John Guzlowski

An Old Man Listening to a Young Man Listening to Whitman

He spoke to me in the desert
Outside of Elko, Nevada,
Back forty-some years ago.

Maybe I was asleep
Or maybe I was dreaming.
I don’t remember now.

I was lying on the hard sand,
The billion names of God shining
Above me in the darkest sky.

I was alone there. Not even
A book of poems with me,
When Whitman whispered,

“Arise and sing naked
And dance naked
And visit your mother naked

“And be funny and tragic
and plugged in, and embrace
the silent and scream for them

“And look for me beneath
the concrete streets beneath
your shoeless feet in Chicago

“And ask somebody to dance
The bossa nova and hear him or her say
Sorry I left my carrots at home

“And be a mind-blistered astronaut
With nothing to say to the sun
But—Honey I’m yours.”

That’s the kind of stuff
Whitman was always whispering,
On and on, stuff like that.

And I got up and searched
In my backpack for a candy bar,
Chewed it ‘til there was nothing left

And then I hitched up the road
Out of that silence
Back to the city I grew up in,

Its blocks of blocks of bricks
And its old people in their factories
Who went to Church and got drunk

Who hurt the ones they loved,
Who wondered who made them,
Who lived and died in due time

Who taught me the world is sand
And drifting dreams and clouds
That speak no English.


Walt Whitman (May 31, 1819 – March 26, 1892) lived in DC from 1863 to 1873.  In the Preface to the 1855 edition to Leaves of Grass, he wrote: “This is what you shall do: Love the earth and sun and the animals, despise riches, give alms to every one that asks, stand up for the stupid and crazy, devote your income and labor to others, hate tyrants, argue not concerning God, have patience and indulgence toward the people, take off your hat to nothing known or unknown or to any man or number of men, go freely with powerful uneducated persons and with the young and with the mothers of families, read these leaves in the open air every season of every year of your life, re-examine all you have been told at school or church or in any book, dismiss whatever insults your own soul, and your very flesh shall be a great poem and have the richest fluency not only in its words but in the silent lines of its lips and face and between the lashes of your eyes and in very motion and joint of your body…”


John Guzlowski's writing appears in Garrison Keillor's Writer's Almanac, The North American Review, The Ontario Review,, Rattle, and Crab Orchard Review. His poems and personal essays about his parents' experiences as slave laborers in Nazi Germany and refugees making a life for themselves in Chicago appear in his book Echoes of Tattered Tongues (Aquila Polonica Press, 2016). His novel Road of Bones (Cervena Barva Press, 2015), is about two German lovers separated by WWII.