Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Friday, October 15, 2010

Sunday, October 3, 2010


My days in the Cambodian POW camp were a strange mixture of the exuberantly mundane, bitchily sublime, and hauntingly bittersweet. By the end I found myself transfigured, no longer a man but something new and different than anything that had come before me: a vertex between the quivering legged entrails that are lifeforms and the bodiless unconquerable intellect of the spectral cosmic god things.

Mornings, they served us crepes and anchovies on little platters made from unrolled bean cans. We spent our afternoons learning to knit coconut cozies and little change purses from the skin of earthworms. For entertainment they let us host poetry slam contests or perform plays on a little makeshift stage on the bank of the Mekong. The inmates who had been punished for this indiscretion or that, were allowed to watch our shows from their mostly submerged bamboo cages. I remember the guy we called Minneapolis, a gaunt semi toothless pterodactyl pilot from Key West who spoke in anagrams and liked to eat his boogers. His plays were best and I remembered feeling the uncontrollable urge to strangle him in his sleep the time when our lead captor, the little Cambodian we called Saber Tooth Mike, called him to his hut after one premiere to feast on monkey nuggets and drink fermented Gatorade wine. But I got over it.

At least that's when I decided upon my plan to abscond. To find a way out, get back to my wife and our 10 Pomeranians: Duchess, Chunkles, Wilber Bean, Criminey Jickets, Sloop John B, Doug E. Fresh, Corporal Dingbat, Carrie Underwood, Gunky, Crampon, Gorgeous George, Grampa Funnynuts, and little Doodypoops Jr. After quite an ordeal I finally made it back to the States and I was given a hero's welcome. Unfortunately, I'd taken too long and my wife had rewed, married a used dishwasher salesman from Toledo.

Finally, I found myself sitting in my old Duster, parked on a pier that overlooks Long Island Sound and it dawned on me that those days in the camp were the best of my life and that oftentimes we try so hard to escape a place only to realize when it is too late that it was the one place where we ever truly belonged.


Monday, September 6, 2010

Screwed and Tattoed...

I once saw a guy with a tattoo of an eagle ripping through the flesh of his bicep with its talons. I have something like that except it’s not an eagle, it's perpetual torment; and it's not on my bicep, it's on my soul; and it’s not a tattoo, it's real.

Sunday, September 5, 2010

I thought about sessile organisms; some casual waxings on the immobile life

I thought about sessile organisms;
some casual waxings on the immobile life

By mykl sivak

Saturday, September 25, 2004/Sunday September 5, 2010

An Introduction

It’s a nice day. Lukewarm and breezy. This is appropriate for this time of year, when summer shifts to autumn.

In some spots, I’ve noticed the a few impatient leaves beginning to change color. But not here, not just yet. Through the bug-splattered and cigarette smoke hazed glass of my S-10’s windshield it looks like summer. The electrical towers stand in a long row, perched here and there on little hillcrests, beside little Connecticut gullies, along the clear-cut grid-path that cuts a strange swath of scrub brush and grasses from some far away place to some other far away place. Between the towers, the wires dip. Beneath the wires, happy grasshoppers flitter. Their wings are like black and green flags.

The towers look like static robots, sentinels. Perhaps waiting for the moment when they will roll to life to defend humanity from some extraterrestrial threat, defend my precious life. Or maybe they would be the destroyers. Lash at us with their long electrically charged whips. We would stand no chance.

Our little fried-black corpses would litter suburban streets like the dried carcasses of so many rain-drowned earthworms. In the sunny aftermath, little squirrels and robins might peck flecks of tar-black flesh from our charcoal bodies. The deer would step unafraid, in their masses of hundreds, from the wooded nooks that surround our still perfect, former homes to lick the little salty crystals that crust our burned dermises, set them sparkling in the sun like black jewels. That would be weird.

This past week (2004), someone fucked up. The unnamed culprit, an employee of the Stratford, Connecticut sewage plant, failed to properly shut some valve. The result was four million gallons of untreated effluence poured into the Housatonic River and Long Island Sound. Needless to say, when my cousin Johnny and I set out fishing, we went to other spots. The environmental faux pas seemed good impetus to try our hands at freshwater game for a change.

After a quick stop at Wal-Mart for lures, polarized sunglasses and an impulse-purchased camouflage cowboy hat, we continued to Monroe’s Wolf Park to toss our lines into the water and see if we could nab some state-stocked trout, or whatever. The fishing was futile —not a single nibble—but John-boy caught a tiny brown toad that proceeded to urinate all over his fingers in traditional toad fashion. As he rinsed the toad piss from his fingers, I plunged my forearms into the water, plucked a couple of the multitude of freshwater mussels that littered the pond’s muddy bottom and inspected them in my fingertips. Underwater, some rested in a position I would consider vertical, their ghost-white feet exposed, in the copper-brown pond water.

These mussels are rare, disappearing, and inedible to people. Their demise is linked to pollution, damming, and over-harvesting by the old pearl-button and man-made pearl industries. Many are on federal endangered species lists.

I suspect it would not be difficult to bring these benign mollusks back to their former abundance—I doubt they are difficult to farm, they need little in terms of sustenance, and in an environment free of predation and pollution, there is no reason to think they would not thrive.


Animals like these mollusks are beautiful to me in their lack of the more stereotypical animalian characteristics. They possess a virtual lack of mobility—the stony carapace that surrounds them is an evolutionary trade-off for the mobility and other, more-active forms of defense. Essentially, such bivalves have only one defense, the shell, and if it is breached, then hope of survival is nil. If plucked from the water by some wily vertebrate with cunning enough to pry open or crack the shell, or sever the ligament that holds shut the shell’s hinge, what is a mussel to do? The answer is surely nothing. In such an instance, the poor bi-valve can merely wait and maybe quiver, shoot one last load of piss from its anus, until enough of its soft mass is consumed to shut down whatever processes are occurring within to keep it living. Perhaps there is some mollusk “bright light,” or some flood of dopamine-like hormone that floods the thing’s cells and grants some type of tissular death-orgasm to the nearly consumed beast. But I doubt it. Most likely, there is some type of pain, that flashes across the mindless meat, until communication between its systems break down and the thing flickers bit by bit into equivalent unconsciousness. And the happy raccoon bumbles away satiated, leaving a punctuated trail of little clam-farts behind in its path.
So, the shell has overtaken the bivalve’s existence.

Such mollusks begin and end with the shell, and it is the shell by which we define them: bivalves. It is all we have to go on. We do not define our own species similarly (sure we know we are vertebrates with mammary glands but we know this is not the extent of us). We are not conversationally named for the four valves of our hearts, or our vertically mobile ways. We call ourselves by a word that means nothing but that which it refers to. It is self-referential. A man is a man. We are human beings. The latter term referring to the state of existence we share with all that exists, and yet we reserve its use only for our own genetically near-identical ilk. When that guy once stated as a point-of-fact Cognito Ergo Sum, he was speaking of people exclusively. But plenty is that does not think, not in human terms at least, and the presence of netted nerves as opposed to a brain, or the lack of any nervous system at all, clearly does not preclude existence. It is a preposterous thing to even consider.

I believe the word human refers to the whole of that being, that is to say, the sum of our many parts, physical, mental, philosophical and otherwise. Perhaps it also indicates the indefinable, the fact that many current anthropologists (and similarly soft scientists) refuse to accept the existence of something that could be irrefutably called human nature. But is such thinking zoologically conservative or liberal? For surely it is political, ultimately. Is the credit we grant ourselves in such a refusal to stereotype our species founded? Or is it only so-much wishful thinking? I suspect there is a human nature, and like certain mollusks, it is bi-valved. We have our programming, which also dictates that it strive to work against itself. It is a program that seeks its own recoding. It is a self-fulfilling thing. It does what it is told by disobeying, and in the end we all live similarly unsettled existences. At any rate, most of us share the audacity to assume we are in control of our own respective personae. Those who do not, often assume that some spectral and cosmological intelligence is, and that we as individuals possess some special gift to appeal to it personally and influence the trajectory of the time and entropy it controls. But in the end, all of this abstraction is still encapsulated and contained within our soft bloody bodies. Unlike bivalves, our bodies happily express and divulge (through languages spoken, gesticulated and culturally implied) the abstract processes that occur at every moment across the nerve masses held within our brain cases. A mollusk’s shell and its associated immobility divulge no such secrets. The shelled mollusks are not communal beasts, but they are no less connected to members of their own species, nor the other biological, geological and cosmological phenomena of our shared existence, the universe (for example, their reproduction is sexual though passive and ultimately non interactive, a feature we perhaps ultimately share but which is masked by our own cultural and communicative processes and assumptions, i.e. date night). In considering this, I suspect one thing: human nature may find its definition in that fact that we define ourselves, not at the cellular level, nor at the gene-level, nor at the group or sociological level, but at the level of the individual organism. The myth of human pairing or clustering is just that, fallacious. Even a loner is philosophically gregarious, our intellect and modality make us disseverable from our species. We contemplate our lives and formulate our concepts through the abstraction of a language we cannot possess nor express without the interaction of others. Take away language and man cannot make sense of himself or his world. A man is not a mollusk, and if he cannot formulate concepts with the tool of language, he will not be successful as an organism, let alone as a human, specifically.
Unlike the turtle, aardvark, or snail (also a shelled mollusk)—whose existences visibly reach beyond their armor, exist in happy compromise between security and experience—the bivalve is defined by its morphology. Its evolutionary state seems structured upon an unwavering “trust” in the environments and ecosystems for which they are specialized. For example, a larval freshwater mussel must, for the first few weeks of its existence parasitically attach itself to the fins or gills of a host fish. In fact, some species can only develop upon individuals of a particular species of fish (CT DEP: Freshwater Mussels).
Such overspecialization may prove the ultimate undoing these species and the lack of such specialization may explain why humans have been so “successful” in such a relatively short time and why we continue to destroy the necessary and previously balanced situations for countless other species. Instead of adapting to environments, we make environments adapt to us. Such behavior may be evolutionarily shortsighted, but evolution, like humanity en masse, is neither intelligent nor pragmatic; it does what works until it works no longer. Ultimately, nature will amend its evolutionary blunders and try something new or it will abandon a particular strand as obsolete, forever (Steve Ross, I understand this is automatic, I am not seeking to anthropomorphize the evolutionary process).

This is not to say we are somehow worse than a clam, nor to aggrandize these guys. The bivalve’s security is only superficial. I doubt we will ever see a future—somehow post-apocalyptic—in which the Earth has become the undisputed realm of the clam. But even this statement divulges the nature of human thought: we see this place as ours; we consider existence in terms of alpha positioning. It is a predatorial mindset. We speak of the age of the fishes, or dinosaurs, or mega-fauna, but obviously these creatures represent only one facet of an extremely complex special-continuum in each given epoch and across all of time. We seem to define geologic moments by food-chain dominance; perhaps, this is a totally flawed approach. A single lion feeds on populations of many thousands of herd animals. Which species is more successful? By being delicious, easy to domesticate, and genetically pliable to humans, species like cows and corn now exist in numbers far beyond where they would be without their human benefactor-parasites. The question may be complex for the bovine stock, but it would be difficult to argue that the quality of life for domesticated corn plants is not vastly improved by its relationship with man. As the dinosaurs, trilobites, Neanderthals, and so on, rose to food-chain dominance and then disappeared other more ancient things went on unabated, things like blue-green algae, sporozoans, ferns and bivalves, just to name a few, continued on and on along their evolutionary paths essentially unabated continually. Should success be defined by continual existence instead? By stalwart morphological and behavioral coherence? And do such consideration matter at all outside of the human mind? Probably not. None of this is to say, after all that a clam is any less evolved than a man. We are obviously all equally evolved, as it appears that most life found its genesis in a single early incident. The genome tells us this. And since it is not sentient except in the mind of certain of its composite individual parts, Life should not care what form it takes, or if it takes any form at all. However, if continual existence can be consider as a goal of Life, albeit a self-unrecognized goal, then the variety of that existence probably doesn’t matter. It is difficult to state without question that Life does not seek to continue on, that it does not have a goal, since it is clear that if there is one thing all life has in common it is the uncontrollable urge to reproduce, often at great risk or cost of death to the individuals seeking to spread their genetic seeds.


Many mobile organisms have evolved methodologies and behaviors for breaking the bivalve’s sole defense. Gulls, for example, pluck them from the mud, then fly up and drop them from their bills down to the shore stones, cracking the shells and exposing the meat. Even the little, seemingly-skittish and benevolent mummichug minnow can find its way into the shells of mussels and pick them clean with their bony teeth.

The soft-shell clam and other so-called “gapers” epitomize the weirdness of the continued evolutionary process. The soft parts of such clams grow fat and plump, beyond the limits of their shells—the flesh remains perpetually exposed. In a sticky situation, the muscles of these clams will flex, a residual reflex from the days when their ancestors had shells wide enough to seal off their tender bits. But the squeezing is always to no avail. Even their thick, fleshy siphons stick out a full inch when fully retracted. And so, if unearthed from their muddy burrows, they’re fucked. Crabs will gladly pick holes in the exposed clams’ bodies with pincers. The only hope of such clams is to remain buried; they have kept the immobility, but now lack the protective shell for with mobility was once traded away.

The hard-shell clam is a different story. Its beds are subtidal. Unlike the soft shells, there are no tell-tale piss holes to betray their locations; their shells are thick and strong and calcareous. Holding a hard-shell in one’s hand, one is impressed by the weight, substance and solidness of the creature. It has the constitution, consistence and apparent solidity of a stone, but with the sublime geometry of a living thing [see footnote]. Even the hinge, the tough tendon that links the shell’s valves is thick and leathery to the touch. It is a formidable Achilles’ tendon, to cut through it would be a daunting task for anything without access to a well-sharpened blade or a pot of boiling water in which to cook the beast alive, or a pitcher’s arm with which to smash it open against some seaside stone. In New England they are called Quohog, here in Connecticut that name requires a little effort, and many people just call it the clam.

Footnote: It is interesting to consider, the divergence in form between genetic, geologic and astral evolution, the sublimity and complexity of biological processes and morphology versus other physical forms. Of course there is a biological bias, but it is difficult to argue that biological processes do not surpass the others in these terms, and certainly they are far more rapid. A galaxy is amazing and beautiful but is formed haphazardly by only the forces of physics, randomness, and entropy. The structures and systems of life, though also the product of chance and surely not by conscious design, still exist to serve undeniable particular purposes (i.e. an eye is there to absorb light, the heart to deliver oxygen to all parts of a body). Streamlining is essential and automatic. The sun burns for no particular purpose at all, its fission the result of basic forces at work. I will be writing further on this topic in subsequent posts.

I’ve been told questing for this apparently tasty bounty requires patience—wading waste-deep at low tide, combing sandy bottoms with clam rakes—but some opt for a more primitive approach: going in shoeless, sinking one’s toes deep into the subtidal loam and feeling for clams with one’s feet. Such a process seems to offer a Zen repose to post-modern living, and seems a more than respectable way to gather one’s own dinner. However, for those of us along Long Island Sound, eating any filter feeder requires an act of courage; the water here is polluted and dirty, and clams actively suck up pollutants even more than a sponge. But this is life on Long Island Sound.

To be continued…

Next time: The Zen of hunting/gathering, and the barnacle’s big dick

Here's a great guide put out by the CT DEP on the state's freshwater Mussels:
Guide To Freshwater Mussels

Naturalism: The Sound of Effluence

Read this:
Late June: Silver Sands State Park, Milford, Connecticut.

The sun is behind us, sinking down behind the tall sea grasses where the beach meets the fen and beyond that the trees at the estuary’s end. Red-winged black birds call out. Their voices are wet and warbling, vaguely robotic, modem-like. I think of dinosaurs.

Above us the atmosphere is thick with wispy orange clouds hanging down, moving beneath a sky of pink-blue ether. It looks like gingery velvet, the fuzz of some giant inverted peach.

The air is calm, warm like an embryonic bath. Everything seems beautiful.

Upon the rocks that break the waters’ waves, my cousin Johnny stands fishing. Beyond him, upon the now submerged land bridge that stretches from the beach all the way out to Charles Island, wading fishermen stand. The men are wearing chest waders, casting off fishing lines into the deeper water surrounding them. They are pillars, all of flesh and neoprene, and the sound swells up around them. I can almost feel the cool early summer water pressing the rubber against their dry legs and torsos as if I ‘m out there too. And small light flick in their hands, suggesting a few of the men are smoking cigarettes. Dusk rolls in slowly around them.
Soon, the moon has risen fat and white, its rays chopped to bits by the wrinkled waters’ surface, transformed to tiny speckles of light that look like silver-side shiners skipping and swimming through the short crested waves.

The big fish, the stripers and bluefish, feed at night, and the moon’s illusionary baitfish seem to have whetted their appetites even more. In the distance tail fins slap at the surface, and something keeps getting away with our bait.

We’re fishing with chunks of melting mackerel, and our reserves are getting thin. Two straight hours of stolen bait have literally eaten up the three, foot-long baitfish into little more than tails, the heads sacrificed to the wire bait-trap, which has yet to bear minnowy fruit.

But then my old pole arcs, bending sharply ‘til it seems it might snap. The line on my grandfather’s old Mitchell reel grows taut. I jerk back the poll, setting the hook, then reel in my catch.
When the line’s end breaks the waters’ surface at the shore, a foot-long Striped Bass is displayed, dangling by the lip. I drop it down to the sand, remove the hook with my fingers, and place the fish back in the water. It swims away with a splash.
It is the last catch of the night. Lone save the small Sea Robin-- a locally opulent fish known for its large wing-like fins, toey appendages, and ability to produce a barking sound via an evolutionarily creative use of air bladders when brought to land-- my cousin had hooked before I’d even arrived.

The tide recedes and the fish stop biting. As we pack up our supplies and grab a few beer and soda cans that someone else had left along the breakwater rocks, fireworks plume in the summer sky. They look like the photoluminescent cells of some magnificent and immense jellyfish. The fuchsia, crimson, grass-green light the fireworks cast mingles with the moonlight upon the waters’ surface. And everything seems really alright.

I’ve been spending a lot of time at the sound lately. Fishing with my cousin when the tide is high. Bluefish, Striped Bass, Flounder and Sea Robins are our quarry. I toss in my bait trap, dredging up mummichugs, shrimps, green crabs and fiddlers.

When the tide is low, I rummage the tide pools. Sifting through sea grasses, overturning stones, avoiding broken bottles and human litter jetsam, I search for mollusks and salt-water arthropods.

There is always life: large harmless horseshoe crabs, hermit crabs, quahogs and steamers, whelks, snails, sandworms, mussels, barnacles and all the shore crabs and shrimps. I pick them up with bare hands, feel the weight of their beings, photograph them for posterity and sketch them out on paper later. But the feelings these outings instill in me are conflicting.

There is garbage everywhere, and the unseen pollutants are even more abundant.

At Short Beach in Stratford, the brackish flow that runs out to the sound from the estuary sieves past a small mountain of trash bags and waste, the municipal landfill. At Silver Sands State Park, beach access involves a walk down a long boardwalk perched above an estuary laden with literal tons of littered rubbish. The beach itself is broken by yards of out-of-use piping that once rested beneath the road that at one time traces the shoreline. The road, though mostly hidden, is still there. Large stretches of cracked and broken asphalt jut out from beneath the sand in places. Dislocated chunks clutter the rocky portions of the shore, and twisted mangled lengths of rebar stick up here and there along the length of the beach.

Against the backdrop of seeming maritime seclusion, these rusted and sullied artifacts seem almost post-apocalyptic. Perhaps in reality, they are pre-apocalyptic portents, shadows of a future that will inevitably arrive, a time when everything is quiet wilderness all strewn with the crumbling relics of a destructive ill-fated race.

After all, everything is connected. We live upon a planet of entirely symbiotic species. This fact is undeniable. We need each other, or at least, Homo sapiens needs the other species. Save e coli and other microbes specially evolved to live within and upon the human body, our necessity as members of the biome is ambiguous. Even our puppy dogs could continue on easily without us, though admittedly, silkworm moths could not.

In Connecticut, humanity’s effect on the environment is being felt hard. According to the Connecticut Department of Environmental Protection, there are six species of endangered, threatened and special concern fish in the state’s waters.

As well as the fish, there are seven amphibian, 11 reptile, 12 mammal, 54 bird, 143 invertebrate, and 347 plant species listed as endangered, threatened or special concern in the state.

Of these 580 total species, 173 are believed to be completely extirpated.

Included in this list of extirpated species, species once plentiful but now entirely gone from this land, are plants and animals ranging from the Slender Willow to the Yellow Lampmussel to the Eastern Cougar.

Never again will we know the anxious thrill of encountering in the woodlands of this state a wild cougar, an animal the Native Americans called “friend of man.” However, two fine specimens could , at one point, have been viewed stuffed and posed above a similarly taxidermied elk, enhancing the internal superficies of a certain sporting goods store located on the post road in West Haven. I saw them while browsing for fishing tackle.

Reading the long list of disappearing species, my heart fills with sadness. Some of the names of these animals are quite beautiful in their descriptiveness. Without seeing the creatures and plants, I can envision their morphology by reading their names alone.

Invertebrates with names like sparkling jewelwing, Appalachian blue, sleepy duskwing and crimson-winged whiteface; plants such as dew-drop, blazing star autumn willow, lizard’s tail, little ladies’-tresses, heart leafed golden Alexander’s, and winged monkey-flower; birds called blue winged teal, little blue heron, snowy egret and yellow-crowned night heron.

It seems so ironic that the very species which gave these plants and animals names of such sincere poetry, would be the very same to abuse them to the point of near extinction.

It is obvious that the depletion of all these species is somehow connected. The list’s inclusion of both the Sedge plant and a butterfly called the Sedge Skipper seems to illustrate this fact verily.

The Striped Bass I caught that night at the beach was fat with PCBs.According to the Connecticut Department of Public Health, Blue Fish and Striped Bass caught in the waters of Long Island Sound are a certain health risk to anyone who eats them. The DPH advises that pregnant women, those who plan on becoming pregnant, nursing mothers and children under the age of six should never eat these fish. Moreover, anyone not included in this group should not eat meals containing these fish more than six times per year.

PCBs, or polychlorinated biphenyls, build up in the bodies of fish and the humans who eat them, eventually causing cancer and health defects.

The DPH further advises that most types of fish caught in the Housatonic, Quinnipiac and Eight-Mile rivers, should never be eaten by anyone ever. They extend this warning to include fish from Brewster Pond in Stratford, Wyassup Lake in North Stonington, Union Pond in Manchester, Dodge Pond in East Lyme, lake McDonough in Barkhamsted, Silver Lake in Berlin, and Versailles and Peppermill ponds in Sprague. In fact, the DPH doesn’t advise that anyone eat any fish caught anywhere in the State of Connecticut any more than one meal per month.

According to the United States Environmental protection Agency, pollutants of all types are present in varying degrees in water bodies all across Connecticut. These polluting agents include: PCBs, mercury, chlordane, bacteria, lead, copper, ammonia, zinc, landfill solids, de-icing agents from airports, “urban runoff,” creosote, metals, pathogens from septic runoff, biochemicals, nitrites, cadmium and chromium.

To be continued…

Friday, June 18, 2010

Late at night I saw two deer while biking

Saw two deer again tonight at Silver Sands Park. Perhaps the same two as last time. They appeared more as vague blurs, painted a spectral blue-greenish haze from the dim light cast by my drained-battery bike lamp. If I hadn't seen them in the spot a week or so back, I might not have have recognized them, plowed right into one. Not ten feet before me they appeared more like smudges, two mushed fingerprints, than large beasts, but I recognized them, and I squeezed the brakes, and the rubber brake pads squealed against my steel rims. They must have been transfixed. What did I look like to them?

While I was blinded by darkness, everything smeared to a pixelated mess in the orangey light from quite distant streetlamps (perhaps even some from a passing tanker or spinning lighthouse), were they blinded by the pinprick of blue LED at my handlebars? I don't know. But the breaks' sound made them move fast. Their hooves clacked, but not really. Some other sound, animal protein against asphalt. One, two, three, and a few more, falling more rapidly with each step. And they moved past my lamp's beam, their forms dispersing in the vague darkness like iodine drops in black tea. For a moment, I felt somehow affected, and the hill began to rise before me. I pulled up on the handlebars and pushed down on the peddles. A frog croaked in some invisible pool. And my heart shuddered in a weird way. It was something like fear or sadness. Maybe it was that old unknown. I imagined blurry coyotes bounding from the briers. I wondered if the deer remembered me from last time. Back on the main road, gliding downhill past houses, television blue windows, a man drinking beer in his garage, something struck me.

I imagined a mosquito bite hidden beneath fur, on the flesh of a deer. Thought how the bugs that had drunk from my warm body drank from theirs as well. And I wondered if we were both drawn to that place and time for similar reasons. The lack of people, the silent sounds, the distant light of stars and barges, and the cool night wind and atmosphere unlike the daytime hours. I could not harm those deer, and they would not harm me, but we are forever separate. Related only distantly, and though we may share similarities, or pasts diverged in archaic times. Our paths cannot be reconciled, but only cross from time to time as we bumble alone in the darkness, each of us more relaxed, less worried, away from daylight’s predacious people in the dark cool hours of night.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Poem: "Sleepers"


© 2008-2010
mykl sivak

The seeming primacy
of wakefulness, over
the state of sleep
is, perhaps, necessary
to the perpetuation
of this illusion.

The great trick played
upon the wakeful wanderers—
all bumbling in anxious
alertness ,

interacting with the physical,
gathering energy and experience
to fuel the wakeful state
and the sleeping state
as well.

Stimulated, secretly groggy,
to fight, to fuck, to love,
kill, and consume,
to feast with eyes upon hot light,
with fingertips upon textures,

to sense the frictions and
magma-lubricated slidings
of Earth and its sensory blessings;

experiences to be stored
as memories, a cache of moments
and circumstance to be molded by
the blunt mentality of the sleeping mind.

The sleeping state signifies
a biological/conceptual truth—
Perhaps more honest
than that sensed actively
while in communion between
those late conceived sensory
meatuses and the physical

Because, in both states, each
is still alone— in both states, each
exists in the isolated vacuum
of the individual mind.

Opened eyes present
illusions of active interconnectivity—
of self-control and unity.

But, the sleeping figure merely exists,
and the drowsing mind performs
things secret still to its wakeful self.

The symbols the sleeping mind molds
are playthings and meaningless,
but during wakeful hours, they exist
as reflections of observable physical reality
and are perceived as reflections again
of a supposed psychological-conceptual
reality of abstractions and ideas.

The sleeping figure exists
in the perhaps perfect state
of the fetus and the tuber—
each parasitic in its
organic matrix.

I wake so I may witness,
so I can seek a mate or mates,
perhaps to reproduce, and forge new sleepers
to be added, to this eternal strand
of precariously wakeful beings—

and then to sleep again,
not to merely to rest—
but to return to my default.
To sleep in perfect nature
is to accept, and trust
that nature—

to eschew the fears of the paranoid prey-thing,
to forget the hungry predators, gnarl-toothed
and seething, to ignore the fear of darkness,
and to make darkness one’s own shroud,
to wrap it ‘round oneself, blind one’s eyes
and rouse the dreaming psyche.

To sleep among the horrible constructs
of perverted waking experience
is to negate briefly the foibles and follies
of terrible wakeful life.

The prisoner sleeps with in his cell
atop a metal bunk and wakes
only to stretch out cricks and kinks
of his captive wakeful form.
In sleep the predator becomes passive—
returns to the perfect mindless state
of a pre-predacious world.

The sponge, anemone and algae,
the onion and the herb exist
in perpetual sleepfulness—
and the value of creeping wakefulness
is price of power via destruction.

The predator awoke, it devoured the hapless sleepers—
whose biological formulation trusted random chance,
the inevitability of nourishment and eventual
cessation of being.

The fetus sleeps and wakes unaware of a shifting
of awareness—the darkness, heat and fluid,
the umbilical fuel are constant—
and the moment of birth is an introduction
to the wakeful world—

the world of light, unmuffled sound,
world of atmosphere
and inconsistent temperature—
and is slowly weaned to predation,
wakeful interaction, fear and attachment.

The wakeful mind overtakes the sleeping mind
with its hungers, with its acceptance and need
for wakeful stimuli, wakeful constructs
and conventions

disruptive and destructive,
corrosive, corrupting,

and things are assigned
qualities and meanings—
desires built illogically
and unnecessarily,
necessary only to another,

a battle royal of concepts—
the acceptance of atmosphere
and temporary, temporal existence—
the meaninglessness of motion,
the fluidity of fighting and flying—
the nightly surrender to sleep.

Flaws are constructions
of wakeful consciousness.

The sleeping figure is
without conscious connection—
the air and fuel are there,
the plane upon which the figure
reclines is there –

the body sleeps and it forgets itself,
the limbs become extraneous,
communication becomes nothing.

Slumbering is a shedding—
a brief molting of the bodily shell,
a disengaging from the bodily tools
that serve only wakeful purposes—

Sleep is its own aim,
and the waking state exists
to fuel the sleeping thing.

The physicality of the songbird,
from plumage to song to nesting
and migration, to mating, consume
its life’s short hours—

the sessile thing emits explosions
of sperms and eggs, and trusts
the oceans’ currents to intermingle
atmospheres so seeds will find purchase
in some distant sleeping other—

such trust, still, is a fallacy,
the sessile thing exists only, perhaps,
in some world of invertebrate dreaming—
their “senses” mere triggers to physiologic automata,
the bodily constructs of mindless beasts.

The tree stands until it rots, then crack and falls—
then grows again or fades slowly to a lifeless state,
never once emerging to wakefulness,

because consciousness is the state of the hunter
and the parasite—the fearful and mobile,
the anxious and unaccepting, the self-important,
the distrustful, the dissatisfied and hungry.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Better Mysticism Through Science: Walt Whitman’s Unity of Science and Metaphysics in Leaves of Grass

© mykl sivak
Better Mysticism Through Science: Walt Whitman’s Unity of Science and Metaphysics in Leaves of Grass

Beyond thy lectures learn’d professor,
Beyond thy telescope or spectroscope observer keen, beyond all
Beyond the doctor’s surgery, anatomy, beyond the chemist with
his chemistry,
The entities of entities, eidólons

(Whitman 8, lines 61-64).

Even upon a merely cursory reading of Leaves of Grass, it should be clear to most readers that the sciences occupied a highly important position in the poetic and philosophical worldview of Walt Whitman as expressed in his lifelong project. Whitman himself stressed the importance of science in his poetry in one of his anonymously written self-reviews of Leaves as Edward Hungerford describes in his article “Walt Whitman and His Chart of Bumps”:

[Whitman’s] determination to base his work solidly upon science is made apparent: ‘Not geology, nor mathematics, not chemistry, nor navigation, nor astronomy, nor anatomy, nor physiology, nor engineering, is more true to itself than Walt Whitman is true to them’ (Hungerford 369).

What exactly it was that so sparked Whitman’s imagination and led him to include so much scientific material into his writings is up to interpretation. Indeed, there has been much scholarly criticism completed that investigates the positioning of science in the works of Whitman; and for as many articles on this subject there are nearly as many divergences of opinion. To do true justice to the subject matter, as well as the various facets of the critical discussion, is certainly far beyond the scope of this brief essay. I will, however, attempt to present as comprehensive a primer as possible in the space available by directly investigating excerpted passages from the text of Leaves of Grass and a diverse selection of criticism on this subject. The end result will be a thorough interpretation of the position and role of science in the poetic works of Walt Whitman.

It is common knowledge that Whitman was highly influenced by Emerson and the Transcendentalists. However, to categorize Whitman as a true Emersonian is probably incorrect. Joseph Beaver, in his book Walt Whitman—Poet of Science, expresses the distinction as follows: “...Emerson held that man was the measure of the universe; Whitman held that the universe was the measure of man. To Whitman, man is the ‘microcosm of all Creation’s wildness’” (Beaver 125). Elsewhere he states, “... [T]o Emerson, science was a confirmation of the moral laws; to Whitman, the laws of science, as he understood them, were the moral laws” (Beaver 123). It is clear from these brief excerpts that to Beaver the primary deviation between Whitman and the Emersonian Transcendentalists is the positioning and interpretation of science within the respective philosophical paradigms of these people. Emerson, as is illustrated in his essays such as Nature, expressed the belief in a profound and mystical connection between the individual and nature. He constructed a complicated framework, through which the individual, the Deity, and nature interact. Though such a construction shares certain thematic similarities with the worldview espoused by Whitman, there are indeed some major differences. As if evoking the call to “simplify” so enthusiastically championed by that other most-famous of Emerson’s disciples Henry David Thoreau, Whitman’s universal structure is more direct and arguably more self-evident than the oftentimes ambiguous construction of Emerson. As Beaver puts it:

“Whitman, indeed, felt no contradiction between his ‘spirituality’ and his science. His aim, rather, was to combine scientific materialism and what critics usually call his mysticism” (Beaver 129).

Arthur Wrobel, in his article “Whitman and the Phrenologists: the Divine Body and the Sensuous Soul” concurs with this notion: “On the whole, Whitman’s early thinking is essentially materialistic monism” (Wrobel 21). Many critics share Wrobel’s opinion that Whitman’s worldview is indeed one of materialism, including Kepner who writes: “...the emphasis Whitman places on a kind of mystical oneness seems to be completely incompatible with a materialistic, scientific point of view” (Kepner 181). Though there is occasional mention of God in the poet’s works, It seems clear that in Whitman’s conception, there is no anthropomorphic deity. Indeed, it is arguable that Whitman saw the mere existence of the universe (which Emerson might have viewed as “Creation”) as the pinnacle of the universal structure. In other words, the existence of the Universe is an expression of its own “creation”; the individual is a part of the universe, and science is the study of the laws inherent to the universe. Maximilian Beck writes, in his article “Walt Whitman’s Intuition of Reality,” “...[For Whitman] the value of anything that exists does not lie in its specific quality, in what it is, but purely in its own being” (Beck 14).

It seems Whitman was enamored with existence. He seems to have been fascinated with the inner workings of the Universe, which were profound to him in that through the relation of these laws to himself, he saw the connection between himself and the universe, to use his term, en mass. As Wrobel puts it: “Body and soul are merged into an indivisible One” (Wrobel 20). Alfred H. Marks, in his article “Whitman’s Triadic Imagery,” finds the influence of Hegel’s conception of dualism at the core of what he calls “Whitman’s union of body and soul” (Marks 103): “Since one’s soul belongs to one half of the dualism and one’s body the other, the self which unifies them is certainly a divine synthesis, both actually and symbolically” (Marks 103). Though this may be true, I believe it is somewhat difficult to nail down precisely what Whitman is referring to when he refers to “the soul.” It is in this single concept that Whitman’s greatest conceptual ambiguity may be expressed; for though he speaks often of the soul, I do not believe he ever explicitly distinguishes it from the physical existence of the individual. Beaver seems to concur with this notion: “Whitman’s materialistic mysticism, his repeated assertion that the body is the soul, that it is only through the body that the soul is realized...” (Beaver 98). Kepner alludes to Whitman’s scientific understanding of Newton’s laws of thermodynamics and electrical theory as being implicit to his “mystical” conceptualization of the individual’s place in the universe: “We never see a material shape without also seeing an ‘immaterial’ behavior, because matter and energy are completely inseparable” (Kepner 189). Indeed, throughout Leaves of Grass there is a constant reiteration of the concept of “the seen” as paired with its antithetical companion “the unseen.” One example of the thesis/antithesis of the visible and the invisible comes from Section 16 of “Song of Myself”:

“(The moth and the fish-eggs are in their place, | The bright suns I see and the dark suns I cannot see are in their place, | The palpable is in its place and the impalpable is in its place.)” (Whitman 40, Lines 351-354).

Implicit in these lines is the concept of visibility and invisibility. It seems that the primary difference between these concepts rest within the limitations/abilities of the physicality of the individual. By using the terms “palpable” and “impalpable,” Whitman emphasizes the existence of these things while expressing that the reason they are unseen is based on the individual’s inability to see them, not in their inherent invisibility. This relates to Kepner’s notion of ‘material shapes” and their inseparable “immaterial behavior”(Kepner 189). in other words, Whitman understood that just because something could not be seen, did not mean it did not exist, or more accurately, that it was not a part of the physical world. This concept is strong in Whitman’s writing and may represent the basis for his grouping the body and soul together as one unified unit. Kepner states: “Whitman thinks he has found a common ground between materialism and idealism, between scientific truth and mystical truth...” (Kepner 182). To Whitman, these to truths represent the palpable and impalpable potions of a single unified One. “Whitman denies the existence of neither God nor atom; but he challenges the assumption that the truth of our Being can be explained in terms of only God or only the atom” (Kepner 186). Aspiz also addresses the importance cosmic law has in Whitman’s poetry, and how the poet placed these laws in relation to the individual: “The most magnificent poems in this [second] edition...are all testimonials to the cosmic laws governing and perfecting mankind and to the delicate correspondences between these laws and human experience” (Aspiz 118).

In the preceding passage, Whitman also places these unseen cosmic objects in close proximity to the obviously non-celestial biological forms of “the moth” and “fish eggs;” by doing so, I believe he illustrates that the primary difference between these biological specimens and the celestial objects of the stars, is simply their disproportionate size; and this, in no respect precludes their being listed together as similar objects. In other words, everything, from the very small to the very large, is connected by universal law. This may be Whitman’s concept of a poetical unified theory of the universe (something scientists are still struggling to define today).

It is unclear specifically what Whitman is referring to when he speaks of “dark suns.” It may merely represent a poetic trope designed to express an idea. However, the term seems to allude to a number of specific astronomical phenomena (some of which were unknown in Whitman’s time). The similarity between these real phenomena and the descriptive term “dark suns” may be too close to be merely coincidental. Perhaps the most glaring possibility would be the phenomena of so-called Black Holes, though these were surely unknown in Whitman’s day. Another, more plausible, possibility is linked to the concept of an infinite universe and the speed of light. In an infinite universe there would be an infinite number of stars. That means that every single spot in the night sky would be occupied by a star (or as Whitman called them, a sun). However, light travels at a specific speed, and the further away a light emitting object is from an observer, the longer it takes that light to travel to eyes of said observer. So, if an object was many millions of light years away, it would take many millions of years for the light it emitted to reach the observer. And so, even though there would be an infinite number of stars in the sky, only a certain number would be visible as the light the furthest stars emitted would not yet have reached the Earth. The concept of the speed of light was understood to some extent in Whitman’s time, and some critics have noted the obvious omission of this important and arguably “poetic” scientific concept in Leaves of Grass.

As I will address more fully in a later section. Whitman was quite well versed in the areas of popular and moderately technical astronomy and physics during his lifetime; and though he was well versed in these areas, he often avoided using highly technical astronomical terms in his poetry. Beaver writes: “Though Whitman’s [astronomical] observations are accurate, his terminology is not usually in astronomical jargon; the phrase ‘at night’s meridian,’ for example, has no scientific meaning. And while [Beaver’s] check of all Whitman’s observations of the moon shows that here, too, he was an accurate observer, he does not always use the technical term for the phases of the moon” (Beaver 28). These facts, I believe, open the possibility for the interpretation of the excerpt as I have expressed in the preceding lines; however, like much of Whitman’s tropes, there is a level of ambiguity available to supply the reader with any number of possible interpretations.

As Diane Kepner writes in her article “From Spears to leaves: Walt Whitman’s Theory of Nature in ‘Song of Myself’”: “... [Whitman’s] language of science and nature is always extraordinarily precise and not just mystical metaphor” (Kepner 180). Kepner also adds that: “[Whitman] speaks of matter and its properties, of atoms, of energy and electricity, and of the immutable laws of nature. His overwhelming emphasis on particular objects and his obvious respect for scientific inquiry are consistent with a materialist outlook” (Kepner 180). Though probably no other poet of the nineteenth-century embraced the sciences as much as Whitman, it is clear that the extreme progress made during this period in the areas of secular scientific (as well as philosophical) thought had a great impact on popular society at this time. These rapidly compiling scientific discoveries found their way into the works of a number of poets. Charles I. Glicksburg, in his article “William Cullen Bryant and Nineteenth-Century Science” writes: “Like Wordsworth, Bryant did not believe that poetry must suffer a decline in an age of science and reason” (Glicksberg 93). Christian J. Bay, in his article Some Vital Books in Science: 1848- 1947” discusses some of the ground-breaking scientific studies released during the period in which Whitman was writing. By glossing on the titles of some of these works, it seems likely that Whitman, who was keenly interested in the scientific works of his time, may have found inspiration in these works. Bay writes, “...Humboldt’s “Kosmos first appeared between 1845 and 1849” (Bay 485). It is interesting that the title of this famous work (Spelled the German way) is the same as the idiosyncratic (and for English, improperly spelled) term used often by Walt Whitman in Leaves, as the name of a poem and on multiple occasions in the text; as in Section 24 of “Song of Myself,” when Whitman writes:

“Walt Whitman, a kosmos, of Manhattan the son, | Turbulent, fleshy, sensual, eating, drinking and breeding...” (Whitman 45, lines 497-498).

Another important scientific work of this period cited by Bay is Audubon and Bachman’s The Quadrupeds of North America, published in 1849 (Bay 487). Interestingly, the use of the word “quadrupeds” in the title reminds one of the use of the same word in “Song of Myself,” in a passage cited often by critics as an example of Whitman’s scientific knowledge:

“I find I incorporate gneiss, coal, long-threaded moss, fruits, | grains, esculent roots, | And am stucco'd with quadrupeds and birds all over, | And have distanced what is behind me for good reasons, | But call any thing back again when I desire it” (Whitman 52, lines 469-472).

In this passage, the poet associates himself with the very Earth, and hints toward his vision of a unified nebular hypothesis, that is, cosmic evolution, and biological evolution. “... [T]he nebular hypothesis and the theory of evolution are often interwoven in Leaves of Grass” (Beaver 80) Such unification was common in Whitman’s work. Beaver writes: “... [I]t is frequently difficult to classify Whitman’s scientific references, as many of them involve more than one science and are difficult to separate” (Beaver 80). Indeed, Whitman seemed to have a keen and imaginative sixth-sense for complicated science. Beaver writes: “Before the publication of The Origin of Species, and without knowledge of la Place’s nebular hypothesis, Whitman sensed the scientific truths involved by some sort of intuitive power—Whitman himself saw the nebula cohering to an orb” (Beaver 11).
In the preceding passage Whitman also hints toward a cyclical version of time when he states the speaker’s ability to “call any thing back again.” The reference to evolution ties in with Darwin’s work of this same period. Bay writes: “In 1859 came Charles Darwin’s Origin of Species. In itself, it was epoch making and gave rise to waves of new departures in may fields of thought” (Bay 488). The scientific revolution of the nineteenth-century had at least as strong an effect on Whitman as the works of the Transcendentalists; as Beaver writes:

The astonishing fact is that it is almost impossible to read a page of Leaves of Grass without encountering some sort of scientific allusion, and the total number of passages in which Whitman makes poetic use of scientific materials is certainly greater than the number of pages in Leaves of Grass (Beaver 39).

For Whitman the embracing of science was not limited to the area of astronomical studies. Perhaps more than anything, science found its way into Whitman’s poetry in his exploration of anatomical and physiological subjects. As will be addressed more fully in a later passage, Whitman was extremely influenced (perhaps more than any other scientific, or pseudoscientific, field) by the research of the phrenologists. This strong interest in the human physique is linked to his philosophical conceptualization to the universal laws, and how those laws related to his so-called “mystical” outlook. Aspiz writes:

From the start of his poetic career to his last backward glance, Whitman rejected the dualism of body and soul that had been ingrained in American religious and secular thought. For him the body cannot be vile, for it is the sensuous link to the world of experience; it is the world of experience. It is the only context in which we may understand the world, apprehend the truth, or achieve a state of higher consciousness. This attitude toward the body permitted Whitman to identify with all that is earthly and to translate all promptings and spiritual correspondences into a sensuous, emotion-charged poetic language (Aspiz 248).

As is stated earlier, though references to astronomical phenomena in Leaves of Grass are frequent and important, there is perhaps more emphasis placed on the topic of the human physique in his poetry. That is not to say that the two are mutually exclusive; as I hope I have illustrated to a good extent already, Whitman saw the various scientific fields linked together in a single, “mystical,” universal framework. In fact, it seems that one of the primary projects of Leaves of Grass is the poet’s urge to create a comprehensive fusion of the areas of anatomical, biological, geographical and astronomical sciences (among others), and to intermesh this “super science” with a similarly comprehensive pseudo-mystical philosophical worldview. Also present in Whitman is a touch of what has come to be known as the “Strong Anthropic Principle,” which places humans in a centric observer position in the universe. As Aspiz states: “Whitman’s depictions of the body may be seen as celebrations of his zestful engagement with life, as a revelation of his psyche, or as expressions of his feeling of centrality in the cosmic order” (Aspiz ix). It is perhaps this amalgamation of scientific knowledge with mysticism, along with his possibly Centrally Anthropic conception of the universal superstructure that made it difficult for Whitman to reject the human form as somehow substandard to the “soul.” As Aspiz puts it, “...the soul grows with, and through, the body” (Aspiz 177).

This concept was not entirely novel to Whitman, and some of its roots can be found in the word of the Transcendentalists by whom Whitman was certainly influenced. Aspiz writes: “... [I]n 1848, when Whitman was already dreaming of becoming a poet, [Bronson] Alcott remarked that American poetry must learn to revere the human organism” (Aspiz 242). Aspiz also states: “Also paralleling Whitman’s physiological views, Henry Ward Beech—whose words Whitman was fond of quoting—instructed his congregation that the animal passions are not to be ‘maimed’ but to be ‘trained, guided, restrained...’” (Aspiz 242).

The body is highly important to Whitman. Beaver states: “The science of anatomy was of especial interest to Whitman, supplying as it did detailed information on the body he was, for whatever reason, so profoundly interested in” (Beaver 96). The field of anatomical study that most captured the imagination of Walt Whitman was no doubt the field of phrenology. Though today it has been entirely refuted and invalidated, in Whitman’s day the field was considered to be fairly legitimate and was studies at the nation’s premier institutions of learning. “...phrenology in the mid-nineteenth century was considered a legitimate science, a science, moreover, popular at Harvard an at Yale” (Beaver 97). In England, phrenologists had even gone so far as to perform studies upon the skull of Chaucer; the results of which pleased Whitman in their lusty, manly depiction of the medieval poet (Hungerford 362). the phrenologists, it seems were (at least at first) equally enthusiastic of the poetry of Walt Whitman. As Edward Hungerford presented in his article “Walt Whitman and His Chart of Bumps,” The Phrenological cabinet of Brooklyn was one of the two primary locations to (ostensibly) sell the 1855 edition of Leaves of Grass: “On Friday, July 6, at the bottom of the second column of the first page [of The Tribune], appeared a small notice: ‘Walt Whitman’s Poems, ‘Leaves of Grass,’ IU vol. small quarto, $2, for sale by Swayne, No. 210 Fulton-St., Brooklyn, and by Fowlers and Wells, No. 308 Broadway, N.Y.’ Leaves of Grass was on sale in the Phrenological Cabinet!...John Burroughs recalled that no copies sold” (Hungerford 355).

Perhaps the reason phrenology so sparked the imagination of Walt Whitman was its merging of the mind (or soul) of the individual with his/her physiology. It is perhaps important not to forget that, as Hungerford states: “The only psychology (in the modern sense) which Whitman knew was phrenology” (Hungerford 380). Aspiz states that phrenology also may have attracted Whitman in that its theories had commonalities with things he’d independently come to suspect about the nature of existence: “Phrenology helped Whitman to present his poetic image to the world and to formulate a definition of poetry... [it enabled] him to test the world of experience against his instinctive sense of an ideal world and to correlate material data with spiritual truths” (Aspiz 119). It is probably important to also consider the fact that Whitman was a seriously scientifically minded individual. He believed in scientific observation and empirically tested evidence. This is perhaps why phrenology assisted in his scientifically minded worldview which he had modified to some extent from the more mystical one presented by the Transcendentalists. Arthur Wroble writes, in his article “Whitman and the Phrenologists: the Divine Body and the Sensuous Soul”: “... [Whitman] found in phrenology a scientific confirmation of the merely intuitive truths offered by the Transcendentalists” (Wrobel 22).

Another important consideration is the egotism which is, for whatever reason, so inherent and integral to Walt Whitman. Hungerford offers an in depth recounting of Whitman’s initial experiences with the phrenologists. He states: “... [W]e know that Whitman did go [to the Phrenological Cabinet], and that, one day in July, 1849, he had his bumps read. Walt Whitman was never the same afterward” (Hungerford 362). Hungerford adds: “His ‘chart of bumps’ affected his whole conception of himself...Whitman’s conception of himself is important...That Whitman himself regarded the chart as significant is shown not only from the fact that he preserved it. He had it published five times” (Hungerford 362).

Basically, the way Phrenology works is as follows. The human skull is divided into a series of sections. Each section represents a particular portion or characteristic of the human personality. A phrenologist studies the morphological features a person has in each area, then assigns a number between 1 and 7 for the features in each respective area. As Hungerford explains: “Large development of a desirable organ is good, provided it is not too large. On a scale of 1 to 7, 6 would be very desirable, 7 unfortunate. Too large an organ means a disproportionate, diseased area in the brain. Too small an organ means that a man is lacking in some fundamental quality of human nature” (Hungerford 363). The picture of Whitman expressed by the phrenological reading he received was consistent with the depiction of himself presented in Leaves of Grass: friendly, lusty, amiable, and so on (Hungerford 364). “... [P]hrenology found Whitman an astonishingly developed man” (Hungerford 364).
Wroble sees a direct connection between the poetic/metaphysical nature of the Universe and the view inherent to the phrenologists' art: “Whitman’s own vision of the universe, like that of the phrenologists, stresses its underlying unity, a unity characterized by the exquisite adaptation of all its parts to form an organic and orderly Whole” (Wrobel 18). Indeed, unity is perhaps the best and truest word one can use to describe the fundamental principal of Whitman’s writing. This unity reaches across scientific fields of study, across the apparent divide between science as a whole and the so-called metaphysical, across the divide between the individual, the nature of reality, and the universal laws, and on and on. These concepts link up in an almost cosmic democracy that ties in directly with Whitman’s political and sociological ideologies, and is probably the root of his larger humanism as well as his often stated view of equality across gender lines. Whitman’s view of his role as poet was ultimately one of unity, and crosses the apparent divides of existence. For example, as Edmund Reiss writes in his article “Whitman’s Debt to Animal Magnetism”: “The poet, like the medium, acts as a bridge between the known and the unknown” (Reiss 86).

In conclusion, It seems that Whitman was indeed the “Poet of Science” he claimed to be. He respected the empirical process, and though he was drawn, for example, to schools of thought such as phrenology that would ultimately be invalidated, he was a skeptical and judicious follower of serious scientific progress. Beaver notes that occasionally, Whitman’s position bears strong resemblance to a romantic view of science: “Though Walt Whitman never said anything flatly opposed to science, to men of science, he did on several occasions express feelings which bear a superficial resemblance to what has come to be regarded as the typical ‘romantic’ attitude toward science’ (Beaver 5). However, that resemblance was just that, superficial. It seems that even in Whitman’s so-called metaphysical moments, there is little that can be called outright unscientific about his positions. I believe that, as a religious skeptic, Whitman’s perspective was on par with the leading men of science of his time. Whitman, though short of being a scientist himself, was by no means a scientific poseur. Beaver notes, just “ thoroughly Whitman went about educating himself in the sciences—how, not content with any one book on the subject, Whitman would add to, supplement, talk to informed persons, write down abstracts and summaries, and compile his own elaborate notebooks on the subject he happened to be studying” (Beaver 8). Ultimately, Whitman’s writing represents a uniting force within the fields of science and metaphysics; and the poetry isn’t bad either.

Works Cited

Aspiz, Harold. “Walt Whitman and the Body Beautiful.” Chicago: U. of Illinois P., 1980.

Bay, J. Christian. “Some Vital Books in Science: 1848-1947.” Science, New Series. 107.2785 (May 14, 19480: 485-491.

Beaver, Joseph. “Walt Whitman—Poet of Science.” New York: Octagon Books, 1974.

Beck, Maximilian. “Walt Whitman’s Intuition of Reality.” Ethics. 53.1 (Oct. 1942): 14-24.

DeLancey, Mark. “Texts, Interpretations, and Whitman’s ‘Song of Myself’.” American
Literature. 61.3 (Oct. 1989): 359-381.

Glicksberg, Charles I. “William Cullen Bryant and Nineteenth-Century Science.” The New England Quarterly. 23.1 (Mar. 1950): 91-96.

Hungerford, Edward. “Walt Whitman and His Chart of Bumps.” American Literature. 2.4 (Jan.1931): 350-384.

Kepner, Diane. “From Spears to leaves: Walt Whitman’s Theory of Nature in ‘Song of Myself’.” American Literature. 51.2 (May 1979): 179-204.

Marks, Alfred H. “Whitman’s Triadic Imagery.” American Literature. 23.1 (Mar. 1951): 99-126.

Reiss, Edmund. “Whitman’s Debt to Animal Magnetism.” PMLA. 78.1 (Mar. 1963): 80-88.

Whitman, Walt. “Leaves of grass, and Other Writings.” New York: Norton, 2002.

Wrobel, Arthur. “Whitman and the Phrenologists: the Divine Body and the Sensuous Soul.” PLMA. 89.1 (Jan. 1974): 17-23.

Works Consulted

Farland, Marcia. “Decomposing City: Walt Whitman’s New York and the Science of Life and
Death.” ELH. 74 (2007): 799-827.

Finkel, William L. “Sources of Whitman’s Manuscript Notes on Physique.” American Literature.
22.3 (Nov. 19500: 308-331.

Miller, Jr., James E. “‘Song of Myself’ as Inverted Mystical Experience.” PLMA. 70.4 (Sep.
1955): 636-661.

Sloan, Gary. “Walt Whitman: Sins Against Science.” 13, January 2002. 10, May


*An interesting fact: The phrenological head at left, a famous knick-knack seen in such spots as upon Dr. Gregory House's desk, is emblazoned with the name of L.N. Fowler. Incidentally, "Fowler's Phrenological Cabinet" in New York City was the first place to sell Walt Whitman's self-published 1st edition of "Leaves of Grass." It is important to note that though it has been disproved (and rightly so), phrenology is a precursor to the sciences of psychoanalysis and psychometrics, and schools as noted as Yale offered studies in the subject area.

Monday, January 4, 2010

Poem: "Blackberry Whitman"

Blackberry Whitman
©2008/2010 mykl g. sivak

I download your poem
democratically and
your words imbue my
electronic device,

You made poetry open-source
like the language of America,
or the way your Secular Saints
claimed this nation and its order
must be open source.

What is the source of Electronic Whitman?
What are your magnetic electron poems?
Do they fill the expandable memories
of America’s devices?

Have your words made their secret
way into the hands of the many?
Or are they avoided still by your masses
who seek instead the inane distraction
of vapid pop-culture-america-2010?

Will electronic democracy
prove your undoing?
Will the open-source experiment
erase your life’s words
like a reboot?

Or will you slumber still?
Hidden on drives of one-million
out-sourced servers—

In Indonesia, UAE, Dubai,
Taipei, or in some New America—
in Africa of elsewhere—
where a hungry populace
can drink your words
like the blackest, sweetest juice

beneath an equatorial sun,
in deserts and savannas,
on black market smartphones,
nomads will find you
and read your words,

reinterpret them, chop and translate,
redistribute, and mutilate.

Electronic inbox lights will blink
at receiving you, and some
men and women will see
that your America is not a place—

that America is not itself—

that the experimental wiki
of democratic inclusion
can mean whatever they want—
if what they want is good.