Hark, what poem leaps from yonder Metro wall?


Etched above the Q Street NW entrance to the Dupont Circle Metro station are a few lines from a Civil War-era Walt Whitman poem as partially seen here on May 17. (John Kelly/The Washington Post)
John Kelly
Columnist May 18, 2013

Inscribed on the wall above the north exit of the Dupont Circle Metro station is a quote by Walt Whitman. In which of his literary words can I find the inscription?

— Stan Crocker , Silver Spring

John Kelly writes "John Kelly's Washington," a daily look at Washington's less-famous side. Born in Washington, John started at The Post in 1989 as deputy editor in the Weekend section. View Archive

Here’s what’s engraved in the curving granite wall above Dupont’s Q Street entrance:

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 . . .


Etched above the Q Street NW entrance to the Dupont Circle Metro station are a few lines from a Civil War-era Walt Whitman poem as partially seen here on May 17. (John Kelly/The Washington Post)

The words come from a poem called “The Dresser” in a book Walt Whitman published in 1865 titled “Drum-Taps.”

Answer Man confesses he’d never read the poem before but is glad for the opportunity. “The Dresser” — later retitled by Whitman as “The Wound-Dresser” — starts with an elderly narrator basically being asked that age-old question: “What did you do in the war, grandpa?” His young interlocutors want to hear about the brave men and mighty armies he witnessed.

Instead, the narrator takes his listeners to a different place, to the hospital:

Bearing the bandages,

water and sponge,

Straight and swift to my wounded I go . . .

It is an in­cred­ibly explicit poem, almost medical in its description of the work that Whitman actually did as a volunteer in Washington’s hospitals during the Civil War:

I dress the perforated shoulder, the foot with the bul let wound,
Cleanse the one with a gnawing and putrid gangrene, so
sickening, so offensive,
While the attendant stands behind aside me, holding
the tray and pail.

He comforts where he can and finds himself silently calling upon death to take those who are suffering the most.

Whitman knew what he was writing about. He’d traveled south from his home in Brooklyn in 1862 to look for his brother George, who had been wounded fighting for the Union. Walt found George alive and well at a camp across from Fredericks-burg. Rather than return to New York, the 43-year-old poet stayed in the District, moving among the dozens of hospitals that had been set up to care for the river of wounded soldiers that flowed north.

With a haversack slung over his shoulder, Whitman stopped at bedsides, sharing tobacco, crackers, peaches, the day’s newspapers. . . . He wrote letters for wounded soldiers. He sat with them as they died.

In 2006, D.C. Council member Jim Graham and others were looking for a way to honor the caregivers who had nursed the sick in the earliest days of the city’s HIV crisis. They found inspiration in Whitman’s Civil War-era poem.

“That poem was inspired by his ministrations to the sick and the dying, and so that, of course, has a fitting connection to the early years of the AIDS epidemic,” Graham told Answer Man. Dupont Circle, as the longtime center of the gay com-munity, the setting was perfect.

“It has the benefit of that particular station’s very long escalator,” Graham said. “As you go down, you have time to read.”

A second poem, “We Embrace” by D.C.’s E. Ethelbert Miller, is engraved around a bench near the station’s entrance:

We fought against the invisible
We looked to one another

for comfort
We held the hands of friends

and lovers
We did not turn our backs

We embraced

We embraced

The two works — funded by the D.C. Commission on the Arts and Humanities and the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority — were dedicated on July 14, 2007.

Now, here’s a way to win a bet: Ask a Washington expert to name the first Metro station in town to feature poetry by Walt Whitman. When they answer “Dupont Circle,” you respond: “Wrong. You owe me a beer.”

That’s because 12 years before a stone mason set to work on the Dupont Circle Metro, a snippet of Whitman’s poem “Prayer of Columbus” was engraved at the Archives-Navy Memorial station. It’s part of a work called “Ocean Piece” that covers an entire wall. The Whitman excerpt and “Occident,” a poem by Portugal’s Fernando Pessoa, are at either end of a wavelike form made of 32 tons of gray-green stone.

It was created by Portuguese artist Jorge Martins to evoke the constant ebb and flow of life. The work was a gift to WMATA from, believe it or not, the Lisbon subway system.

Remember, there is no such thing as a stupid question. Send your questions about the Washington area to answerman@washpost.com.

For previous columns, visit washingtonpost.com/johnkelly.

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