Walt Whitman’s house on Ryerson Street where he finished the first version of Leaves Of Grass

Walt Whitman’s house on Ryerson Street where he finished the first version of Leaves Of Grass

This week I took a walk from where the old Brooklyn Ferry used to land to the house in Brooklyn where Walt Whitman lived when he finished the first draft of Leaves of Grass. It’s the same house, but ugly now, covered with aluminum siding. The steps are cracked, and I thought, maybe he sat there, in the hot sun, looking at the same blue sky I’m looking at, watching his world go by. 1855. It was so long ago. I got maps from the library of the city in 1850, and walked only on streets that had existed then. 

1977/I’ve taken to making maps/And here's a map of the valley where first I dwelled./East 9th Street. A tenement building. The golden stair/winds round and round. Don't get raped on the way up./Traps and treasures. Anything can happen./There's a cat lady across the hall. She never goes out./Hold your breath when you come to my door./Old Ukrainian men sing through my back window./Why why why Delilah, late into the drunken night./Rachel plays guitar in a room with no door./Poets in the kitchen at 2am./Scribbling new words for a new world.

The old maps are beautiful, faded and worn. Someone hand drew them, carefully tracing the rambling of the streets, coloring the parks and rivers. But there’s more of those times captured in the way they were made then in what they show. The streets were dirt then, or maybe cobblestone. There was no piped water. No cars. No electric power. You can’t see that on a map.

One night the lights go out. Everywhere./Look, the stars!/Richard and I direct traffic until we get bored./Hot night, dark city. Smoking on the stoop./They're looting the poor-people stores on 14th Street./I bought a silver snorkel-jacket there for eight dollars last winter./In my gang of poets my gang of noise.

What were the sounds of the 1840s?  Hoofbeats on dirt or cobblestone. The clanging of the old Brooklyn Navy yard. The wheelwrights, the blacksmiths, the shoemakers and hatters. Sounds I’ve never heard. The world turns and turns and one day, everything’s different. I have to think back to remember the boomboxes of the 1970s, the way the subway squealed on steel tracks. Today, tomorrow; everything’s different. But I know I can still hear some of what Walt heard. The coo-coo of a mourning dove on my fire-escape at dawn. The lapping of the East River, voices in a hundred languages ebbing and rising as I stride past. The birds in Fort Greene Park, the park that Whitman fought so hard for in the pages of the Brooklyn Eagle. And my own feet, shuffling the grass and pebbles, just like his once did.