Every Atom | No. 36

Heather McHugh

Introduction to Every Atom by project curator Brian Clements

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Let me say:  words fail (so should be few) before this Whitmanian “largeness and stir.”


It’s his own words I have arranged below the asterisks: they grabbed me even now, out of his fierce passed presences. These words, you'll see, do feature Walt's inimitable ranges—from compaction to expansion, from intimation to estimation, from apple-ache to cascade, from thought to hat, from head to musical foot.  


His questioning refuses the usual structural completions and yet—or maybe therefore!—fills with consequential space. His tropes are trips, his falls are liquid. Readers endeared to Whitman’s self-assessments—when he calls his words omnivorous, his grand assertions “egotism”—note that even self-deprecations are chutzpastic here, as in a series of counterbalanced phrases he manages deftly to consort the incarnations of meaning with the meanings of incarnation. What begins in a field of contrasts ends in synonymies—so many ways of slinging a single song of senses, through a throng of ensigns.


I know perfectly well my own egotism,

And know my omnivorous words, and cannot say any less…


My words are words of a questioning, and to indicate reality;

This printed and bound book . . . . but the printer and the printing-office boy?

The marriage estate and settlement . . . . but the body and mind of the bridegroom? also those of the bride?

The panorama of the sea . . . . but the sea itself?

The well-taken photographs . . . . but your wife or friend close and solid in your arms?

The fleet of ships of the line and all the modern improvements . . . . but the craft and pluck of the admiral?

The dishes and fare and furniture . . . . but the host and hostess, and the look out of their eyes?

The sky up there . . . . yet here or next door or across the way?

The saints and sages in history . . . . but you yourself?

Sermons and creeds and theology . . . . but the human brain, and what is called reason, and what is called love, and what is called life?



…the art of art, the glory of expression and the sunshine of the light of letters is simplicity  …to carry on the heave of impulse and pierce intellectual depths and give all subjects their articulations…



…speech is the twin of my vision… it is unequal to measure itself..



…to be is just as great as to perceive or tell…



…largeness and stir...


…I pass death with the dying and birth with the new-washed babe… and am not contained between my hat and my boots.

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Heather McHugh lives Out West. Dual citizen by nature and by law, retired from seemlier occupations, she seeks to obviate the nominal divides, frequent the verbs inside the bounds, and inquire into immiscibles. In 2019 Sarabande will publish her chapbook Feeler; and in 2020 Copper Canyon her Muddy Matterhorn.


Cover art by Sarah Pauls