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David Kirby

BPR 48 | 2021


                  Walt Whitman, you should have been around
         when the first cars were. Or wait, not the first:
                  Karl Friedrich Benz patented the first motorcar six years
before you took to your deathbed, but it was a novelty,
         a rickety contraption that bounced along on skinny
                  tires, looked about as powerful as a sewing machine,

                  and was steered with a stick, like a toboggan.
         No, you should have been around for the sedan,
                  the coupe, the hot rod, the heavy, aero-undynamic Chevy
or Oldsmobile that burned rubber and outran cops
         (at least in the movies), that took Robert Mitchum
                  down Thunder Road and carried Kerouac and Cassady

                  all the way to the coast. You were crazy about
         the technology of your day, and in poems like
                  “Passage to India,” you praised the transatlantic cable
as a tool to bring the disparate peoples of the world
         together: “The seas inlaid with eloquent gentle wires . . .
                  The earth to be spann’d, connected by network . . .

                  The lands to be welded together.” How happy
         you would have been in a Mercury convertible,
                  crunching gravel at the Dairy Queen, cruising
the crowd at the softball game, parking
         by the lighthouse to finish a beer that had
                  long gone flat and listen to the gulls’ cries.

                  Not that you needed technology to spark your enthusiasm.
         You could get worked up over a common landscaping
                  tool: in “Song of the Broad-Axe,” the implement
works like a magic wand, conjuring the solid forms
         of American life out of thin air. “The axe leaps!”
                  you write, “the solid forest gives fluid utterances,

                  They tumble forth, they rise and form, / Hut, tent,
         landing, survey, / Flail, plough, pick, crowbar, spade,”
                  your lines starting and stopping as the axe rises
and falls and the poet chops away, not even pausing
         for breath: “Shingle, rail, prop, wainscot, jamb,
                  lath, panel, gable,” the parts turning into larger

                  and larger wholes, into “academy, organ, exhibition-house,
         library,” and then “Capitols of States, and capitol
         of the nation of States, / Long stately rows in avenues,
hospitals for orphans or for the poor or sick, / Manhattan
         steamboats and clippers taking the measure of all seas.”
                  Whew! If you could ride all over the world on an axe head,

                  skimming the wavetops like a surfer, think where
         you might have gone in a Ford pickup. You look at tools
                  the way you look at people. They’re just fine by you,
every one of them. You love anything that connects
         with the divine yet knows every second, every hour,
                  every day that it came from the earth, is gritty,

                  is smeared with grease, oil, blood, the ink of a scribe,
         the soot from a blacksmith’s forge, the rust from
                  a slave bracelet. Could be an auger or a chisel.
Could be a woman of “live rosy body and a clean
         affectionate spirit.” Could be a fuel-injected Stingray,
                  a deuce coupe, a four-speed, dual-quad, Posi-Traction 409.

                  Or it could just be an old shitcan that starts
         on a winter morning: “You but arrive at the city
                  to which you were destin’d,” you say in another
of your poems, “you hardly settle yourself to satisfaction
         before you are call’d by an irresistible call to depart.”
                  You like to go places. You like to leave.