THE WHITMAN ISSUE
WHEN LILACS LAST...
...........For Walt Whitman
Each spring the lilac bush I planted bears flowers,
light sprays of blue among heart-shaped leaves,
and Walt, I remember your words for Lincoln
as you eyed white-washed fences, singing the strong
perfume of lilacs. Why are my lilacs faint in odor?
When I first read your song for Lincoln,
I looked out my family doorway at scarlet hibiscus
in steamy Malaysian sun. I was sixteen, had never seen
lilacs, never smelled lilacs, yet sensed they must be blue,
or the bleached purple of regret, the fading edge
of rainbows we yearn to follow. Somehow, I knew
that lilacs would smell powdery as dust
on beribboned letters from lost loves:
your words infused them with such
loss and yearning. For me, you named the star
that guided America—this vision of freedom
and wholeness, this possible pursuit of happiness
for everyone, be their skin color black, white or other.
Growing up in Malaysia we had no lilacs,
but pink mimosa whose sensitive leaves
closed when you stroked them.
Rainy nights, we kids would hunt frogs in the tall grass,
Mother fried frog legs, said they tasted like chicken. (They didn't.)
What we liked best was making drums—we'd stretch
a frog's skin over a hollow condensed milk can
and clamp it tight with rubber bands.
Dried, they made shrill drums.
the sound of a state funeral passing in the night.
The sound of death passing pauses us
in our clock-tyrannized rounds,
rewinds time to images of our childhood—
condensed milk cans that made great toys—
we'd punch a hole in the top of each can,
slip the end of a long string through the hole
and knot it inside. They were our telephones.
"Mother wants rice." "Mother wants lice."
"Mother wants mice?" "No, ice, ice, ice."
Or we walked on them as stilts or high shoes,
gripping the string between big toe and second toe,
stalking, clop clop, around the house feeling tall
as professional acrobats at Chinese funerals.
Now it's June and another President passes over our receding
Ronald Reagan's coffin passes through skies and streets,
with the pomp of the lowered flags though our cities do not wear black,
with politician speeches long and winding and silent lamps
shining on the sea of faces and the darkened eyes,
with the waiting airport, the arriving coffin, and the somber faces,
with the mournful voices of dirges weaving around the coffin,
with the candle-lit cathedral and the thundering organs—and all recall
the ten years of Alzheimer's that shrouded him in silence,
the tent of dignity his wife Nancy built to shelter him.
Here, coffin that slowly passes on the television,
I give you my sprig of dried lilac.
September 11 again, and memory's eye sees twin towers
burning, falling again as hijacked planes ram into them,
though it happened three years ago while we woke
in the opening of the day with its soft light and the leaves of fall
and the farmers harvesting their crops,
in the large unconscious expanses of our land with its forests
and squirrels, and the winter approaching with its promise of rest,
and the fields quietening
to fallow sleep under blanketing of straw,
while we all went on, each in our finite separate lives, with
their meals and minutia of daily tasks
under the disquieted heavens of that afternoon
so swift passing, so slow passing, and the oceans that protected us
moaned a new sibilance, and the sound of the sea was the sound of regret,
the footsteps of death rolling in and rolling out, white caps on dark water,
and memory's eye sees again the planes, how they sailed
through the blue, blue sky, arcing contrails of billowing
white, over the voices of children and women,
and the streets with their traffic throbbing, and the cities crowded
with fathers, mothers, children, babies, grandparents,
falling upon them all and among them all, trapping us in that day,
and we knew death, its givers, and their hatred, of us and liberty.
War has changed his armaments, Walt traded in his pistols
and cannons and bayonets for AK-47s, suicide bombers and
made missiles of hijacked planes. And I am glad you did not see this,
Walt, glad you are dead these hundred years.
And gifts came, in envelopes of anthrax, white powder dealing
through the mail and I walked by the White House
with the knowledge of death as walking one side of me,
And the thought of death close-walking the other side of me,
And I in the middle as with companions, and as holding the hands of companions,
I fled forth to the hiding receiving night that talks not,
down to the shores of the Potomac, to the cleaner murk of waters,
heard the plop of catfish and bass as they went their shadowy ways
and the waters sang the song of death which is the song of birth
and I recalled your words, Walt:
And I chanted your praise for the fathomless universe,
For life and joy, and for objects and knowledge curious,
And for love, sweet love—but praise! praise! praise!
For the sure-enwinding arms of cool-enfolding death.
For I am worn down, Walt, with the constant pricking of my flesh
butterfly needles seeking veins for chemotherapy;
tired of mouth sores, tired of nausea, vomit and diarrhea,
I am wearied to death of tiredness—
this carcass of my body grows too heavy for my soul to drive.
I saw on TV the work of the enemies of liberty,
around the world, as in muted dreams, bodies torn and bloody,
hundreds of civilian dead through the smoke of truck bombs, suicide bombs,
I saw corpses, I saw them, the slain victims of the terrorists' war,
and like you, I saw they were not as was thought,
They themselves were fully at rest, they suffered not,
The living remained and suffered, the mother suffered,
And the wife and the child and the interviewed comrade suffered,
and the armies that remained at the borders of freedom suffered.
Passing, I leave them the always green heart-shaped leaves of lilac,
I leave them lilacs in the doorway, to bloom and return with spring
And I pray for great hearts, great presidents to lead
this nation to stand and fight for the pursuit of happiness for all.
And I pray for an America that will carry its flag of freedom,
its large heart of compassionate love for everything human
into the future, into the secret places of hearts everywhere
as you did into my heart, Walt, so many years ago.
NOTE: Lines in italics are quotes from Whitman's poem "When
Lilacs Last in The Dooryard Bloomed."
Hilary Tham grew up in Malaysia, graduated from the University of Malaya with a B.A. in Literature, and moved to the USA upon marriage to an American Peace Corps volunteer. The author of nine books of poetry and a memoir, Editor-in-Chief for The Word Works, Inc., and poetry editor for the Potomac Review, she received a grant for Literary Excellence from the Virginia Commission for the Arts and has been featured on NPR and Maryland Public Television.
To read more by this author:
Hilary Tham's Intro to Vol. 3, No. 4 (Fall 2002)
Hilary Tham: DC Places Issue
Hilary Tham: Audio Issue
Hilary Tham: Tenth Anniversary Issue