Channeling Anarchy through Whitman
Specimen 4: The Burden of Witness
“The suicide sprawls on the bloody floor of the bedroom,” Song of Myself, 8
“What is absent makes the world what it is.” History of the Always Pain, Jennifer Militello
“Because I burn in symptoms though the illness/ has been cured,” Flinch, Jennifer Militello
“See, hear, and am silent.” I Sit and Look Out, Whitman
When I set out to gather poems for my post, I initially searched for ‘Anarchist poets’. There, on wikipedia, there was a list of anarchist poetry, so I shuffled through lines of certain poems by Phillip Levine, Kenneth Rexroth, and George Woodcock. But in my ear, I heard the voice of a poetry teacher I know who once told me, “Oh, Phillip! Ha, he wasn’t an Anarchist. Phillip always spoke out of his ass.” The other poems were mostly odes here and there for Emma Goldman and eulogies for the working class. I was reminded of a crimethinc. pamphlet in which the multiple anonymous authors write, “there is no anarchism, only anarchy.” Likewise, there are no ‘anarchist poets’, only ‘anarchy in poetry’. So I set out to sea.
In his poem, “I Sit and Look Out”, Whitman utters what seems his first sign of defeat. History has debilitated him. The ‘History’ of ‘great men’ as written by patriarchs, fascists, and other authoritarians is a silent gun to the head of the anarchist. For one fragile moment, Whitman is overcome with the burden of witness. I imagine him chained down, forced to witness “the mother misused by her husband”, “the workings of battle, pestilence, tyranny,” and the “the slights and degradations cast by arrogant persons upon laborers, the poor, and upon negroes.” He concludes, “I…See, hear, and am silent.” Whitman has lost agency: he is no longer caressing the injured, dressing the slave, stopping “with fugitives and them that plot and conspire.” He has even lost his ability to be the voice through which the oppressed can speak: Whitman is no longer singing songs, something has stopped his throat.
So you have become several morning voices since evening grew too deep to speak into. So you are another, sheltering a little flask of sorrow, with two eyes caged in wildness, lids too much like rainfall,
lashes a soprano’s liquid pause. Since one must worship the trees (their winter branches bones in the fingers) and one must worship the earth astronomical as bodies mingled), I tell you to fall back
from the many windows beading a necklace with their night. The world is always speaking hems of dresses, evergreens, always speaking never. The world is the jawbone of where we cannot go.
The snow has the embroider of calm dogs lying, has you fallen long like rope among the flowers. Its briar patch of handmade paper expresses the blankness of thousands. Its fire, a hand
that hungers unlike anything, its bloodstream spoken like a torture. You will understand flesh better now, its fireflies deciphered, its clicking rosary beads of wordless sound. When you open
your mouth, those few birds that fly out cast a calcium of swans. they pass aquariums for fear of watching at the window of another creature’s life. They change around your center like the rain.
Militello’s poem, “Manifestation”, published last year in Flinch of Song, seems to address this defeated Whitman as the persona, ‘you’. Throughout the poem there is a sense of the loss of voice: there is “wordless sound”, an evening that “grew too deep to speak into”, a world that is “always speaking never.” There is a sense of static pain. The snow in the poem is the freezing agent a “torture” that enters the “bloodstream”. There is a sense of the dreamer wishing for what isn’t–for a world “where we cannot go”. And the reality is that “you” are witnessing torture. She is telling Walt, “you will understand flesh/ better now, its fireflies deciphered.” This very private pain is carried throughout the day like the “rosary bead” an Orthodox monk whittles constantly, whispering “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy upon me a sinner.” Towards the end of the poem, she is telling Whitman, he must bear witness because every one else avoids “aquariums for fear of watching at the window of another creature’s life.” The poem, finally, redeems Whitman as the witness, by placing him at the center of the fearful, who “change around [his] center like the rain”. There is hope that Whitman can recover from his existential crisis and step to action, like he will in subsequent poems, beating “the gong of revolt.”
Murder is what we seem, deep in such black feathers.
Night, a revolver emptying rounds, sends us so far
we are gone for good, suffocating with the strings
on the sack pulled taut, seized like an oilless engine.
Because I burn in symptoms though the illness
has been cured, I hear hooves which, galloping,
drag a wing and crave a length, drop open
paper fans of air like the storm still gathering
a long way off. Because I fill with injury,
I strike the child, I grip the blind man’s cane.
Ask me to promise, I will promise you this:
not looking, we can see for miles. Not sleeping,
we can sleep. The moth at the screen will beat
its wings, twin throats of torture in a flinch of song.
~Flinch of Song, Jennifer Militello
In her poem, “Flinch”, published last year, Militello really channels the despair of the individual oppressed by unnamed tortures. In my reading, they could be the societal tortures that haunt a lone rebel squatting at the edge of the city. “Murder,” she writes, “is what we seem.” The status quo paints the anarchist as a terrorist. “Night,” she writes, is “a revolver emptying rounds, sends us so far/ we are gone for good.” I imagine this is the shot of a gangster in the inner city, of a cop who just shot an innocent black man, or a soldier fighting for corporate interest in Iraq . Society, desperate, is suddenly, “seized like an oilless engine”. This resonates so well to this era in America, long after oil supplies have peaked. The unnamed civilians are the ones to suffer, “[burning] in symptoms though the illness has been cured.”