I have never been one to read a lot of poetry—love to read almost anything, including cereal boxes but was not drawn to verse. That changed somewhat last October when I was visiting Washington, DC with a friend, and we saw a long, chiseled inscription in the curving granite wall surrounding our Metro station at Dupont Circle. Upon further investigation, we discovered the quote was from Walt Whitman‘s Civil War poem “The Dresser” (later changed by Whitman to “The Wound Dresser”). The quote follows:
Thus in silence in dreams’ projections,
Returning, resuming, I thread my way through the hospitals;
The hurt and wounded I pacify with soothing hand,
I sit by the restless all the dark night—some are so young;
Some suffer so much—I recall the experience sweet and sad..
During 1862, the second year of the Civil War, Whitman, at age 43, left his mother’s home in Brooklyn, New York ,to try to locate his brother, George, who had been listed in the newspapers as injured during the Battle of Fredericksburg, Virginia. Whitman actually expected to find his brother dead in one of the numerous make-shift hospitals set up in the Washington area, but instead, found George only slightly wounded and safe near Falmouth, Virginia. Thus began Whitman’s unpaid volunteer/nursing stint that lasted for the length of the war. Those that nursed the sick and injured at that time were usually convalescing veterans or others considered to be cowards for not actually being on the field in the thick of the fighting. There was no formal training involved. The first time Whitman visited the Falmouth facility, he was met with the unimaginable sight of “a heap of amputated feet, legs, arms, hands etc…a full load for a one-horse cart.” Needless to say, conditions in the hospitals were horrendous, and many soldiers would conceal minor injuries so as not to be admitted.
Whitman came to know the patients well and began a journal, making note of family stories, injuries, and the likes and dislikes of individuals, providing treats such as peaches, tobacco, tea, stamps, and even fresh underwear! He felt he was an advocate to these wounded soldiers and often wrote farewell letters home for them, providing solace and support in what must have been a horrific place.
Of course, this war experience provided Whitman with ample inspiration for his poetry and prose. At one point, he wrote to Ralph Waldo Emerson: “I desire and intend to write a little book out of this phase of America, her masculine young manhood, its conduct under most trying of and highest of all exigency, which she, as by lifting a corner in a curtain, has vouchsafed me to see America, already brought to Hospital in her fair youth—brought and deposited here in this great, whited sepulchre of Washington itself.”
For years, scholars have speculated about Whitman’s sexuality, but have found no real proof he ever experienced a relationship with another man. This will prove an interesting fact given the next part of the story.
Dupont Circle, considered to be in the “old city” part of Washington, had been in decline until the 1960’s and 70’s, when it became something of a “hippie” hangout with a large gay population. It was there they felt accepted and free to live as they chose—many for the first time in their lives. Unfortunately, the AIDS crisis was growing at this time, and many afflicted with this dread disease lived in the area. Those with HIV/AIDS needed many caregivers to cope with and assist them in their daily lives, but lack of information and fear of contagion meant it took great courage and fortitude to nurse the sick. There was no cure or real treatment, and as time went by, thousands died of what became known as “gay cancer.”
After many years, research discovered certain drugs in special combinations (called “cocktail drugs”) were helpful in prolonging the lives of those infected with the virus. Though there is still no cure, at least these patients have hope of living longer.
On July 14, 2007, Washington, DC Council member Jim Graham unveiled the Whitman quote at the Dupont Circle metro station as homage to the countless nurses, doctors, aides and other volunteers who risked their own lives to care for those suffering with HIV/AIDS. Every year since, on World AIDS Day, crowds gather in a candlelight vigil to pay tribute to the caregivers and to honor those who have died. It is also an opportunity for local medical staff and volunteers to provide the latest information about the disease and to encourage those newly diagnosed to pursue treatment.
Looking back to Walt Whitman’s devoted service to the wounded and dying soldiers of the Civil War, it seems fitting to use his words to praise all the selfless caregivers who sacrificed their own safety to bring comfort and care to the afflicted in Dupont Circle.
This is what you shall do: Love the earth and sun and the animals, despise riches, give alms to every one that asks, stand up for the stupid and crazy, devote your income and labor to others, hate tyrants, argue not concerning God, have patience and indulgence toward the people, take off your hat to nothing known or unknown or to any man or number of men, go freely with powerful uneducated persons and with the young and with the mothers of families, read these leaves in the open air every season of every year of your life, re-examine all you have been told at school or church or in any book, dismiss whatever insults your own soul; and your very flesh shall be a great poem and have the richest fluency not only in its words but in the silent lines of its lips and face and between the lashes of your eyes and in every motion and joint of your body.
Do you have a favorite poet? Why were you drawn to him/her?