Whitman and Marti: Soldiers of the Bridge

by zunguzungu

As he crosses Brooklyn Ferry, Walt Whitman sings! Of the flood-tide below and the clouds of the west, and the impalpable sustenance he draws from all things at all hours of the day. He’s really into it. He sees “the similitudes of the past and those of the future, the glories strung like beads on my smallest sights and hearings…” The future and the past are one, he says, as he stares out at his fellow passengers and out onto the unchanging harbor:
“Others will enter the gates of the ferry and cross from shore to shore; others will watch the run of the flood-tide; others will see the shipping of the Manhattan north and west, and the heights of Brooklyn to the south and east…fifty years hence, others will see them as they cross, the sun half an hour high, a hundred years hence, or ever so many hundred years hence…The simple, compact, well-joined scheme, myself disintegrated, every one disintegrated yet part of the scheme…”

A few short years hence, the Brooklyn Bridge is built, and a more expeditious conveyance now shuttles the growing population of not-yet incorporated Brooklyn on their way to New York. But, in Jose Marti’s “The Brooklyn Bridge,” the author quickly keys us in to the fact that the bridge is more than merely transportation:

“Watching this vast, well-scrubbed, teeming and ever growing multitude gather to swarm rapidly across this air-borne tendril, you can imagine that you are seeing Liberty herself seated on high, her radiant head at the summit of the heavens and her white hands, large as eagles, spread open in a sign of peace on earth: Liberty, who has given birth to this daughter in this city. Liberty, who is the mother of the new world that is only now dawning. It is as if a sun were rising over these two towers.”

Ah liberty… But a funny thing happens by the end of the piece. Strange metaphors (snakes biting into the land) intrude on the Whitmanian fancies with which he began, and things start to get weirder; women and children crying without seeming explanation, and policemen. And the essay closes with this:

“Thus they have built it and thus it stands, the monumental structure, less beautiful than grand, like a ponderous arm of the human mind. No longer are deep trenches dug around embattled fortresses; now cities embrace one another with arms of steel. No longer do sentry posts manned by soldiers guard populations; now there are booths with employees bearing neither spear nor rifle who collect the penny of peace from the laborers that go past. Bridges are the fortresses of the modern world. Better to bring cities together than to cleave human chests. Today, all men are called upon to be soldiers of the bridge.”