An Afternoon with Walt Whitman

“I celebrate myself and sing myself,

And what I assume you shall assume,

For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.”

The words of “America’s poet” rang out inside the Mattapoisett Library hall on April 19 as never before. Each syllable of every poem fresh and green within Leaves of Grass dripping wet from the mouth of Walt Whitman – new life breathed into each word by Stephen Collins, actor and re-creator of the past made present for an audience that delighted in the afternoon setting of May 31, 1889, Whitman’s 70th birthday.

Before them stood Whitman in a long black overcoat, round-rimmed felt hat and cane. A limp, a cough, and a “howdy’ do,” as he looked around piles of books in confusion and urgency seeking his friend Horace’s black notebook. Within this notebook were the diligent recordings of conversations incorporated into the script “Unlaunch’d Voices: An Evening with Walt Whitman,”written by Michael Keamy and inspired by Collins’ portrayal of Whitman.

A smile, another “howdy’ do”…

“How-dy-do. Ain’t that a good word? It has phonetic significance … a truly American greeting. It rolls off the tongue more readily than ‘good evening,’ don’t you think?”

At that, the audience is invited into the mind of Whitman as he stands in his study, bent and leaning upon his cane, clenched fingers punctuating his every idea beginning with the introduction of his most famous work, Leaves of Grass, and the perceived failure of his book of poems, evidenced by folded, yellowing papers containing reviews of the work by offended and unmoved critics.

In retrospect of his earlier life, Whitman in his frail physical state takes us into a room within his heart, offers us a seat in there, and tricks us into thinking the experience real. The ensuing hypnotic swirl of dialog weaves within it poetry and prose and makes us unaware of the shift like the transition into a dream state where nothing is questioned and time loses meaning.

Collins by now had convinced us all to assume ourselves witnesses of Whitman’s memories of torment, youthful unrest, the celebration of life and human flesh. He talks of a mystical experience in nature that forced Whitman into the throes of a creative whirlwind that became his Leaves of Grass, hailed by Ralph Waldo Emerson as “the most extraordinary piece of wit and wisdom America has yet contributed.”

Within that whirlwind of thoughtful dialog intermingled with poetry, the arched backbone appears straightened as Whitman’s overcoat is removed and tossed off. Loose fingers unbutton the dress vest to reveal a disheveled open-chested white shirt. Whitman, looking wild and larger than life, then dug his youthful heels into the poem “Song of Myself” that broke new ground in 1855 with its sexual straightforwardness, and celebration of the sacrosanctity of the physical, the savage, and nature.

Was it Whitman’s words alone or was it the deliverance that likely led some of us to resist squirming in our seats during the explicit verses of the poem “Children of Adam” that describes the female form “too fully,” as Emerson thought.

“Lost in the cleave of the clasping and sweet-flesh’d day…”

Impassioned words brought forth moments of a man on his knees as if begging for mercy from his own creation, clenched fists, and arms locking his own chest in an embrace.

“I am he that knows the pain of unrequited love,” shouts the man between verses of the poem. “Agonies are one of my changes of garments … Yet out of that I have written these songs…”

Act Two comes on with the warning of war, a time that left on him the imprints of mortality, morality, and “the most real work of my life,” read from a letter written by Whitman to his mother.

The dialog slows after a series of letters, and the man pauses and looks into the collective eyes of the audience.

“Have you seen someone die? Have you had the privilege? I have. Hundreds of times.”

Collins slowly walks to retrieve his overcoat, hat, and cane and returns to the frailty of Whitman’s 70-year-old self. He moves again into poetry seamlessly and without hesitation and winds down into the verses of Leaves of Grass again:

“I am the poet of death as the poet of life. / I welcome you.”

A copy of Leaves of Grass in hand, the old man offers us one last moment of Whitman’s rebirth and own words channeled through Collins’ body:

“Love the earth and sun and the animals, despise riches, give alms to everyone that asks, stand up for the stupid and crazy … take off your hat to nothing known or unknown or to any man … go freely with powerful uneducated persons and the young … read these leaves in open air every season of every year of your life … and your very flesh shall be a great poem … not only in its words but in the silent lines of its lips and face … and in every motion and joint of your body.“

At that, he discovers Horace’s notebook, acknowledges his “gabbing and loitering,” and bids farewell to the people waking up from reverie and leaves us, reciting a few more precious verses before he retreats into his own transience.

Collins the actor is welcomed back with a lengthy applause from the audience he thanked and deemed acutely attentive and appreciative, which is what fuels a great performance such as this one, he said.

“I’ve been doing this for a long time and I still get nauseous for the first few minutes,” said Collins, who also performs several other one-man performances portraying other greats such as William Shakespeare. “I wake up everyday … and work at finding beauty in this life and work at being grateful,” said Collins. “I’m grateful every day. I’m grateful that I’m not a salesman.”

Collins said 90 percent of Keamy’s script that he recites is of Whitman’s own words, either through poetry or via Horace’s written recordings.

How does he remember the entire text for a lengthy solo performance such as this, someone asked.

“On the way down here, I went over this entire show in my head,” said Collins. Every now and then, he said, he tells himself, “Ok, it’s time to re-cement my mind,” which he usually follows-up on while running for exercise. “Once it’s hard-wired, once it’s in there, pulling it out of your memory bank isn’t a problem.”

And as for his portrayal of Walt Whitman, Collins said, “I have a pretty good sense of who he was.” Collins said he himself has spent some time in nature and has visited some of the same places Whitman once did.

“I love it,” said Collins of his work bringing to life great men from the past. “I absolutely love it.”

By Jean Perry

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