Every Atom | No. 21

Matthew Zapruder

Introduction to Every Atom by project curator Brian Clements

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What would later become section 6 of "Song of Myself" is, I think, the perfect American poem. One of my favorite moments in it comes early, in the third stanza. Whitman is at the start of a series of speculative metamorphoses, as he continually transforms the ordinary grass into other objects and phenomena, ostensibly in order to answer the child’s question, “What is the grass?” After saying it must be a green flag, of his “disposition, out of hopeful green stuff woven,” he moves into a more elaborate figure. He guesses that it is the “handkerchief of the Lord,” which at first seems like it could be in the service of imagining the Lord as a man. But as the passage goes on Whitman is clearly intimating, flirtatiously, a portrait of the Lord as a lady, one who has deliberately (“designedly”) dropped her “scented gift.” The handkerchief had been since the early 17th century well-known as an instrument of female flirtation, a way of signaling interest, especially when perfumed and dropped before a potential love interest. Like a handkerchief, the grass is “bearing its owner’s name somewhere in the corners,” i.e., it is monogrammed. So when we find it, we will see the initials and wonder who dropped it. All this is bold and funny and sweet and quite wonderful. It also makes me think of God’s (or whoever’s) monogram, DNA, first observed only a few years after the writing of this poem, but only identified for its importance almost 100 years later, in 1953. But my favorite thing of all about this passage is the word “remembrancer.” In a wonderful lexicon of “Song of Myself,” Robert Hass and Paul Ebenkamp define remembrancer as exactly what you would think it is, something that reminds you, a souvenir. They include some wonderful supporting historical quotes from the OED, including “The freckles … friendly remembrancers of the April sun and breeze,” from Hawthorne’s The House of the Seven Gables, and, even better, from W.D. Howell’s An Italian Journey, “A bit of sacred wood for a remembrancer.” I just love that word.

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Matthew Zapruder’s most recent book is Why Poetry (Ecco, 2017). His fifth collection of poetry, Father’s Day, is forthcoming from Copper Canyon in fall 2019. He is Associate Professor in the MFA program at Saint Mary’s College of California, and editor at large at Wave Books.


Cover art by Sarah Pauls