There are many lines which can be drawn from Julia Spahr and traced back to Whitman. Spahr’s books focuses on a similar Universal connection which drives much of Whitman’s work, but explores this connection in a contemporary post-2000 American setting. In her note at the start of her book she writes, “I had think about my intimacy with things I would rather not be intimate with even as (because?) I was very far away from all those things geographically. This feeling made lyric—with its attention to connection, with its dwelling on the beloved and on the afar.”
I began to think about Whitman’s relation to things far and intimate, and find this relation as incredibly essential in Whitman’s works. I was also reminded of Joseph Bruchac’s essay where he writes, “When his poems reflect the city and country places of that Long Island he knew so well. Whitman comes most alive for me, when the things he felt, touched, smelled, come into his poems.”
The poem Crossing Brooklyn Ferry stood out immediately in this way. I agree with Bruchac, and I think Whitman’s initial focus on the things right in front of him is frequently what allows him leap to broader ideas, and to powerfully proclaim this universal connection sung in his poetry. Here are the first lines of his poem,
FLOOD-TIDE below me! I see you face to face!
Clouds of the west—sun there half an hour high—I see you
Also face to face.
The rest of this first section of the poem, also focuses purely on what is right in front of Whitman. Whitman’s poetic move here seems to be a transition of realizing the intimate beauty in ones immediate surroundings and in ones self, and the resulting realization that this intimate beauty is everywhere and in everyone. Later in the poem, he repeats,
It avails not, time or place—distance avails not
Spahr’s connection with things intimate and afar is even more complex. Partly because of the additional universal human connection produced my technology and media, and the ways in which this complicates relations of closeness. Throughout her book, she jumps from the things and thoughts right before her, to political events taking place all around the world. She is made aware of all world events, but is powerless herself, and it seems almost more isolated by this technological web. She writes,
How can the power of our combination of intimacy and isolation have so little power outside this space of our bed?
It would seem that we are less isolated by technology, and that Whitman was more isolated from the world around him, by not knowing about it. But Whitman felt connected to his world, he felt as he could generate change in it. This bizarre new web of world politics and technology definitely puts Sphar at unease, as it should, and she ends this section of the poem,
Beloveds, what do we do but keep breathing as best we can in this minute atmosphere?
A similar reconciliation to Whitman’s I sit poem.