How Walt Whitman Rescued Me from the Bronx
Mel S. Kimura Bucholtz
Everybody held their breath. I was supposed to know what to do and how to do it. What was ‘it’? I was said to be ‘special’, physically handicapped with severe asthma, hearing difficulties, a strange way of behaving, constantly staring into space, endlessly drawing pictures alone. First born of the cousins, favorite of grandpa, savior of the family. Being alone was freedom. Mostly drawing objects, animals and nature. Nature fascinated me; constantly surprising, novel and exciting. No desire to be with others, except when I felt like it. People said "they knew all about me". I liked that, they left me alone. Change began at age seven. I was sent to an institution for asthmatic children, two thousand miles from home in Denver, Colorado. My parents remained home. I lived there for almost three years. They did not visit me.
I returned home months before my tenth birthday. And was sent away again. To a farm in upstate New York. I went to church there and lost my virginity. But didn’t know it until later. Her name was Mary. She was four years older than me and seduced me in the cornfield above the river. I was shocked and stunned. Not sexually excited, but confused, numb and awkward.
Now twelve, I returned to New York City for the seventh grade of school. I loved art, geography and English. Impatient with math. I loved the smell of decaying leaves, their colors, the clarity and coolness of autumn. After summer’s confusion, people constantly around me, wearying heat and glare, fall was quiet, slower, and clearer. I could breathe and think.
During this time the following things happened:
down the block from our apartment Red Smelnick stabbed a woman to death delivering groceries to her apartment, Dr. Lorenz began giving testosterone injections to me weekly to stimulate my masculinity (my father was terrified I was becoming homosexual, "drawing birds and flowers, what can I tell your uncles?"), I entered the High School of Music and Art, I stopped dressing like a rock, (gang members were called ‘rocks’) and began copying the bohemian manner of schoolmates, I began reading Walt Whitman, shocked and delighted beyond belief, my mother died and I began saying Kaddish for her, the prayer for the dead, morning and night for eleven months in the synagogue across from our apartment building. I discovered the Museum of Natural History, the famous long boat with native paddlers and totem poles of the northwest coast Indians that lined the halls. Breathlessly I drew many pictures of them. The smell of the displays were a sanctuary, an air of authority of the truth and its beauty. I felt the sanctity of prayer and wholesomeness of right purpose: drawing the truth, a basic rightness about being alive. The purity of being natural. So museums and libraries came into my life, places I could return to anywhere and always be at home. Beauty and wonder came into my life.
My father stared numbly at fish gliding through plants lit in the fish tank in the dark, night after night, listening to a baseball game on a radio behind his head nestled in the ornate green chintz couch. Spring became summer. My father, frightened and frustrated, biting his lip against the coming death of his wife, my mother, the anguish of an innocent man whose brief dreams were dissolving into despair and failure, turned –like his father – to fits of sudden violence. He began beating me with broomsticks, breaking them across my back and head. Pain so intense I stopped feeling it. Showing no feeling, he finally stopped hitting me. My sad father.
I created a game with myself before the bath room mirror: staring at my face holding the memory of the previous night in my mind; sounds running from room to room, our screaming, heavy breathing, slammed to the wall, covering myself with my hands, pleading and crying, him biting his lip, red faced, cursing me, raising then slamming the wooden stick down across my face, arms and back, pain shooting through my body, blood and welts, painfully struggling to stand breathless and dizzy, him walking away, out of breath, crying, until I made every expression of feeling disappear from my face, looking passive and empty until I perfected it. I learned to feel, see, hear and smell violence while appearing passive and invisible.
When situations now are intolerable, I disappear like this in plain sight of everyone.
I always kept drawing. I spent hours in the waning afternoons on the roof of our apartment building drawing clouds, looking down at boys playing stickball in the gutter, listening to their distant voices echo against cars and the brick apartment buildings. The Bronx was called the borough of tenements, we were tenants. I always knew what I liked, the safety of distance from which to see the world, drawing it as accurately as it was.
My mother was in the last months of her life. Leukemia was devouring her in the hospital. A bandage covered the spot on her scalp where she pulled her hair out in pain. She looked freshly washed and exhausted when I visited, wrung out.
It was a dismal spring in the Bronx in 1954. Almost fourteen. Winter softened into days of rain, clouds fleeting across the East River above the Bronx. Reality was tired. Everything held hands out in surrender. I visited her constantly after school. Only so many times could I tell her how I felt, what I did that day, ask what she did. The atmosphere around our words was fear of her unnamable departure we both knew was happening, neither one knowing what it would feel like when it happened.
Our separate fears filled that unknown with a sense we each could name. We spoke and loved each other in the familiarity of that fear, she as my dying mother, me as her visiting son. I have spent much of my life till now visiting reality as a loving son fearfully saying goodbye, resigning myself to a life of isolation and independence. It was in this frame of mind and feelings that I met Walt Whitman and learned the poetic voice. Our meeting became my mental and emotional passport for leaving childhood and the Bronx, beginning many voyages to the foreign lands of adulthood beyond New York City.
Walking back across the Bronx one afternoon after visiting her, a rainstorm suddenly broke out, fiercely pelting the streets. Like figures from Hiroshige’s People on the Bridge, people ran from doorway to doorway moving up the street. I found my way to my uncle’s TV repair shop on University Avenue. Letters on the glass read: "Macphil", names of the partners, Mac and Phil.
I opened the wood framed glass door; the vacant receptionist’s desk sat to the right facing the street. Gray white afternoon light stared in. The glass was spattered with rain draining down. My Uncle Phil sat on a stool twenty or so feet down the corridor outlined by the ghost blue light from the TV set he was working on. To his left the waist high workbench had several TV’s on their sides with their cases removed, their glass tubes and frames glowing like mollusks, their electric breath humming into the darkness around them. He called to me in a warm friendly voice. I kept shuffling shyly toward him as we spoke. Then reality stopped.
I woke hearing him say the hospital couldn’t send an ambulance. That he must keep my feet raised higher than my head. That I’d come out of the shock slowly, that I was alright. The rain hissed outside. My right arm ached. Walking past him my arm had brushed against the exposed chassis of a television set that was plugged in. My arm grounded the electricity, taking the charge into my body and I collapsed unconscious. I lie on the floor listening to him. As he talked to me I gazed at two stacks of paperback books next to me.
There were the ‘dirty books’, Battle Cry, A Stone for Danny Fisher, The Amboy Dukes, with the sexy parts soiled from being read and re-read. Then I found a copy of Oscar Williams' anthology of American Poetry. How could this be there?
What I knew of poetry were nursery rhymes like Winkin’, Blinkin’ and Nod. In school we were drilled to memorize Alfred Noyes’ The Highwayman. I didn’t care for poetry. Poetry was memorization tests of rhyme schemes. I opened the anthology unexpectedly to the poem There Was A Child Went Forth. Puzzled. Curious. I read about a child who went forth one day and the first thing he saw that thing he became. I was shocked. This was my life in drawing. Things I saw told me how they wanted to be drawn. They showed me how to become them to draw them. Who wrote this? Was this real? Did the writer mean what I understood himto mean?
I rushed into the other lines, descriptions of barnyard animals, fish suspended in water, a bird singing, colors and textures of flowers; all, in their own ways, became part of this child! I was stunned breathless. This was my way of life. His words moved off the page and came alive in my mind and body. Is this poetry? No, this is truth said truthfully. True to living experience. My god! Someone said it, I read it…. poetry for real!
My body felt larger, warmer and strong. My physical vision and hearing amplified, my mind felt crystal clear. I knew who I was for the first time; aware of feeling, knowing, and being at the same moment. Who wrote this? Walt Whitman. I am home" rang through my body and mind, "I am home". Someone knows me. The way I feel myself in the world, first and most privately.
This is how I came to discover the beauty, grace and wonder of the possibilities of poetry’s gift to my life, and how I became dedicated to the preservation of wonder and beauty through words.
Here is the first part of his poem that struck my eyes and life:
There Was A Child Went Forth
was a child went forth every day;