The First Passage to India

Human togetherness. Global humanity. The poem that inspired Forster’s novel hums with the energy of Suez, of steamships, of “the seas inlaid with eloquent, gentle wires.”

Well, here we are in 2020, at a point along that still unfolding storyline. As we sing our days in the era of coronavirus, knowing a whole lot more about undersea cables and the technologies they represent, as we wonder where we’re headed, consider this image from the 2019 exhibition, Walt Whitman: America’s Poet. Written in Whitman’s own hand, pen and ink and poet’s mind, the poem sends its vibrations out through time.

From the 2019 NYPL Walt Whitman exhibition

The races, neighbors, to marry and be given in marriage,  

The oceans to be cross’d, the distant brought near,  

The lands to be welded together.

I am personally not so wild about these lines:

Eclaircise the myths Asiatic, the primitive fables.  

Although I do love the word “eclaircise.” But here, he’s talking about us, surely.

Ah who shall soothe these feverish children?   
Who justify these restless explorations?

But most of all, I get the part that Forster found so thrilling, the big sweep, the trajectory of history, all of it pouring into our “present, utterly form’d, impell’d by the past.”

Eagles in a Tree

L1010231A pair of giant bald eagles with tangled talons, suspended from a maple tree on a pleasant spring evening.

Apparently this happens from time to time. It can happen in courtship, as in Walt Whitman’s poem, The Dalliance of the Eagles.

Four beating wings, two beaks, a swirling mass tight grappling,
In tumbling turning clustering loops, straight downward falling…

And it can happen in battle. Male eagles get into territorial struggles and end up linked like this, unable or perhaps unwilling to extricate themselves. They will hang this way for hours and finally disentangle and fly away.

Was this battle or breeding? It’s hard to tell if this is a pair of males or a courting couple. Females are bigger than males, apparently, and have larger beaks and a larger hallux or primary back talon.

We returned anxiously the next morning. The tree was empty. The eagles had gone. Was I disappointed or relieved? It’s hard to say.

What do you do with an image like this? With all the questions it raises? Questions of life and death and impermanence, of the vast mysteries of forest and sky, of the fierce, unknowable creatures with whom we share this planet? What do you do, as a writer, with the great hanging wing, with the yellow unblinking circle of a trapped eagle’s eye? With not knowing how to judge this bizarre behavior, not knowing whether it resulted from a fight or a flight of courtship?

Store it away. That’s what you do. You trust that at the right moment, if it is meant to be, the words for this experience will cartwheel into your mind “in tumbling turning clustering loops.”