In the wake of Lincoln‘s big night at the Oscars and of our new issue 35.4 hitting the stands, this week we’re featuring a poem from the new issue by R.T. Smith, part of a Mary Todd Lincoln triptych. Smith is Writer-in-Residence at Washington and Lee University, where he edits Shenandoah. He is the author of a dozen collections of poems, most recently The Red Wolf: A Dream of Flannery O’Connor (2012), and four collections of stories, most recently Sherburne (2012). Smith has received fellowships from the NEA, the Alabama Arts Council and the Virginia Commission for the Arts. His work has been reprinted in the Best American anthologies of fiction, poetry and mystery stories. He lives in Rockbridge County, Virginia, with his wife, the writer Sarah Kennedy.
Reading Jean H. Baker’s Mary Todd Lincoln, I discovered scores of fascinating things about Mary Todd Lincoln, but the ones that struck the most resonant chord involved her obsessive shopping, her immersion in spiritualism and her arrest on charges of insanity. For a spell I had no idea I would write about her, as I imagined myself finished with Civil War era poems, but when my wife and I traveled to Gettysburg to see the new museum, I found that first lady’s image and personality stamped on displays everywhere I turned. The bookshop there offered Catherine Clinton’s Mrs. Lincoln, and in another month my sofa was covered with books on the same subject. I couldn’t shake the image of her buying gloves for all occasions, dozens of pairs. Although I understood some of the Victorian woman’s fashion concerns, the gloves struck me as metaphorical, a much more complicated, and more sympathetic, obsession than Lady Macbeth’s hand-scrubbing. Beyond the numerous personal losses she experienced, I imagine Mrs. Lincoln kept a kind of national casualty count in her heart, but she tried to insulate herself from all that grief with the gloves and other purchases, while she also mourned dramatically and attempted to summon the dead, which was very much the fashion of the day. She was also far more sophisticated, erudite and sympathetic than I had guessed, and by the time I was a few pages into note taking, I was captivated and wanted to find a voice that would do her justice.
St. Catherine’s Spa, Canada: June, 1873
Willie had come forth as all in our spirit circle
of clasped hands watched a candle flicker like forsythia
in wind, yet the air was still. His voice was an echo,
a soft song wafting through water.
He told us of endless bluebell meadows
and ripe cherries falling into his hands.
He said Tad was with him now among the shades, and I was
forgiven all my parties and other adult follies.
Veiled, I sail under false flags to test every mystic,
that they will not guess my famous sons and Mr. Lincoln
are the voices I eagerly seek. Can I trust them at all,
my faculties so shaken by grief?
Last night Frau Lili Hausman seemed honest enough,
a genuine vehicle, until the sudden disruption.
Willie floated on the verge of a revelation
when we startled at a knock, not from beyond
but at the door, and in moments lantern beams flooded
the sacred chamber: our medium was seized
and arrested by royal constables for fraud and theft
of a necklace. Heaven help us.
The bereft are vulnerable as leverets in the nest.
Of course, we all admit the speculative arts are rife
with charlatans. As any wit can see: we who seek messages
from Summerfield are desperate, which does not mean
we are misguided. Listen:
I have trembled in darkened parlors, watching the ectoplasm
rise to duplicate faces of the departed –one doctor’s jonquil of a daughter,
a weeping Quaker’s husband fallen under a trolley in Boston.
Lord knows Mr. Lincoln took his skepticism
to the grave, but now he hovers above me, an angel
christened by misfortune. He often fills the vessel
of the medium and says, Take heart
I sometimes wish less fortunate war widows
could pilgrim this far north to see Niagara’s great weeping
and find comfort in the cataracts, which shimmer
with white mist that could be a portal to our darlings,
despite the scoffing of cynics who say a séance is theater
for simpletons. Friends and enemies alike claim
clairvoyance is no more honest than a carnival mirror.
Even dearest Robert, who mutes
his disapproval . . . , but I can guess those storms behind his eyes.
Who knows his true heart?
Scripture records the intimates of Job counted his suffering just,
reasoning, as he bathed in dust, he must have sinned deeply,
but how have I deserved such wealth of loss?
If the dead have answers, why not ask?
And if our rites are merely drama, with their hush
and curtains, shadow play and suspension
of disbelief. . . why, we make Tragedy
reverse – Lear howling for his precious dove,
Hecuba mourning her many sons as she transforms to a hound –
had they faith, they would know eternal peace
and pursue its mysteries. It is not sickness. At least
Sally Orde and Myra Bradwell stand by me and see
in this seeking some dignity,
which is not easy when the body heaves with sobs,
and even in the face of public ridicule
the essence yearns for release.
But last night was a low moment,
as speechless, we watched the constables twist the key
in Lili’s manacles, and I wondered that the spirit guides
could not assist her, as her features
assumed a tragic mask. Before the officers left,
the necklace was seized, a wondrous circle of gems
so deep their green was nearly night. Explanations
may be forthcoming, but is there not distress
enough in our corporeal realm to satisfy any demon?
No doubt my name will soon see newsprint again.
Everyone asserts the history of this endeavor is twisted,
and now the Fox sisters who first heard spirit telegraphy
have confessed to deceit, but others are authentic
and desire not to swindle so much as unleash the healing secrets.
Mr. Mumler, for instance, whom I visited just this year
under the nomme de guerre of Mrs. Tydall,
never guessed my identity, and detected nothing unusual
through the lens, but when he lifted the silver print
from its chemical fixer, he was amazed as I
to see Mr. Lincoln clearly visible behind me, hands resting
on my shoulders in his former fashion, face placid
in death. The image was unmistakable, and I have copies yet
to overwhelm the skeptics who shall set in
like wolves to discredit Mumler’s conjury as “counterfeit.”
Possession and loss – we all learn the sequence,
but how we suffer who could not honor the gods of proportion.
The Lauries of Georgetown told me: “Mary, your excess
is selfish, it is time to resume living,” even as they summoned Father
from the crepuscular beyond, and Nettie Colburn’s
usual guide Pinkie assured me the President
was happier where no cabinet traitors
plotted against him and called him “our gorilla” in secret.
He awaits only my arrival to complete his serenity,
as they dwell in an Elysian demesne, and their only worry
is the safety of those stranded this side of the river.
Is it not great comfort for a starved heart to feel the departed
surround you as a cloud? That is my sensation
in mid-trance. I, also, doubt
much of the rattling and automatic writing, the jingling bells,
aromas to stimulate memory, but voices of my boys
and husband are another matter. I am soothed but can never
hear enough and afterwards yearn to journey beyond the veil.
Even visitations in Europe yielded little succor,
as Mr. Lincoln appeared above a Tuscan chapel’s altar,
and I followed Tad, then little Eddie through winding
Kinderstrauss in Baden-Baden, their laughter
as from the past playing tag through our own labyrinth
now occupied by that butcher Grant,
who has seemed unmoved by so much slaughter.
I always drink in the sounds of my beloved
like a desert absorbing water.
Tonight I will again in secret approach death’s threshold –
the cool mists and hushes around a skirted table
where we form a human wreath
hoping the shadows will consent to speak.
If twilight must become my one safe haven on earth,
it is fitting. After all, I was born a Todd,
and tod in German says death,
which Willie promises nightly is sweeter than any sleep.