Whitman the Erotic, Spiritual Nurse

Sharon Olds portrays Whitman’s nursing history interestingly in her poem “Nurse Whitman”. Though the soldiers lined up in beds in the poem are dead, there is still a shared, erotic energy between Whitman and his patients, for “time becomes impertinent to love”. The end of the poem, containing the most erotically charged words, actually seems to depict the spiritual through the physical.

“We lean down, our pointed breasts / heavy as plummets with fresh spermy milk- / we conceive, Walt, with the men we love, thus, now, / we bring to fruit.”

Perhaps the association of breast milk and semen and the fluidity of the two mean to represent a sort of revolving orbit between bodies and souls. The souls of the soldiers are no longer within their bodies, but as Whitman leans over the bodies, he is in a sense, breathing life back into them in a sort of cyclical arrangement. Whitman, playing the part of a male-mother, leans down and breaks the fixed barriers of war and death by maintaining a connection with the patients even though they have died. Olds uses the words “conceive” and “bring to fruit”, words that seem to parallel the lines earlier in the poem,

“They die and you still feel them. Time / becomes unpertinent to love, / to the male bodies in beds.”

As Whitman has the ability to sense something in the “dead”, and continue to feel a loving connection with the dead, so does the speaker of the poem. It is as if nothing is every really lost. It seems as though in the poem, the hospital is a place where life and death are vaguely intertwined as the elements of Whitman’s nurturing and the patients fading into delirium seem to be intertwined. The environment of the hospital, to me, is romanticized. The fluidity of the soldiers fused with the emotions of Whitman the wound dresser produce a sort of romantic truth. Under Whitman’s nursing, the male body becomes less a product of war and destruction and becomes more humanized, a symbol of life and death and the continuity of the soul.

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One Response to Whitman the Erotic, Spiritual Nurse

  1. dana t says:

    I like the hospital, caretaker Whitman. To me it is one of his most genuine points of being. I think what you’ve said here about the spiritual and the erotic adds to this and makes Whitman in these scenes seem even more sincere for some reason. I think it is because in these instances he is actually feeling out what he so often speaks of, and is learning these things for himself again.

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