However, it is clear that O’Dowd considers himself a poor disciple to the ‘revered Master’, and this tension between emulation and internal self-doubt is adroitly hinted throughout Prater’s collection. O’Dowd’s initial introduction of himself, found as the epigraph for ‘O’Dowd Seeks Whitman’, runs thus: ‘I am 24, red hair, plain features, and a little too backwards for my own good’1. This backwardness, the backwater domesticity and plain speaking that characterise O’Dowd’s life, seem to burden him with self-doubt, despite Whitman’s acknowledged ‘sympathy & love to all dear friends men and women’2 and the democratic nature of his life philosophy. Indeed Whitman, the poet of democracy, must have been overwhelmed by O’Dowd the idolator’s constant worship. However, it is O’Dowd’s side of this correspondence that dominates Leaves of Glass, and it is the tension between O’Dowd’s intimate-yet-public writings to Whitman and his internal voice that provides the greatest interest within these works.
The poems that depict O’Dowd’s private persona, caught up in self-doubt, have a starkly different style to those in which the worshipful O’Dowd endeavours to foster intimacy with Whitman. In ‘I Was the Abortion’, the O’Dowdian poem of inferiority and repression, the persona opens with ‘i look at what I wrote / and feel shame’. He writes of a deeper sense of worthlessness that he can only express in writing that he subsequently destroys. There is a great tension between this poem and ‘The First Letter’, which precedes it, and which is a joyful celebration of Whitman’s life philosophy. In contrast, in ‘I Was the Abortion’, we get a strong hint that the ‘new religion’ of ‘The First Letter’, the sense of desire and selfhood as ‘rivers finally leaping free of drought’, is still an idealistic fantasy to the younger man, trapped as he is in a heterosexual domestic reality replete with ‘wilting calendars’ and a wife in ‘starched armour’. ‘The First Letter’ is joyous, with long lines and exclamation marks in the best Whitmanesque style, but it is immediately followed and counterpointed by ‘I Was the Abortion’, in which the lines are stark and short, the poem is entirely comprised of a single, run-on sentence, and the tone is resolutely nihilistic. This represents a strong distinction, throughout the collection, between private poems, which demonstrate O’Dowd’s internal feelings, and those which enact the correspondence. Though these latter poems are intimate, they always mask O’Dowd’s inner self through attempts to emulate and impress the master to whom they are addressed.
There is far more to this collection than this semi-fictional, quasi-archival persona play, though these works demonstrate a psychological adroitness that stands in contrast to much of Prater’s more experimental work. Pieces such as ‘Gowayz ob Lol: O Kitteh! Meh Kitteh!’ and ‘W00t Wiitmeh: ‘To a Commawn Pron’ rewrite some of Whitman’s best-known works in the Lolspeak language popularised by internet memes such as LOLcat. These are intriguing, if a little superficial, but dovetail with Prater’s interest in the intersections of online and literary language. Indeed, in any other collection such works might seem out of place, but Leaves of Glass engages with a number of these kinds of partial translations – from Gaelic in ‘Google O’Dubhda’, or from the abbreviated language of pay-by-the-word personals ads in ‘O’Dowd Seeks Whitman’. Prater is often caught up in language use that is partial or fragmentary. Beyond the persona-based poems, this collection shows a resurgence of his characteristic half-bracketing technique, in which numerous parentheses are opened within a piece but never closed. This loss or stripping back of punctuation forces the reader to guess where the proliferating brackets end, and thus grapple with ambiguous readings. That technique has become Prater’s trademark, and the poem ‘The Germ’ demonstrates it to full effect. The nesting of the germ (of inspiration, infection, or both) within layers of the self is echoed by the nesting parentheticals. However, in this case, the interpretive complexity that often accompanies this technique is tempered by repetition of sentence elements, creating a fractal pattern in which each new line is built on what has come before:
I have a germ inside meh (love I have a gun Inside meh (bang I have a truth inside meh ( Death I have a life inside meh […] (Prater 32)
The correspondence-based pieces in this collection establish the personae of Whitman and O’Dowd. In other poems in the latter part of the collection, we see something that is recognisably, undeniably Prater sneaking into the work, inflecting his other personae and bringing a contemporary sensibility to bear on a relationship that was couched in late-nineteenth century propriety.
This collection showcases Prater’s capacity to deploy a variety of different poetic forms and voices while maintaining a compelling sense of narrative. The O’Dowd–Whitman correspondence provides scaffolding for this collection, which is nevertheless a masterful engagement with complex poetic techniques of voice and structure. Leaves of Glass is not an easy book, though it is highly rewarding, especially to a reader with some familiarity with Whitman’s work.
However, this is far more than a stuffy exercise in poetic biography. The adept portrayal of two distinct personalities, particularly the troubled O’Dowd, and the carefully crafted language throughout the collection, ensures that the reader is engrossed and delighted with every new experiment.