Rose Poe was homeless after Richmond fell,
abandoned by the millionaire MacKenzies,
whose ward she’d been for over fifty years.
She spent her days down at the railroad depot
trying to sell some faded photographs
of her unhappy brother, Edgar Allan,
now long deceased, the author of “The Raven.”
His signature was forged across the portraits
in Rose’s perfect hand. She had for years
taught penmanship to Richmond’s “finest daughters”
at the MacKenzies’ girls’ academy.
She played piano, also, and gave lessons,
but many thought that she was rather dim,
including Edgar. She would sit up front
when Edgar read his poems, or gave a talk,
but then he’d tease her cruelly afterwards,
mocking the way she dressed and wore her hair
and remonstrating snappishly with her.
Her benefactors, too, could be unkind.
She had her room, her place at tea and table,
but they ignored her when she spoke, forgetting
at times, to introduce her to their guests.
She was a small and wren-like creature, Rose,
and she’d lost all her teeth in middle age,
and this embarrassed her so keenly, that,
increasingly, she kept herself apart.
* * *
When Lee retreated west to Appomattox
that spring, Rose Poe was left to stumble down
deserted boulevards in neighborhoods
that fires and explosions had destroyed,
places that she no longer recognized
they were so rubble-strewn.
She couldn’t sleep,
not in the overcrowded rectories,
and so she skulked around the homeless camps
alone, avoiding other indigents
(whom she disdained as her inferiors)
and always on the lookout for a place
where she’d feel safe.
Afraid of scavengers,
of convicts, dogs, deserters, drunks, and slaves,
now freed, she hid herself in alleyways,
which fear would people with a million phantoms.
So, helpless and forsaken, terrified
and hiding like a cat, Rose passed her nights,
a vagrant pauper in the conquered South.
* * *
Many of her aristocratic students
were desperate, too, and busy writing letters
to friends and relatives, writing in such
a lovely hand (for Rose had taught them well)
letters that pled for hidden jewels and heirlooms,
anything they could possibly sell or barter
to put some staples into empty cupboards.
For some were widows now with hungry children,
and some had husbands home with crippling wounds,
or husbands home, irascible and idle,
whittling sticks and moping in their yards.
* * *
On Sundays after church Rose would accost
acquaintances and beg them, frantically,
to let her come with them and sit a spell.
Some decent Christians took their turns relenting,
though usually her visits were a trial.
Rose strove so hard to please, reciting verse,
and, if they were unfortunate enough
to have a Steinway in their parlor, well,
Rose Poe could bang out hymns all afternoon.
Eventually, of course, they’d make her stop,
but then she’d pray enthusiastically,
not giving them a chance to interrupt,
chanting her supplications, crazed like some
mysteriarch who’d fallen from the moon
and landed accidently in Virginia,
an unacknowledged augeress, Rose Poe,
the soul or emblem of the ruined town.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 29 Number 10, on page 25
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