Monday, May 5, 2008

Matt's Own Favorites - Walt Whitman Rest Stop

Sources of inspiration are varied, unpredictable, and and odd, at least this has been my experience. Driving from Boston to Washington DC about 4 years ago, I was speeding along the Jersey Turnpike making fairly good time. I had been holding it for close to an hour and really needed a rest stop to use the facilities, but for some reason I had passed two perfectly good rest stops. It was as if I was testing myself, pushing the limits to see just how far I could go. I do not recommend this, especially for anyone who's not had their bladders fortified by years of car trips (as I had as a child). The waiting, in this case, was fated; I pulled off into a rest stop bearing the name of the immortal American Poet Walt Whitman. New Jersey has the dubious distinction of rest stops named after noteworthy New Jerseyans. I think my initial thought was something like this: I wonder if Clara Barton was founding the Red Cross and hoping to herself that someday she'd have a rest stop in New Jersey named for her. Obviously this is meant to contain ample amounts of sarcasm and mocking. But it was only natural to ask what Walt Whitman would think of his rest stop? And as I stopped, I noticed the stores, the people, the products, and the food. I noticed bits of Walt in all of these, but I also noticed the antithesis of Walt in them. Eventually, the negatives outweighed the positives and I truly saw this distinction as utterly ridiculous. New Jersey couldn't have named a library or town hall after Walt (actually, upon further research there are a great deal of places and things named after Whitman in NJ). I remember running from the rest stop to my car and pulling out a pen and paper to start the first draft of this poem. The first draft was far different than the one you see here, but this was a poem that came remarkably easy. It was a poem that in many ways, even in revision, seemed to write itself.

Why is this poem one of my favorites that I've written? It's overwhelmingly ambitious, like Walt Whitman. The poem addresses Walt and examines the cultural changes in our country since he lived. The poem utilizes repetition and sound in a similar manner to Walt's writing style. Finally, the poem underscores the hillarious modern honor of having a rest stop named after you. Decide for yourself if you like the poem or not, but this poem and the whole process of writing it still resonates with me and that is why it's one of my favorites.


Father of American Poetry, your brilliance
won you a rest stop in New Jersey.
Bureaucrats praised your spirit, then hung you
between the bathrooms---fuzzy picture
and eight lines from Song of Myself
separating the quarter twist dispensers:
men’s room licorice flavored condoms
and women’s room Tylenol and tampons.

Gray beard, straw flop on your head, smile blurred
by photo’s age---to travelers shuffling through
you’re a mystic grandpa, rolling pant legs high
in all weather. They wouldn’t be far off.
After daylong walks across fields
abandoned by farmers who bloodied themselves
in the brotherly war, you picked out what stuck
in your boot soles, and from that retread you sang
yourself electric and our country alive,
assembling life rhythm-by-rhythm, line-by-line.

But here, along the Jersey Pike, people stop
to crisscross your food court---the grease glazed oasis
of Sbarro, Cinnabon, and Roy Rogers.
They can’t get past the shadows you wear
comfortably, like a gypsy. If only they wondered
who you’d be. Trucker at the coffee counter
stuffing his mouth with jelly filled donuts?
Goof digging in linty pockets for change
to feed the love machine ready to label him
something between scorching and stud muffin?

Oh Walt, you’d be the bicycle rider appalled
by the modern wilderness of the highway,
where car horns and rumble strips overwhelm
our songs. It may be true that taillights burn out
more frequently than people read poetry,
but you have a rest stop. For you, there’s no chance
of returning to history’s obscurity, of becoming
a name on a building waiting to be renamed.

---Matthew Kaberline

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