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Wednesday, April 30, 2008 05:28 am

In Lincoln’s voice

Dan Guillory channel the Emancipator in engaging collection of poetry

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The Lincoln Poems By Dan Guillory, Mayhaven Publishing, 2008, 140 pages, $14.95
Untitled Document I’ve been reading, over the past week, the 61 poems and their commentaries that make up Dan Guillory’s The Lincoln Poems. It’s been a more moving experience than I thought possible — not that I doubted the poems, but I’ve never been a “sustained” poetry reader, and I have also been so surrounded with Lincoln during the many years I’ve lived in Springfield that in a sense I’ve been vaccinated. I’ve known the stories everyone knows but few of the details. These poems follow Lincoln’s life from his boyhood, when seeds he’d cleared the land to plant were washed away in a downpour, to his death and aftermath (“No, it wasn’t supposed to end this way.”). Though the poems are brief and economical, the commentary on each, though also brief, is often longer. And they are spoken not from outside looking on, but from inside Lincoln’s head. Sometimes his actual words are used, but more often they are his imagined words and thoughts, which come off as not only possible but probable. Like the man, they are a mixture of the simple and complex. With some exceptions, they are about small moments in Lincoln’s life. In his preface, Guillory says, “These poems are not intended to chart or identify ‘peak moments’ in Lincoln’s life. The goal, rather, is to dramatize small, transcendent moments when the all-too-rational Lincoln was carried beyond himself, if only for an instant.”
One poem, “Deism in Little Things,” could stand for this aim; some of these moments are the moving of a piano, the pulling of a tooth, blackberrying with a son. In the process, we learn the climate and the flora of the prairie; we see a primitive Springfield growing into a city, a primitive Illinois growing into a state — and a young man growing into presidential stature. The small, even homely things sometimes gain a larger perspective, such as when Lincoln compares his own problems on the privy with the constipation of the Army of the Potomac, mired in the mud. They can be humorous: he describes the annoying pigs under the Taylorville courthouse yet adds a sting, pairing them with himself and fellow lawyers who stick their snouts into “every unspeakable place.” Some humor is soft, some simply fun and vulgar (Lincoln did tell vulgar jokes) — he recalls a night spent on the circuit with a behemoth colleague with whom he must sleep, after a supper of beans and cornpone, thusly: “Bedding down with the Lawyer for the Defense/Who farts all night, punctuating his brief.”
It may seem presumptuous of anyone to give Lincoln feelings when the man was so good at concealing them, but these are usually on such homely subjects, and ring so true, that the reader, instead of feeling suspicious, says, if questioning at all, yes — he might well have felt that way. This is also true of the bitter poems and at least one veiled yet sexually explicit one.
There are too many fine lines to quote: On New Salem Village, “Smoke licks the clouds, and every cedared roof /Finds its pointed place in the blueness,” and on Lincoln’s voracious reading, “But the Prairie was my true Grammarian,/The small, bright Orations of springtime,/The unforgiving syntax of Winter . . . ”
The commentaries accompanying each poem are necessary for understanding the poems’ points of reference, such as the historical context, and are good, though strange reading in themselves, for as explication they are not crafted essays. They begin as such, then often end abruptly with a few pieces of apparently unrelated information. Sometimes they let us know where Guillory found the small fact the poem is built upon and so we learn Lincoln scholarship, much of it obscure. There is repetition; we need to know more than once the cookbook Mary Todd used, or about Blackstone, for some will not read this collection as a novel, retaining the past commentaries. There is little temptation to read the commentaries and skip the poems, for everything in the former points to the following poem. I find that these coupled vignettes are leading me on to more reading about Lincoln; they are teasers to force us to do so. This is a fine book, well crafted, well produced, and complete in itself, but it also has a value to drive one further into investigating this man who, in my travels abroad, I have found, is better known than any other American. A final word on the last three poems. “Contents of My Pockets, April 14, 1865”; “Bullet in My Brain, April 15, 1865”; and “Alternate Ending”: These are a tour de force. I have never felt Lincoln’s death more keenly than in reading this trio, after the cumulative effect of the whole book. They are unforgettable.
Jacqueline Jackson, books and poetry editor of Illinois Times, is a professor emerita of English at the University of Illinois at Springfield.
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