“Whitman on the Mississippi, May 1848” by Jesse Breite

Riding the deck of the Pride,
I stare azalea-eyed into muddy streams,
glacial-fingered burrows, wet-puzzled earthloins.
Lifeblood—continental, hard-earned—
carries me away from the Crescent City—
the suicide thick on the carpet of the St. Charles hotel,
the sweet, staged moves of Julia Dean,
the myriad men orgiastic before the legs
of Collyer’s models—their frame and form
stretching and strained, faces breathing good air,
full of pride and rough skin and soft skin,
the dank scent of bananas, coffee.

I reckon I’ve had lovers bountiful—
the balcony flowering, the high-placed lady
advancing. She spots me naked in the river
of streetfolk. Her hand grazes over her bare
hips. I have also known—the young artist,
the heavy butcher, the press clerk and paper,
brick and mason, carpenter at shop, enslaved
man at auction, blacksmith breathing smoke
on the jamb, the mistress octoroon, her thighs
speckled with baby hair—the Creole baby
crawling, riches trembling in muscle tissue
I have imagined and touched and held.

I grow fat-minded, plosive with the thought
of sojourn, however brief and blues-dim,
on the blunt-lazy river. I too am teeming
and tameless. My mouthdrool sates every space
I perceive. I grow kosmic with assumption.
I am not bound by the shame of your etiquettes
but keep in the steam of each feeling, the felt
of my barest necessity, my hidden vicissitudes
where barrel-chested I exist without ceasing—
mutant and original, both derivative and driven.

How the river rises like topographic smoke,
writhes like a fat snake, roils through
my body, the earth, and the spine-juice spills over
tonguing each nerve with the fury
of light-splashed waves dimpling water,
manifold cheeks of the light-skinned river!

I know how the old Choctaw woman stood
pouring out language to Spaniards
over the floodwater at Aminyola.
In broken English, the translator said
the river surges twenty leagues across
every dozen years. But they had to take it.
They couldn’t imagine a greater belonging.
I will be more generous, thick-eyed seeing
South, West, the interlocking land-hips
rising up to Allegheny, Great Lake, Hudson River.

I dip all things perceived in a sacrament of pronouncements—
flood of my body, mouth-soul attiring all flesh
sacred, all supple-and-demand sacred,
every cottonknobbed and cottonwrapped man, woman, child.

I speak the drapes of your shame into birdsong.
I speak this River into Jacob’s Ladder.
I speak the body laborious and grateful.
I speak boats and bridges out of my head.
I speak the rail into its gnaw and pound.
I speak the highway as the valved-soul hums,
commercial and recapitulating, the voices
flushing out of inundated bodies, drained
basins into free soil. All prophecy democratic
and republican miracle pass through me.

I will make you to love the horizon, making
the horizon my lover.
I will pluck bulbs from the swamp, reclaim them,
glowing in the pits of my eyes—
how I will imagine beautiful and free, hands and feet.


Jesse Breite’s recent poetry has appeared in Spillway, Crab Orchard Review, Terrain, and Prairie Schooner. His first chapbook is The Knife Collector, and he is an associate editor for The Good Works Review. He is also librettist for three of Atlanta composer Michael Kurth’s scores. Jesse teaches high school English in Atlanta where he lives with his wife and son.

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