Whitman at 200

Whitman Fan Art

Winner of the “Write Like Whitman” Poetry Contest

Oh my body!

I write in my journal that never has there been
a nest of dolls like this one, my body,
me rolling down America’s footpaths and crawling
out of her fluorescent throat.
What sweet breakfast of unspindled interstates,
what undocumented sunsets, the mind,

the legs that go for days, memories of mother in what
corporeal vessel for now and ever permanent smoke:
the way you stand on always and never age.

Oh! My body, dense little market lighting up electron
for electron, the luster waxing, wave and wave to
the dark-haired woman across the street
I wave through vertical blinds--it’s true
I have worn my body well enough and lie back
to sweat out this decade’s afternoon.

Oh this body I love young and knob-kneed,
on birthday and amidst industry, the fridge fleets wheeling
lifeblood to metropoli, America asleep, her thickets though
sleepless with the delivery of her pills.
To learn the names of all her pornography

would be impossible with the time we have, to add up that of her
meat and milk, of her lumber, her wrecked cars and mail, machinery.

When I speak of her legs they believe I am talking
about her body, the legs of her body, but it is her walk
I see. I have noticed that her legs go forever: she never stops walking. 

I ask the congress of birds: is it pornographic if it is true?
Does another’s pain enter to instruct feeling, and how often?
I ask the congress does a performance of pain rely on its audience?
I am never not an audience especially while performing.

What of the increasing understanding that what isn’t bad is all
and what’s all is buried until not avoided?

Where there is no light there can still be a lot of air, for me
love dies to its own newness.

This evening I will be alone and pull time from heat, my body
knowing that pleasure is mostly between the ears
and unable to forgive the edge of this knowledge.
In Philadelphia, or stepping from her, the great salt-licks of glassoil gas station coffee, the carousel sighs of walmarts
and taco bells, the orange light of ams/pms, not withstanding
fog horns and freight ships and gun shows and chemistry tents.

The genius of cargo will never leave us,
even in the post-war gleam of fathers turning
gust-toppled from their dream tonics,
veterans smoldering in cafes with discreet loss,
playing violins for money, and modular foodstuffs reckoning
with the largest of billboards:

it’s true the old is never quite new again. I have noticed my body
is the shape of a crescent turning back and back in upon itself,
a sacred chalice. I am aware it holds all the energy
needed to perform magic and magnifies with land,
and the flowing waters of the Mississippi and the Ohio relax then.

I lift three hundred years of sophistication and exuberance,
my deepest reverence reserved for keen eyes.
In the course of it I have tried and failed to place my body
at the edges of poverty by the new tourist economy.

I have whistled each body through Orwell’s down and out,
seeking authenticity in commerce, willingly or otherwise my body,

the fragrance of the spirited fringes of resilient city and
its bartender, street mime, autotuned coverboy, and religious man:

within and without they all together squat my most favorite abandoned
rituals under nomadic clouds,

where the numberless zipcodes taste of local rain dropping down,
the sand flossing teeth, the girlchild left alone
and unbranded fertilizer leasing out her nails:

dousing expectations for dreams I squat with them all
in the grafittied underpass,

rigorous, unrelenting, rapid in the north and south,
the mountains giving hips lesson in first dance
and I am satisfied to sleep.

-Brittanie Sterner

Artist Bio

Brittanie Sterner has been writing poems since childhood. She holds a BFA in poetry from Emerson College and an MS in arts administration from Drexel University. Her storytelling research has been published in the Journal of Arts Management, Law, and Society, and her poem “All Objects” was recently runner up for the 2019 Sandy Crimmins National Prize for Poetry. Brittanie currently serves as programming director for One Book, One Philadelphia, a project of the Free Library.

Artist Comments

“I’m delighted to join in celebrating WW’s 200th with ‘Oh, my body!,’ which is a partial braid of three poems, one of which I wrote while driving around the US in 2016 and living with my dog in a van. I even bought a hat. You can tell which lines those are because they're concerned with a sense of place and capitalism—I thought a lot about geography, division, economic oppression. I started reading Leaves of Grass on that trip and am not even close to finishing. It rambles for ever! I love that about Walt. He seems to take up the space he needs while acknowledging that it belongs, likewise and equally, to the reader and to everyone. He goes on and on, past the point of ego or shame, and into the realm of the sublime right here in the ordinary. He's such a Buddhist, and very charming for a white man in his time.

 Another poem mixed in here was about being bisexual, and the third was an exercise I wrote in a workshop on Pina Bausch and body politics. More than anything with Walt Whitman, I think about liberties of physical being-ness, whether it's in the form of a human body or trees, and how my spiritual growth can only come through my immediate experience of my body / the earth, the whole of which I’m a part. That's the big lesson I get from LOG. He looks into things rather than past them to feel what's there and vibrating, and he isn't afraid to call it love.”