[Shhhh…don’t tell anyone that I’m actually posting this one on Tuesday]
My high school days were full of yearnings. Many of these were the typical yearnings of a teen: I wanted to achieve greatness and find my way in this big world. But some of these yearning were different, they were due to feeling trapped inside a body that yearned to move freely. Many of my dreams were about swimming…because water was the only place where I my body wasn’t hampered by gravity and a world made for bipedals.
I joined my high school swim team so I had a good excuse to be in the water for two hours per day. I also got certified as a lifeguard so I could work as a canoe instructor at summer camps. I swam in our backyard pool often, loving to float on my back and feel the sun on my body.
So when I fell in love with Whitman’s poetry I particularly loved his “Twenty-eight young men” poem. Of course I knew that it was highly sexually-charged (which also resonated with me on some levels*), but more than that, I knew the feelings of the woman at the window who was watching everyone else frolic and play as she stood by and watched. I knew what it was to spend my time imagining that I was joining in the fun, but was instead merely watching from behind the blinds.
This poem came to mind earlier this week as I was paddling alone in the Back Bay. I started reciting it in my mind (having committed it to memory long ago). I smiled at the fact that I’m no longer standing by and longing to leap in the water. Having an amphibious prosthetic limb has made me able to move in and out of the water with ease.
Twenty-eight young men bathe by the shore,
Twenty-eight young men and all so friendly;
Twenty-eight years of womanly life and all so lonesome.
She owns the fine house by the rise of the bank,
She hides handsome and richly drest aft the blinds of the window.
Which of the young men does she like the best?
Ah the homeliest of them is beautiful to her.
Where are you off to, lady? for I see you,
You splash in the water there, yet stay stock still in your room.
Dancing and laughing along the beach came the twenty-ninth bather,
The rest did not see her, but she saw them and loved them.
The beards of the young men glisten’d with wet, it ran from their long hair,
Little streams pass’d all over their bodies.
An unseen hand also pass’d over their bodies,
It descended tremblingly from their temples and ribs.
The young men float on their backs, their white bellies bulge to the sun,
they do not ask who seizes fast to them,
They do not know who puffs and declines with pendant and bending arch,
They do not think whom they souse with spray.
–Walt Whitman, Song of Myself, sec 11 in Leaves of Grass bk ii (1855)
*While I was looking for an electronic version of this poem, I happened upon this site, which pairs the poem with Eakins’ painting “The Swimming Hole.” John just happened to look over my shoulder at that very moment and got a good giggle out of my surreptitious viewing of nekkid men.