A Study in Disappointment: “George Washington; The Whole Man” by Diane Wakoski

Read “George Washington; The Whole Man” here.

Who is the George Washington that Diane Wakoski presents to us through The George Washington poems? He seems a shapeshifter, a metaphor for many things: old lovers, her father, capitalism, the United States. But he is also himself, a version of himself, the man we Americans love through legends, and the man we revile for the ways he betrayed us. The final poem in the collection seems to be an encompassing of all that has transpired; titled “The Whole Man,” we see Washington as prism, four aspects parsed through four poem sections.

The poem begins with an introductory stanza, which seems to foreshadow each section of the poem. The first and last line speak of “disappointment,” the speaker’s ultimate feelings toward Washington. This disappointment comes, she writes, “through the hope of communication / and follows the lack of it” (section I); from her hope that Washington “would live up to my idea / of the great man” (section II); and “without heartbreak or the / malfunctioning of body and brain” (section III). Section IV seems to be a remedy to this disappointment, or a wish to rewrite what has been so much less than what was hoped.

Section I is titled “Reticence” and is rife with both loss and silence. At Mt. Vernon, Washington’s trees are lost to blight, his imported pheasants ail, and his deer eat new saplings. Washington seems unable to communicate with his land, even as he refuses to communicate with the poem’s speaker: “your aristocratic lands were / tight-lipped / (much as you are)”; “You learned silence”; “you closed your mouth silently.” Toward the end of the section, Washington finally speaks, but even here the speaker is sorely disappointed:

We talked of each plant in detail
and yet you never told me 
about yourself.

The emphasis given to these words, the one- or two-word lines, underscore the loss here. What could have been, if only Washington had been more open? Ultimately, Washington fails, both with his land and with relationships: “The reticence of a man / who had / never learned to talk.”

In section II, “The Classical Code,” Washington is buttoned up, dull, stiff, even boring, as he attempts to embody the classical. The rules of this code necessitate complete conformity and renunciation of enjoyment: “cut out all curves / and melodies / all close connections / and off-beat poses / …be sparing about my sex life.” The speaker is unable to conform in such a way. Wakoski writes, “My life is definitely not one long bicycle ride / or one long / anything else.” The speaker is certainly disappointed here, but she is also angry, and even amused by George’s absurd curtailment of enjoyment in his life. Within his adherence to these rules, Washington becomes subsumed. “George, you did all the right things, / but you hardly seemed alive.”

Wakoski attempts to create an emotional connection in section III, “Pathos,” but seems unable to do so when speaking of the “real” Washington of the previous section. Instead, Wakoski enters the speaker’s dreamscape. Washington is disappointed in his attempts to win his early love interest, Betsy Fauntleroy, who, being “a belle, did not like his manners.” In the speaker’s dream, Washington gifts Fauntleroy with “18 lizards in their glass box / hardly calculated to win the embroidered heart of Betsy Fauntleroy.” But also, we see that Washington is dear to the speaker: “your historical hands / that should sign great documents move over my body, / into my brain” and “your life / touched me in a way I respond to no one else.” These sentiments seem at odds with the opening stanza’s claim that the disappointment “comes without heartbreak or the / malfunctioning of body and brain.” Could it be that the only Washington who can touch the heart and brain of the speaker is the dreamed-up Washington, the disappointed lover, this “George of many / perceptions,” who is so different from the one we see in earlier sections?

And so, as the poem moves into the fourth and final section, “Triumph,” Wakoski abandons the Washington of Mt. Vernon and the classical code, and rests inside a dream of Washington, a rewritten figure, “transforming” his “cold life” into one of sun and gold, heart and passion:

George, you dreamed the sun sucked out your heart
infusing itself with red as it set.
the bony moon coming out of the kitchen while sun fills your genitals
and begs someone other than Martha to give you one last embrace.

Wakoski writes, “How often we ought to rewrite history.” It is only in the rewriting that Wakoski can discover triumph rather than disappointment. In dream, “In triumph we see the great man covered with gold.” Wakoski ends here, in the false—ends not only the poem but the entire collection. Is this an effort to reinfuse hope, or is it sadder to end in this fool’s gold, after the lackluster Washington has failed writer, speaker, and reader so thoroughly? Even the title rings false as we have searched Washington and found his life hollow, his only redemption in Wakoski’s—and maybe also our—revisionist tales.

Wakoski, Diane. “George Washington; The Whole Man.” The George Washington Poems, riverrun press, 1967, pp. 52-56.