Poem of the Week | February 26, 2013
R.T. Smith: "Summoning Shades"
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.
Willie had come forth as all in our spirit circle
Veiled, I sail under false flags to test every mystic,
Last night Frau Lili Hausman seemed honest enough,
Willie floated on the verge of a revelation
The bereft are vulnerable as leverets in the nest.
Of course, we all admit the speculative arts are rife
I have trembled in darkened parlors, watching the ectoplasm
I sometimes wish less fortunate war widows
Scripture records the intimates of Job counted his suffering just,
If the dead have answers, why not ask?
And if our rites are merely drama, with their hush
But last night was a low moment,
Everyone asserts the history of this endeavor is twisted,
Possession and loss – we all learn the sequence,
The Lauries of Georgetown told me: “Mary, your excess
Is it not great comfort for a starved heart to feel the departed
Tonight I will again in secret approach death’s threshold –
If twilight must become my one safe haven on earth,
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