By Stuart Mitchner
There is certainly not one government in Europe but is now watching the war in this country, with the ardent prayer that the United States may be effectually split, crippled, and dismember’d by it.
—Walt Whitman, circa 1864
It was when the current administration seemed to be inciting civil unrest in the name of liberty that I began rereading the 1861-1865 entries in Walt Whitman’s Specimen Days in America, where he calls “the war of attempted secession … the distinguishing event” of his time. In his notes to the volume he assembled in the early 1880s, the “specimens” were “impromptu jottings” collected during visits to “the sick and wounded of the army, both on the field and in the hospitals in and around Washington city.” Given the science-driven nature of the ongoing, no-end-in-sight “war” against the coronavirus, it’s worth noting that the poet’s use of the clinical word “specimens” refers to “persons, sights, occurrences in camp, by the bed-side, and not seldom by the corpses of the dead.” Some entries “were scratch’d down … while watching, or waiting, or tending somebody amid those scenes,” and are left just as he “threw them by after the war, blotch’d here and there with more than one blood-stain, hurriedly written, … not seldom amid the excitement of uncertainty, or defeat, or of action, or getting ready for it, or a march.”
Musings on a Mask
As soon as I tie on the mask, an ordinary walk becomes a wartime narrative. Sensing someone else almost directly behind me, I obey the social distancing guidelines and move to my left, out of the way, and as he passes, we exchange a look, a shared awareness that there’s a war going on and we’re living in the so-called epicenter, with more fatalities per capita at this moment than any other state.
This being the first time I’ve been out for a walk with a piece of Scotch plaid tied over my nose and mouth, I’m imagining masked versions of everyone from Mickey Mouse to Mozart, Darwin to Dostoevsky, including my own history from the bandanna-masked outlaw in boyhood shoot-outs and sword fights to the surgical-masked, blissed-out father witnessing the birth of a son. Mainly, I’m hearing Bob Dylan’s voice as if through a densely-woven mask as he growls his way past “the cities of the plague” to “the last outback at the world’s end” in “Ain’t Talkin,’” the haunting endgame song on Modern Times, an album recorded 15 years ago. Another track on my pandemic playlist is “Murder Most Foul,” Dylan’s epic meditation on the Kennedy assassination, the title lifted from Shakespeare and presented as a gift to “fans and followers” along with the uncharacteristically empathetic advisory “stay safe, stay observant.” more