Friday, November 16, 2007

Poe, Poe Edgar

While I was doing my research on Bronx literature, I came across a couple of Yiddish poems about Edgar Allen Poe's cottage, which is located just off Kingsbridge Avenue, near my home. My first impulse, of course, was to wonder why Yiddish writers would choose Poe as a subject. On the surface, at least, they would seem to go together like gefilte fish and bananas.

After thinking about it for a while, I got the connection. After all, the Jewish community produced Franz Kafka, who is kind of like a second cousin to Poe. With a little imagination, it's easy to imagine how Poe's terror and sense of impending doom could find fertile ground in Jewish literature. Besides, the Bronx was filled with Yiddish writers in the 1920's--it's statistically likely that at least a few of them would be Poe fans.

One of the poems, Abraham Walt Liessen's, “At Poe Cottage in Fordham,” is a little too bombastic and overwritten for me. Here's Liessen's description of Poe:
I see him upright, as I close my eyes
Embittered, near a cloud of luminous lace,
Choked with pride, his heart agonized
Staring forlornly at the cold fireplace;
Lethargic he pines, galled in fever—
A phantom disheveled, aquiver.

Embittered, choked with pride, agonized...I get the feeling that Liessen's Poe was a little too precious for this harsh world. One imagines him swooning, hand against forehead, moaning "creamed corn again. ALAS!" before falling to the ground in a trance.

On the other hand, Zische Landau's “A Little Park, with Few Trees” isn't too self-important, has some funny bits, and gives a nice portrait of Poe's cottage. Best of all, it's by a guy named "Zische." Seriously, what a cool name. I mean, you're getting extra cool points as you sit there reading his name to yourself. Say it aloud and you'll need to start wearing sunglasses and listening to jazz.

Zische Landau, “A Little Park, with Few Trees.”

A little park, with few trees growing;
a wooden house sits humbly there,
on which appears a painted raven-
it all has such a childish air.

And on the wall there hangs a tablet,
and from the tablet you will know
here lived in eighteen nine and forty
the poet Edgar Allen Poe.

The name, the raven wake within me
a memory of years before.
And since one is allowed to visit,
I let myself approach the door.

In a kimono red as scarlet,
a woman’s looking through the pane.
I’m so repelled by red kimonos
that in a flash I’m out again.

To stand outside suits me much better;
I clasp my hands and focus all
my thoughts upon the roof’s brown shingles,
and on the cottage’s white wall.

Within my mind are mixed together
a verse of Poe’s, a word, a rhyme.
Where have I heard them, come across them?
I feel they’re from a distant time.

And yet, in dream and fact, they soothed me
and frightened me to my heart’s core.
All this was only yesterday.
But will it come back? “Nevermore.”

Okay, Ziche's a little maudlin, but what do you want--he's a Jewish guy writing about Edgar Allen Poe; maudlin comes with the territory. What's cool, though, is his depiction of the cottage. It hasn't changed much in the 80 or so years since Landau wrote this poem, although they've gotten rid of the raven. It's a mouldering, peeling wreck that is largely ignored and seems somewhat out of place in the park, which features a bandstand, a playground, and scads of screaming, playing Dominican kids.

(I'll admit that I was a little nervous about Poe park. Before I moved in, Rich told me that it was a hangout for transvestite hookers, who would often catcall passers-by. I confess to being a little confused about how this is really all that bad, but Rich assured me that being yelled at by "Tranny Hookiz" is really horrifying.)

I also have to admit that I was a little disappointed when I found that the park only featured screeching kids and some teen-aged hispanic goths. I was looking forward to the dangerous trannies, so the relatively banal sight of a bunch of mothers watching their kids was a real let down. All the same, the cottage is really close to my home, so I was constantly reminded of it. It soon became a comforting, familiar site. Even without the cross-dressers.

When I was a little more settled in and started wandering around, one of my first visits in the Bronx was Poe cottage. I came on a Saturday, during one of the few hours that it was open. I felt a sense of foreboding as I approached the building. A cold shiver ran up my spine. The house had a carefully manicured garden and a wind chime, neither of which were appropriate to the time. I began to worry that this was going to be a travesty, an insult to the memory of Poe.

When we knocked on the door, a weedy, redheaded woman cracked it open, told us to wait for about fifteen minutes, and went back inside. I decided that her furtive behavior gave the cottage a little more panache than I had expected, so I waited contentedly, only occasionally snarling at the irritating wind chime.

We finally got to go in, and our tour guide, Joy, proceeded to show us the five rooms in which Poe, his wife, and his mother-in-law had lived for three years. The furnishings, she told us, were not original, except for one or two that Poe's mother-in-law may have sold to the neighbors. Joy showed us the Poe bust and portraits that shared space with his living quarters. I, meanwhile, grumbled to myself about the historical innacuracy of putting all the contextual material in the rooms where Poe lived.

Joy also showed us the bed where Poe's wife, Virginia, died of tuberculosis. Supposedly, Virginia died under Poe's West Point coat, the only warm covering in the house. The bed, on the other hand, was covered with a polyester fleece blanket with a plaid pattern. "Yeah," I thought to myself, "That's historically accurate. Where are the flannel sheets and Laura Ashley comforter?"

Joy took me through the rest of the house. I was going solo at this point, as my wife had abandoned the tour, citing a whining child. Personally, I think she was pinching George in order to create an excuse for ditching me. I could understand, as Joy's spiel was a little canned, and the "historical reconstruction" of the house bordered on the blasphemous. The highlight was the holes in the walls, which were covered with plastic sheeting and blue masking tape. Apparently, they're planning a major renovation. Between this and the furniture, I wonder if anything will be left of Poe's cottage.

The coolest part was after the tour was over, when Joy told me that she and her significant other live in the house's basement, rent free. They rarely come out, presumably to ensure their safety. Joy, apparently, has a graduate degree in history as well as a law degree, and is trying to get a writing career going. She is using her sojourn in Poe house as a way of making a few bucks while she works part-time in the public schools and tries to figure out what she wants to do next. Joy doesn't seem to like the neighborhood very much and tends to avoid interacting with the neighbors. It think she's a little afraid of the brown people.

I've since brought a few friends to visit. Katie and Heather told me that, overcome with compassion, Joy "broke down" while discussing Virginia's death in the cottage, and was a little loony during the rest of the tour. I later went through with John, hoping to catch some emoting over Virginia's death, but was denied.

When I read Landau's poem, I couldn't help but laugh at his description of the crazy lady in the red kimono taking care of the cottage. It seemed so funny that, 80 years later, Poe Cottage has another moderately crazy woman showing visitors through its lonely rooms. Sometimes, as I pass the cottage on the way home from the subway, I imagine Joy in the basement, listening to the wind whistling through the holes in the house. I envy her.

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  • "later went through with John, hoping to catch some emoting over Virginia's death, but was denied". . . . no, john was just grilled for 1/2 an hour about contract attorney work in manhattan. to think we paid her $6! i should have charged her a consulting fee! seriously though, she's pretty nice, if a bit of a nutter and exactly what you do not want happening to a struggling municipal school system [she could be the indifferent middle school time waster exhibit in a jonathan kozol curated house of horrors].

    By Anonymous John, At November 16, 2007 at 3:39 PM  

  • It's obvious that Joy is really the ghost of Virginia Poe.

    I love the outside -- it's so quintessentially cottage-ey. And I agree that laying in a supply of substitute furnishings is a travesty.

    Have you visited the Edna St. Vincent Millay house in Greenwich Village? It is the narrowest house in the city, measuring about 9 feet at its widest point, 2 feet at its narrowest.

    75 1/2 Bedford St. off Seventh Ave. between Commerce and Moore Sts.

    By Blogger heartinsanfrancisco, At November 17, 2007 at 2:25 PM  

  • The "Poe House" in Richmond is just as odd and is attended by rather quirky old ladies. Add to that the fact that there is no apparent relationship between Poe and the house except the places where he lived and worked were a few blocks away. As Richmond was very small at the time I suppose any house could have fit that bill. I have taken two friends there interspaced by about 20 years of time and everything has remained static. The staff ladies look like they are trapped inside one of his horror tales wearing the same dress they put on in the era they stumbled inside.

    By Blogger Spellbound, At November 17, 2007 at 7:10 PM  

  • John-
    Oddly enough, a week later I got a temp job at a contract attorney temp firm. The message is clear--next time you have to talk to her about getting jobs in publishing house.

    Just in case.

    Thank you for the validation. I was afraid that I was a little oversensitive about the furnishings!

    And thanks for directing me to the Millet house. I'll definitely visit it (and write a post).

    What a cool idea! Wouldn't it be interesting if all of Poe's places were staffed with his characters, who were forced to take readers through and show them everything?

    By Blogger Crankster, At November 18, 2007 at 10:17 AM  

  • How terribly gothic.


    By Blogger Glamourpuss, At November 19, 2007 at 7:26 AM  

  • Puss-
    Be honest--you felt a frisson there, didn't you?

    By Blogger Crankster, At November 19, 2007 at 8:06 PM  

  • No, that was just wind.

    Excuse me.


    By Blogger Glamourpuss, At November 20, 2007 at 7:41 AM  

  • Puss-

    Foul words is but foul wind,
    and foul wind is but foul breath,
    and foul breath is noisome...

    By Blogger Crankster, At November 21, 2007 at 4:36 PM  

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