Reed Whittemore

Six Poems by Reed Whittemore

Volume 5:1, Winter 2004

The Destruction of Washington

When Washington has been destroyed,
And the pollutants have been silting up for an age,
Then the old town will attract the world’s Schliemanns.
What, they will say, a dig! as they uncover
The L’Enfant plan in the saxifrage.

So many plaques, so many figures in marble
With large shoulders and lawman lips
Will have to be pieced together and moved to the new
That the mere logistics will delight vips.

For how can one pass by a muchness? There will be fund drives
With uplifting glosses,
Teams of researchers will mass with massive machinery
At the Rayburn ruin
To outscoop Athens and Knossos.

Dusty Scholars will stumble in, looking nearsightedly
At gray facades
Of pillar and portal,
And at curious acres of asphalt,
For clues to the mystery of that culture’s gods.

Money of course they will miss,
Since money is spoke not at all on the plaques there,
Nor will they shovel up evidence
That the occupants of the chambers and cloakrooms
Were strangers in town, protecting their deities elsewhere,

But sanctums they surely will guess at,
Where the real and true pieties were once expressed.
If the Greeks had their Elusinians,
Surely this tribe on the Potomac had mysteries too?
–Having to do, perhaps, with the “Wild West”?

Like most of us sitting here now beside the Potomac,
They will find the Potomac primitives hard to assess.
Oh, may their ignorance be, than ours,
At least less!


The Storing of the Soul

The American soul has been stored under the stairs
In a box with the mittens and scarves
For the longest time. We couldn’t think where we had put it.
We looked in the attic and cellar, and in the garage,
And then found it at last, as I say, under the stairs.

Why would anyone store a poor spiritual soul there,
We wondered.
It was ever so slightly creased and decreased bit it was
Perfectly safe, we were sure.
We put it back in the box there.

I have been checking it Fridays, just to make sure
It isn’t departing,
And see no change in it at all, except in its color,
Which is less.
Of its continuing immortality I have made sure

By adding more mothballs.
But do you think that there is a chance that we will have need of it?
I ask because if we will I think I should air it.
A soul is not at its best when it is
Heavy with mothballs.



The Lord feeds some of His prisoners better than others.
It could be said of Him that He is not a just god but an indifferent god.
That He is not to be trusted to reward the righteous and punish the unscrupulous.
That He maketh the poor poorer but is otherwise undependable.

It could be said of Him that it is His school of the germane that produced the
Congressional Record.
That it is His vision of justice that gave us cost accounting.

It could be said of Him that thought we walk with Him all the days of our lives we
will never fathom Him
Because He is empty.

These are dark images of our Lord
That make it seem needful for us to pray not unto Him
But ourselves.
But when we do that we find that indeed we are truly lost
And we rush back into the safer fold, impressed by His care for us.

Thinking of Tents

I am thinking of tents and tentage, tents through the ages.
I had half a tent in the army and rolled it religiously,
But Supply stole it back at war’s end, leaving me tentless.
And tentless I thankfully still am, a house man at heart,
Thinking of tents as one who has passed quite beyond tents,
Passed the stakes and the flaps, mosquitoes and mildew,
And come to the ultimate tent, archetypal, platonic,
With one cot in it, and one man curled on the cot
Drinking, cooling small angers, smelling death in the distance—
War’s end—
World’s end—
Sullen Achilles.


Big Brother

I spent last night with my Big (Board) (American) Brother
and all his Perception Managers
as they told me (right on the tube) what I should eat
buy drink wear and invest in

toward the end of the evening they noticed that I was unconscious
and took this to mean that the lobes of my infantile brain
were grieving for lack of sufficient data on all the amazing
breakthroughs in life and tummy remedies
improving each human human at each waking moment

so then they
fixed up my lobes until my perceptions grew glum and started
to bug me
at which time I woke and smiled to them saying dear Sirs
I wish you to know Sirs that when Sirs you sit Sirs and smile Sirs
and say Sirs NOTHING AT ALL it is then that my lobes Sirs
advise me that all my major organic systems Sirs
(by which to be brief I mean Sirs my lymphatic system
my circulatory system
my respiratory system
my digestive system
and my reproductive system)
love you as all such small-brother systems (Sirs) SHOULD

and yet Sirs
I wish you also to know at this time Sirs that when Sirs
you talk to me from the depths of your own noisy lobes Sirs
and keep telling me telling me telling me that which you tell me
it is THEN Sirs that something unbrotherly sweeps through my systems
with the muggy messy manic moronic consequence
that I itch and twitch and cannot seem to stop twitching
but must sweat shudder and come to DESPISE Sirs
YOU Sirs
at at that time I yearn yearn and even yearn MORE Sirs
for you to SHUT

An American Takes a Walk

In the middle of this life’s journey
He came, like Dante, on a wood
The notes said stood for error
But in his case stood for good,
Where his art and prowess left him
And let him become a child
To whom the wild seemed milder
Than his old neighborhood.

Had he, with those abandoned
Sons of fatal decrees,
Then been found by a shepherd
And bred up to shepherdese,
Or retrieved, like Dante, by Virgil
And led through circles and seas
To some brighter country beyond
His annotated trees,

He could not have been more cared for.
Nature was awfully kind.
Hell in that motherly habit
Put hell quite out of mind.

How in that Arden could human
Frailty be but glossed?
How in that Eden could Adam
Really be lost?

Reed Whittemore (1919 - 2012) is the author of thirteen books of poetry, including The Self-Made Man (1959), The Mother's Breast & The Father's House (1974), and The Past, The Future, The Present: Poems Selected and New (1990). His memoir, Against the Grain, was published in 2007. Among other honors, he twice served as Poetry Consultant to the Library of Congress (1964 - 65 and 1984 - 85); in addition, he was the Poet Laureate of Maryland, an Award of Merit recipient from the Academy of American Poets, and a finalist for the National Book Award. Whittemore was the literary editor of the New Republic, and in a distinguished teaching career, taught at Carleton College and The University of Maryland.