For Walt Whitman on His 200th Birthday

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If the universe is infinite
It shouldn’t be hard to imagine
a planet some place
that’s exactly like this one
with one small exception:
Walt Whitman’s alive still
and hasn’t left south Jersey
in a century
but figured, for his birthday,
he’d leave Camden
and visit his birthplace
in West  Hills, Long Island
so walked the few blocks
with some fruit that he brought
to the station and just caught
the nine  o  clock bus
took his hat off and got
on board and sat
as they jostled along over former swamps
malarial but beautiful still then,
he thought
confined as they were
had they all sprawled off
like these strangling roads
they couldn’t be worse
he muttered
and slipped to sleep
and dreamt of finding bones
in his potatoes.
Hours later, waking,
as the bus was slowly inching
through the tunnel named for Lincoln
he considered this insult
inspecting his nails
as they crept through the pipe
till they rolled down a ramp
pulled and parked in a spot
And he climbed from his seat
and then up to the street
walking well for a person
two centuries old
with his brown bag of fruit
to Penn Station
The railroad
He rode it to Hicksville
from aptly-named Hicksville
he traveled to West Hills
on foot through the traffic
his beard like a cloud
flowing well past his knees
out of which – like a genie –
he seemed to emerge
and soon word had spread
old Walt Whitman returned

As he strode through the town
a crowd formed about him
surrounded he wavered
a pillar of smoke
and, acknowledging that
he was trapped
he spoke:
It’s been years
since I’ve visited home
caused no minor eruption
of shouts of affection
it isn’t the way I remember
I’ve grown old my friends
have all been gone
for many generations when
your great grandparents
were but children
I was old already then
And I have changed my views
on many things
I’ve seen the introduction
of the railroads
and the damage
that the highways wrought
the cities’ great putridities
we feel have been extinguished
although feeling isn’t thinking
for their forms have but
transmogrified
The public peace –
how can there be a public
or a private peace
amidst such pollution – the noise
desecration of air, lungs, bodies
of water
all of the harm
that we do one another
peace would be advanced far more
through loafery
for people work excessively
are sick from working – twice:
from work
as well as from its product, but
alone a work reduction
would be grossly insufficient
for without a proper cleaning
of this mess
of the cities, the slums, the sprawl
the soil, the seas, of the air itself
and the rotten relations
of exploitation of soil
and neighbor alike
it is still a desecration
of all forms of life
Am I the only one who sees
incessant mutilation
formerly bucolic fields
and meadows deformed
the oceans and the fish all sick
the hoarded riches more obscene
more filthy than the streets
of all their necessary slums –
it’s a total disgrace
what we’ve done to this place –
this public war – not public peace
and so must cease as I
must too, he said
as the women and men and children
applauded, dispersed, discussed
what gift to get
him for his bicentenary
and Whitman slipped away to drink
a glass of tea
The heat, I take that energy,
as from the sun itself, why not?
he asked as he set down his cup
and heard the crowd’s decision
what they’d give him
they would crown Walt Whitman
king of all Long Island
all four counties
Montauk’s tip to Queens
and Brighton Beach
Surprising very many in attendance
he accepted
and declared he was prepared
to clean
To shut down the Expressway,
and the Parkway, all the
on ramps and the off ramps
would be henceforth
blocked by bollards
to keep out the cars
and benches
every twenty yards
on either side would make it fine
and just like that it’s turned
into an island-spanning park.
Hell, in the center there’s
already quite a strip of grass
and flowers, trees
let’s stretch that out
along each single mile of it
leaving lanes for bicycles
the Brooklyn Bridge to Montauk
bike race isn’t yet in place
but will be
that was his first act as king

His second act was bicycling
from West  Hills to Fort  Greene –
at every place along the way
enormous crowds acclaimed
his proclamations of peace
had filled the streets
and soon he was climbing
the monument’s steps
a granite hill rising up
out of the sea
of people applauding
and reaching the top he announced
his decree –
since all the land was his, as king,
collecting rent
would forthwith cease
together we’ll endeavor, old
Walt Whitman said,
a new and better way to live

The third decree concerned
Fort  Greene and every other
park as well whose bounds
he commanded expanded
Twenty blocks in each direction
Who’d object to such a thing?
to step outside to find
instead of cars and heaps of trash
a cabbage or a melon patch
or trees perhaps and grass
Well, far more than you’d think
Though still a small minority
and this is a democracy
regardless of my sovereignty
constraints must be imposed,
you know, on wicked things
like poverty and property –
two aspects of one unity –
and how will this be realized?
perhaps it will be organized
according to a system I devised
comprised of colleges
one in every neighborhood
and that’s where we’ll produce
the food and housing, electricity,
the transportation, sanitation,
medical facilities,
schools for making movies,
and departments for the parks,
departments for putting out fires
departments developing bicycle tires
everything a democratic college
federation requires
not for profit, or exchange –
but for free, i.e., for its own sake
a real high probability
that all of this is happening
in outer space someplace
if it’s, in fact, the case
that this old universe is infinite

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