Section 29, Song of Myself


Now, as if to catch his breath after the erotic storm of the previous section, Whitman gives us the briefest section in the poem—six lines of post-coital withdrawal. The heightened sensual touch that he just finished describing now “leaves” him, and he addresses Touch once more, as its electrified energy departs from his spent body. The moments of unifying touch were so powerful—ecstatic and painful and blissful—that now the parting of two sexually charged bodies creates an “ache” of absence as the body’s “sheaths” once again cover over the sharp nerve receptors. But the “parting” is matched by a new kind of arrival, as the poet realizes that any intense touch continues to pay dividends after the ecstasy of touch is ended. Like a gentle “showering rain” that nourishes the ground after the fierce thunder and lightning have moved on, the continuing “payments” of the body that had been “loaned” (and will again and again be loaned) to another during the ecstasy of sex are indeed “rich.” So, when heightened Touch departs, the loss brings “recompense,” compensation in the form of soft fertilizing rains that allow “sprouts” to “take and accumulate,” tiny leaves of grass that will eventually become “full-sized and golden” (for Whitman, “grass” is not only the green stuff of lawns, but what he called the “manly” prairie grasses and the corn and the wheat). The entire landscape arises with stalks thrusting upward, “projected masculine” like a vast sea of erect plants reaching for the sun.

It is as if the experience of heightened sensual touch has now sexualized the entire landscape, offering another glimpse into the way that all of nature is continually about the procreant “urge and urge and urge” of desire itself (as Whitman said in Section 3). And as the poet speaks of the departure of “blind loving wrestling touch . . . leaving me,” he allows us to hear a double meaning in the phrase “leaving me”: yes, the rapturous touch has left him, but the experience of that touch is also literally “leaving” him in the sense of making him leaf, grow, speak, write, produce leaves, the Leaves of Grass that arise from his intense experience of touching the world. Words themselves—like all living things—emerge from experiences of intense touch and take form in the calming rains that follow the storm.

Blind loving wrestling touch, sheath'd hooded sharp-tooth'd touch!
Did it make you ache so, leaving me?
Parting track'd by arriving, perpetual payment of perpetual loan,
Rich showering rain, and recompense richer afterward.
Sprouts take and accumulate, stand by the curb prolific and vital,
Landscapes projected masculine, full-sized and golden.


Now the ache of leaving, on the fast train to Samarkand, fabled city of silks and turquoise domes and the tomb of Tamerlane, whose empire stretched from India to Egypt and beyond. Abandoned factories, orchards and olive trees, families planting cotton. A horse gallops down the road. Men squat by the river flowing under the bridge. The blind storyteller seated at the window praises a love poem recited in Tashkent the night before, in the museum of Sergei Yesenin, who wrote his last poem in blood: Goodbye, my friend, goodbye...
“Parting track’d by arriving,” is how Whitman remembers the climax of his lovemaking, that blessed state of union and dispersion, which he prolongs throughout this short section with metaphors drawn first from the world of finance (“perpetual payment of perpetual loan”) and then from the abundance of nature: rain, sprouts, a field at harvest time, all offering recompense for the wound of consciousness. He knew a thing or two about the intimate connection between departures and arrivals, endings and beginnings, which he tracked with a lover’s eye.
Three couplets, three stanzas. A question (unanswered), white space, and then a sentence fragment, a stanza in the form of exquisitely balanced phrases concluding with a word that lends an elegiac air to the poem: afterward. Then more white space and the only declarative statement: ripeness is the key to this masculine landscape. But in spring, on the Silk Road, the soul may also thrill to the sight of cotton seedlings, fringed with red poppies, stretching to the horizon.


What are the most sensual landscapes you have seen, and what made them seem sensual to you?

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