In case you missed the poetry reading last night at the Poe Museum, we are posting one of the Poe-inspired poems read at the event by J. Ronald Smith, Poet in Residence at St. Christopher’s School. The following poem imagines one of Poe’s 1849 visits to the home of his last fiancee, Elmira Shelton, in Richmond.
Edgar Poe Tries to Get His Act Together L
Mr. Poe sits in Mrs. Shelton’s parlor, freshly
purchased hat on freshly creased knees,
the place smelling somehow, he’s decided,
like a chemist’s cupel. The sullen weight
of the room’s horsehair and mahogan
gathers in his eyes.
would his hands and feet be cold
in the heart of a Richmond summer?
He almost told the girl a sassafras full of seraphim
detained him till the hour was nearly gone.
(He planned to smile, then, charmingly.)
The old flame he hopes will warm him
wouldn’t have heard of the crazed crudities
of William Blake—but she knows Poe’s
never seen angels, though he’s always
given dead women every chance to shine.
How dark can a parlor be? he’s thinking,
knowing this gloom is all the rage,
yearning with shame for the bright lamps
of the Temperance meeting, crust
of bread, gouge of greasy cheese, anything
to ease the hot pinch in the pit of his stomach.
Maybe she’ll tell the girl to bring some tea.
cluster thick as flies at the edge
of a blinding plain of salt.
That nagging out in the street: boys
arguing about their dogs and the fishing
in the James. Not one of them may live to Advent.
But they’ve got youth’s good odds written
all over them in wholesome dirt, no doubt,
and Poe, as clean in person as he’s been
in a fortnight, feels eternity pooling
in his shiny boots black as the ink he’s been
unable to scrape from beneath those longish nails.
He curls his fingers under the Panama’s brim,
into the O he thinks of vaguely, not without
humor, as a mouth that wants to swallow
He looks to the shadowy archway
where she’ll appear soon. She’s not herself
anymore, the cool paleness he lost forever,
not sweet Annie, not one of those airy creatures
he’s always had in mind, spirits floating
in his mother’s fragrance of orris root, is, in fact,
a thickening widow, one who sees, he believes,
in that desperate look he’s had to face
in the hotel’s cloudy mirrors the beguiling pain
she found in his younger eyes. He’ll settle,
he’s convinced himself, for a firm, flush soul,
shrewd, yes, but kind.
and their cumbered mules
he’ll never make out
taller and taller across the whiteness
toward a bloated sun.
(c) J. Ronald Smith
First Published in the Poe Messenger