In this section, Whitman reprises another key theme of “Song of Myself”: death and life are an endless process, inseparable from each other. We move here between two French words that echo each other: “accoucheur” and “debouch.” “Accoucheur” was a term used in Whitman’s time for obstetricians or midwives, and “debouch” has associations with both birth and speaking: it means, literally, “out of the mouth” and has come to suggest any emergence from a tight, constricted space into an open area (a river thus “debouches” into a sea). In the scene of birth, the midwife guides us through the “flexible doors” of the womb and birth canal into the world, but we realize the doors of birth are also the doors of death: we exit the womb only to eventually enter the grave; identity forms and then it perishes. So Whitman offers us surprisingly lovely images of the active corpse. Yes, the poet tells us, the corpse becomes “manure,” but that manure grows new life, and, when we “smell the white roses sweet-scented and growing,” we need to remember they are not just growing out of death but are composed of death (any new plant’s leafing happens only because of the “leavings of many deaths”). We shock ourselves into the realization that this body of ours is in fact the “leavings of many deaths”; each of us exists only because of those deaths, and each of us has life only because “life”—whatever this animating force that we call life is—is perpetually transferred: there is an eternal procession of “promotions” (etymologically, a “moving forward”), as matter is continually re-formed and put in motion by what we call “soul.”
Then Whitman performs the notable feat of imagining himself as the corpse, still with the means of “reaching,” as his dispersed atoms now find themselves occupying new life forms as they “reach to the leafy lips” and “reach to the polish’d breasts of melons.” There is an eroticism to death here: the decaying body interpenetrates with the sexualized and always fertile landscape. Just as back in Section 5, Whitman imagined that his soul “reach’d till you felt my beard, and reach’d till you held my feet” (as the soul charged up the material body), so here is there an explicit and yet obscure sex act, this time between death and life, as death itself energizes and animates life. By the end of the section, Whitman associates the night and the cold, lifeless moon with death but then affirms that the only reason we can even see the moon is that it reflects daylight, warmth, and life. Moon and sun, darkness and day, death and life are the endless reflected cyclings of a unitary, uninterrupted reality.
So, in the final few lines, the act of the accoucheur is repeated: in a dark swamp scene, we can hear the “moaning gibberish” of the “turbid pool” that is constantly breaking down old forms and generating new ones. Now birth and identity become an “ascent” from the moon and the night into the daylight of identity, into perception, as we exit from a dark place into the openness of existence, gaining our identity “from the offspring great or small.” In the final line, Whitman underscores the oneness of the endless process of birth and death by suggesting that any new birth comes from previous “offspring” who have themselves lived and died so that we (the current “offspring”) may occupy the “steady and central” realm of consciousness and life in the ongoing present moment. Life, which is always only contained in the single steady moment of the present, is a continual “springing off of” (and out of) death. So “death” is merely another word for former life—or, more precisely, another word for forms of life that have now sprung into other forms of life, endlessly transferring it into the always emerging physical Now.
With four brush strokes the old hermit wrote a poem in classical Chinese characters, “The world is becoming one flower,” which can also be translated as, “The world is one.” The freedom of his gestures, like the precision with which he performed the tea service and the spirit of generosity filling his studio, was a form of attention rooted in his Buddhist practice. For twenty years he had directed one of the Jewel Temples in the southeastern corner of the Korean peninsula, and in his retirement he remained quite vigorous. He blotted the ink, then presented the poem to me and left. I stood at the window gazing at the white blooms of cosmos, rows of persimmon trees heavy with ripening fruit, mountains shrouded in autumn rain. The monk returned with another gift: a container of black tea leaves, which he had picked and dried himself.
On the road from the hermitage I was driven past a pond of lotuses—a key Buddhist symbol, the progress of the soul figured in the plant growing from the mud through the water to blossom in the sky. Enlightenment is rooted in the rank—a critical idea for Whitman, who in this section embraces his mortality with renewed force. “Life I reckon you are the leavings of many deaths,” he writes, reckoning that he himself has already died ten thousand times; salvation lies in “the black stems that decay in the muck,” in the roots and spent leaves that form the ground of our experience. Our passage through “the flexible doors” of birth presages our death, a journey that we make over and over again, as the Buddha taught. “O grass of graves”: the poem clarifies our relationship to death, enlarging our understanding of the whole.
In a Korean folklore museum, among the excavated pots and tools, the ceremonial attire of kings and queens, and the scholar’s Four Treasures (ink, stone, brush, paper) was the mummy of a child discovered in a medieval family tomb, framed by a display of clothes belonging to his bereaved parents. They had buried them alongside the boy so that on his journey into the afterlife he would not be afraid. Think of “Song of Myself” as a magnificent robe, the sight of which may allay our fear of “the bitter hug of mortality.” We may even want to try it on for size.
How is Whitman’s poem itself enacting the endless process of life and death, beginnings and endings, that he is talking about in this section? “Song of Myself” is coming to an end; how is that end also a beginning?