"Walt Whitman Wrestling Naked with the Young Trees"

 It's summer.  Officially now, both in the sense that it's the summer solstice and in the sense that I just met my classes for the last time.  I was looking for something summery and festive and found this poem online and thought a few of you might like it too.  It strikes a chord with me because of its treatment of the struggle between man's will and man's nature, or between life and time, or perhaps between age and youth, and also because Whitman has inspired me for the past twenty-five years or so.

The poem is by Donald Platt and was first published in the Winter 2003 issue of the Virginia Quarterly Review.  I'm not sure who took the two photographs of Harry Stafford and Walt Whitman, but the picture of the wrestlers is by Whitman's contemporary Thomas Eakins.

      Every time I pass
the old sycamore on our corner, I touch its muscled
       dappled torso

where the smooth flesh emerges from the bark's
       rough scales.
Its branches drop on the ground their curled sheets

     of old skin,
crumbled parchment or torn fine-grit sandpaper,
       and where they were

the secret greeny-white flesh shines. Today I saw
       how one of its highest
boughs had been blown down across the sidewalk

       by last night's
storm whose winds gusted over eighty miles per hour.
       I stopped

and reached down to break off two of the twigs
       with their three-pointed
maple-like leaves and examined the gash

       where the limb
had been wrenched from its socket. Touching the ragged

of live wood wet with sap, I thought of
       Walt Whitman
in 1877, after the two strokes that paralyzed

     first the left,
then the right side of his body, and between them
       the death of Louisa,

his mother. To heal his mind and fumbling
       body, Whitman
at fifty-eight hobbled out to Timber

      Creek, where he stripped
naked except for his boots and broad-brimmed
       straw hat.

There he sunbathed and walked through "the stiff-
       elastic bristles"
of chest-high weeds and bushes that "rasped arms, breast, sides

       till they turn'd
scarlet." He then would wade into the creek and sink his feet
       into the mud's

cool luxurious black ooze. Thus cleansed, every day
       for two summers,
he wrestled hickory saplings naked, pulling down

       the young trunks,
bending them into the shape of bows—his "natural gymnasia." He swayed
       and yielded

to the "tough-limber upright stems," just as he wrestled
       fully clothed
with Harry Stafford, the eighteen-year-old who helped to set

      his book Two Rivulets
in type and who accepted his ring, then gave it back, then accepted
       it again before

finally saying goodbye that summer. Those hickory saplings
       and later beech
and holly boughs he bent until each muscle quivered

      made him "feel
the sap and sinew rising through me, like mercury
       to heat."

Spanish moss-bearded father, you wrestled Harry and all those young trees
       like Jacob
with his angel. Though you once pinned Harry

     to the floor,
you couldn't pin the trees. They sprang back up
       almost as straight

as they had been before they met you. They left you
       old and broken.
Old man, it's you and my own life I touch

       when I touch
the sycamore. Be whole again. Let your sap run through
       the torn branch and into me.


  1. wow i went looking for pictures of naked wrestlers and found this article and poem. It made my day. Thanks a lot. borbor at sbcglobal dot net.

  2. nice poem. enjoyed the visual as well.


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