YOGH & THORN JOURNAL :: THE LITTLE PRESS OF LOST LETTERS

Lucy

Brett Rutherford

Contents

Part One

Part Two

Part Three

LUCY: A BLANK VERSE MYSTERY

                Vacant heart and hand and eye,
                Easy live and quiet die.
                                       —Sir Walter Scott

I.

The bar in Poe’s hotel, a proper bar
with deep mahogany paneling, row
upon row of wines to savor, great casks
of low-grade by-the-barrel rum, ales
unheard of except this close to the sea
that brought them — thumb-nosed and snug in the sight
of the disapproving First Baptist Church.
Let Roger Williams frown, the ladies
of the Temperance Society petition:
in vain since the long polished bar was lined
and elbow’d by half of the town’s lawyers.
Rank upon rank of tables, niches and corners
sufficed for the lower sorts: workmen
in coveralls to the lean, carousing sailors
ear-ring’d in gold and of uncertain parentage.
Poe sat with Pabodie, a celebrated local,
a delicate man who had read at law
but had no taste for the practice, a poet
with a melancholy ode or two within him,
but above all a useful man, a man who knew
the nature of men and everyone’s business,
a man to sound out about the Power family
whose elder daughter, a widow named Helen,
a poetess, he had come to woo.
An answer discreet affirmed her fortune
a small one, but reliable: property and mortgages,
well-managed by old Baptist lawyers.
Eyes rolled slightly around the bar
as Poe asked about the late Mr. Whitman:
a literary man, to be sure, a lawyer
who defended atheists and defamers
of preachers, a man of calamities
whose winter cold went pleural, and killed him.

And as for Sarah’s father, “Ah, the less said,”
was all that Pabodie would offer. “And there’s
a sister we don’t speak much about.” Poe felt
unable to pry more from Pabodie, at least
so long as he remained this sober. Gossip
is best pried with the lubricant of wine.
Poe talked instead of his earlier visit,
the summer of ’45, of the moonlight
walk when he had seen Mrs. Whitman,
instantly his “Helen of Helens”, behind
the red house in its snug garden, her hand
athwart the single rose she was cutting,
the sudden turn she made, her vanishing
into the cellar door whose soundless closing
stopped his breathing, as though to profane
this vision with any sound were unthinkable.
“I’ve sent her the poem with my recollection,”
he tells Pabodie, and shows him a copy.
Pabodie reads it and says: “Ah. lovely! A blank verse
paean to our finest poet. Her eyes —  what lines! —
two sweetly scintillant Venuses! She will fall
into your power, rest assured, Mr. Poe.”

“There was more to the poem,” Poe confided,
“but I ought not frighten this Helen of Helens
with the thought of an apparition I saw,
or thought I saw —“

                                           “An apparition?”
up went one of Pabodie’s black eyebrows.
“You know their garden wall drops down
to the Episcopal churchyard, do you not?”

“I did not note it then.”

                                   “Tell what you saw,
and I will say if it has some common thread
with what some have said about that hillside
and what transpires at night there.”

Poe turned over his manuscript, half-read
and half-invented as he spoke memory:
“But stay, pale Prophetess! Hold back the moon
And those hoarded clouds that would conceal it!
Return and calm my frensied observing
Of a glowing form that rises — a form
I thought dead, that sleeps no more — it mounts
To speak its dread name into my hearing.
It spoke — not words in any human tongue! —
Thank God it did not speak that name or mine! —
A kind of half-whistled ululation.
Its eyes, two darkly luminous nebulae,
Caught mine, and sparked, and spurned me.
Then, folding in its shroud-like trail, it leaped
With superhuman will to the trellis,
Up, up, vertiginous, three storeys up
And either to roof or into attic
It vanished: all this in my one heartbeat
And in the darkness of one cloud-pass.”

“What did you make of it?” asked Pabodie.
“You do not strike me, Poe, as a ‘ghost’ man.”

“Ghosts, no! Place emanations, if you will,
or astral doubles our souls send out and just
as easily call back. Call them wish forms,
mesmeric force , all manner of ill-will,:
there are many things in the universe,
and things we call to a semblance of life
by dreaming them or giving name.” He paused.
“I fear the wine speaks now. Perhaps I say
too much and you think me but a madman.
I have made enemies with my science.”

Pabodie

William J. Pabodie

Pabodie smiled, and with a deft hand replaced
Poe’s empty glass with its brim-full brother.
“What you have spoken of, we know quite well.
There are secrets we keep, and those we tell
because they amuse us and harm no one.
A spectre is haunting St. John’s Churchyard.
Ask any of these gentlemen here  — ask
and you shall hear the same tale from all.”
Here Pabodie elbowed a young lawyer,
ushered him close to Poe for the telling:

“Sir, I could not but overhear. No lies
pass muster in this establishment, where friends
console and drink from sundown to midnight.
St. John’s is haunted. I’ll not be found there
on North Main on a moonless night; I’ll not
look down there from Benefit Street above
if there’s even a shadow in the place.
Just as you said, she comes in her own shroud,
hangs like a harpy in a spreading beech,
or spreads her tresses on a tabletop grave,
or darts from fence to yew to tombstone.
A harmless fairy, the sexton tells us
(but rum-full he sleeps, and never sees her).
They say her eyes can catch you, and once caught
you are lured to pass the night there, amid
the worms and moss and broken markers,
and if her eyes catch you, your life is hers
to do with as she pleases  Night after night
she’ll have you there for her pleasure, your pain.
Point out some wreck of a man in an alley
and all will say: ‘Lucy has ruined him.’”

“Lucy?” Poe asked. “Why, of all names, Lucy?”

“That’s what she calls herself. Sometimes
she speaks her name or a few lines of poetry.”

Here Pabodie broke in, “And then she’s gone,
as thin as smoke and pale as a firefly.”

“So I have seen a spectre — the very same?”

“So, Mr. Poe, it would seem. I counsel you
to keep to yourself your summer vision.
The families on Benefit, you see,
have secrets, and keep them. Monsieur Dupin
would be hard-pressed to decipher them all.”

Here Pabodie would say no more, but one
far voice from a distant table called out,
as an old sailor made bid to join them:

“Aye, that’s Saucy Lucy y’er speakin o’.
She ain’t no spirit, unless that ‘spectre’ word
is your gentleman’s way of sayin’ what
we all do see and know too well. Dark nights
she haunts the St. John’s graveyard sure enough,
and if she catch your eye, an’ it be late
and the sexton be well into slumber,
then many’s the man that’ud go to her.
And as for doin’ her biddin’, that ain’t
supernatural since she be wantin’
pretty much what the sailors be wantin’.”

Pabodie paled and, finding a handkerchief,
shielded himself from the sailor’s breath.
“I don’t give credit to these bawdy tales,”
he said to Poe. “They hear — perhaps they see —
and to cover their fear they embellish.”

Poe nodded. “For a gentleman, a ghost
suffices, a lonely ghost beyond all hope,
ephemeral, untouchable, some virgin
ripped from her life by contagion.”
Poe stopped, choked, put out the glass
for another turn from the wine-cask.

band

II.

Past-midnight Providence was wide awake.
“The Raven” was requested, recited.
Then arm in arm he walked with Pabodie
to a Chinese laundry’s doorway; from there,
having passed a yellow paper beneath it,
and waiting a seeming eternity,
the two poets entered a passageway
far into the hillside, into a damp room,
a ratty, fungoid, wet-walled warren
where a dozen reclining sleepers lay,
and beside them a dozen expiring pipes,
and Poe consented to stay.
When that was done, when dreams
beyond Coleridge, of galaxies borne
on a cosmic wind, of worlds created
from mere thoughts, and as readily destroyed
convinced him of his godhood, and madness —
and that was quite enough of that, he fled.

Alone as ever, and having walked
Mr. Pabodie to his High Street home,
Poe did what it was Poe’s nature to do:
at every moment the most awful thing
he could think of. He stood, at last,
at the foot of St. John’s churchyard.
And there were sounds, and with raven hair and
night-dark great-coat he passed for shadow
within shadow as he climbed the hill,
and he saw them, and what they were doing.
And the man fled. And the shrouded spectre
rose up from a cold lime table marker
and her white shroud billowed around her
and parted so she was full upon him
in her nakedness, a lamia, her eyes afire —
he felt her will like a maelstrom, insatiable,
unquenchable, to fall into her arms
like the nine-day fall into Hell, or the careen
into an empty grave. Her lips touched hot —
nails raked his neck — and Poe swooned dead away.

It was dawn when he awakened. In horror
he reached for his clothes about him
and found everything in place. His head
seemed under a great bell, his tongue
as stiff as an iron clapper, the taste
of rust, of iron, in his mouth; he wiped
and found blood there. He looked about
and found no footprints on the damp earth
save those of his own zigzag ascent.
With Dupin’s eye he surveyed all: the street
below, where one slow wagon was passing,
pulled by a somnolent mare; the high street
above the churchyard, seen only in gaps
between the garden walls and houses.
Only the shrubs and trees, and the darkness
of certain nights made this a private place.
His perverse imp had brought him here. And what
of the spectre? Did she hang even now
from some rooftop, or sleep beneath the lid
of a vaulted gravestone? No answers here,
but what was this? Poe strode to a gravestone
and found upon it a splendid binding,
a finely-printed edition of a book he knew,
“By the author of the Waverly novels” —
The Bride of Lammermoor. Lucy Ashton
is its doomed heroine: her first love lost,
she kills her bridegroom on her wedding night.
On the end leaf was an inscription, rubbed
out by an angry hand, and “S –A –P.”

band

III.

Mrs Whitman

Sarah Helen Whitman

“My mother, Mrs. Power.” Poe bowed;
perhaps he bowed too deeply, perhaps
the bead-line of nervous moisture
across his brow betrayed him. He smelled,
not Muddy’s faint rose, but camphor,
mildew and dampened woolens.
“We are honored to receive you, sir,”
the widow Power said stiffly.
“The honor is mine,” Poe smiled, eyes lit
with the importuning son’s mother-plea,
and she seemed to soften. He had not slipped.

Now Helen, her scarves aflutter, turned,
as another woman swept down the stairs
and into the dim-lit parlor. His hosts
seem startled. “My sister,” spoke Helen,
“Miss Susan Anna Power.” Poe bowed
as the slight figure, indifferently coiffed
and double-layered with a Chinese robe
thrown over a haze of many-layered skirts,
burst between Helen and her mother.
Poe bowed again. But silently, an awkward
suitor’s pause on seeing a younger sister,
to outward view, an appropriate
deference to an unmarried woman,
but his inner voice spelled out:
Susan — Anna — Power.

“The Raven has come to roost!” said Susan.
“The Raven comes to seize the dove —” The frowns
of Mrs. Power and Helen’s consternation
were what they thought caused her to pause.
But no, she spied the book in Poe’s left hand
against his charcoal-colored overcoat,
and flying across the parlor to him, as though
in salutation, half-bow, half-curtsey, she seized
the marble-edge volume, nails pressed
into the oak-brown leather with uncommon force.
She spoke in a sepulchral voice, so low
as to seem baritone, and from a distance:
“When the last Laird of Ravenswood
to Ravenswood shall ride —”
To which Poe declined his head and answered:
“And woo a dead maiden to be his bride.”
She parried  “He shall stable his steed in the Kelpie’s flow.”
He ended, “And his name shall be lost for evermoe!”

And deftly, The Bride of Lammermoor passed
before the uncomprehending eyes
of the wooed one and the watchful mother.
And deftly, The Bride of Lammermoor passed
to The Succubus of St. John’s Churchyard!

This poem was premiered at The Providence Athenaeum, October 30, 2009

 

 

Notes

Muddy. Affectionate name for Poe’s mother-in-law.

The poem quoted by Poe and Susan Anna Power is “The Prophecy,” from Chapter xvii of The Bride of Lammermoor.