When I taught Leaves of Grass a few years ago the students just didn’t buy it, though they loved Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf. Their rejection of Whitman’s grand American hope comes back to me every now and then. Was it the poetic claim to omnipresence that irritated them, or did Whitman’s egalitarian vision of hope seem like nothing but hype to young readers in a post-9/11 world, where climate has become a threat and employment prospects are grim at best?
This reaction was all the more striking when they embraced Edward Albee’s anxiety-ridden world of illusion and rage in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, so wonderfully captured onscreen by Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton.That world made perfect sense to them, and they loved it on paper and on film.
I thought of those students again when I recently read Bridget Meeds’ stunning Whitmanian poem, “America I Saw You.” Meeds brings the maker of American Religion into the 21st century, and I have a feeling my students would have loved it:
America, I Saw You
America, I saw you leaping from the burning skyscraper, believing in your urgency that you
America, I saw you on the on-ramp, smiling with meth-brown teeth, holding a sign that said
“homeless and pregnant please help,”
America, I saw you huddled in the belly of a Chinook, earbudded and solitary,
America, I saw you up at four a.m., ironing your blouse for work,
America, I saw you punching a stop sign, screaming in Chinese,
America, I saw you looking straight with seventeen pounds of pot hidden in your spare tire,
America, I saw you texting while driving,
America, I saw you bite your father in a fury,
America, I saw you put on ten pounds,
America, I saw you walk the winning run,
America, I saw you asking for an epidural,
America, I saw you raise your hand to strike your child,
America, I saw you eating roadkill woodchuck.
America, I saw you drinking a kamikaze by the hotel pool,
America, I saw you at the Super Great Wall buffet with blue swastikas tattooed on your neck and
America, I saw you in your 87 Oldsmobile, wearing your best wig and sunglasses, God radio
America, I saw you in your private helicopter above Manhattan, doing mental arithmetic,
America, I saw you walking a dog who was wearing a Hello Kitty t-shirt,
America, I saw you waving a white linen napkin from a broken window in the burning
America, I saw you fall.
To get in touch with Bridget and find out more about her fabulous work, click here.