Every Atom | No. 104

Elizabeth Cohen

Introduction to Every Atom by project curator Brian Clements

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


Sometimes I like to think like Whitman. I like to get up, have a cup of coffee, and then enter my day in Whitman-mode.


As I walk as Whitman along the streets of my small town I find I note the many colors in the palette of the flowers; I might stop as Whitman to watch a bee’s jig, or just stand there and observe the wind jumping on the trampoline of a spider’s web. I spend time admiring the perfect white globes of hydrangea and the casual flop hat style of the poppies in a neighbor’s yard.


As Whitman, I look at people differently. I look exclusively for their endurance, grace, and strength. If Whitman could see the seamstress or mill worker in a “clean-haired Yankee girl,” I can see the pipefitter in the overly-tatted man in the line at my bank.


To be Whitman, you also have to think on the atomic level. Every little thing is made of the same stuff as every other little thing. As Whitman, I am aware I am made of the same essential material as a table, koi fish in an ornamental pond, and a boulder. And let’s add in here, for good measure, a Filet-o-Fish sandwich wrapper blowing in the wind and the “Closed for Renovation” sign up at a florist. “For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you,” wrote Whitman, giving us a template for poetic atomic physics. 


When I am Whitman I have little autonomy, or let my autonomy be less important. I let my edges get fuzzy. I am the universe and the universe is me. And I notice that most things do not complain. The clock doesn’t get annoyed by its repetitiveness. The door doesn’t mind slamming. There is no whining in a field of grass, Whitman cogently pointed out.


But being Whitman takes patience. It means slowing down and shifting not just gears, but one’s gaze. You can’t be Whitman if you are on a deadline, or need to do stuff. Being Whitman takes singular focus.


One day, recently, while I was Whitman, I watched a family of ducks that for some mysterious reason have made a home in a puddle at a Dunkin Donuts in Plattsburgh, New York. Each time a car drove in and then out of the Drive Thru, they had to leave and come back, followed by their progeny of fluff. As myself, I am sure I might have been worried or even upset that ducks should be calling the Dunkin Donuts Drive Thru a home, but as Whitman I saw this is an example of endurance and survivalism.


Being Whitman is largely an act of opening up your personal aperture to allow in wonderment. Should you decide to try this exercise, I recommend doing it on a day when you have few or,  even better, no appointments. I recommend you do your best to put aside any anxieties, social judgement, and grudges you may be harboring. These will only get in your way when you are Whitman.


And oh (or perhaps should I say “O”?), leave your cell phone at home.

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Elizabeth Cohen is Associate Professor of English at SUNY Plattsburgh and co-editor of Saranac Review. She has published five books of poetry, a memoir, and a book of short stories.


Cover art by Ben Rendall