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Live Oak, with Moss


Live Oak, with Moss

Just over 100 years before the Stonewall Riots sparked the beginnings of the LGBTQ rights movement in the U.S., poet Walt Whitman published the first edition of his collection LEAVES OF GRASSIt included the 52 section poem “Song of Myself,” considered by many to be his masterpiece. But around the same time, Whitman was also working on a 12 poem collection that explored ideas about sex, love, attraction and sexual identity. This collection, LIVE OAK, WITH MOSS, has been illustrated by Brian Selznick and examined with in depth commentary and analysis by Karen Karbiener in a fascinating and beautiful new edition.


Karbiener writes that this cluster of 12 poems was Whitman’s “first sustained attempt to address the naturalness of love beyond traditional heteronormative boundaries.” Karbiener’s essay is academic and descriptive, providing readers with the context of Whitman’s work and some biographical information. Though the language and vocabulary of her commentary is challenging, both academic and mature, it is also honest, striking and lovely in its introduction to the value and influence of Whitman’s creative output and the power and importance of these 12 poems in particular. The text gives readers a lot of compelling information and leaves them with much to ponder about Whitman, his poetry, and about sexuality and American attitudes toward sexuality in general. The focal points of this edition of LIVE OAK, WITH MOSS, however, is the marriage of Whitman’s poems and Selznick’s images.


Selznick is known for the zooming perspective of his dreamy black and white narrative illustrations in such books as THE INVENTION OF HUGO CABRET and THE MARVELS. In LIVE OAK, WITH MOSS, he couples that signature style with color and collage, using photographs to punctuate his work. The illustrations come before the poems in this beautiful hardcover edition, page by page moving toward a solitary Live Oak tree in a field of long grass. Behind it’s bark, a split in the tree trunk reveals a golden fiery light, giving way to a sunny blue sky. Under the sky is a city and in the city is Walt Whitman and the nude form of another man. The two draw closer and closer to each other until they finally meet in a passionate embrace. Selznick’s images leave the men and bring us to an empty room, with moonlight streaming through the window, an allusion to a common interpretation of the LIVE OAK poems being composed after the ending of a relationship.

From Selznick’s illustrations to Karbiener’s analysis to the poems they are each engaged with, LIVE OAK, WITH MOSS is bold: colorful and sensual, intelligent and thoughtful, provocative and enigmatic. Some of the themes and ideas discussed and feelings explored in this book may be mature for some younger readers but Whitman’s identity and sexuality are treated with the respect and normalcy they deserve. This marvelous book, which includes images of Whitman’s original handwritten pages, is an interesting addition to the study of American poetry, LGBTQ history and Whitman in particular. Highly recommended and totally worthwhile.

Reviewed by Sarah Rachel Egelman on April 11, 2019

Live Oak, with Moss
by Walt Whitman and Brian Selznick