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Thursday, Feb. 7, 2008 01:32 pm

“Apprehending the unmentionable”

Scenes from Lincoln’s rich life, set to verse

Untitled Document For the fifth year we present poems about Abraham Lincoln’s life, written by author and professor Dan Guillory as though the Great Emancipator had penned the verse himself. The poems offer an unusual look into the great and mundane events of Lincoln’s life. Guillory is professor emeritus of English at Millikin University in Decatur and the author of seven books, including the forthcoming Lincoln Poems (Mayhaven Publishing), from which these selections are drawn. His poetry will also appear in a new book about Lincoln statues in Illinois, In Illinois, to be published by the Abraham Lincoln Association. Guillory also serves as editor for the Lincoln Wayside Exhibits Program of the Looking for Lincoln Heritage Coalition. His earlier Lincoln poetry is available at

Pulling Teeth in Tremont
On Oct. 20, 1841, a dentist in Tremont, Ill., pulled one of Lincoln’s teeth, in the process “bringing with it a bit of the jawbone.” Lincoln also complained that he could “neither talk, nor eat.” Quo warranto is a lawyer’s expression meaning “by what authority.” In point of fact, Lincoln did not sue the dentist, no matter how painful the experience was. Tremont was originally part of the 8th Judicial Circuit Court, also serving as the county seat of Tazewell County until that distinction was given to Pekin in 1850. Lincoln tried many cases in Tremont, and he was very well known there. Located about 50 miles northeast of Springfield, Tremont was the first stop for all the lawyers following the old 8th Circuit.
Woe to this petty tyrant of Tremont, A terrible tooth-extractor, with talents More suited to veterinarian practice And teeth of equine or bovine proportions. Why, I shall sue by writ of Quo warranto!
By what authority does he torture un- Suspecting victims in his hard wooden chair, Removing the tooth while shattering The tender and protective jaw!
Now, unable to eat or speak, I seek Just compensation and punitive damages For having lost those unappreciated Faculties that make me singularly human.

Mud Hole, 1850
In Life in Prairie Land (1846), a vivid and telling memoir of life on the Illinois frontier in the 1830s, Eliza Farnham describes how elegantly dressed ladies from the East met the ghastly reality of springtime in Illinois when their wagons and carriages capsized or sank in the numerous “slews” and mud holes engulfing the primitive roads and trails. Nearly a century would pass before paved roads became common in the farm country that Lincoln knew and loved. The most popular songwriter of the day, Stephen Foster, described a similar problem in his famous tune, “Camptown Races” (1850):
The long-tailed filly and the big black hoss, They plowed up the track and they both run across. The black hoss stickin’ in a big mud hole —
They can’t touch bottom with a 10-foot pole!
In the antebellum period, ladies’ undergarments were designed with slits in the bottom to facilitate their use of outhouses and chamber pots. The women were already seriously encumbered by whalebone corsets, crinolines, and petticoats. Lincoln traveled the old road from New Salem to Springfield many times before settling in Springfield on April 15, 1837. The roads in Spring Time, like illogical Arguments, lead to draws, slews, And bottomless holes. Those sweet ladies In the overturned buggy, their legs Flaccid and fish-belly white, open Their slitted drawers to the sky.
I am on my way to Springfield, Taking all this as a sign — the Art Of Politics is apprehending the unmentionable And pretending that it never happened.

Milking, 1854
Garry Wills, Ronald White, Daniel Epstein, and Douglas Wilson have all written excellent analyses of Lincoln’s style of writing and thinking. Essentially, Lincoln’s mind worked somewhat like a computer with its binary “on-off” logic. He tended to see things in terms of paired opposites, and he naturally favored the rhetorical device of antithesis. In his famous “House Divided” speech of 1858, he remarked, in typical fashion, that the “government cannot endure, permanently half slave and half free.” The italics are Lincoln’s — he often italicized key words, especially when he wanted to emphasize a contrast. In 1854, Lincoln’s perennial opponent, U.S. Sen. Stephen A. Douglas, engineered the passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act, which allowed for “popular sovereignty” in those vast territories, thus allowing slavery to be introduced in formerly free territory. Lincoln was outraged, and he promptly awoke from his political slumber, becoming one of the most vocal opponents of the bill. The Kansas-Nebraska Act became Lincoln’s entrée to the national political scene. In the 1840s and 1850s, many Springfield residents still had barns and enough land to maintain a milking cow, as the Lincolns did at their home on the corner of Eighth and Jackson.
In the Springfield morning, smoked with hickory and ash, I sit on the stool, milking an old dun cow, enjoying The tinny sound of milk under pressure, as it pings And drills into my deep wooden bucket.
The udder grows alternately hard, then soft As I squeeze and finesse, thinking Kansas Nebraska, North South, Free and Slave. It must all become one thing — or another.
The teat goes dry in my hand, the bag emptied At last, warm milk brimming in the bucket, A dog barking in the distance, As now the day begins.

Notes on the August Heat
In the summer of 1858, Lincoln and his archnemesis, Stephen A. Douglas, began a series of seven debates across the state of Illinois, the two men competing for the post of U. S. senator. The sites and dates of their famous debate cycle were as follows: Ottawa, Aug. 21; Freeport, Aug. 27; Jonesboro, Sept. 15; Charleston, Sept. 18; Galesburg, Oct. 7; Quincy, Oct. 13; and Alton, Oct. 15. Although the government did not record official weather data at that time, local newspapers inform us that for the Ottawa debate the weather consisted of “a breezy, searingly hot day with a scorching sun.” This information was ferreted out by Wayne Wendland, who published the results in the spring 2007 Journal of the Illinois Historical Society. Then, as now, Illinois weather fluctuated wildly. Only six days after the Ottawa debate, the two adversaries met in Freeport, where the weather was “damp, chilly, and overcast.” The Lincoln-Douglas debates provided an entrée for the relatively unknown Lincoln onto the national scene. Freeport, Galesburg, and Alton were probably his better performances, Charleston his worst. In Alton, Lincoln concluded by saying that slavery was the real issue, one that would persist “when these poor tongues of Judge Douglas and myself shall be silent.” Herb gardens were common sights in the Illinois farm country that Lincoln regularly traversed. The mourning dove (Zenaida macroura) ranges through the state.

I. Gray summer haze Heavy as a dove, Lands in the dust of evening, Then flattens its belly, all the while Riding gently on the cusp of twilight.
II. Nose filled with savory, pungent sage, The sweet scent of marjoram and mint, And the earthy smells of rust and wood.
III. It is Hell enough to debate old Douglas Without the burning flames of August —
This Devil in a clawhammer coat, Liar and perverter of the English language, Making a horse-chestnut into a chestnut horse! Ah, the heat of the moment flares Into the heat of the day, and we’ve all Had our little say in Ottawa, Illinois.
IV Screeching cicadas and thrumming katydids, The unpaid musicians of late August, Keening and rasping, Like politicians pleading for election —
Or cursing the bitter aftertaste of Sweet Success.

Alternate Ending
Funeral services for President Lincoln were held in the White House on April 19, 1865, and the presidential funeral train left the city of Washington on April 21, making its first stop in Baltimore. The rest of the itinerary is as follows: Harrisburg, April 21; Philadelphia, April 22; New York City, April 24; Albany, April 25; Buffalo, April 27; Cleveland, April 28; Columbus, April 29; Indianapolis, April 30; Chicago, May 1; and Springfield, May 3. On May 4, 1865 Lincoln’s body was placed in a temporary receiving vault in Oak Ridge Cemetery in Springfield. Lincoln body’s was buried in a crypt of the still unfinished tomb on Sept. 19, 1871. On Oct. 15, 1874, Richard J. Oglesby helped dedicate the Lincoln Monument. But on Nov. 7, 1876, three men who had ironically planned their crime in the town of Lincoln, Ill., attempted to steal Lincoln’s body. They were later captured in Chicago and sentenced to a year in the penitentiary. On July 16, 1882, Mary Todd Lincoln died in Springfield and was buried in the Lincoln Tomb, where sons Eddie, Willie, and Tad are now also buried. On July 26, 1926, Robert Todd Lincoln died and was later buried in Arlington National Cemetery. On the day of Lincoln’s first burial in Springfield (May 4, 1865), his favorite horse, Old Bob, marched in the funeral procession, appropriately draped in black. Black crepe and black satin ribbons marked the presidential journey all the way from Washington to Springfield, a somber foil to the bright bunting and the ubiquitous American flags. Before his assassination, Lincoln and Mary regularly attended opera performances presented by New York companies visiting the nation’s capital. One of their favorites was Weber’s Der Freischutz.
No, it wasn’t supposed to end this way, Mourners lining the railroad tracks, miles Of black crepe and patriotic bunting. I was supposed to become the Regent Of Reconstruction, or a Continental tourist (so I could practice my German on site) —
Even a pilgrim in Jerusalem. Of course, All the while I’d write my memoirs, making Obscene profits as a corporation lawyer. Yet here I am, the Sentinel of Oak Ridge, Watching the comings and goings, savoring The passage of Time, which is like snow, Redesigning the contours of the land, a soft Tattoo, like prairie showers on cedar shakes In that other world I once so happily inhabited.
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