Every Atom | No. 114

Mary Jo Bang

Introduction to Every Atom by project curator Brian Clements

ea logo

What I love in Whitman are those genius moments where he takes an abstraction and turns it into an anthropomorphic entity. One of those is where “what I am”

Looks with sidecurved head curious what will come next, 

Both in and out of the game, and watching and wondering at it.

In these lines, consciousness—that unfathomable existential state of selfhood—becomes one of Shakespeare’s “rude mechanicals,” with its expectant and ever-unknowing head slightly tilted, “sidecurved,” like a listening animal bent on gauging the emotional tone of its owner’s voice. This understudy self stands at a remove watching the play unfold even while imagining acting it in. The invented word, “sidecurved,” conveys the sense that the self is peering around some corner, literally “rubbernecking,” but the word also suggests the rounded sides of the braincase-skull that contains everything we are. The ambiguity of the odd unhyphenated compound word calls attention to these multiple possible meanings and invites us to tease them apart.


Ultimately, it’s by using language that embodies both our sense of oneness and our primal knowledge that we are one of a multitude, that Whitman succeeds in rhetorically transforming the abstraction “what I am” into something deeply human. The pronoun “I” can only accommodate one person, and yet by placing that I in a game, the singular self becomes one of the countless “leaves of grass” being bent by the wind atop a vast playing field. We, the offspring of that grassy “lap” of mother earth, a lap that will at our death become “the beautiful uncut hair of graves,” each have our own unique relationship to that lap, and to all the other literal and figurative laps to which we are drawn. Because Whitman is acutely aware of the complications of desire, he continually emphasizes the expansive freedom to find the erotic in whomever and whatever attracts us. He demonstrates through language the deep curiosity we bring to the discovery of who we are and our perception, however conflicted it may sometimes be, of what gives us pleasure. Humans are ever alert to “what will come next,” minute to minute, second to second, but we are often unaware of our own heightened intellectual and sensory state. Whitman makes us mindful of the libidinous pleasure behind our looking.

placeholder width 225px height 300px

Mary Jo Bang is the author of eight books of poems—including A Doll For Throwing, Louise in Love, The Last Two Seconds, and Elegy, which received the National Book Critics Circle Award—and a translation of Dante’s Inferno, illustrated by Henrik Drescher. She teaches at Washington University in St. Louis.


Cover art by Grayson Becker