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.
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.
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
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
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.
I didn't understand the genius of the line. I preferred the Basho
haiku wrapped around the floor-to-ceiling column:
Do not forget
in the thicket.
minutes opening my Essential Whitman this morning, I came under
its spell. On the second page of Song of Myself, Whitman writes:
day and night with me and you shall possess the origin of all poems.
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:
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....
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
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
But I do not talk of the beginning or of the end.
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.
that comes to me over the past decillions,
There is no better than it and now.
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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:
fetch me at first keep encouraged,
Missing me one place search another,
I stop some where waiting for you.
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
to Inspiration Page
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:
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
I pronounced with flair.
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
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."
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?
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.
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.")
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.
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.
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
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."
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. "
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
dried with a pigeon's footprint--
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"?
"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.
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.
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.
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
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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