The Blue Raccoon

Sunday, January 15, 2006

That Old Gothic Romantic Kind Of Mood

Greetings, all, at the darkening hour of a chill Richmond Sunday evening. This change came as a wintry interruption to a procession of days and nights unseasonable in their warmth. With the crazy weather of recent times, though, what constitutes unseasonable and what is to be expected is not for me to parse.

The reproduction above is of Caspar David Friedrich's "Cloister Cemetery In The Snow," and is one of my favorite works of representative art; or rather, one that bobs up in my consciousness when called upon although I cannot always call immediate to mind the artist. There's been precious little snow around Richmond, so far, but I'm carrying this sensation in my mind.

The piece reminds me of the verbal atmospherics found in the writing of Richmond's own Gothic Romantic, Edgar Allan Poe. Poe began his professional writing career in Richmond, and when in a good mood considered the town his home--insofar as he ever had one, and even though almost every person who meant anything to him here managed to die of tuberculosis or some other dread illness, beginning with his own mother Eliza. She wasn't from Richmond, but was traveling as an actress with the Alexander Placide troupe in December 1811. Here, the young mother of three, likely exhausted from the rigors of travel and illness, died.

Edgar Poe was taken in by the wealthy Allan family, though John Allan, as one critic referred to him, was Edgar's "non-adoptive unfather" who at first spoiled the boy, then, disappointed with his lack of interest in business and poetic sensibilities, never made him a legal member of his family. "Jock" Allan sent young Edgar to the University of Virginia without enough money for tuition or support. Edgar resorted to gambling and smashing his furniture into his dorm room fireplace for warmth.

When Allan died intestate, his considerable estate apportioned out, and while an illegtimate son was given a large share, Allan's warder Edgar got not a penny.

Allan's meanness saved U.S. literature from yet another Southern man of means pottering about with pretty poetry while sitting on the splendid porches of his great house, but his lack of financial independence also meant that Edgar suffered always from lack of funds. He wrote like his life depended on it--because most of the time, he needed the meager money provided by the profession.

Still, he'd tell people Richmond was his home (up in Northern literary circles, it lent him a certain exoticism, some "street cred," and he'd on occasion add "Allan" to his name to give himself a link to a Southern gentry that he didn't really possess, and wanted. All together, he spent off-and-on, roughly half his life in Richmond.

So I thought of Poe in these opening weeks of 2006 when so much unreasoning horror was visited upon us while under skies that were bright, blue and winds mostly favorable. Yet, middle of this past week, I walked to work on sidewalks shrouded by a misty fog that transformed the Edwardian streets and alley ways of the Fan District [] into a mysterious place out of time.

Yet...a few days ago I was walking home for lunch, and along Strawberry Street I heard this low wolf whistle, directed--as improbable as it seemed--toward me. I took the sound for a joke, and of course, turned out to be Carlisle Montgomery, slowing beside me in her scruffy old Jeepster. Her kayak was poking out of the back and I pointed, "Hey, lady, don't look now, you got one of them strange pods ridin' in the back of yer car."

She laughed. "Hey good lookin'--need a lift?"

"Eh, sure, I never turn down a ride from a red head in a Jeep."

"That's Jeepster."


"She's a classic," Carlisle grinned, patting the lumpy dashboard. "She's my ba-by."

Carlilse, in her old cut-offs and flannel shirt, and hair wet, was fresh from the river.

"How was the water today?"

"Oh,God, it was gorgeous this morning," she exclaimed, changed gear with a lithe arm, and started us on our way. She asked the direction and I gave her the left-rights. "Out there, man, it's so great. I saw an eagle today."

"Hope it was a good sign."

"Me, too. So you gotta work today?"

"Carlisle, I have to work every day."

"Oh," she giggle-snorted. "Yuh, I forget. You have a real job."

"Well, I wouldn't go that far."

"You got health insurance."


"Then you got a real job. Hey, you ever read any poetry by David Wagoner?"

"Um. No."

"Well, DD had this collection of his at the B'loon and he said his one poem really helped him in the past few days."

"Which one?"

"It's called Staying Alive. Which I dunno is either appropriate or not, but it's more about how you keep on. You know?"

First opportunity I could, I looked up Mr. Wagoner, a fine poet, in the Great Northwest of our fair nation, and his poem had sudden meaning for me, much as John Donne's, taking a decided metaphysical approach to the Problem At Hand.

If you want to see it, you can buy his collection, "Staying Alive," or scoot over to Jeannie's blog at Tribe, to see her photographs and musings of life on the trail.

Still, I'd like to share three portions I found immediate and effective:

"It may be best to learn what you have to learn without a gun,
Not killing but watching birds and animals go
In and out of shelter
At will. Following their example, build for a whole season:
Facing across the wind in your lean-to,
You may feel wilder,
But nothing, not even you, will have to stay in hiding."

. . .

"If you hurt yourself, no one will comfort you
Or take your temperature.
So stumbling, wading and climbing are as dangerous as flying.
But if you decide, at last, you must break through
In spite of all danger.
Think of yourself by time and not by distance, counting
Wherever you’re going by how long it takes you;
No other measure
Will bring you safe to nightfall."

. . .

"A time when you’re warm and dry, well fed, not thirsty,
Uninjured, without fear,
When nothing, either good or bad, is happening.
This is called staying alive. It’s temporary.
What occurs after
Is doubtful. You must always be ready for something to come
Through the far edge of a clearing, running toward you,
Grinning from ear to ear
And hoarse with welcome. Or something crossing and
Overhead, as light as air, like a break in the sky,
Wondering what you are."

This is called staying alive. It’s temporary. Oh, that's...well. True. So, one foot in front of the other. Gaze into the sky. Appreciate the bite of cold air and the cloud of breath in the air, and the evening shadow slanted across the old red brick walls of the century-and-more old houses of the neighborhood. This is temporary.

* * *

I don't know how many people are reading this, or whether I'm providing anything different from anybody else, and I'm surprised at the few recognitions I've gotten from those fluttering across the cyber network of ideas and notions and images. I want to ultimately post examples of fiction here, and maybe get some feedback, but this is basic elementary blogness here.

I suspect, too, that I cannot get back to this but every few days, but want to continue, because I find somewhat sad untended blogs that are mired in the vast Sargasso Sea of the Internet, snagged by grasping weeds and sails hanging without wind, and the originator of the blog gone off to some other thing--like maybe reading books or actual social interaction, or, life.

Thus, I don't want these occasional dispatches from the Blue Raccoon to get the stench of neglect, nor do I wish to worry over it. So--I think it best that unless I'm so moved, that I should limit my entries to once-a-week, and try to have a subject that won't try the reader's patience.
We'll see.

* * *

Tomorrow, the Richmond Times-Dispatch is publishing its account of the grisly first week of the year, with a title I was kicking around in my head when thinking of I was to write a feature about this terrible time what would I call it: Seven Days In January. That has the just-the-facts poetry ring to it: Ten Days That Shook The World, Seven Days In May, 12 Days In October, etc. The implication is that the events occurring within that time frame are so momentous and important that any other description would fall short; a hackneyed use of a piece of poetry, or borrowed famous title, wouldn't meet the criteria.

I am between wanting to read the overview of the events and wishing that I didn't possess the curiosity.

* * *

The merry blinking and chord lights wending across the facade of World of Mirth are dark. The floral arrangements brought there have finally, I think, stopped coming. Not many people are pausing to write anymore though some are lingering, and they seem now to visit out of something less than an attempt to grasp the awfulness. Today I overheard remarks like, "So, this is where they worked," and, "Here it is, this is the place." The sudden blusters coming down Cary Street knocked over some of the containers holding the flowers.

I conversed with acquaintances whom I first saw, on that terrible day, when we went there to try and do something, and we stood there and cried. They were on the opposite side of the street, a couple, with their dogs on leashes, and she was staring at the place and said to me, "How will I be able to go in there, now? How will anybody who worked there?"

The immense hole opened by the violence didn't approach the store on Cary Street, but it swallowed the personality that shaped its character. What happened has left a tincture of experience that is palpable.

The lights are out at World of Mirth. Nobody knows for how long, or, if they could ever come on again.

* * *

This week, I put Amie on the big jet air liner bound for Paris where she'll be in an arts fellowship through to spring. The parting is difficult. I watched her become anonymous in a cluster of travelers getting checked through security. I never saw her come out and was relieved to receive a phone message from her on my phone at work. I'm saving it until she's home safe again.


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