Hart has degrees in literature and creative writing. In this essay, she explores the title’s meaning in Barbarese’s poem.
J. T. Barbarese’s poem “Walk Your Body Down” offers clear images of city life that include a couple arguing, a baby singing, crowded living conditions typical of urban living, and a sense of isolation felt by individuals in the midst of city crowds. There is little abstraction in the images, and the meanings or connotations are rather easily grasped. However, the title of the poem, as well as its message, is a little more difficult to understand. Just what exactly does the narrator mean by the recommendation to “walk your body down?” How does one do it? And is there anything in the poem itself that helps the reader answer these questions and understand the meaning of the title?
The man is talking to the people around him through his actions. He is the bearer of the message, and the message, according to this poem, is that people need to stay at home in their bodies and live their experiences through their bodies.
There is no way for a reader to know what the title means as the poem begins. After all, “walking one’s body down” could refer to something negative, such as wearing one’s body out until it falls down. In the second line of the poem, there is mention of breaking up, which could also be a reference to running something down until it no longer works. So at the beginning of the poem, there is no clue offered as to whether the title refers to something good or something bad.
In the first stanza, the narrator also offers a distressed baby that is sitting on a ramp, neither here nor there, alone and seemingly unprotected. Included with the arguing couple, the opening images, so far, suggest a breakdown of some kind, either in relationships, communications, or emotions. But when the narrator focuses attention on the middle-aged man something positive occurs. Here, the reader can grasp that this man and his way of walking, as well as the title, are meant to contradict the negative energy of the scene. The way the man walks down the center of the street ties him to the title, and readers can assume that the man is also connected to the meaning or message of the poem. The man in the street probably conveys what the title means.
This middle-aged man is described as self-contained and aloof, and no one cares about him. The narrator describes this man as he sees him, of course, through the lens of his own projections. Immediately the narrator relates to him, recognizing something familiar in the way the man moves and acts. It is interesting to note that the motion of the poem changes at the end of the first stanza. Here, the narrator distinguishes this man from the crowd, separating him from the city scene and from the narrator himself. Despite the fact that he identifies with the man, the...
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Kelly is an instructor of creative writing and literature. In this essay, he examines the ways that this poem implicitly talks about the problem of alienation, and the answers that it offers to the problem
Poetry can be powerfully, breathtakingly effective when it gives a clear and concrete vision of life. It can also, however, be simply too concrete sometimes, when the vision of the world that it offers is so tightly focused that readers can only recognize objects and events in the poem but cannot make meaning of them. And then there is the other extreme, the poem that is all about what goes on in the writer’s mind, filled with ideas that never quite relate to the physical world. When poetry goes wrong, it often means that the poet was unable to strike a workable balance between observation and meditation, between objectivity and subjectivity. Readers can feel left out of the poetic process if either the world of the mind or the world of the body is too dominant.
Readers may think that they know the speaker’s isolation because it is reflected by the man in the street, but then they need to ask themselves: can the speaker really be isolated if he sees himself reflected in another person?
J. T. Barbarese is one poet who strikes a clear balance between observation and emotion without tilting too strongly toward either side. He often takes this balance as the subject of his work, as in his poem “Walk Your Body Down.” In this poem, Barbarese describes what seems to be an everyday street scene. With strategic placement of his observations, though, and careful arrangement of the details, the poet is able to reveal more about the poem’s speaker than letting the speaker explain himself ever could.
From the very start, “Walk Your Body Down” approaches the question of subjectivity by addressing what an individual is. The first few lines of the poem give quick sketches of characters that may be in physical proximity to each other but are trapped in their isolation. There is a couple in the process of breaking up. There is a baby whose uncomfortable crying is described as maniacal singing. And then there is the poem’s speaker, observing the others—the distinction between him and them is a clear-cut one. They are the described subjects, and his is the subjective point of view, commenting on them. The poem gives the speaker’s perspective, but without really revealing his views.
The only physical detail given about the setting is that these characters are on a ramp. The poet does not give readers much about the objective world, but they can piece it together if they are willing to speculate and take suggestions to their logical conclusions. This is obviously a public place, one that is modern enough in design to accommodate wheeled conveyances and casual enough that a baby would be brought there. It is outside. The signs point to a park: a pleasant setting for walking a baby, even if it is possibly too bucolic for a break-up. Since no one else is mentioned, and since babies do not go to public places by themselves, it is quite likely that the baby referred to as being “on the ramp beside us” is, in fact, with the speaker and may be his own. Using such a strained, abstract expression to refer to one’s own child indicates the speaker’s sense of alienation, the poem’s main concern.
As the first stanza progresses, the speaker takes notice of what turns out to be the poem’s most interesting, most clearly described character. He is introduced as a “middle-aged black guy” with an “average build,” which tells readers practically nothing about him. There are two things, though, that make him important. First, the speaker thinks that this stranger resembles him. He sees himself reflected in the man walking up the middle of the street. Also, the man distinguishes himself with his unusual behavior, which just looks odd at first but ends up being a key to the question of subjectivity and objectivity that troubles the speaker.
There is no clear reason for why the speaker should identify with this man. That his build is average means that he is similar to many other people. His racial identity makes him similar to others. The thing the speaker seems to relate to most is that he is “gathered to himself like an Arctic bird.” Given what has already been established about the speaker’s sense of isolation—that he observes his child with curiosity and sees hostility around him—this observation says much more about the speaker than it does about the man he is describing. This speaker does not have to mention his feelings in order to convey the fact that he feels distanced from people. Barbarese then complicates his readers’ chances of understanding the speaker’s emotions by adding a self-contradicting element. Readers may think that they know the speaker’s isolation because it is reflected by the man in the street, but then they need to ask themselves: can the speaker really be isolated if he sees himself reflected in another person?
The solitary figure in the street introduces the following discussion of loneliness. Though the speaker knows nothing about the man, having never met him, he purports to be able to instantly read his body language well enough to claim that aloneness is, for him, natural, like one of the atomic elements, like “earth or air.” This connection between alienation and the mechanical nature of the material universe is echoed later in the poem, when the speaker refers to babies (not just his own, but others too) as being pushed up and down the ramp “like physics experiments.” Both descriptions share a stubborn refusal to acknowledge an internal, subjective life in the speaker or the babies.
It is this sort of casual associations that makes “Walk Your Body Down” able to imply much more beyond the events described in it. Barbarese draws a connection, via physics, between infancy and the man in the street, and then he goes on to draw a connection, via recognition, between the man and the speaker of the poem. Once this circuit is complete and accepted by the reader, the poem’s speaker has a right to claim he understands the thoughts going on within all parties mentioned.
What is not made clear, however, is whether the jump made by his identification is real or imaginary. The structure of “Walk Your Body Down” does not allow Barbarese any room to comment on whether it is interpretation or psychological projection that makes the poem’s narrator think he knows how the man in the street feels. If it is interpretation, then readers can accept his claims about the man as the truth, but there are good odds that the speaker is just projecting his own sense of loneliness onto the other man. When the speaker says of the other man that “his aloneness [is] at home here,” he is clearly speaking of his own feelings, but do these feelings really apply to both of them? The actual nature of the relationship between these two men is the poem’s greatest mystery.
Whether the narrator shares the other man’s feelings or is just making up a fantasy about him in order to understand himself, the important thing is that, in the end, the poem offers a cure for loneliness, a way to resolve the pain caused by the estrangement of mind from body. This is what the speaker learns from the man walking in the street. Regardless of whether the other man finds this a good resolution—and, from his cool demeanor, it is likely that he does—the important thing is that the speaker of the poem feels it is true.
The process of overcoming isolation starts early, even before the problem is identified. Soon after the other man’s arrival on the scene, the narrator begins, interestingly, to address another person. The second and third lines of the second stanza direct some unnamed and unexplained person to “look at” the other man’s movements. This is more than a case of the poetic convention that lets a speaker address the audience in the second person. For one thing, it comes in late, more than half way through the poem, and even then it is not carried consistently throughout the remaining lines, and so cannot really be considered a shift in the poem’s style.
Another thing that makes this form of address stand out is that it bears such a slight relationship to the lives of those addressed or the person doing the addressing. Instead of discussing the events that have already been described, it directs readers’ attention to physical details that they cannot see: things that are happening in the world of the poem, but that have not yet been explained. Giving commands in this way is a more emphatic, more excited way of calling attention to the details that the speaker is pointing out, as if the speaker of the poem cannot contain himself, but it also makes a sublime statement about loneliness. The alienated speaker of the first few lines of the poem suddenly feels that there is someone to talk to, someone with whom he can share the marvel of the extraordinary individual that he is observing.
Having covered loneliness and bonding, there is one other major element to the mind/body duality that the poem faces: death. This is eased into the poem with the mention of walking “into the twilight,” but in subsequent lines it becomes a major part of the poem’s focus. Neighborhoods are describes as caskets, and, eventually, the body is reduced to being nothing more than a black cab—a hearse—in which the mind rides away.
Here, the speaker reveals his anxieties most clearly. This concern about death, of existing in the lifeless physical world and then, eventually, the mind being separated from the lifeless body, turns out to be what is concerning him and him alone. There is no indication that the man in the street or the poem’s other characters share this concern. It might be thought that the awareness of death is supposed to be assumed as an underlying factor behind all of the crying, conversing, and breaking up, but the poem does not really make this an issue. When death is brought into the poem, the issue being examined becomes much clearer, as does the poem’s basic relationship: the speaker of the poem understands the problem and the man in the street knows the solution, and peace will come when each is able to learn from the other.
The world that the poem’s speaker sees is a harsh one. Babies know pain and they expect it to go on for eternity; couples get together, but the illusion of human connection can only last a short while before they break up; and then there is death. For the man walking up the street, however, the world is a placid place, even though he is physically separated from everyone else, at risk of being run over, and unable to walk straight. There is no question that he is isolated: what the speaker needs to find out is how he can cope so well with the isolation. The man walking up the middle of the street is immune to the pain, alienation, and knowledge of death that complicate life, and the poet’s task is to find out how others can reach the same attitude.
Clearly, the solution is not to simply be or play ignorant. This is probably what others see when they view the walking man: he seems unaware of how strange his behavior is, of the danger of walking in the middle of the street. It is common in most urban areas to find such people, people who stand out because of their odd behavior, and usually they are ignored or pitied. The fact that the poem’s speaker identifies with this man, finds kinship with him, may be left unexplained because it violates a basic social principle, which is that those who take no stock of life’s miseries are assumed to have some sort of mental problem, an inability to see that such misery exists. Simply acknowledging the man, taking him as someone who might be important, takes this poem at least halfway toward the solution that it seeks.
In the end, the solution to alienation turns out to be nothing about social relationships at all, but all about the relationship that the mind has with the body. The key phrase in the last line, “walk your body down,” is a mirror of the line from stanza 2, “Walk your body proudly into the twilight.” At the end of the poem, though, it takes on a religious tone, starting with “O” and including an echo of the language of old spirituals such as “Go Down, Moses.” This is clearly meant to be the bottom line, the heart of the poem. And Barbarese finishes off the thought with “don’t let it”—that is, your body—“go it alone.”
What is so compelling about the man walking in the street is that, estranged from other people, he is still a complete person, because he is comfortable within his own body. Though the poem does still, in the end, admit that the body is a separate thing from the mind/spirit/personality, it puts the relationship between the two into perspective. The body must be taken care of, because it is just a physical thing, but, even more importantly, one must be a companion to it. There may be duality, but there is also equality.
“Walk Your Body Down” is written with the kind of passivity that a casual observer might have about common events that are going on around him on a typical day. As every good poem should, though, it uses its observations to reveal complex truths. In this case, the alienation of the individual, viewing the objective world from a subjective perspective, that becomes more and more torturous as one reads deeper. The speaker of the poem fixates on one lone individual, and it takes a while to understand why: that individual, with his erratic behavior, is the only person in the poem who knows what the body and soul have to do with one another.
Source: David Kelly, Critical Essay on “Walk Your Body Down,” in Poetry for Students, Thomson Gale, 2007.