Charlie Bondhus: “Epithalamium to Myself and Walt Whitman”

Charlie Bondhus is a poet, fiction writer and literary critic who is currently pursuing a Ph.D at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst. The poem below is reprinted by permission from his new chapbook, What We Have Learned to Love, which won the 2008-09 Stonewall Competition from BrickHouse Books. Charlie’s full-length poetry book How the Boy Might See It will be out from Pecan Grove Press in October, and his novella Monsters and Victims will be published by Gothic Press in March 2010.

Epithalamium to Myself and Walt Whitman

As Adam early in the morning,
Walking forth from the bower refresh’d with sleep,
Behold me where I pass, hear my voice, approach,
Touch me, touch the palm of your hand to my
    body as I pass,
Be not afraid of my body.

                        -Walt Whitman

I found Walt Whitman–

native and slithering in the tall grasses
au naturel save for beard,
true and biological son of Adam and Father Time.

Yet undivorced from the solid world, I
considered averting my eyes and crying:
“Come up from the fields, father!
Show your face
scraped in dead leaves
smudged with herb juice
and streaming with the sweet, gentle dew
of buttercups.”
Thinking book deals and self-promotion I
considered calling
The Daily Sun
The Hanover Press
The New York Times
to report this
cleft of time and space
this bit of transcendental news.
But something about his eyes,
weary and reckless,
stopped me.
I knew he was ashamed
to go naked about the world, though
clothing only constrained
his meadow meanders.
What wisdom, I thought, could be learned from this
grizzled young gray man?
What childless adventures?
Sensing my hesitation, Walt,
by way of greeting,
spooled his body about my own:
wrinkled ligaments and hairy appendages
encircling my boy-shape,
like Lucifer to Eve
in classical painting.

Grinding white teeth he
hissed affectionately:

To-day I go consort with Nature’s darlings, to-night too,
I am for those who believe in loose delights

Bowing then my head
to the priest of nature
unvested save for crabgrass and pinecones
I reverently uttered the responsorial:

For who but you or I understand lovers and all
    their sorrow and joy?
And who but you and I, dear grandpapa, ought
    be poets of comrades?

Much to do, needless to say.
Job had to be quit.
Buses had to be boarded.
Messages had to be left
on lovers’ answering machines.

I admit I initially judged Walt’s value
in terms of brand recognition.
Considering my new companion
a muscle for my rhetoric, I
dragged him on board a Greyhound
and bore him south.

Watching the 6 o’clock news in a D.C. hostel’s
    common room
I learned that we were in no way unique;
Melville was giving a lecture entitled “I am
    not Ishmael” in Boston,
Emerson was alive and well, already booked
    to speak at Dartmouth’s commencement,
and the Enquirer reported that Isherwood and Auden
    had gotten a civil union
in Los Angeles.

Appointing himself captain and helmsman
of brotherly mayhem, Walt drew up blueprints
of the White House, shared his plan
to invade the Oval Office
and recite “The Song of the Broad Axe”
interpolated with “I Hear America Singing”
to protest outsourcing, encored
by a brideless wedding march.

But, as it turned out, Walt had been
too long in the ground
to remember his own words.

Later that night at the hostel, lying awake
back-to-back in a twin bed, I
heard him singing in his sleep
reimagined refrains about New York City.

Next day on the plane he
pried open my lap-top
with a butter knife he had somehow gotten past
found the porn,
and spent the whole flight in the bathroom,
revising every poem in Calamus
to assimilate bears and twinks.

Approaching the gray and brown skyline,
noses and beards pointed towards JFK, I
described the violent rise and sudden crash of
    the towers,
the significance of which he appreciated,
though not the stark irony of 9-1-1.

That night at CBGB’s he got in for free
just for having the gumption
to say he was Walt Whitman
later corroborated
by an NYU adjunct
who happened to be standing near the door.

Wiggling like Mick Jagger
to the rhythm of an all girl rock band
(called, I think, “The Flaming Cunts”)
he danced his hips into my crotch and,
diving from the stage, cried:

I am Walt Whitman! Liberal and lusty as nature!

After the set and two rounds of cosmopolitans,
the moment splintered away as Walt
sustained an unfortunate groin injury
after propositioning the drummer—
a pink haired girl in zebra halter top.

There was also a moment of jealousy
when my companion fell
fascinated in love
with a leather queen
named Boddi Elektrique.
The divine nimbus of the female form, he proclaimed
    in amazement,
wedded to the action and power of the male…

Grabbing his freckled arm, I
assured a miffed Ms. Elektrique that
yes his words were complimentary and
yes she could’ve fooled me.

(Privately got revenge later
by making out with a poet of lesser talent
while Walt was in the bathroom.)

Tired of the East Coast and low on provisions we
    went shopping,
arm in arm at a supermarket in California.
Naturally, we ran into Allen Ginsberg and Neal Cassady,
just out of hell and trying to be domestic.
We chatted about their new home in P-Town and
graciously declined an offer of mescaline and a four way.

At a poetry slam in San Francisco I
introduced him as a cousin to Dodie B.
and later caught him in the bathroom
peeking at Dennis Cooper
on the other side of the divider.

Faced with expository verse
self-serving metaphor
and the slack-jawed applause of tongue-pierced
Walt didn’t need to be cajoled
into reciting “Whoever You are Holding Me Now
    in Hand.”

The reigning champion, a
heavy girl in black jeans named Rain
(spelled “R-A-Y-N-E”)
was surprisingly fine with losing,
dutifully informed me that she’d “SO do” me if I
    wasn’t gay,
thought it was cool that I hung out with Walt
and asked us if we knew Poe’s number.

Bivouacing the next afternoon on Newport Beach,
we witnessed no solemn and slow procession
no halting army
save that of surfer boys, comrades to be,
capped in hair gel and highlights (which I patiently
and garbed in soft herbages of chest bristle
that sprang forth from breasts
like joyous leaves.
All the while
a pink umbrella grew,
as a lone oak in Louisiana,
behind and above us, as I wondered,

what could I, poet who has come,
do to justify his one or two indicative words?

Leaning over, Walt slipped a ring on my finger, then

All lives and deaths, all of the past, present, future,
This vast similitude spans them, and always has spann’d

Overcome by the passionate surreality of it all
I fell back crying:

“Dear father graybeard! Lonely old courage teacher!
I ride tonight and every night with you,
in ecstasy
with the evening star on my lips
the thrush warbling in my breast pocket
and lilacs spread across my trembling hand,
inside a wooden box across the open roads of
    sombre America!”