Derricote, Whitman, Urban Blight

I thought Derricotte’s “Whitman, Come Again to the Cities” was an especially interesting poem, because Derricotte tries to invoke the spirit of Whitman in a manner that is about as antithetical to Whitman as one could possibly get.  There are a lot of sadistic overtones and images of sterility in this poem, which runs counter to the pride of the human body Whitman usually celebrated and his typical optimism.  For instance, the epigraph of Derricotte’s poem is from Part 9 of “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry,” where Whitman seems to directly call upon urbanization to “Thrive, cities—bring your freight, bring your shows, ample and sufficient rivers, / Expand, being than which none else is perhaps more spiritual,” yet Derricote seems to be looking back at Whitman’s invitation as something that has given birth to a network that is now “laid out on the earth like a tortured soldier, / the skin pulled off his back, / his eyes empty, but alive.”  I’ll admit that I may have used “birth” in a strange context here; however, this is the imagery I was confronted with when Derricote questioned Whitman about his views on the “vibrant light [of the factories] \ rising out of the fired stomach of the city, rising out of the fecund genitals.” So the reference to “the fired stomach” and “fecund genitals” left me with the sense that Derricote was maybe questioning Walt’s optimism by implying that the birth of these factory lights had resulted in a tortured, skinless, semi-conscious vegetable.

Derricotte uses other imagery that’s just as hideous, but to good effect I think.  I especially thought it odd that she chose emphasize streets that were totally devoid of all sentient life around the middle of the poem, plenty of trash cans, garbage, vacant lots, things like that—but no life.  After this lifeless part, the poem sort of follows a weird evolutionary path from dogs, to young men, to manhood (entering the workforce), to a mature/family stage, but then the cycle sort of terminates (literally) there.  I’m very challenged to find some shred of optimism in this poem, especially since the title implies that Derricotte was praying for Whitman to come back to the cities.  I’ve been puzzling over the last few lines of the poem for most of the day…

Young men stand on street corners,
Their clothes expensive, their cars impractical, wildly
colored; and they will do anything but
put a piece
of another piece
in a certain place.

I’m stymied by these final lines, anyone have any ideas?

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