Have you ever destroyed a work of art? I mean, a work of art that wasn’t your own? I think anyone who writes has ripped out pages or deleted them in a fit of pique, and when I painted I would have to start over, and of course musicians destroy entire instruments sometimes (but not often, thank God, because that’s destroying the thing you make your art with, which is beyond pointless even if it does feel cathartic at the time).
I don’t remember when I started to revere the printed word. I do remember feeling a deep sense of sadness when I realized the flaps in Pat the Bunny were irreparable (Ha!) but I don’t remember actually having destroyed them myself. Who knows? I was a baby, for Christ’s sake. My mom tells me I started reading when I was two (!), so it’s all kind of blurry. But as long as I can remember being a conscious being, I knew that harming a book was a really bad thing.
Imagine my surprise, then, when I was in my twenties and had already pondered long and hard about being an English major (and Linguistics, Art History, Art, Biology, and Anthropology majors) and I found myself demolishing a book. A classic, at that!
I’d read a Walt Whitman poem in one of my classes at City College, and because I had liked it, I’d bought Leaves of Grass at American Books in Tower (now gone, the cranky German lady who owned it either died or retired). I sat myself down in my bedroom, on my bed, and started reading.
Anger bubbled up from inside me like a hot spring. It uncoiled something in me that was either so tightly wound that it broke me when it sprung forth, or I just got speared through by a wire of– of what? Understanding?
The same thing I had liked when I read the lone poem in class– of getting it, feeling that feeling– was the same thing that pissed me off immeasurably now that the whole book was waiting for me in my lap. It was just too much. Too much! My little twenty something year old brain was so full of frustration and unrequited love and loneliness, that Leaves of Grass broke me.
From my spot on the bed, I hurled the book at my bedroom door. It was a paperback, and the glued spine cracked and a chunk of pages fell to the side. I got off the bed, picked up the book, and threw it against the door until it looked like a dead bird. You know how it is, when your cat catches something and it ceases to be a bird and turns into a haphazard collection of feathers.
Then Walt Whitman’s remains went into the trash, and I carried around a hatred of him like a small purse. It wasn’t legitimate luggage. He was like a fanny pack. I felt guilty for having destroyed him, but I stuffed it down and wore it and went on with my life. I was one of those English majors that fell in love with Waugh and Maugham and Greene and their nostalgic peeks into that weird era of Colonial life, and then became one of those English majors who went on to take multiple courses of Postcolonial lit and saw the pallid underbelly of those times, and the repercussions, and of course all the ugly parallels in our own country. Because I wasn’t a fan of Frost, Thoreau, and a whole slough of Americans, Whitman didn’t really come up in conversation that often.
But lately I have been more curious about him, thinking what it would have been like to be a man who loved men during that time. And over the years, as my husband and I wonder if we should follow the exodus of Central Californians to Portland (I call it Little Tower of the North, since everybody in the Tower District is either thinking about moving to Portland, is in the process of moving there, or has moved there and come back), I have given a lot of thought about what it means to be a Fresnan, a Californian, and an American. I could move from Fresno, but not California, I have decided. I am a Californian through and through. I suppose if we totally run out of water I might have to rethink that, but for now, because I don’t have to flee, I won’t.
A few days ago, I went to Barnes & Noble and picked up a copy of Whitman’s Leaves of Grass. It has both the First and the Death-Bed editions. I hadn’t heard of a death-bed edition before, so that just goes to show how out of touch I am with American poets. Sad, isn’t it? But I can read Shakespeare, Chaucer, or Gawain and the Green Knight with no problems and abridged versions just get in the way, so lay off.
As I sat across from my mom, who was reading guitar magazines, and we sipped our coffees, I flipped past the introductions and started reading the same passages I must have read before– and this time instead of uncoiling so violently, I melted. Into an Amélie-worthy puddle. My mom, the tables in the cafe and the people sitting at them, the grinding of the cappuccino machine– it all dissolved and it was just me and Walt Whitman. I could hear it now, my ears weren’t all stoppered up with anger. It was okay to read him, because I was not so lonely, not in the middle of a string of unrequited loves. I could just read and accept it and let myself feel along with him, and it was glorious.
Well, it is still glorious. The dude wrote lots of poems, and now I’m ready for them.