Two years ago, while driving through New Jersey, I visited Walt Whitman’s home in Camden. It was a cold day, and I was the only visitor all day. They were about to close, but the curator and his intern stayed to tell me all their stories about Walt. But they were also there to make sure I touched nothing. I need to work on this poem some more. As the month goes on, you’ll notice more and more tweaks. Or maybe you won’t.
In Walt Whitman’s Bedroom
No photos, the tour guide warns.
It’s just this college intern and me
on a long gray locks of a day,
standing next to Whitman’s bed.
The one he died in. Not a replica, he recites.
I burn to capture images of his boots,
the paintings on his walls,
a green leather-bound copy of Leaves of Grass,
the piles of paper on a table by a window.
I want to sit down on his narrow bed
where he died in this same month of March.
But the boy watches me carefully.
Other visitors have tried to do the same.
Just one photo? I ask. He shakes his head.
I look out Walt’s window and linger as long as I can.
I am the only one who stopped by today,
and it is time to close. He says
I should not be in Camden after dark.
Outside, on the fake cobblestones,
I take all the photos I want.
I look up at Walt’s window one last time.
Whitman was a sick old man when he lived here.
He revised his verse for the last time.
Let out one final yawp.
The boy locks Walt’s door behind him
and runs across the boulevard to the station.
I get in my car and drive around the block,
where rows of half-burned and boarded-up houses
remind me that Whitman would have found
someone here to celebrate, too.