"Eddie, Lennie, and Berenice" by Steven Leech


“The teeth,” said John Lofland, student of medicine, “shall last as long as bone, when flesh is gone and turned to dust and the grave shall claim the coffin in the roots of that which grows new life.” Poe had traveled by coach and packet to this bard as some had named him, or he had named his self. John Lofland, once a medical student, now poet published with much acclaim for The Harp of Delaware. With him, Poe had brought that volume for Lofland to inscribe. In that room, spare except for books, tucked away in a large house provided through inheritance, Lofland read, composed, pined away in melancholy, far from the metropolises Poe had visited more than once. Only in Philadelphia had Lofland lived to discover himself and to study medicine, and now in only Milford, in the midst of farmlands and agrarian commerce and the misery of dark men retreating into night with the mystery of their lives with soft-skinned wives of their own sworn covenant and stolen children. Poe had asked that student of medicine about the nature of death, its clinical terms that proved its final definition. And so Lofland began with the teeth over which flows breath and prepares nourishment for the body and the soul. Both Poe and Lofland, in the late springtime of 1831, shared the same melancholy from a similar source, of romance and betrothal denied by the convention of the ordinary. There would be no affirmation of life in an earthly paradise for both. “In death,” Lofland continued, “the earliest certainties are the seizing of joints to bone in a process called rigor mortis, and the greatest certainty is the bloating of the body while the inner organs begin to expunge the gasses of putrefaction turning gore to thick liquid. There would be no question that death has made its claim.” “Blessed are the dead,” Poe mused pensive, “that the forces of nature can alleviate the anguish of the living where there is no relief from the relentless stranglehold of melancholy.” “Yes,” replied Lofland, “the living fare far more agony when measured by years than the sudden release through death’s sudden door.” “And may we be blessed,” Poe quipped, “by the door to paradise not experienced but by a fortunate few of the living.” “Yes Edgar, and unfortunate for me that door to mortal bliss lives but a short distance from here, now the wife of a shopkeeper droning ordinary from day to day, and I hold constant in my head and in my heart, in all its ramifications, the stuff of earthly beauty. Can a common shopkeeper write poetry? Can a common shopkeeper sing it full of love and cheer to a woman he does not love as I would?” “I know my dear friend,” Poe disclosed, “barer of that same wounded soul. I too have lost the woman I truly love to the lore of the common, when yet the fruit has grown lush in our hearts and picked clean from its stem by a grocer of the mundane.” “What was, or is, her name Edgar? Say it so it rings out at least to hear like a bell to pierce the air.” “Elmira,” Poe lowered his head to look away into the floor, “or Myra in its familiar form. Sarah was her first name though . . .” Lofland let out a soft groan, painfully so from some tight place near his heart. Poe paused slightly to give the space for acknowledgment, and then continued, “She had promised me matrimony. Perhaps I’d been too full of myself. Too open to the tales my newly found brother Leonard and my erudite friend Armistead would tell me to fill my imagination, to seek instead the means to lift me from the poverty of a dreaming soul into an acceptable avocation in a dull world of commerce and daily diligence.” “Yes, I know Edgar,” Lofland began with a heavy sigh. “Had I finished my medical studies in Philadelphia and had become a doctor, I’d have been allowed to marry Sallie. I found that studying medicine and the workings of the human body had led instead to the discovery of my own soul. There is no commerce of the soul, ‘tis not wealth enough to sustain the living.” “The great irony of life,” Poe was almost bitter, yet tempered by his own sense of sadness. “That we may, however,” Lofland continued, “enrich the world while those who populate it are not looking, or hearing, unaware that those like ourselves give freely in beneficence.” “But freely at the cost of melancholy, the detritus of creation,” Poe letting his bitterness seep out, then pausing a moment to come out from under his self-absorbed utterance, was about to change his subject, augmented by a fleeting thought. “Can I be sure you know of the discoveries,” asked Lofland as if to read Poe’s mind, “of Franz Mesmer?” “Yes,” answered Poe, “I know of him.” “. . . and that he suggests,” continued Lofland, “mysterious workings of the brain beyond mere awareness of our everyday world? Perhaps there is some small hope that life as we know it has some invisible dimension that we have lost the ability to access.” “I have had the same thoughts,” mused Poe. ”Perhaps those abilities are inexplicably innate in poets like us, who struggle to squeeze from reality a deeper vision, not to see with only eyes and hear with only ears but perceive by the mind striving to put into our feeble speech what is being told to us regarding the combined essence exuding from every living thing.” “I agree Edgar, and the hopeful aspect is that it might exist beyond death, in the ether and perhaps even melancholy is a symptom of some innate suspicion of this underutilized human quality.” “ ’tis a painful prospect,” Poe quipped. “But one to spur on our search for it, to give us a good reason for living,” Lofland added. “John,” Poe began, “you ought to relieve yourself of these hinterlands, your proximity to Sallie and come to Baltimore. At least there you’d find the sympathetic company of others. At least there’d be a way to realize a few pennies from your pen, and perhaps some island of relief from melancholia.” “I have found some relief,” Lofland divulged, “albeit, at a cost beyond the monetary one, provided by the Grand Turk, the cost of which is exacted by Sir Richard Rum.” In the course of Poe’s visit the two discussed and found an affinity with, the English poets Byron and Samuel Taylor Coleridge, especially Coleridge’s narrative poems Kubla Khan, The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, and especially the conundrum present by Christabel. “Marvelous tales,” Lofland exclaimed. After several hours Poe had to catch his coach for the packet leaving for Annapolis. Before leaving Lofland’s garret he afforded Poe a parting gift. Into a small glass he poured a small amount of a brown liquid from a flask. “This should provide relief during your bumpy return,” said Lofland. “Laudanum?” “Only a few drams of the very best for your comfort,” Lofland answered.

After seeing Poe off at Milford’s coach stop the springtime exuded some extra soft warmth from the still-standing trees in the distance through the subtle sweet scent of tasseling corn. He could smell the warmth seeping into him. He reached around for Lofland’s volume of poetry, the one he brought with him for Lofland to inscribe, realizing in muted shock that he had left it in Lofland’s garret. “Drats,” he muttered, but he remembered a favorite poem from it, the one that had spawn from its kernel the subject of their conversation: Far in a wild sequestered vale, Pale melancholy dwells; And to the winds her piteous tale, The musing maiden tells.

Where crystal cascades dashing pour, At noontide oft she strays; And listens to the rocks that roar, ln dreams of happier days. At midnight’s solemn sacred scene, Where steals the winding wave; With wild buds, and with green, She strews the new-made grave.

And now in memory’s glass she throws, Her kindling eye of fire; Starts wild! –– and in her dream of woes, She sweeps the Lydian lyre.

Fired at the sound of pity’s tale, She beats her bosom bare; Rends the loose silken snowy veil, And waves her hanging hair.

And now again when Luna’s light Illumes the gurgling rills; Her song awakes the shades of night, And dies along the hills.

But ne'er the joy of youthful years. Shall bless that heart of care; She wanders o’er the world in tears, The victim of despair.

He could hear the wind that he could not feel against the moving coach, the same wind that eddied around tombstones he could not see. Closing his eyes he heard the faint sound of fresh cornstalks rustling forlorn, then opening his eyes the daylight bursting in his head. The ride to the waiting packet to cross the Chesapeake was indeed smooth yet rolling with scattered tiny dry rills, but regular after the packet left its dock. The splashing against the hull sang a secret languag