This poem appears in the Fall 2014 issue of Modern Age. To subscribe now, go here.
Note: On the fourteenth (some say the thirteenth) of January, 1903, a mysterious figure known as David E. George died of self-induced strychnine (some say arsenic) poisoning in Room 4 (some say 3) of the Grand Avenue Hotel in Enid, Oklahoma Territory. He had claimed to be John Wilkes Booth (some say he was).
First Friday Mass dismissed, my blessing gone
With them into the brittle cold of dawn,
The ladies of my “remnant” snugged along
The stubbled field of maize toward Madison
And home. Old Mrs. Vater’s City niece,
Her smile askew, had not received. The cup
And paten cleansed and set aside, I sent
The Jarboe twins, pale Ralph and burly Fred,
To breakfast quick on Mama’s mush and cream
Before the tardy-bell’s stern summoning.
Then Fred was back: “Please, Father Gus, you’d best
Come see this man. There’s something wrong with him!”
His voice slipped out of pitch, betrayed real fear.
Half-vested still, I stepped out on the porch,
And there he stood and worked a rattan cane
Beneath his thumb compulsively . . . in dark
Broadcloth alone against that wind without
A flinch—black hair and eyes—charcoal mustache—
The face too white—soft collar wide and rolled
Like scribblers’ in a boulevard café.
He doffed and said, “Good morrow, Father,” bowed,
And seemed to want a special word from me,
Some cued response (recall how players on
The stage will try to aid another when
He’s lost his lines).
I stood there dumb, but he,
To move the scene, spoke like a biloquist
(“Benedicite!”), smiled, and bowed again.
“My Asia thought it so.”
His left hand took the cane, and with his snubbed
Right thumb he gestured at the early sun:
“What torch is yond, that vainly lends his light
To grubs and eyeless skulls?”
He never blinked,
Not once. It wasn’t drink . . . perhaps morphine.
“Plots have I laid, inductions dangerous,
By drunken prophecies, libels and dreams.”
I asked him who he was, and he glanced down:
“A creature unprepared, unmeet for death . . .”
I said I’d hear his sins.
“Oh, by and by
I’d have some speech with you.” He grinned much like
A burlesque Irishman, then limped away.
I say he limped; which limb he favored was
I felt the cold, went in to tea
And rolls I could not taste, reminded of
A carrion bird I’d seen near Bruges decades
Ago. Wings spread, it dropped off a low bough
And waddled toward a newly stillborn calf.
That noon I found the church unduly dim;
The sanctuary lamp had guttered out.
William Bedford Clark is a professor of English at Texas A&M University. He has published widely in the field of American literature and served as general editor of the Robert Penn Warren correspondence project. His Blue Norther and Other Poems appeared in 2010, and a new chapbook, Ways and Means, is due out soon.