Tuesday, August 14, 2012

My Night With Poe

Baltimore is a haunted city. At least, that is how I always think of it, and probably how I always will too. It has a rich history. You can walk down the right street in Baltimore and yes you will find new and modern buildings reaching up to the Heavens, but you can also see Gothic looking structures made of stone and memories. Many of these foreboding buildings are churches, though some are not. They are there to remind the people that take a time to look at them that the city was here long before they were, and it will be here long after. These old buildings haunt the city.

Baltimore has its share of ghost stories. It has its share of mysteries and secrets. Even so, occasionally I can walk past a living person and tell that they are dead inside. Life still feels their bodies, but the spark left them long ago. These people haunt their own lives.

On January 19th of 2010 I met a ghost very much still full of life. Edgar was his name, and it was his two hundred and first birthday. He was not a pretty man, at least not by 2010 standards, but his cheeks had color in them, and his eyes offered a twinkle unlike some I have met a century and a half his junior. You may have heard of him. He was a writer a very long time ago, and he has haunted America by casting a long shadow over it ever since.
“Would you care to have me recite a poem or an excerpt from one of my many works?” he asked me after I had filled my stomach with a spicy dish of meat and greens. It was the gentleman’s birthday, which was actually why I was there.

I smiled. “Absolutely.”

He returned my smile in kind and inquired, “Do you have a preference?”

Annabel Lee Tavern, located on the corner of Fleet Street and South Clinton, is the name of the pub I frequented often. It is a lovely converted townhouse painted white like an ethereal specter standing in a graveyard of houses. It is accented in black, and on the front door offers a verse from a poem by the ghost that had engaged me in conversation. The alcohol was good, but the food and the ambiance were even better.

“Do you have a favorite?” I asked him. “I leave it to the author to decide for me.”

His gazed turned to the room around us where others were dining and made a grand sweeping gesture with his hands. “Perhaps,” he started, “we should honor the premises we find ourselves in this very night. Yes, perhaps it best if we begin with Annabel Lee.”

I nodded. “Perfect. I love that one.”

Mr. Poe took a moment and I could almost see him reach deep within himself before he launched into a dramatic recitation of his poem Annabel Lee.  

For one of my English classes in college I had to learn a poem of at least fifteen lines or more and recite it in class from memory. I had chosen Edgar Allan Poe’s Annabel Lee. One might have called our meeting tonight fate or destiny; unfortunately, neither of these descriptions was appropriate because the truth was that this night I had purposely sought this dead man out. I had recited his poem well in my class, but Mr. Poe put my performance to shame.

Once he had finished I clapped my hands and told him, “Bravo.”

He took a bow that was slight and practiced. “I am pleased you found my exhibition to your liking.”

Usually once a year on his birthday, Mr. Poe would come to the Annabel Lee Tavern, meet with those dining in to tell them about his life which had ended in 1849 at the age of forty while offering to recount any of his works the patrons might have enjoyed. The owner of the tavern, a man named Kurt, was one of the biggest Poe fans I had ever met. He even had the poem Annabel Lee tattooed on his left arm. I think it says so much when the proprietor of a tavern takes a poem written one hundred and sixty-one years ago and both uses it as an inspiration for his business and to paint his flesh with its words.

Annabel Lee was written the same year Poe died. Depending where you read it, the last night might be different. It could read, “In her tomb by the sounding sea” or “In her tomb by the side of the sea”. The two different versions may have come from a change a publisher of the poem wanted, from a different version Poe may have given away as an autograph (as he often did), or both. I know which version I preferred. And tonight the ghost had uttered my favorite version. Like the bizarre circumstances of Poe’s death, the correct version of Annabel Lee can only be speculated on. Scholars, literary critics, and fans may never quite agree, and I dare say no one will ever know for sure.

I want to ask Mr. Poe about his death and about the reason for the different versions of his poem. I thought it would be rude to ask both question so instead I asked him about the circumstances of his death.

“Ah yes,” he agreed, “a popular question that follows me through every era since I uttered my last breath.” He looked sad and I suppose it should have come as no surprise. If I had been in his place would I have wanted to speak so boldly about how I was severed from this plane of existence? I thought it unlikely.

“What is you name, young man?”

“Shawn Douglas.”

“Well,” he stated, “Mr. Douglas I must confess the truth of those last days eludes me even as we converse. I remember taking ill and moving through the streets of this very city like a man stumbling through a murky dream. Garments that did not belong to me adorned my body, my own suit of black wool…gone. I had an appointment in Philadelphia to edit a volume of poetry for Mrs. St. Leon Loud. Sadly, I must confess, that I never satisfied my business there. I left Richmond, stopping in Baltimore, and I…I…fear that I no longer remember why I did not hasten my journey. Whatever foul sickness came upon me caused a fever, and so those last days were little but a fever dream to wade through.”

He stared off into space for a moment before he continued. “I spent four days in Washington College Hospital or so they say. On the fourth night I have heard I called loudly for someone named Reynolds, though I do not remember the fellow in question or even if I had genuinely proclaimed his name. I knew that my time had come. I knew I would wake from the dream of life and be born into whatever waited for us all on the other side. The last memory I posses from this life was in muttering, ‘Lord, help my poor soul’.”

 He met my eyes again and must have seen disappointment. “I fear I cannot satisfy your question.” His smile returned to him and he stole another few lines from himself, “All that we see or seem is but a dream within a dream.”

He was gracious enough to talk with me a little more before he moved on to the others that were waiting for him to grace them with a few lines or answer their questions. I had told him that I was there because January 19th was my birthday too, and though I was 33 and not 201, I felt a special kinship with him. I discovered later that same evening there were three others within the tavern that shared the same birthday. They were there for the same reason I was, to celebrate the ghost.

I did not really mind that Mr. Poe was unable to shed the light on the mystery of his own death. I still find it oddly fitting that the man some credit as being the inventor of the Detective genre ended his life with a mystery. The man himself is every bit as interesting, compelling, and engaging as all of his body of work. Just as haunting as well.

When I was preparing to leave the Annabel Lee Tavern I overheard a gentleman tell his date that Edgar was really a stage actor who made his living traveling from place to place giving performances as Poe. I almost corrected the man as I made to leave, but instead wrapped myself up in my dark overcoat and matching scarf before I went out into the cold, unforgiving night.

The truth is that it did not matter whether Mr. Poe was a living phantom looking to entertain fans of his work 161 years after his death or an actor named David who clothed himself in Poe’s persona; we were all being haunted by the man, the myth, and the legend that evening. Perhaps the man and his date had forgotten what city he was in. Here you cannot escape our ghosts.

This is Baltimore and it is a haunted city. 

(c)Shawn J. Douglas 2012

Saturday, July 03, 2010

Is this on? Yes? No?

Stand by.