Walt Whitman Returns . . .

POETRY FORMAT, 15 Dec 2014

Anthony J. Marsella, Ph.D. – TRANSCEND Media Service

“This is what you shall do:
Love the earth and sun and the animals,
Despise riches, . . . “


Again! . . . Again!
Has nothing spilled from hate’s fiery cauldron?
Tolls unheeded:
Battlefield gore: Gettysburg, Manassas, Chancellorsville, Vicksburg?

More than places!
Sacred lands, defiled!
Unshaven old men, pimpled-scarred youth,
Blue-grey uniforms now uniform in blood,
Bodies lying in heaps . . . or alone,
Limbless, moaning, seared souls,

Posterity captured:
Rifles in hand, pistols gripped, swords unsheathed,
Blood-stained rocks, smoldering earth, shattered trees.
Flies gathering to feast,
Buzzing amid charnel,
Reflexively choosing choice sites.


Brave soldiers march to cadenced drums.
Flags wave,
Artillery towed,
Medaled-generals salute,
“Charades” . . . I say!

Battles forgotten,
Triumph’s costs denied.
Music and verse:

“Mine eyes have seen the glory . . .”
“Oh, I wish I was in the land of cotton …
“Onward Christian soldiers . . .”

And in the background,
In shadows,
Time unchanged:

“Steal away, steal away; Steal away to . . .
“Deeeeppp river, Lord! My home is over Jordan.

“Illusions . . . delusions,” I say!
Podium, stage, pulpit,
Platforms for death and destruction;
Foundations for domination.

Ribbon-covered chests,
White-collared necks,
Top-hatted heads,
Black-frocked dresses . . .
Dainty lace collars.

Arms raised:
In praise,
Plaintive cries!

How inadequate Periclean words,
Unfit for all times.
Preserving lies,
Inspiring myths!
Nurturing cultures of war,
Cults of nations,
Food for empire!


Did you not see what I saw?
Endless rows of blood-stained sheets,
Gaunt nurses placating life,
Tears streaming from bedside widows
Hollow-eyed children begging for bread.

Charred houses,
Broken bridges,
Shattered trees,
Smoldering carcasses,
Stench like no other.

Damn the cannon makers!
Damn the smelters making them!
Damn the voices cheering their firing!
Guiltless . . .
Blind to their sullied metal fruit,
Deaf to cries,
Distance from shot to crater
Buffering images,
Guarding conscience.

Make them walk brimstone,
Breathe fumes of seared flesh,
Beg for mercy,
Ask respite from hot metal,
Seek relief from scorched earth.

Make them know pain, suffering, death –
Avoided – escaped – denied,
Hidden amidst comforts:

Gilded rooms,
Leather chairs,
Polished tables,
“No, Sir!”
“Yes, Sir!”
“More, Sir?”
“Sherry, Sir?”


What use conscience?
What value brain?
What function heart?
What glory courage . . .
If ignored, denied, separated
From a silent human face.

A face, once admired and prized,
Bursting forth from a mother urging
Her swollen womb;
Grunting . . . screaming
Unfathomable mysteries,
Birthing life!
A face emerges!
Its future . . . inscribed.

Tear down your crosses, crescents, and sacred stars –
Excuses for madness,
Salve for betrayal,
Gloves for stained hands
Veils for truth.

Fall upon your knees,
Beg forgiveness,
Failed prophets!
Flawed angels!
God pretenders!
Stainers of time!

Mortal art thou Man!
Blood, bone, sinew.
Spirit essence!


Sing the song of life!
Cast seeds upon the land,
Plant trees in barren hills,
Water fallow fields.

Look to mountains,
Forested woods,
Desert sands,
Mirrored lakes.
Gaze in wonder!

Inhale air,
Sip water,
Break bread,
Behold skies;
All else is vanity!

Go now!
Find your place
Amidst chards.
Scripted pasts,
Victim throngs,
Faded glories,
Leaden clouds.

Go now!
Walk tortoise paths,
Follow hare tracks,
Eat berries,
Create streams – drops!
Erase scars of war!

All is sacred!
Behold grandeur,
Fill senses with awe –
Failing this,
Know you never lived!

At end of day,
Earth will accept your
Crumbled remains,
And . . . try again!
And you will have no choice!


“This is what you shall do:

Love the earth and sun and the animals,
Despise riches,
Give alms to everyone that asks,
Stand up for the stupid and crazy,
Devote your income and labor to others,
Hate tyrants, argue not concerning god,
Have patience and indulgence toward the people,
Re-examine all you have been told
At school or church or in any book,
Dismiss whatever insults your own soul;
And your very flesh shall be a great poem.”  

 –Walt Whitman, Preface to Leaves of Grass (1855)


Walt Whitman (1819-1892) is my favorite poet – and in many ways, my favorite humanist. He witnessed the horrors of the American Civil War — its sights, sounds, and smells inspired his commitment to peace. But long before the War, his special senses gave voice and word to the changing world about him. He captured time and times!

I find life in his every word — each line and verse, a sacred-clarion call to life! In his words – their pace, stridency, boldness – spring passionate observations, accusations, and visions of hope revealing uncommon and uncompromising courage and wisdom.

I wondered what Walt Whitman would say if he appeared in our time? I know he would recognize the betrayal of history’s lessons – humanity’s continued infatuation with violence and war. He would scold us! Reprimand us! Remind us solutions are to be found in compassion and connection — not metal. I wrote a draft of this poem in hours the next morning and early day. I waited a few days, overwhelmed by my efforts to hear his voice, to channel his presence. It is best to rest when you awaken the dead. My words lack the power and grace of Walt Whitman; but I am consoled by the fact, my intention is good!


Dec 13 2014, 9:49 a.m. On this day, about this time, decades ago, my step-father, Stephen, as good a man as ever walked the earth, died in my arms. Among his final words: “How tragic so few have chances to live — to develop their talents. “


Anthony J. Marsella, Ph.D., a member of the TRANSCEND Network, is a past president of Psychologists for Social Responsibility, emeritus professor of psychology at the University of Hawaii, and past director of the World Health Organization Psychiatric Research Center in Honolulu. He is known nationally and internationally as a pioneer figure in the study of culture and psychopathology who challenged the ethnocentrism and racial biases of many assumptions, theories, and practices in psychology and psychiatry. In more recent years, he has been writing and lecturing on peace and social justice. He has published 15 edited books, and more than 250 articles, chapters, book reviews, and popular pieces. He can be reached at marsella@hawaii.edu.


This article originally appeared on Transcend Media Service (TMS) on 15 Dec 2014.

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