60 pages into Specimen Days and I wish I had started reading earlier! Cunningham is just as good as I remembered him, his prose is rich and precisely descriptive, his characters are compelling and almost disturbingly empathetic. And most of all, he works Whitman into the pages seamlessly, bringing new life to the old words. The first section’s protagonist, a young boy named Lucas, embodies the kind of reader Whitman would have dreamed of- an endlessly curious and imaginative New Yorker at heart, at once alone and a part of everything he sees, returning to his bed every night to read a section from Leaves of Grass, cherishing the words and committing them to memory as best as possible, finding solace in them, finding truth and meaning. Lucas takes his preoccupation with Whitman to the next level, often randomly, uncontrollably quoting from Leaves in everyday conversation, sometimes making other people uncomfortable.
My favorite scene so far has been the chance meeting between Lucas and Whitman on the streets on New York, when Lucas is in desperate search of money. Lucas claims to have seen Walt twice before, but I initially doubted the validity of this statement since he also claimed to have seen a saint with a hate on to cover her halo. But just a few pages later, there is Walt himself. Of course, Lucas’s first instinct is to rattle off Whitman quotes, which Walt finds very amusing, of course. When I came upon this passage, I was overwhelmed by that feeling so often expressed in poetry when referring to Whitman, this peaceful calm, a sense of hopefulness and happiness, as if one’s problems could simply be lost by deciding that day to leave with Walt Whitman and follow him forever. Cunningham’s descriptions of Walt are beautifully true to legend: “his gray-white cascade of beard” being the first thing Lucas notices, of course, “the voice of a rainstorm”, “summoning laughter up out of the earth”, the sage but humble advice, the genuine compassion and care he takes with Lucas, promising to meet the boy at the same place the next day, just to make sure he was okay, just to see where he was on his journey.
I found this scene so moving and sweet; most of all, I loved the personal encounter with Walt. I don’t think I truly understood the folklore surrounding the idea of Walt Whitman fully up until this point. The relief I felt for Lucas, almost as Lucas, immediately warmed my heart to Whitman in a way that none of the poetry we have read has been able to do. I think Cunningham has done something truly beautiful in this novel, really captured the essence of Whitman.
I will certainly be reading more.