I am invigorated by the shift to a woman’s perspective of Walt Whitman, which (obviously) often places him in the maternal role and/or that of a nurse. Because Sharon Olds has been one of my favorite poets since I saw her read in high school, I thought I’d take a shot at explicating her poem entitled “Nurse Whitman,” which I find both powerful and curious. It opens with the image of Whitman going from cot to cot of wounded soldiers, and compares this to “the way I move among my dead, / their white bodies laid out in lines.” While I doubt that Olds means this literally, I do think she is adopting the deaths of Civil War soldiers as part of her own history, as well as perhaps acknowledging the absence of masculine or paternal influence in her present life.
The next two stanzas similarly compare Walt’s behavior towards the soldiers with Old’s emotional state, i.e., “You bathe the forehead, you bathe the lip, the cock, / as I touch my father, as if the language / were a form of life….” and “You write their letters home, I take the dictation / of his firm dream lips, this boy / I love as you love your boys.” In each case, Whitman’s actions are homoeroticized and juxtaposed with the poet’s process of absorbing, and rendering, language. Complicating the suggestion of dialogue between the sexual/physical and creative self is the fact that these events happen simultaneously, implying a crucial interaction between generations as well. “They die and you still feel them. Time / becomes unpertinent to love, / to the male bodies in beds.”
In the penultimate stanza, Olds joins Whitman: “We bend over them, Walt, taking their breath / soft on our faces, wiping their domed brows / stroking back the coal-black Union hair.” The author and the subject are clearly united in observation and adoration of the dead and dying soldier’s form, while the active verbs connote a shared maternal impulse. This image is provocatively reinforced by the equation of the nursing breast and the ‘depressed’ phallus in the final stanza: “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.” The final notion of unlikely fruition and conception made possible is extended to the a-/homosexual poet just as it is to the mother, the daughter, and the creative self in all of us.