaqui Indian church in Arizona; the simple wooden door framing a black woman on St. Simon’s Island, Georgia; the recycled bottles doubling as tree ornaments in Ohio.
Not the actual vegetation, the “hopeful green stuff” that Whitman celebrates in Section 6 of “Song of Myself.” But humanized versions, just as good.