I am nowhere nearer to understanding that which is American than I was a month ago when I started this project of watching. We are scattered, this nation, with various polarities that meet and extend from each other at a constant rate. “Do I contradict myself?/Very well, I contain multitudes”. Thus seems the human and American condition and indeed, most likely, every other nation and peoples save the enlightened ones who watch the diversions streaming back and forth across the mind and into the sky at a maddening pace and know they are not them.
What is America? American? We are reading Zitkala-Sa’s school days in my 19th century American literature class. There were those teachers/believed reformers who looked like they thought they knew something of what it meant to be American. So the “conquered” ones may one day streamline; would the children then know the maniac force of Western expansion as their own, forgetting from whence they came? “We cut hair here” they said. “We bow and give thanks to a book at dinner” they said, and didn’t say, with a long wooden ruler slap of the hands; but I mean not to be sentimental. Only to say that the certainty felt in the pamphleteers to the immigrants with a list of important documents in hand the moment the foot came across Ellis Island must have raged a bright feeling in their American eyes. “You better behave” they pamphleteers seem to say. Or maybe not so harsh, maybe they thought of hope and promise and bright futures for those dragged across the Atlantic–though above the New York city-line the smog said otherwise.
We…“believe in the green light, the orgastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then, but that’s no matter-tomorrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther…. And one fine morning—-
So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.”
And on a ferry a man takes names in the faces of those he sees, “how curious [they] are to [him]”, how curious that herded mass on the ferry.
What faces does Walt Whitman tell of then? In exaltation he holds the slave, while others frighten at his costumed description of Native Americans, what then? While each vote on the ferry pauses and collects him or herself and when read the voice of Whitman no longer sounds but transcends and we are on the boat, he is with us as we read and he has, in every earnest break, “consider’d long and seriously of [us] before [we] were born”, of every life transcended within and then without their place, that wandering, weeping, vacant presence of those who have lived and will always live, he knows them. What America is this? Our own transcendental romantic transcendence where our proclaimed poet Walt knows all of us through his own body, that in this life he tells us, “I was I knew was of my body, and what I should be I knew I should be of my body”. So we pay homage to the great solipsistic one?
I can argue until the night comes but nothing seems more clear than his voice within me. Then Ortiz speaks and I really have no answer other than to say, “I hear your voice, and I take to it the same.”