THE WHITMAN ISSUE

Erin Murphy

 

CLEANING 328 MICKLE STREET

...........Since you was here, Alma, I have had
...........a friend move in, Mrs. Davis, strong & hearty
...........& good natured, a widow, young enough,
...........furnishes me my meals & takes good care.

......................--Walt Whitman in a letter to Mrs.
......................Alma Johnston, March 4, 1885

It was not for marriage
that I moved in with you,
Mr. Whitman, and not for
peace & quiet, either: the trains
from Camden and factory whistles
rival only the "Star Spangled Banner"
bellowed from your bath.
It was for no such proposal
that I turned a shoulder
to the church ladies sneering
at market as I handpicked
a bucket of full-bellied oysters
for your supper and chose
the beans for your twice-brewed
coffee, thick as the stench
of guano drifting across the Delaware.

I needed not a man but a sturdy
mantle to hold the remnants
of my former life: my husband's
wool sailing cap, the compass
from his maiden ship, thrown off now
from true direction. You'd have me
think you're a sailor yourself
with your damns and hells
and orders to ram a needle
up the bookbinder's ass.
But I've been close enough
to smell your soap and cologne.
I've filled the bowl by your chair
with mignonette and roses and lilacs,
at your request. And I've seen you
save my lacework shirts
for reading your Mr. Lincoln poem.

We've had our fun:
when Mr. Trouble, as I call him,
knocks, I ring the bell three times
as warning. And we laugh
about your room, more full of dust
than Mickle Street after a whorl
comes rolling through. It's safe
to tell you now I only
got a broom in there on days
you took to town in your buggy
pulled by that stiff-kneed pony,
and even then I had to wade
through notes and receipts,
billheads and letters and proofs
and scraps of wallpaper saved
for who knows what. Your life spilled

from that iron-banded double-hasped trunk,
as massive in its own way
as this stone tomb, as the man
you aimed to be.

 

 

Erin Murphy's first book of poems, Science of Desire, was published by Word Press in June 2004. Her second book, Too Much of This World, won the Anthony Piccione Poetry Prize and is forthcoming from Mammoth Books. Honors include a Maryland State Arts Council Individual Artist Award; the National Writers Union Poetry Award judged by Donald Hall; and a Pushcart Prize nomination. She teaches creative writing and literature at Washington College in Maryland.