Ed & Edgar my adventures in the cult of Poe and other literary endeavours
Ed & Edgar
my adventures in the cult of Poe
and other literary endeavours
My notes after watching the BBC program last night. God help us if this is the best program they can make about Poe. I think the Philly Poe gospel needs to travel across the ocean.
Edgar Allan Poe: Love, Death and Women
Presented by Denise Mina
Produced and directed by Louise Lockwood
This program sets out to document the tragic relationships Poe had with women (his mother, foster mother and wife all died young of tuberculosis) and how they affected the female characters in his stories. A bit like psycho-analyzing Poe through his stories, which I rarely find reliable and often leads to erroneous assumptions about Poe’s mental state. I do like the idea of looking at the women in Poe’s stories through the lens of the women in his life, but I think when one does the reverse (look at his women through the lens of his stories), our vision of his biography is too distorted.
As it opens, I am immediately suspicious. There is a voiceover narrating from the short story, “Ligeia,” about the “excitement of my opium dreams.” This first person narration insinuates that it is Poe himself talking, not a fictional narrator, especially when the narration is unaccompanied by the story’s title. One not familiar with the story could easily assume this is Poe talking about himself. Poe the opium taker? Oh god, let’s hope this show doesn’t take that route (For the non-Poeists out there: it’s highly unlikely Poe ever smoked opium).
And yes, my worst fears come true. The program recounts Poe’s mysterious death and it’s complete nonsense. Even though the actual evidence that Poe was drunk in his last days is scant, we get the proprietor of the Horse You Came in On Saloon (who looks more like the patron of the bar than an owner) talking about how Poe came to Baltimore and his first stop was this bar and he got drunk. That’s the local lore, but there’s absolutely no evidence for it. Every bar in Baltimore that was in existence in Poe’s time (and even some that were not) makes that claim. Then the “proprietor” insinuates that Poe most likely took opium and heroin as well. Grrr. Here it comes: Poe the junkie!
Mina narrates: “To find out why he passes away in such pitiful circumstances, I’m going to look back at his tragic life, exhuming his most significant relationships to see why his heart and his fiction grew so dark.” Pitiful, yes. Drunk and drug fueled. There’s no evidence of that.
In recounting Poe’s Baltimore days, the program uses Poe’s story “Berenice” to help describe Poe’s relationship with Virginia. Really? This kind of reading succumbs to the easiest Poe stereotyping: Poe is just like his gloomy narrators.
Then Baltimore Poe House Museum curator Jeff Jerome shows up and gives a bit of sanity to the film. Other talking heads appear: Joanne Harris (author), Peter Semtner (Poe Richmond Museum curator who’s also quite good) and Susan Elizabeth Sweeney (Poe Studies Association President). When these Poeists start telling the story of Edgar and Virginia’s relationship, the program gains sound footing again. So what is it going to be, fanciful extrapolations using fictional characters or factual narration of their actual lives.
Pedant Alert! “Berenice” is not Poe’s first short story. It’s not even his first horror story.
Joanne Harris: “So much of what he writes exposes his own thought processes.” That sounds like reading biography in fiction. While that is possible sometimes, especially in the Romantic era in which Poe wrote, one has to be very careful about interpreting fiction as biography. I think it should only be done if one has a good amount of historical fact to back up the suppositions. For instance, it’s okay to mine Poe’s stories about the death of women because he not only had several women close to him die, but also because of his statement about the most poetical topic being the death of a beautiful young woman. When the biography AND Poe’s own non-fictional words AND the fiction converge, it’s a good idea to start digging. However, in using a story like “Berenice” to analyze Poe’s marriage with Virginia, then I think the ground is shaky. Not impossible, but one has to remember that even if you have a convergence, the characters are still fictional creations. The narrator of “Berenice” is not Poe, nor is Berenice Virginia.
Another talking head: Elizabeth Petrino (professor, she’s excellent)
Now the unbelievable happens. The program skips right over Poe’s career in Philadelphia, in spite of the fact that most of the stories mentioned so far (except “Berenice”) were written there. The visual has Denise Mina stepping out of Poe’s house in Baltimore while she narrates how Poe goes to NY and starts writing caustic criticism for the Broadway Journal. Philly Poe, you’ve been completely dissed!
The story of the onset of Virginia’s consumption is told in front of the Poe Cottage in the Bronx. I really wonder if the producers of this film were at all aware of Poe’s Philly home. You’d think it would have been a great place to film. And it’s smack dab in the middle between Bmore and NY.
I like that there is no character playing Poe in the program. He exists only as the ghostly narrator’s voice. The downside: this only serves to reinforce that Poe’s fictional narrators represent his own self as this narrator (Jeff Mash) reads both Poe’s stories and letters.
And then the program commits the worst sin. Mina narrates: “For three long years he [Poe] listens to Virginia’s cough or her silence. Alcohol and writing are the only outlets for his suffering. He writes compulsively, channeling his emotional turmoil into his work. These are his most productive and creative years in which he composes works that would later be lauded as the most quintessentially Poe.” As she says this, the visuals show the titles: “Tell-Tale Heart,” “Mystery of Marie Roget,” “The Black Cat,” “The Pit and the Pendulum.” First of all, if these are the stories he wrote when Virginia was sick, then what was Poe channeling into his macabre works while he was happily married to her? But the worst sin is that none of this happened in NY. All of these works were written in Philadelphia. In fact, several of Poe’s great stories and his success in Phila were all BEFORE Virginia became sick. When she did develop consumption, Poe had a hard time writing because he started drinking again. Alcohol may have been an outlet for Poe’s sorrows, but it certainly didn’t help his writing. When Poe drank, it seems evident from his friends’ accounts, he couldn’t write. Alcohol incapacitated him. If he was drinking, he wasn’t writing.
Pedant Alert! The Raven “finally earns Poe the critical recognition he craves” Not so. The Raven gives Poe “popular” success. Poetic celebrity is not critical recognition.
Again the quotation from Ligeia about opium dreams is featured. Then Mina narrates:“Virginia’s death sends Poe spiraling out of control. He’s back on the drink and starts taking the powerful opiate drug laudanum.” Then Poe’s voiceover from the story “Eleonora.”
Pedant Alert: “Ligeia” and “Eleonora” were written before Virginia died. “Ligeia” in 1838 and “Eleonora” in 1841. Virginia is not even sick until Jan 1842. So, the stories do not reflect Poe’s feelings on Virginia’s death. And cherrypicking moments of madness from Poe’s tales is a dishonest way to illustrate Poe’s psyche.
But I’m mostly dismayed at the assertion that Poe was taking laudanum. There’s no evidence he was a regular laudanum user. In fact, he wrote in a letter that he tried to commit suicide with it, but that might have just been him crying out for help. Are there any records of anyone else saying he did take laudanum? But most egregious is the sneaky way Poe is made into a drug addict. First there’s the “opium dreams,” then the “laudanum,” then Mina comes right out and says it: “In his drug-addled grief, Poe . . .” The drunk, drug-addled madman Poe stereotype makes its full appearance. This is a program not just about Poe’s relationships with women, but more specifically about the drunk, drug-addled madman Poe’s relationships with women. Please.
Talking head: Sara O’Dowd (Sarah Helen Whitman scholar)
The actress playing Whitman is frumpy, older and not very attractive, hinting that Poe was now “frantically” pursuing desperate old maids. Far from it with Whitman. She was a few years older than Poe, but very attractive, intellectual and sociable. And the program portrays her as a nutty ether-addict. Finding the two most eccentric things about someone and using them to define her character is inaccurate biography. To make matters worse, the program then uses the delusional relationship in the comic story “The Spectacles” to describe Poe’s courtship with Whitman. Their breakup was sad, not ridiculous. And again, the story was written before he met Whitman. Then the actress recites one of Whitman’s love letters to Poe in the most ridiculous, histrionic way. That’s not only a warped way of looking at their relationship, it’s also a disservice to someone expressing her very personal feelings for another.
Film concludes with Poe’s mother, Eliza, as representative of all the female archetypes Poe sought in his life. We finally see Poe portrayed, but it is as a toddler.
And now we’re in Richmond (at Eliza Poe’s grave). Three of the Poe cities visited. But no Philly (nor Boston).
Nice wrap up about Poe writing about the cataclysm of losing a beautiful woman again and again. But the program has really failed to demonstrate this. The evidence in each relationship is often a short story that was not actually about that particular event in his life. The fictional narrators in each case were not speaking in autobiographical terms. The theme of a beautiful dying woman is a reoccurring thread throughout Poe’s life. But this program wrongly reweaves it out of all proportion. The end result is a kind of bizarre tapestry that instead of illustrating Poe’s biography, only reinforces the stereotype of the bizarre stereotypical Poe. Enough already. Can’t Poe ever be a successful, brilliant writer dogged by poverty? Why does he always have to be the melancholic nutjob? Eliza’s boy deserves better.
Crime novelist Denise Mina presents a rumination on the life and work of Poe, with particular focus on the intense and – not infrequently– weird relationships the author and poet conducted with the women in his life. As Mina pursues her story between New York, Baltimore and various bits of Virginia, dramatised reconstructions illuminate the connection between Poe's enduringly potent fiction and his peculiar personal life – not the least of which was marrying his 13-year-old cousin when he was twice her age.
Note how the preview doesn't mention Philadelphia. I guess I shouldn't be surprised considering Poe was so busy writing his greatest works in Philly that he didn't have time for the chicks (although he did have his happiest years here with his wife, Virginia).
More on this show when I've seen it.
If you are in the Philly area on Wed Oct 13, there will be a great poetry reading at La Salle University (where I teach) by David Livewell, author of Woven Light: Poems and Photographs from Andrew Wyeth's Pennsylvania.
The author is a long-time good friend of mine, so the odds of me writing an objective review of his new book are slim. I don't just hear the words on the page; I hear Dave's voice. I've even read some of these poems years ago in earlier forms. And I also hear personal references in some of them. I don't just hear the words a poet has written (and you should always read poetry out loud), I hear Dave, my friend, someone with whom I am emotionally connected. There's a deeper resonance when I read his poems, like an ongoing, simultaneous echo of his work and our shared memories.
That said, I'm also not a big fan of poetry reviews. I'm often frustrated by their inability to describe a poet's distinct voice. I think I want poetry reviewers to treat books of poems as they do works of fiction. "Tell me the narrative of these poems, as well as something about their construction." I've rarely read a poetry review that didn't leave me baffled as to what the poems are about. Sometimes a book reviewer's personality takes over a review and the review becomes more about the reviewer than the book, but in poetry reviews I almost always find this to be the case. That's frustrating.
So, an ideal poetry review should be a few words of context about the author, the work, etc and then just two or three of the poems. That's what I want from a poetry review. I want to know if I'm going to like the poems. So here's my review of Woven Light by David Livewell:
Livewell has been fascinated with Andrew Wyeth's works for most of his life. He's corresponded with Wyeth, met several members of the family and spent many hours tramping the Wyeth country in Chadds Ford, PA. The poems of Woven Light all take their starting point from a Wyeth work. The ideal book format would be a juxtaposition of Wyeth's paintings with the corresponding poems. But that kind of copyright permission is enormously expensive and difficult to attain. Livewell's solution is to create his own photographs (and similar composition) of some of the same scenic areas Wyeth painted. Every poem is laid out next to a beautiful color photograph, creating a kind of aesthetic triptych: Wyeth painting, photograph and poem.
Here are two from the collection. Hear more on Wed night, Oct 13, 6PM. I'll be there.
The Artist Addressed
The landscape browns, and all around is death,
Your father’s casket buried deep as grief.
But swept forth like a leaf,
Young Allan Lynch comes pumping out of breath,
A deadly shadow hawking his decline.
With flapping pilot cap and army coat,
A hand that seems to float
And grope for balance, he is the life line
Sent to pull you up the hillside’s climb
To railroad tracks where N.C.’s voice still drums
You home. Your past becomes
An engine-whistle’s echo stuck in time.
His death has tempered you to paint your hate
As well as love. Untethered from his snare,
But fixed in Pa’s cold stare,
You now begin the art that is your fate.
Snow Hill, 1989
This final tempera is what they give
For gratitude, the dead and living hand
In hand, a merry band
Of models joined by him in whom they live.
The Maypole lowers colored ribbons down
From a Christmas pine atop a wagon wheel.
Their Chadds Ford lives congeal
To form, above his most-loved place, a crown.
On the summit of their hill, the Kuerners dance.
Bill Loper swings from them, his hook in the hand
Of Helga, whose braids are fanned
By the circling force that feeds the snowbound trance.
Then, from ’46, young Allan Lynch
Holds on to Adam Johnson . . . . But note the spare
White ribbon dangling there
For him who froze their lives and will not flinch.
Bob Duggan has also written a perceptive review of Woven Light, which addresses Wyeth's work.
David Livewell's reading at La Salle University is Wed Oct 13 at 6PM in the Atrium of Holroyd Hall. La Salle is located at 20th and Olney Aves in Philadelphia. Hope to see you there.
There's also a podcast interview with Livewell at Ron Vitale's blog. Enjoy.
Tom Keels will be the guest on WHYY's Radio Times tomorrow morning (Thu July 1) at 11AM. Keels' new book, Wicked Philadelphia: Sin in the City of Brotherly Love was just released a couple months ago and features a chapter on Singleton Mercer's murder of Mahlon Heberton, the case which inspired George Lippard to write The Quaker City.
In January, Keels did a piece for WRTI radio about that murder and Lippard's novel, in which I was happy to participate. You can listen to that show here (the Lippard part begins at the 14:30 mark).
And check out Radio Times tomorrow morning.
THIS WEEK ONLY! Shakespeare comes to Jenkintown!
Come join us for screenings of all three Franco Zeffirelli Shakesmovies at the beautiful Hiway Theatre:
June 23 Romeo and Juliet (1968)
June 24 Hamlet (1990) with the pre-crazy Mel Gibson
June 25 The Taming of the Shrew (1967) with Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor
All showings at 1:30 PM.
Then join us on Saturday night, 6:30- 8:30PM at the historic Jenkintown Library for The Shakespeare Mystery Game. Search the Library for clues from Shakesplays! Falstaffian fun!
Purchase one festival ticket for $10 and enjoy all events. Tickets are available at the Hiway Theatre and Rhinoceros Toy Store, 301 Leedom St., Jenkintown.
Festival proceeds benefit the Jenkintown Library.
The Balcony Scene from Zeffirelli's Romeo and Juliet
I watched Michael Cuesta's Tell-Tale (2009) on Netflix. A recent heart transplant recipient finds his new heart beating like crazy every time he's near the killers of the heart's donor. The heart beats with vengeance.
What's fascinating is how it adapts the Poe story, "Tell-Tale Heart," essentially taking the narrative at his word. I always read the story as a madman's confession who halucinates the beating heart out of his own guilt. Pretty obvious reading, I know. But what if the murderer really did hear the heart. What if the heart does give him away. I like how that's a valid reading of the short story. Poe's "The Black Cat" offers the same dual reading: the narrator could be deranged and just unlucky when the cat is entombed in the wall at the end OR the black cat is really a spirit from beyond throughout the entire story, finally attaining its ruthless vengeance in the end. So I enjoyed the way Cuesta takes this reading of the story and stretches it as far as it goes.
Cuesta is a fine director who has helmed episodes of HBO TV shows (Dexter, Six Feet Under and the season 2 finale of True Blood). He has crafted a good film in Tell-Tale with lots of suspense . The movie's worth watching. You can watch Cuesta, along with the lead actor Josh Lucas, talk about the film at Shock Till You Drop
Cuesta also directed the pilot for the proposed zombie TV show, Babylon Fields, about zombies trying to return to their former lives. That show was never picked up by a network, but you can watch it here.
Michael Kammen's new book, Digging Up the Dead: A Notable History of American Reburials, includes Edgar Allan Poe, who was moved from the back of his Westminster cemetery to the front. I've asked this before, but I'll ask it again: if they've already dug him up once, what's the big deal about doing it again (especially when the reason to do so now would better reflect literary history)? In the grand scheme of things, Philly's just a little further north of the current burial spot. I'm just asking.
Short review here of Kammen's book.
I'm gratified to see this sentence in Kammen's Introduction:
Regional pride is at stake in the burials of Revolutionary rifleman Daniel Morgan and bank robber Jesse James; local pride with the likes of Edgar Allan Poe (Baltimore, where he lived, and died versus Philadelphia, where he wrote his most famous works)
I wonder if the Poe Wars are mentioned in Kammen's book. But more importantly, I'm gratified to see (at least in part) that the author recognizes the connection between Poe's work and Philadelphia. In several pieces on Poe from last couple of years, I've seen similar wording about Philly's central importance in Poe's literary career. While this may be old news to scholars, it has certainly not been known by most of the general public. Stories about Poe in newspapers and magazines usually only mentioned Baltimore, to such an extent that most readers thought Poe was born, raised and spent most of his life there. Our Poe Wars have been a corrective to this and it is not unusual now to see references to all the cities in which Poe lived (although I do notice that Philly has gained the most prominence) in popular press pieces about him.
However, I can't be too smug about this development if only because Kammen sets up the opposition as "Baltimore, where he lived" versus "Philadelphia, where he wrote most of his famous works." Actually, Poe lived in Bmore only briefly (he lived in Philly, Richmond and New York for longer periods). The true conflict in Kammen's terms should be "Batlimore, where he died" vs. "Philly, when he wrote etc." Because the only reason Poe is buried in Bmore is because he dropped dead there.
More on Kammen's book when I get a copy of it.
There's also a short film called Tell-Tale, directed by Greg Williams and starring Adam Arkin and the uber-hot Carla Guigino (man, did she step right out of a 40s film noir, or what?). Read about it here. I've pasted it below for your viewing pleasure. Enjoy:
Like Swierczy, I also couldn't leave Port Richmond Books on Sunday without raiding their pulp paperback shelves. I picked up a couple Black Lizards (Ill Wind by W.L. Heath and After Dark, My Sweet by Jim Thompson), a Pocket Book edition of Dorothy Hughes' In a Lonely Place, a Penguin Mystery edition of Wade Miller's Deadly Weapon, a hardcover with dustjacket of The Song of the Flea by Gerald Kersh, an ordinary tpb of George Higgins' The Friends of Eddie Coyle (I'm tired of reading the copy from my public library) and lastly, one I bought just for the title and cover art, The Dead Tree Gives No Shelter by Virgil Scott: He lived for dames, violence and a fast buck.
Scott's Dead Tree takes it's title from "The Burial of the Dead" section of T.S. Eliot's "The Waste Land," a noir poem if ever there was one. I think almost any of these lines would make a good title for a noir novel:
"What are these roots that clutch, what branches grow
Out of this stony rubbish? Son of man,
You can not say, or guess, for you know only
A heap of broken images, where the sun beats,
And the dead tree gives no shelter, the cricket no relief,
And the dry stone no sound of water."
My second bookish event this past weekend was the release party for Duane Swierczynski's new novel, Expiration Date, held at Port Richmond Books on Sunday. If you missed it, fear not, for Swierczy will be signing his new book in Jenkintown on Wed night at the Hiway Theatre (as well as introducing Hickey & Boggs).
Swierczy didn't read from his new book, but he did give a funny, insightful talk about his creative process and his love/hate relationship with Philly. Our noir city always looms large in his works and Expiration is no exception. And you get two Philadelphias! Mickey Wade, a journalist stuck living in his grandfather's digs in the Frankford section of the city, discovers a way to travel back to the Frankford of his own childhood, 1972. Can he prevent the murder of his father? Can he prevent his own murder?
Boy, does he wish he had Mr Peabody's help.
A good time was had by all. How can you beat beer and soft pretzels, surrounded by a great collection of books. Greg Gillespie, owner of the shop, regaled us with a story of how he once shared a hotel room bed with author Michael Avallone (whose worn, cigarette-burned writing desk now resides at Port Richmond Books). Avallone, in boxer shorts and striped knee-high sweat socks, read Gillespie to sleep with a recitiation from memory of the opening of his first Ed Noon detective novel, The Tall Dolores.
Thanks to Swierczy for writing such a swell book and for bringing beer and pretzels to the event. He was so excited at the party, he even wet his pants. I swear. I saw his wet crotch. Swierczy, of course, gives a different version of events.