Contained within a book of poetry “The Poet’s Choice” (published 1962) that I recently bought at a used book sale, is a poem by Jamaican poet, Louis Simpson (1923 – 2012) entitled “Walt Whitman at Bear Mountain.” Mr. Simpson came to the U.S. when he was 17 to attend college and remained here, eventually teaching at University of California, Berkeley and SUNY at Stony Brook. He was very interested in understanding America, his adopted country, and his poems at times reflect an investigation into the myths that he believed this country tells itself.
Walt Whitman at Bear Mountain
. . . life which does not give the preference to any other life, of any previous period, which therefore prefers its own existence . . . — Ortega y Gasset
Neither on horseback nor seated,
But like himself, squarely on two feet,
The poet of death and lilacs
Loafs by the footpath. Even the bronze looks alive
Where it is folded like cloth. And he seems friendly.
“Where is the Mississippi panorama
And the girl who played the piano?
Where are you, Walt?
The Open Road goes to the used-parking lot.
“Where is the nation you promised?
These houses built of wood sustain
And the light above the street is sick to death.
“As for the people – see how they neglect you!
Only a poet pauses to read the inscription.”
“I am here,” he answered.
“It seems you have found me out.
Yet, did I not warn you that it was Myself
I advertised? Were my words not sufficiently plain?
“I gave no prescriptions,
And those who have taken my moods for prophecies
Mistake the matter.”
Then, vastly amused—“Why do reproach me?
I freely confess I am wholly disreputable.
Yet I am happy, because you have found me out.”
A crocodile in wrinkled metal loafing . . .
Then all the realtors,
Pickpockets, salesmen, and the actors performing
Turned a deaf ear, for they had contracted
But the man who keeps a store on a lonely road,
And the housewife who knows she’s dumb,
And the earth, are relieved.
All that grave weight of America
Cancelled! Like Greece and Rome.
The future in ruins!
The castles, the prisons, the cathedrals
Unbuilding, and roses
Blossoming from the stones that are not there . . .
The clouds are lifting from the high Sierras.
The Bay mists clearing;
And the angel in the gate, the flowering plum,
Dances like Italy, imagining red.
–published in Louis Simpson’s book of poems “At the End of the Open Road” (1963)