Finding Whitman: ‘Not What You Supposed’

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I was fifteen or sixteen, a sophomore in high school, and a full-flowered cretin in every subject but art and English, so it must have been my English teacher who had mentioned Leaves of Grass in passing. This was way back in the civilized 60’s, long before people were having sex, much less a revolution, and such inherently inflammatory material would have never been part of our regular curriculum. But a single copy of Walt Whitman’s dark art had somehow flapped in under the parochial radar and landed on a shelf in the school library.

Back then and down here, all any of us really knew about poetry was that it was clearly the underhanded dirty work of spinsters and queers. And yet, almost as if to prove its untoward potential, a word or phrase now and then would ignite a lofty thought or visceral feeling, eerily reminiscent of a language once known but long since forgotten.

But the real trouble with Leaves of Grass was, you could probably read the damned thing blindfolded and it would still find a way to stir things up in you that you didn’t know existed. That poem in “Song of Myself,” for example, about the old lady peeking through the blinds at the naked swimmers, was loudly disquieting. But her baggage was a carry-on compared to the payload that those “Calamus” poems were packing, with all of their beards and breasts, thrusting, herbage, and ardor. All of which were just words, of course, and words certainly can’t hurt you, but they were as alien and alarming to a hayseed in Mayberry as they would have been to a dozing shepherd, confronted by Pan.

But whatever else Leaves of Grass was, as soon as I concluded that it was nasty enough that I’d better get rid of it fast, suddenly I was intensely aware of how transparent my small life was. I definitely couldn’t keep it at home; what if my mother found it? And if I got caught with it in my locker, it was straight to the principal’s office! No, for now I would just have to keep it with me at all times, inconspicuously tucked among less diabolical papers and texts.

Now, if I already had one fully developed gift for anything, it was my astronomical ability to split and re-split the most miniscule improbability into an event of such immense certainty that I would paralyze myself with the inexhaustible ramifications of my own imagination. For instance, it was a facile leap to the conclusion that such thinly veneered pornography was merely bait that the school used to lure its fledgling miscreants out into the open—whereupon I, after being widely exposed and thoroughly ridiculed, would be left twisting slowly in the wind from the tallest tree in the town square. So, with its due date looming large—after just one more heart-pounding peek at its nasty bits the night before—the time had come to make my move.

Slipping the seducer’s verse into the book drop during the morning mêlée in the main hall was the easiest part of Plan A. Less easy was my nail-biting surveillance for the next few days, as the filthy thing made its way back to where I’d found it. But the worst of it was the angst-wracked weeks and months that followed, waiting for the jack boot of some truly decent person to come down on my scrawny neck.

From then until now, I’ve happily fallen through cracks more memorable than that, and it wasn’t until a hundred years later, when I decided to try my own sticky underhand at the dirty work of spinsters and queers, that just one stubborn line from some misty, vestigial past came back to whisper, “I am not what you supposed, but far different.”

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