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MacQueen’s Quinterly: Knock-your-socks-off Art and Literature
Issue 1: January 2020
Poem: 555 words
By Rick Mulkey

Where are you, Walt Whitman?

 

In all people I see myself, none more and not one a barley-corn less,
And the good or bad I say of myself I say of them.

—From “Song of Myself” by Walt Whitman[1]

Where are you, Walt?
The Open Road goes to the used-car lot.

Where is the nation you promised?

—From “Walt Whitman at Bear Mountain” by Louis Simpson[2]


Where are you, Walt Whitman? With the inaugural guests who showed up 
	early 
wearing buttons and waving flags while a white man 
in a MAGA hat recites an allegiance? Or are you holding a protest sign, 
chased by police down alleys, or corralled in holding areas 
in parks where blades of grass are trampled down? 
Surely you didn’t arrive in a limo wearing a Hermes tie 
and Gucci loafers, editing a list of all the ills your kind has suffered. 
Please tell me that wasn’t you. Maybe, Walt Whitman, 
you refused to attend. Paid no attention to the TV crews or barricades; 
instead, walked six miles to work in a hotel laundry, cleaned pots in an 
	all-night diner. 
Was that you hunched over in a bean field? Or cutting your palms 
on corn husks? Or driving the tuxedo-clad senators in your checkered cab? 
Walt Whitman, I was awake election night crying while a woman 
in Kentucky sang praises that her god was stronger 
than me and mine. What song did you sing, Walt Whitman? 

If you are all of us, you, too, must have cried, but also cheered, 
and you must have gloated and mourned, shouted in joy, 
dropped your head in disbelief. Did you really believe 
everyone’s invited to the party? Including this woman on CNN 
who likes “alternative facts,” or this man in the grocery line 
who doesn’t know what to believe since the tabloids 
offer no clues? Or this one who only wants her deported sister back, 
or the one in the airport cuffed and hauled away? 
How can you stand to be them all, Walt Whitman? 
How can you stand to be you? How can you still sing your song? 

Oh, Walt, where are you now? Where are you hiding? 
Are you the one bleeding in an Afghani barrack? 
Are you the one nestled in the fast-food wrappers inside the trash
	dumpster? 
Perhaps that’s you watching the gathering crowd from your K Street 
	Office window. 
Maybe you are the one that lost a job, lost a child, lost yourself 
inside the towering bills and notices. Maybe you are 
the high school student cowering in a closet, listening for the AR-15s 
crack and thump, the journalist struggling for facts, 
the poet afraid words no longer mean as they once did 
when you resounded over lines as far reaching as empire itself. 
Now we find America’s epic compressed to a singularity, weighted down 
by 240 characters, where the elected shaman is a used car salesman 
twittering his song from a king-sized bed, an aria claiming all of this 
and all of us are “Lies, Lies, Lies. Sad. Sad. Sad.” 
Once, Walt Whitman, we were together. I forget the rest.* 


*Author’s Note:

A commonly misquoted passage of Whitman’s. The actual quotation reads: “Day by day and night by night we were together—all else has/ long been forgotten by me,” from “Once I Pass’d Through a Populous City” [3]


Publisher’s Notes:

1. From Section 20 of Whitman’s poem in his book Leaves of Grass (David McKay, publisher, 1892)

2. From Simpson’s poem in his book The Owner of the House: New Collected Poems, 1940-2001 (BOA Editions Ltd, 2003)

3. In Whitman’s book Leaves of Grass (David McKay, publisher, 1892), page 94

Rick Mulkey
Issue 1, January 2020

is the author of five books and chapbooks, including most recently Ravenous: New & Selected Poems and Toward Any Darkness. Recent poems and essays have appeared in a variety of periodicals such as Crab Orchard Review, Poet Lore, Poetry East, South Carolina Review, Southeast Review, and Southern Poetry Review, among others. He has received the Gearhart Poetry Prize, a Hawthornden Fellowship, and The Literary Review’s Charles Angoff Award, among others. Mulkey currently directs and teaches in the low-residency MFA program in Creative Writing at Converse College.

More on the Web: By, About, and Beyond

Everywhere Becomes Home, a review by William Wright of Mulkey’s book Ravenous in Flycatcher Journal

Beautiful and Terrible: An Interview with Barbara Hamby in The Southeast Review (2 December 2018), in which Hamby discusses her choice of Mulkey’s poem “Cured” as winner of the 2018 Gearhart Poetry Contest

 
 
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