Whitman in Sacramento

by Susan Kelly-DeWitt

Last night I joined several other poets and an audience that crammed into an independent bookstore in my city. We were there to celebrate Uncle Walt—Whitman, that is.

The host and organizer, a young poet who writes under the name of SliC (Stuart Livingston Canton), had assembled a range of readers from the poetry community, each of us assigned a particular passage from Leaves of Grass; through fortuitous chance, the Nepalese poet Yuyutsu R.D. Sharma, currently on a U.S. tour, showed up to read Walt too. The poems were chanted, shouted, hurled. Our bodies became electric. We were a cosmos. 

That is to say, there we were in a tiny bookstore in Sacramento, California (as, at one point in “I Sing the Body Electric,” sirens outside wailed past) but we were large—we contained multitudes.

Many in the audience were there to celebrate Whitman’s poetry though their own lives had taken some difficult turns; one with liver cancer; a stroke survivor who walks (and writes) with difficulty now; another cancer survivor who nursed her husband through several difficult years of ALS before he died.

Most of us read from pre-printed scripts, but one young poet—who began by railing against Whitman and his poems before reading three poems he seemed to have made peace with—held a small clothbound “Selected” sans dust jacket. Bob Stanley, Sacramento’s current poet laureate (who closed the reading with “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry”) read from a battered, coffee-table-sized clothbound his grandfather had presented to him many years ago.

 Yuyutsu (Yuyu) (who was made a shaman at the age of seven) read passionately while the bright turquoise muffler around his neck swayed against his black suit and his right arm swept the air for emphasis.

 We looked for Walt under our boot soles. Am I wrong to imagine that I felt Walt’s impassioned and egalitarian dust mingle with the motes of dead soldiers and civilians in Iraq and Afghanistan, all of them together welling up as we heard again: “Tenderly will I use you curling grass./ It may be you transpire from the breasts of young men./ It may be if I had known them I would have loved them…”

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