Heat Wave in Concord
By Robert Chute
“Dancing and laughing along the beach came the twenty-ninth bather…”
N.B.: Thoreau records his “fluvial walks” in the Journal for 1852. He read Whitman’s Leaves of Grass, including, we assume, the song of the “29th bather” in 1856. His comment: “As for the sensuality in Whitman’s `Leaves of Grass,’ I do not so much wish it was not written, as that men and women were so pure that they could read it without harm.”
|I Farmers working the fields quit early,
as much for ox or horse as for men -
one old man had already died; exhausted
by heat, wrung out, wrinkled
like dried fruit.
Their women, buttoned, laced, strapped
under petticoats, skirts, sleeves,
sit and work, work and sit
in the dim, dead heat
of parlor, kitchen, and shed.
But one, an exceptional one, in
The tinned dipper lifts water, still cool
Perhaps one of them also dreams of the river,
|II From houses on opposite sides
of the elm-roofed main street Henry
and Ellery, leaving dishes and scraps
of cold dinner behind,
meet, retreat to the river.
A man stands in a barn door, his shirt
stained with sweat, hat hanging slack
in his hand. A woman in the shed’s
dark cave churns the morning’s milk
the heat would soon sour.
They shake their heads. What beside envy
At the river Henry explains that banks have
Ellery makes some comments that
|III Soon, by the opposite, masculine, shore, up
to their chins, they face the current.
The heat of the day is carried
down, away. They wade upstream,
wearing their hats against the sun.
They hold their bundled clothing high.
From deep holes to shallows
the water falls, rises again.
Chest, ankle, knee, belly,
chest, and down again.
Rounding a bend they see the plank bridge.
On the bank one boy sits, lifting a foot
The two men put on shirts now, feeling the sting
|IV The drying tails of their shirts stick
to their buttocks and thighs. Perhaps
because of the shirts they feel undressed,
retreat to the water. The water, like
unseen fingers, passes over them.
They wade on into a shaded, shallower reach
of late afternoon, hear the clang
of a distant bell. Some farmer’s wife
signaling an early supper. They climb out
on the feminine side.
They wait for the air to dry them. How long
They dress, turn toward the world of women