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Wednesday, Nov. 8, 2006 07:18 pm

Ghosts in the attic

In a bag of trash, a treasured link to one of Springfield's favorite sons


Late as usual, I’ve got a ghost story for you. It’s about a dead poet, two local authors, and their brush with the supernatural. And I swear, I’m only exaggerating a little bit.

Instead of a dark and stormy night, this tale begins on a bright and blustery morning. Jacqueline Jackson was putting her trash out by the curb when a gust of wind blew something out of one bag. Not wanting to litter, she chased the scrap down and, to her great surprise, discovered it was an old envelope with the return address of famed Springfield poet Vachel Lindsay.

Figuring that where there’s an envelope, there’s got to be a letter, Jackie hauled the sack back inside. But if you assume she immediately sat down and started going through the bag, well, you don’t know Jackie.

“You would think that would’ve sent me to looking through the bag,” she admits. “But my life was very tight.”

A retired English professor, prolific memoirist, and our poet-in-residence at Illinois Times, Jackie is the kind of person who always has an armload of projects going. Her life is perpetually “very tight,” partly because she spends so much of it befriending, mentoring, and nursemaiding other writers. In fact, the bag from which the Lindsay envelope flew came from an elderly friend she had helped take care of — Elizabeth Graham, who had taught English at Springfield High School.

The bag appeared to contain mementos from by a bygone group called the SHS Scribblers Club. When Graham died in the mid-1980s, the bag (along with a seemingly infinite supply of gift wrap) moved from Graham’s attic to Jackie’s, where it sat until the morning she had that wild urge to put it out on the curb.

Even after she found the envelope, Jackie simply hauled the bag back up to her attic. Odds are, it would have languished there as item no. 2,932 on Jackie’s to-do list, were it not for supernatural intervention.

That came last summer in the form of a phone call from Jackie’s friend and fellow writer, Carol Manley. Carol’s sister and brother-in-law were in town from Kenya for a visit, and Carol was looking for a way to entertain them.

“They’re missionaries,” Carol explains. “You don’t want to find yourself in a situation where they have nothing to talk about except your eternal soul.”

One interest Carol and her sister still shared was poetry. They both had fond memories of a little anthology their mother had read to them called Silver Pennies. Some of the poems in that collection were written by Vachel Lindsay.

“Even now, on a clear night, I still say, ‘The moon’s the North Wind’s cooky. He bites it day by day,’ ” Carol says. Other Lindsay poems in the book stuck with her because they were just . . . odd. The Potatoes’ Dance, for example, is a long and repetitive rhythmic chant about an Irish lady who animates spuds. It ends mournfully, as the lady cruelly deserts the lone sweet potato after dancing with him all night.

Alas, he wasn’t Irish
So when she flew away
They threw him in the coal bin
And there he is to-day
Where they cannot hear his sighs
And his weeping for the lady,
The glorious Irish lady,
The beauteous Irish lady,
Who Gives Potatoes Eyes.

Carol is the first to admit it’s not one of Lindsay’s better-known works. “I don’t know that anybody’s written a master’s thesis on it,” she says dryly. “It seems to be about a forbidden love type of thing. Perhaps this is a digression?”

OK, she’s right. Back to the ghost story.

Jackie was spending the summer in Vermont. Carol, who has a key to Jackie’s house, called her to ask about that sack of stuff. Using a flashlight and a cell phone, Carol and her sister went into the attic — and this time, it really was a dark and stormy night — while Jackie directed them straight to the sack. They took it home and sifted through pounds of paper, mostly articles cut from magazines, pasted on colored stock and fastened together with prongs. But near the bottom, Carol discovered another Lindsay envelope — this time with a letter inside.

It was addressed to Susan Wilcox, his SHS English teacher and lifelong mentor and friend. She had apparently sent Lindsay a copy of The Venture, a little literary magazine published by her students in 1928. Lindsay had responded with glowing praise.

“Anything you do like this is well done and greatly done, and I step right into the magazine myself when I see it,” he wrote.

Today, the letter will be officially presented to Springfield High School. Jackie promises the ceremony will include a performance of The Potatoes’ Dance. Saturday, the Vachel Lindsay House (603 S. Fifth St.) will host a birthday party for the poet from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m., with cake, poetry, and tours of the home all offered free of charge.

All this fanfare aside, the payoff for Carol came the very night she found the letter. “I managed to not get saved,” she quips. “Dodged that bullet again.”

Contact Dusty Rhodes at drhodes@illinoistimes.com.


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