Where does the “Calamus” in Calamus Bookstore come from?
Let’s start with the ancient Greeks. The following is from SEXUAL LIFE IN ANCIENT GREECE, written by Hans Licht (pseudonym of Paul Brandt), translated from the German by J.H. Freese, first published in England in 1932 by The Abbey Library, London:
Calamus (Kalamos). A son of the river-god Maeander, was united in tenderest love with Carpus (Karpos), the son of Zephyrus and one of the Horae, a youth of surpassing beauty. When both were bathing in the Maeander and swimming for a wager, Carpus was drowned. In his grief, Calamus is changed into a reed, and when it rustled in the wind the ancients heard in the sound a song of lamentations…”
The calamus plant is native to the northeast region on the U.S., where, among many other names, it is called sweet flag. It is found along river banks and in swampy areas. It was a favorite of Henry David Thoreau (who called it sweet flag) and of Walt Whitman.
Whitman, in his third edition of LEAVES OF GRASS, printed here in Boston in 1860, included new poems in a section called “The Calamus Poems.” (As he also added “The Children of Adam” poems—which Emerson advised against including, finding them a little too blatant for the time: Emerson had no objections to the Calamus Poems.)
Whitman’s Calamus Poems celebrate manly-manly love:
I will plant companionship thick as trees along all the rivers of America,
and along the shores of the great lakes,
and all over the prairies,
I will make inseparable cities with their arms about each other’s necks
By the love of comrades,
By the manly love of comrades."
The image of the calamus plant is repeatedly used throughout as a symbol of male love, lust and affection. Many have noted that the flower of the calamus reed suggests the image of the erect human penis. Late in life, Whitman saw a stand of the calamus reed on a trip to Delaware. He said: “Leaves of Grass! The largest leaves of grass known! Calamus! Yes, that is Calamus! Profuse, rich, noble, upright, emotional!”
(Thanks to WALT WHITMAN: A GAY LIFE by Gary Schmidgall, Plume, 1998)