Q&A: Footsteps

In reading “Footsteps” one is reminded of Whitman’s “boot soles” (from Leaves of Grass), and especially his “Whispers of Heavenly Death”—

Whispers of heavenly death murmur’d I hear,
Labial gossip of night, sibilant chorals,
Footsteps gently ascending, mystical breezes wafted soft and low,
Ripples of unseen rivers, tides of a current flowing, forever flowing,
(Or is it the plashing of tears? the measureless waters of human tears?)

Then, too, there’s a ferry—we think of “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry”—in the second section of the poem. Coincidence? And can you say something about the intriguing last line: “Slave up, slave down?” Is there a subliminal pun in the poem on “great feat” and those “excruciating” footsteps?

Yes, it is the echoing footfall of boots from the Civil War, and for me every word in a poem is echoed or implied in another word, but generally at a musical level, rather than a cognitive one. Second sounds surprise me when they increase the meaning of the first one. And the ferry to me is an image of America and our common fate. The ferry is also the barque of the underworld. Is mother’s house the land or the Other World? Both, I suppose. Slave up, slave down: I hope the words themselves speak for themselves, but slavery (enslavement) is always a possibility, more or less.

Originally appeared in Poetry magazine.

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