Whitman now pauses, after evoking the ecstasy of touch and the productive quieting and calming of that heightened state, to consider what “lesson” touch itself teaches us. Not surprisingly, it teaches democracy. Ordinary, everyday touch is so common that we dull ourselves to how miraculous it is: “(What is less or more than a touch?)” As Whitman looks at the “things” of the world, he realizes that whatever “truths” he will ever encounter must in fact “wait in things,” for the world is always and only embodied. Nothing exists outside of materials: the things of the world are always in the process of living and dying, being constructed and deconstructed, but those processes are always working through materials, and thus (as the twentieth-century poet William Carlos Williams would put it) there are “no ideas but in things.” A sensual relationship with the embodied things of the world during the moment we live is the only way finally we will discover truth, because truth emerges effortlessly from all things, and “the insignificant is as big to me as any.” We can work hard to formulate abstract “truths”—as “logic and sermons” always try to do—but truth is born out of all things without the need of “obstetric forceps”: truth is just there in the things around us and does not need the clamps of logic to be extracted. We may be blind to the vast mysteries every thing in the world contains, but there they are nonetheless, discernible to our eyes and ears and taste and touch: whether it be a sunrise, a dung beetle, pokeweed, the “damp of the night,” or the “soggy clods” at our feet, all the truths that we will ever know are always there before us.
Now with his brain “settled” in the brief time after the turmoil of sexual ecstasy and the ejaculation of his semen (“a drop of me”), he can reflect on the erotic experience he has had: he realizes the fertility that is latent in the “soggy clods” (soggy because of the “showering rains”), and he realizes that the ultimate truth (the “compend of compends,” the compendium beyond all compendiums of knowledge) is right there in “the meat of a man or woman,” in their physical sinews, and in the bodily desire that humans feel for each other. This desire may be expressed as the love of one body for another body, but that “feeling” will “branch boundlessly” and become “omnific,” all-creating, until individual desire radiates out into the world, and we feel “delight” not just in our lover but in all humanity and in the world at large.
The spring rains had ended, and the archaeologists excavating a fortress, in Merv, Turkmenistan, were eager to discuss their finds—a wall, underground rooms, coins. The discovery of an ox bone suggested the existence of an agrarian society settled five thousand years ago, a civilization on the order of Mesopotamia or China; the shards of pottery, collected in rectangles demarcated by a string, awaited the educated guesswork of those trained in the art of reading signs of human habitation. On a warm May morning, I watched an old kerchiefed woman order laborers to sift one pile of dirt and then another, assembling in her mind’s eye (so I imagined) a picture of the ancient world—the rulers and the ruled, weapons and cooking utensils, rituals of planting and harvesting. And more: storms, earthquakes, plagues... It is no small task, for the archaeologist no less than the artist, to discover truths that, as Whitman reminds us in this section, “wait in all things,” because “They neither hasten their own delivery nor resist it.” The trick is to recognize the spark of creation, the essential, in things large and small. For everything has significance.
This was the lesson that Rainier Maria Rilke learned in the studio of Auguste Rodin. One day the sculptor asked him what he was writing. Nothing, the poet replied, so Rodin advised him to go to the zoo and observe an animal until he could render it on the page—a visit that inspired “The Panther,” the first of hundreds of thing-poems. These he collected into two volumes of New Poems (1907), a central text, which along with the writings of William Carlos Williams, Francis Ponge, Pablo Neruda, and others, established the modern tradition of finding in everyday objects clues about the meaning of existence—a tradition inaugurated by Whitman, who asked the most important question of all: “What is less or more than a touch?” The answer is found in love. The Turkmen archaeologist held a shard up to the sunlight, and smiled.
Can you describe a time that it seemed to you that just looking intensely at some physical thing in the world was more meaningful than anything you have read in a book or heard in a lecture or sermon? What truth was waiting in that thing?