At the Grave of Walt Whitman
Martin Scott

Harleigh Cemetery, Camden

Down streets aimed at Mafia angles,
                                                     Cut between tar-blasted row-homes,
Down December’s gray currents, the shadow of statues
                                       Colonnaded for saints, and tagged for sinners,
              Our Galvanized Lady of Lourdes,
Down Catholic avenues, the rusted palms,
                                                     Down sidewalks leading to gangsters,
                           “Jim Morrison” cut into smooth bark,

Is this where you are, Saint Francis, gray Barnum—
                                                     Greasy waves conning Jersey’s dark sand?
                           The suckers still reading your Leaves?

Now down into the ground, down into the riot,
                                                     Grave set into hillside, Catholic hospital rising near dizzy,
                           Your white shadow embracing lead sky . . . .

Down into the ivy, still green and waxy,
                                       Resisting the snow, paw prints
              Crunched into hillside’s slick ice rink . . . .
We climbed in New Jersey, my wife and I standing on Walt Whitman’s grave,
                           Clouds like ice, snow like dirt . . . .
In the crystalline freeze attached to things fallen,
                                                     In the Camden police cruisers
                           Oozing the trails, their comrades just shot, fresh buried,

In your name hammered onto cheap marble,
                                                     Elms rooting your spine and convolvulus,
                           Confusion of leaves rotting out the hill’s face,

These awkward stones and your book’s queer smirk,
                                                     Oh, crystalline, formless and empty, your Camden verses,
                           Dull, parrot-like and old, with crack’d voice harping, screeching . . . .

              Garrulous to the very last.
Evie slides down your hillside, not careful, not falling,
                                       Skating mercury, the siren of winter . . . . Oh, fake
              Lilies and roses, the circus of faith and of cancer . . . .
Now I lean down and snatch a little dirty snow,
                                       Stick it happily into my mouth,
Swallow hard, then spit on your marble,
                           Sending you a little of everything—smudge pots, burning barrels,

Broken tongue twisted by Jersey cold,
                                                     Tar boiling for roofs that don’t know it,
                           Extortion’s butterflies, the wings of boredom confusing

Slick handfuls flipped out of the Delaware
                                                     Onto Camden’s sweet muck, sick grotto where the Virgin
                           Prays for her sinners—like you, Bodhisattva! . . . .

Now down in the concrete,
                                       Down in feral cats slipping through basement windows,
Incense swung above streets the Devil’s abandoned . . . .
Down through bathtub and clock, the canary and cherries,
                                       Down streets aimed between river and ghetto,
              Down hospitals, empty factories,
                                                     Down cities gazing at Philadelphia . . . .
There’s no getting away from scuds and wilds, the runaway freeze,

                                       The door-slab of glass, the Trans-Am slides . . . .

                           The grave of our ridiculous jaguar.

“At the Grave of Walt Whitman” I wrote after, well, visiting his grave in Camden, N.J., not far from where I grew up. Unlike much of South Jersey, Camden is a filthy post-industrial city, known for crime and drugs more than anything, though in Whitman’s day it was quite different. There’s something appropriate about the danger and dirtiness of the surroundings to The Tomb of our poet who could absorb anything. His home is also preserved, and one can visit it on Mickle Street—it’s a lonely townhouse in a dicey area. Various relics are preserved—his boots sit at the foot of his rocker, and they are large, I’m glad to report—one would like to assume our patron poet was well hung. In the kitchen, I touched the cheap willow wear plates The Master ate from, and I must admit, I was moved.

Return to Archive