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Walt Whitman, an American, One of the Roughs, a Kosmos: Return Engagement, 2003
by Will Nixon

New York City, March 22, 2003

I teach straying from me, yet who can stray from me?
I follow you whoever you are from the present hour,
My words itch at your eyes till you understand them.
*Walt Whitman
Song of Myself

Walt Whitman. You know the name. You may have seen an old daguerreotype of him in 1870s as the Good Gray Poet with a bushy beard and pale eyes under his felt hat. You probably read his classic book in high school or college, Leaves of Grass, a monument of American literature and character. And if, like me, you read contemporary poetry of a certain school, i.e. understandable, you know that Whitman is the patron saint of the belief that poetry should belong to any and everyone. In the thin volume that I own, The Essential Whitman, edited by Galway Kinnell, one of my favorite poets, Kinnell thanked Whitman in his introduction for nothing less than transforming his writing life. After rediscovering Whitman in his late Twenties, Kinnell wrote, "Soon I understood that poetry could be transcendent, hymn like, a cosmic song, and yet remain idolatrously attached to creatures and things of our world. Under Whitman's spell I stopped writing in rhyme and meter and in rectangular stanzas and turned to long-lined, loosely cadenced verse; and at once I felt immensely liberated. Once again, as when I began writing, it seemed it might be possible to say everything in poetry."

Allen Ginsberg said the same thing in his own way. For an epigraph to Howl, his amazing bombshell poem that launched the Beat revolution, he quoted Whitman directly: "Unscrew the locks from the doors!/Unscrew the doors themselves from their jams!"

Freedom, brotherhood, democracy. Walt Whitman has come to represent the best of our national beliefs. Even the President's wife, Laura Bush, intended to celebrate him last February at the White House, until an invited poet proposed to read an anti-war poem at the event. Not a week goes by that I don't seem to read his name somewhere. Along with Emily Dickinson, he's the founder of American poetry, the subject of many homage poems, old and new biographies, even an unusual novel, Tripmaster Monkey, in which the author, Maxine Hong Kingston, recasts him as a Chinese American hippie in San Francisco in the Sixties. And why not? Whitman strikes a chord in everyone. Except me.

For years, I didn't get Leaves of Grass. Not that I didn't read my slender edition of The Essential Whitman from beginning to end once or twice, or open it many times to a random page in hopes of chancing upon a passage that captured my fancy. But all that I could find were the long lines, heavy repetition, and Nineteenth Century diction. What was so exciting about:

The moth and the fish-eggs are in their place,
The sun I see and the suns I cannot see are in their place,
The palpable is in its place and the impalpable is in its place.

Even the sex sounded peculiar:

Magnifying and applying come I,
Outbidding at the start the old cautious hucksters,
The most they offer for mankind and eternity less than a spirt of my own seminal wet.

To be fair to the Whitmanites, I blamed myself rather than the poem. At my New England boarding school in the Seventies, I fell under the sway of Howl at that impressionable age when teenagers in traditional English classes read Leaves of Grass. When I finally tried Whitman in my 40s, I figured I was just too old, too settled in my contemporary tastes to stretch and adjust to this odd Nineteenth Century classic. To be honest, I rarely read poetry published before 1970. Anything with a "thee" or a "thou" looked deadly.

Then I attended a poetry festival in downtown Manhattan that featured epic poetry. For some time, I'd been interested in Joseph Campbell's analysis of the Hero's Journey in myths, a storyline that screenwriters often use in movies. While I'd seen this journey recast for modern times in films ranging from Casablanca to Chinatown, I now had the chance to hear the ancient epics. And I wasn't disappointed. I was captivated by performances of Gilgamesh in modern English, Beowulf in the original Anglo Saxon, and the Kalavela in Finnish. I attended lectures on Dante's Inferno and Hart Crane's The Bridge that made me eager to read both. By Sunday morning, I was enthusiastic enough to wake up at 6 a.m. in order to drive back to Manhattan from our country house in time to attend an "Epic Writing Workshop" at Poets House in Soho. (When I told my sleepy girlfriend that I was "an aspiring epicist," she said it sounded like a disease.)

In the next few days at home, I raced through Beowulf in modern English and struggled over The Bridge with my dictionary in hand. Then, on a lark, I opened my Essential Whitman for the umpteenth time. As you'd expect, Whitman had been an prominent figure at the festival, as Galway Kinnell, himself, had read long passages from Song of Myself, Whitman's epic poem. Although I'd missed that reading, I'd sat at a workshop table in Poet's House directly across from a Whitman quotation painted on the wall:

I stop some where waiting for you.

As usual, I didn't understand the genius of the line. I preferred the Basho haiku wrapped around the floor-to-ceiling column:

Do not forget the plums
in the thicket.

But within minutes opening my Essential Whitman this morning, I came under its spell. On the second page of Song of Myself, Whitman writes:

Spend this day and night with me and you shall possess the origin of all poems.

And that's exactly what I did, then finished the night by reading Howl for the first time in years. (The two were less alike than I thought. Ginsberg was in your face, Whitman at your side.) Contrary to my image of Whitman as an avuncular figure of history, a poet safe enough for Laura Bush at the White House, he was truly a radical thinker. And not just in 1855 when he first published Leaves of Grass. Time and again, I felt his bracing challenge to put down my world-weary attitudes, my cynicism about American society and government, my disappointment with my dysfunctional family and everyone else's, my sadness over the fate of the environment. Not that Whitman was a Bush clan kind of optimist, a privileged Wasp who lived in snide denial of the harsh unfairnesses in life. To the contrary, I wondered if Laura Bush had even read this poet, who proclaimed:

Through me many long dumb voices,
Voices of the interminable generations of slaves,
Voices of prostitutes and of deformed persons,
Voices of the diseased and despairing, and of thieves and dwarfs....

Through me forbidden voices,
Voices of sexes and lusts--voices veiled, and I remove the veil,
Voices indecent by me clarified and transfigured.

(By the way, although Whitman doesn't write anything unkind about politicians in Song of Myself, he also doesn't get around to including "the president" and his "cabinet council" until the 48th line in a long passage describing the occupations of his day. The president doesn't rank any better or worse than trappers, carpenters, whale-boat mates, printers, immigrants, reformers, connoisseurs, canal boys, paving-men, peddlers, drovers, reporters, or the others who all have a role to play in the bustling America economy.)

Yet Whitman wasn't a pessimist. Somehow he described slavery, warfare, and other brutalities in vivid detail while also incorporating them into an overall appreciation of life that was joyous, cocksure, even cosmic. He considered himself a direct descendent of the universe.

Before I was born out of my mother generations guided me,
My embryo has never been torpid--nothing could overlay it,
For it the nebula cohered to an orb--the long slow strata piled to rest it on--vast vegetables gave it sustenance,
Monstrous sauriods transported in their mouths and deposit it with care.
All forces have been steadily employed to complete and delight me,
Now I stand on this spot with my soul.

In the past my mistake had been to read Song of Myself as I did contemporary poetry. It wasn't the lyrical distillation of an experience. It wasn't the product of painstaking wordsmithing that used metaphor, imagery, and sound to pack big emotions into compact verse. At times, Whitman tosses off a lovely phrase, such as a description of an alligator's "tough pimples," but I'd always been disappointed in past readings and skimmings by how few dazzling word-pictures I found. He relies on alliteration and alliteration and alliteration to move us along .

But my exposure to epic poetry had loosened up my expectations. Now I understood that Song of Myself should be read as a manifesto of values, a guide to a worthy life. It's a litany of praise for what Whitman cherished: the landscapes he traveled, the people he met, the ideas he found most useful for uplifting the human spirit.

Start with his attitude towards time:

I have heard what the talkers were talking, the talk of the beginning and the end,
But I do not talk of the beginning or of the end.

There never was any more inception than there is now,
Nor any more youth or age than there is now,

And will never be any more perfection than there is now,
Nor any more heaven or hell than there is now.

In other words, Whitman didn't believe in "the good old days" or "the best is yet to come." He rejected nostalgia, progress, and the many other ways in which the rest of us imagine a better world than the one we have now. Whitman was satisfied with the present. He revered the present.

This minute that comes to me over the past decillions,
There is no better than it and now.

Who among us actually lives this way? Maybe some veteran Buddhists in Woodstock have achieved this state of appreciating the eternal present, but I certainly haven't. Every week, my therapist wrestles with me over these very issues, pushing me to let go of past regrets and future hopes that may always remain unfulfilled. Whitman wanted to be my therapist, too.

Long enough have you dreamed contemptible dreams,
Now I wash the gum from your eyes,
You must habit yourself to the dazzle of the light and of every moment of your life.

Which isn't to say Whitman didn't have bad days. But he didn't identify himself by his failures or wounds, or by his achievements. He saw his essential self as someone separate from daily vicissitudes.

Trippers and askers surround me,
People I meet--the effect upon me of my early life, of the ward and city I live in, of the nation,
The latest news, discoveries, inventions, societies, authors old and new,
My dinner, dress, associates, looks, business, compliments, dues,
The real or fancied indifference of some man or woman I love,
The sickness of one of my folks, or of myself, or ill-doing, or loss or lack of money, or depressions or exaltations,
They come to me days and nights and go from me again,
But they are not the Me myself.

Historically, Whitman belonged to that remarkable generation of American writers, also including Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau, who created the Church of the Self. They believed that each of us should be God to ourself, that our highest authority should by our inmost thoughts and feelings.

Divine am I inside and out, and I make holy whatever I touch or am touched from,
The scent of these arm-pits is finer than prayer,
This head is more than churches or bibles or creeds.

These days, the Church of the Self has largely degraded into the Altar of Me. Individualism has been contaminated by narcissism and selfishness. While the President's wife contemplates poetry, the President impresses himself on the White House running machine.
To Whitman, individualism didn't mean privilege.

I speak the pass-word primeval--I give the sign of democracy,
By God! I will accept nothing which all cannot have their counterpart of on the same terms.

(What was Laura Bush thinking? Just imagine Whitman addressing the CEO at a shareholders' meeting.)
Individualism meant that through our senses we had the medium we needed to understand the world. To hell with creeds and beliefs. We have ears, eyes, and skin.

Mine is no callous shell,
I have instant conductors all over me whether I pass or stop,
The seize every object and lead it harmlessly through me.
I merely stir, press, feel with my fingers, and am happy,
To touch my person to some one else's is about as much as I can stand.

And what a lively world we inhabit. Song of Myself repeatedly weaves great webs of places, people, sounds, and animals, all of them deserving our devout attention and respect.

I believe a leaf of grass is no less than the journeywork of the stars,
And the pismire is equally perfect, and a grain of sand, and the egg and the wren,
And the tree-toad is a chef-d'oeuvre for the highest,
And the running blackberry would adon the parlors of heaven,
And the narrowest hinge in my hand puts to scorn all machinery,
And the cow crunching with depressed head surpasses any statue,
And a mouse is miracle enough to stagger sextillions of infidels,
And I could come every afternoon of my life to look at the farmer's girl boiling her iron tea-kettle and baking shortcake.

By the end of Song of Myself, I appreciated the genius of the Whitman quotation on the Poet's House wall. In the final stanza he invites us, for the umpteenth time, to join this journey of appreciation:

Failing to fetch me at first keep encouraged,
Missing me one place search another,
I stop some where waiting for you.

Weeks later, I'm now on my sixth or seventh reading of The Essential Whitman. Much of it is now familiar. But much of it also seems new with each reading. There are passages that suddenly make sense, and passages that suddenly don't. But what I am sure of is that Whitman is the ideal tonic for 2003. His optimism isn't triumphalism, or even happiness, but the confidence that each of can find our rightful place in the world.
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Searching For My Bumper Sticker
by Will Nixon

I grew up in a suburban family with a lively sense of bumper stickers. First the Rambler, then the Plymouth station wagon, and finally the Volvo had bumpers quilted with stickers from vacations, political campaigns, New York sports teams, passing fads, and my mother's perennial favorite: "Trees Are America's Renewable Resource." (Her family wealth that helped pay for the cars came from owning timberlands. Back in the Seventies, loggers wanted the public to know that they were environmentalists, too.) Our stickers didn't even need to agree. For one election, my mother's side promoted "Scoop Jackson for President," while my father countered, "Nixon's the One." But we also had stickers for cave tours, lobster restaurants, funny cars, little league, and whatever else captured our fancy. Those that didn't make the bumpers appeared on the refrigerator, pinned by watermelon magnets, alongside New Yorker cartoons and my father's diets. (Years later, I recovered one from a crowded drawer of family memorabilia: "Simplify, Simplify, Simplify--Thoreau.") As a family, we weren't the most direct communicators about emotional matters, but we shared lots of brash opinions, pungent jokes, and bad puns. The bumper sticker suited our way of thinking. My favorite was a gift from a prep school classmate that my parents let me put on the Plymouth: "Servalacha Power."

"Sir, vi, what?" In parking lots everywhere, from the beach to the supermarket to the tailgate picnic before my parents' summer stock Shakespeare, someone invariably stopped to ask about this sticker. Was Servalacha a folk dance? An eastern European province? A new meditation movement?

"Ser-va-lach-ka!" I pronounced with flair.

In truth, it was my classmate's family joke. His father, an attorney in Washington D.C., had invented his own whimsical cause complete with Institute letterhead and bumper stickers. Servalacha was nothing more than his made-up word for the act of rolling your hands together the way you would under a hand drier. Demonstrating this motion, I savored the attention of these strangers, who smiled at having been lured by their curiosity into this silly humor. In some ways we were an outcast family in the suburbs. We arrived late at events, didn't belong to any country clubs, and never barbecued with our neighbors. But we certainly weren't anonymous in our station wagon. We had Servalacha Power.

Then came the Dark Ages. For sixteen years after college, I lived in the greater New York City metropolis as a pedestrian who cheered for passing bicyclists in T-shirts that read: "One Less Car." The woman I married, born and bred in Manhattan, never learned how to drive, nor did she need to. My own driver's license expired once or twice. For fleeting amusement, we read newsstand headlines, guerrilla posters for movies and concerts plastered around construction sites, and subway car placards for wart removals and podiatrists. The City was so swarmed by messages that the only thing I learned from bumper stickers was that many cabbies read Hindi.

In 1996, I left Manhattan and my marriage for a new life in a Catskills log cabin. As Thoreau wrote: "I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived."

Unlike him, I also needed a car. Fortunately, I found a 1990 Nissan Sentra at an affordable price with the manual simplicity I preferred: a stick shift, roll-down windows, and a tight steering wheel. All that was missing were good, honest bumpers. Instead of chrome bars as solid as guard rails, like the bumpers on the old Plymouth station wagon, this Sentra had rubbery black molding more appropriate for an amusement park ride. Where would I stick my bumper sticker?

After living so long in urban exile, I really wanted one. Already, some old favorites stirred in my head: "U.S. Out of North America," "Back to the Pleistocene," and one I'd cherished on a VW bus that puttered around my college town in the late Seventies: "Reunite Gondwanaland." Although this call-to-arms sounded related to protests against South African apartheid then roiling our campus, I knew it to be a geology joke referring to the continent that drifted apart into South America, Africa, India, Antarctica, and Australia 120 million years ago. But now I decided to look forward, not backward. I'd choose a sticker I hadn't seen before.

Within weeks of driving, though, I learned that most Americans didn't believe in bumper stickers. The New York State Thruway, in particular, was a parade of shiny anonymity. The silver sedans, black SUVs, and forest green minivans all sped by without a trace of opinion on their smoothly rounded, look-alike bodies. At best, they had a vanity plate ("2SASSY") or a picture plate promoting lighthouses, woodpeckers, or whales. Were they afraid to express an unpolished opinion in public? Or was their opinion that they were their choice of brand image? They belonged to the All Wheel Drive tribe of Subaru, the Lexus elite, or the Range Rover suburban safariests. Or their Ford Expedition was the Eddie Bauer signature edition. A lot had changed in the sixteen years since I last roamed the highways. The Eddie Bauer of my youth had made sleeping bags and chinos.

Off the highway, I finally found thriving bumper sticker enclaves. The village of Woodstock, a prosperous bastion of graying Sixties artists, entrepreneurs, and weekenders, had parking lots that were a gold mine for sticker wit and wisdom. "Do not meddle in the affairs of dragons/For you are crunchy and taste good with ketchup," warned an Arthurian blue hatchback, which also had dashboard trolls and rearview mirror worry beads. You could easily spot cars from a dozen other sub-cultures of Woodstock Nation, such as Eastern spiritualists ("My Karma Ran Over My Dogma"), earthy activists ("Visualize Whirled Peas"), angry activists ("If you're not outraged/You're not paying attention"), competitive cat owners ("My cat is weirder than yours"), and proud absurdists ("A Mind is a Terrible Thing to Have"). Most had solved the rubber bumper dilemma by placing the sticker high on the hatch batch metal of their old Honda Civic or Mitsubishi Mirage. The underlying message was that a heap of imported metal with rust spots did not define their life. ("My Other Vehicle is a Flying Saucer.")

Farther into the Catskill mountains, where trailer homes and trout fisherman in baggy wadders were common sights along the valley roads, the tenor shifted from enlightened whimsy to redneck braggadocio: "Keep Honking, I'm Reloading," "My Juvenile Delinquent Can Beat Up Your Honor Student," and "Cats: the Other White Meat." Even the women were tough. ("I'm out of Estrogen/And I have a Gun.") Although I lived in the heart of the mountains myself, I never shared the resentment behind this humor, which might be summarized: My pickup is my kingdom, so back off. Or, parked once in front of the village hardware store: "If You're Not My Hemorrhoids, Get Off My Ass." To me, the Catskills were a wilderness park, a refuge from metropolitan sprawl, but to them the region was an economic backwater, an old frontier conquered and forgotten. Maybe Westerns were dead, but they could still be verbal gunslingers.

Rather than something political ("Friends Don't Let Friends Vote Republican"), strident ("Meat Stinks"), or smug ("Blame GE"), I wanted a sticker that would be funny and fresh, one that delivered a smile as well as a message. In my glove compartment, I kept a pocket notebook for recording unusual sightings on my travels. In the Hassidic Catskills, I saw: "This car runs on gas, not on Shabbas." At a kayak race: "Think Rain." More than once at my post office: "Fishing Forever/Yardwork Whenever." In New Paltz: "Life is a Witch/Then you Fly." And, on my way to a backpacking vacation in Death Valley while stopping at an Army surplus store in the Mojave Desert to buy myself a fourth canteen: "Earth First: We Can Log the Other Planets Later."

Alas, I was a procrastinator. Three years after settling in my cabin, I had an entertaining file, but still no sticker on my car, which I'd now driven more than 60,000 miles, from the potholed streets of Manhattan to the dirt logging roads of the northern Adirondacks. I'd also abandoned my glove compartment notebook now that friends e-mailed me lists of bumper sticker jokes. ("Who Lit the Fuse On Your Tampon?" "100,000 sperm and YOU were the fastest?") What had begun as a lighthearted but earnest search for a friendly sentiment to share with the world had deteriorated into a lazy hunt for cheap laughs. I needed help. I arranged to meet Paul McMahon, the bumper sticker laureate of Woodstock.

In another town, McMahon might have been dismissed as a creative gadfly, but in Woodstock, he was respected as a versatile artist. On the Sunday morning radio talk show, he performed as the Rock 'N Roll therapist with an uncanny knack for making a caller's problem sound even more ridiculous through his improvised lyrics. (The show's host claimed a 100 percent cure rate.) At poetry open mics, he delivered rapid-fire, quasi-philosophical rants that wavered between manic genius and alien channeling. And he was the mastermind behind the ubiquitous green "Welcome to Woodstock" bumper sticker series. For example, "Welcome to Woodstock...Just Kidding," "...Now Leaving the Known Universe," "...Wannabe Indian Reservation," "...Mid-life Crisis Center of the Northeast," "...Better Than Bellevue," and dozens more.

All of this activity didn't generate a sizable income, so McMahon had been riding a bike since 1996. But that seemed appropriate for a bumper sticker impresario. "Creativity is 99 percent inspiration, 1 percent perspiration," he explained, as we chose an outdoor cafe table for our takeout coffee. His oversized blue overalls highlighted his skinniness and his blue eyes, but he wasn't young any more, not with his short gray hair and gray goatee. But Woodstock itself wasn't young anymore. ("Welcome to Woodstock...Still No Concert Here") At the next table a blond man with a boyish bowl haircut and crow's foot eyes was gossiping about having posed as Andy Warhol at parties.

Through our rambling conversation, I learned that McMahon's formative influences included the Sixties classic "I Brake for Hallucinations," but that his taste now ran towards minimalism. "'CAR' is one of my favorites," he said. "It's so hilarious to see a bumper sticker that says 'CAR.'" While listening, I leafed through his thick portfolio. Not only had he extended the "Welcome" series ("Welcome to Saugerties...The Original Woodstock"), but he'd coined many other wonderful one-liners: "Honk If You Love Honking," "Inner Child In Trunk," "Save the World, Win Valuable Prizes," and "How Dare You Assume I'm a Homosapien?" His most popular one I already knew from sightings around town: "I Brake for Turtles, Frogs, Snakes, and Big Leaves."

But which was me? Having procrastinated this long, I wanted the perfect match, the message I would've written myself, if McMahon hadn't done it first. I flipped through the stack a second and third time, then finally picked: "Welcome to Woodstock...Roll Up Your Windows and Please Don't Feed the Poets. "

I appreciated the wordplay on pigeons, that maligned animal that bore the brunt of Manhattan's hostility to unmanicured nature. If you put aside the "flying rat" jokes and honestly looked at them, you saw rock doves in handsome shades of gray with iridescent green and purple tints on their flannel necks. They certainly had more dash than businessmen in plain gray suits. And their orange eyes were bold as lady bugs. As a Manhattanite, I hadn't paid them any mind, either, but now that I lived in the forest with diminutive juncos and kinglets, I paused for a moment on City visits to sit on a bench and admire these cocky urban creatures. I even composed a haiku:

The sidewalk cement
dried with a pigeon's footprint--
celebrity bird.

But more than pigeons I liked poets. Moving into the cabin, I hadn't considered myself anything more than a dabbler at poetry. After all, I hadn't written visionary verse at 17 or committed suicide at 29. And I still didn't understand poems in The New Yorker. During my twenties, I'd been a blocked novelist, followed by a better adulthood as a freelance journalist for environmental magazines. In my mid-thirties I'd written several poems almost as a lark, a relief break from my work to compose something short and punchy that didn't demand any research or fact-checking like my articles. (Before then, my only memorable verse was for my Manhattan answering machine: "We ain't got time for no fancy message rhyme/So rap, attack it, unpack it/We got the beep, ya dig?" It was so good that some of my friends, expecting to hear a well-bred WASP, figured they'd gotten the wrong number.)

In the cabin, I still made my living by journalism, but my rent was low enough that I didn't need to write all the time for money. And my surroundings amid hemlocks above a babbling stream were so conducive to personal reflection that I found it natural to turn to poetry. Gradually, I developed the patience to keep revising, then the fortitude to keep submitting through endless rejections. And now, in my early forties, I'd had a few poems accepted, no small accomplishment after such traumatic experiences in my twenties when I tortured myself over every page and never completed a chapter. Granted, the world at large might not read my poems in such obscure journals as Hedge Apple, Potato Eyes, Atom Mind, or American Jones Building & Maintenance, but I felt more pride in publishing these creative pieces than in my journalism for national magazines.

What I'd learned was not to take my writing too seriously. Even with the most troubling subjects, such as my divorce, I needed to have fun with the words, needed to feel the magic of the creative flow. Unlike my twenties, when I desperately wanted to be an accepted novelist, I wasn't writing poems meant for literary importance. I was writing them as a form of play. What better reminder of this lesson than "Roll Up Your Windows and Please Don't Feed the Poets"?

McMahon approved. "Poets are frightening and dangerous creatures," he deadpanned. "They only seem endearing to people who don't know them."

At home, I wiped clean the right corner on my trunk above the brake light and applied the sticker. Finally, my car made a statement: I was a Hippie Poet, even if I had short hair and rarely drank anything harder than birch beer. With my move into the cabin, my friends had expected me to become Thoreau or the Unabomber, but I surprised them, and myself, by becoming a poet, instead. For weeks, I proudly pointed out the sticker to friends, and recited it over the phone. Even my ex-wife chuckled. (She still hadn't learn to drive, or I would've given her: "All men are idiots/And I married their King.")

On the road, though, my sticker was disappointing. Nobody honked or waved a thumbs up. In parking lots no one stopped and smiled. Even at the Robert Frost Poetry Festival, which I attended in northern New Hampshire, nobody said a word. Were they offended? In Woodstock, our best poets also ranked among our leading comedians, but in other communities I knew that poets had more solemn and revered reputations. After all, they still understood the ancient arts of meter and rhyme, they survived in a field famous for suicide, and they could explain why April is the cruelest month. Also, unlike lawyers and economists, they didn't have enough wealth and power to enjoy self-depreciation.

In keeping with tradition, the Robert Frost Poetry Festival leader was an Eastern Orthodox Church Deacon with a white beard down to his belt. He didn't crack many jokes. Rather, he preached that sympathy wasn't mindless, intelligence wasn't heartless, and what wrecked us made great poetry. As much as I enjoyed the festival, by the second day I was parking with my trunk end in the bushes.

Maybe poetry humor was too arcane. Other hobbies made obvious jokes. ("Wrestling & Marriage: Two full contact sports/That both require a ring.") Or maybe people simply couldn't read my sticker. The print beneath "Welcome to Woodstock" was awfully small, while the way it folded down over an indentation in my trunk meant you had to bend from the knees to read it all.

So my sticker remained a message to myself. But I was satisfied. Wherever I parked, from Manhattan piers to the Kingston mall, my Sentra stood out from the crowd. The green stripe admitted me to the community of free spirits. I wasn't an anonymous brand promoter: a Yukon, Durango, or Cavalier. I was a witty country poet, the author of pieces about porcupines eating brake linings for the salt, a bear traipsing across a waterfall, and Rip Van Winkle waking up to the world of Viagra. Of course, I also wrote plenty of poems about cars, starting with "The Rambler," an account of the first time I pretended to drive, so small I sat on phone books to see above the steering wheel, and sputtered my lips for the sound of racing cars. To know the story behind my bumper sticker was to know the story of my life.

McMahon made a good product. In the ensuing years, his "Welcome" never faded. The green remained as bright as winter moss. It was the Sentra, itself, that aged from the wear of road salt and winter slush, spring pollen, summer dust, and acid rain. Over many months, the tan metallic body grew rust boils and lesions, while the seams inside the trunk spread with rust stains. Eventually, pieces chipped off in my hands like tree bark. At 210,000 miles, my mechanic announced that the underbody had rusted so badly that the car wouldn't pass its next state inspection.

I felt sad about saying good-bye to my Sentra. It had been my trusted companion for countless trips in the Catskills, Adirondacks, and beyond, including my first visit to Walden Pond, where I saw that Thoreau had lived within walking distance of town. (Not that he would've appreciated cars. "I have learned that the swiftest traveler is he that goes afoot," he wrote.) But nothing lasts forever. My new car would be one of the gas-electric hybrids that got 60 miles-per-gallon and promised adventures of its own.

For a respectful disposal, I donated the Sentra to the American Lung Association to sell for parts. The way I figured, my car had caused enough air pollution on cold mornings with blue smoke wagging from the muffler that I owed the lung defenders whatever money they could get. On the final morning I left it parked with the keys on the driver's foot mat for the Association's representative to pick up later. As a farewell gesture, I snapped photos of my Sentra from all sides, including a close-up of the sticker. But the joke about begging poets had gotten stale. Recently, I'd won $500 in a national contest, real money by the standards of the poetry world. It was time for a new message. Maybe I'd call Paul McMahon to see what he had for nouveau riche rhymers and bards.

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