“On Income Tax Refusal,” a Poem by William Whitman

In , The Massachusetts Review included the poem On Income Tax Refusal by William Whitman. It is addressed “To the Director of the Internal Revenue Service Center, Ogden, Utah” and reads:

Sir,

for this hour
let us put aside personal joy and sorrow
and consider our communal self

for trouble divides our land
and my own life, like yours perhaps,
is sapped by contradictions.

What seemed natural once,
our mission, our work,
the things we were taught as children

burden us now, and we stagger
as a strong man behind the plow
slowed and bent within.

I would point to another course
but I myself
cannot think clearly

too numb with trumpets
and speeches,
confused, recalling my ancestors

Scott Key at Fort M’Henry
exuberant
that the flag was waving still

and Walt Whitman singing the eagle
that sailed out boldly,
claiming the land.

Yet today, on the shore of our free nation
I walk the beach in gloom,
downcast, as one in bondage.

An army helicopter
is patrolling
overhead.

The breakers seem to cry
change or die
change or die

each a lasso
that arcs and drops, arcs and drops
a noose in search of a neck.

We’ll turn back here. Beyond that dune
there’s a whale washed up, its stomach
clotted with oil.

My friend, I would speak
of another course,
for wherever I go

I meet our countrymen
rich and joyless
armed for war without and struggle within.

The driver fears the hitchhiker,
and Bonnie and I, beside the road,
fear the driver, I dreamed last night

that four men
in cowboy hats
took us into a wood.

Often, by day, a bird
of prey shrieks in my head,
images come… the body politic

poisoned by its juices,
the vital functions
failing,

the colonel-fathers
commanding the sons into the rice
to be felled by the first shots.

In the body count
I number myself
with the enemy dead

citizen-poet, stomach
crawling with clots
of punctuation.

I must speak out
however confused,
I told my class

how the Athenians turned away
the Persian force, then, bold, exuberant
built their city, sailed to the little island

of Melos, bringing democracy
killing all who opposed.
Then they sailed on to Sicily, to the end.

I will not contemplate this end or any other
for our nation. I must speak out,
however lost my voice in the body’s ill.

Sir, I urge a simple life,
work sufficient to our needs,
an ear to the man within.

May we enjoy one another
and celebrate this marvelous thing
existence

ours,
and all the forms
around us that partake.

Let us not gild
the eagle’s talons
or burn the surplus grain

but share with the blackbird
and the finch
that we may hear their song.

Today, on the beach,
for health,
I have taken this vow:

I shall contribute neither thought
nor deed to reducing another
in search of his way and his voice.

Coin that I earn shall not be
sharpened to shrapnel nor heated to fire
and flung upon a neighbor in his rice.

Nevertheless,
I resolve to pay
the tax

but privately, to those at work
preserving
the vital functions

our brothers’
our own,
seeking to further life.

The journal doesn’t tell us much about the author, saying merely that “Poet, novelist, and translator, William Whitman lives at Point Reyes, California.” Google reveals a handful more poems, but not much more biography — and it’s not easy to search for a poet named “Whitman” who isn’t also named “Walt.”

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