Celebrating Lincoln’s life

The small events that shaped a great life, set to verse

Untitled Document For the fourth year, we’re delighted to present poems about Abraham Lincoln’s life, written by author and professor Dan Guillory as though the Great Emancipator had penned the verse himself. Chronicling the events and people in the life of the 16th president, the poems offer a glimpse 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 several books about Lincoln. His latest work, Macon County, part of the “Images of America” series, was released in January by Arcadia Publishing of Mount Pleasant, S.C. His earlier Lincoln poetry is available at www.illinoistimes.com. — Editor

Eating Illinois Originally, after the founding of the state of Illinois in 1818, the counties were huge and covered hundreds and hundreds of square miles, but the residents complained that the county seats were often too far away. Some people had to travel days to obtain a marriage license or have a deed recorded. So the counties split into parts and then split again, like living cells. More and more people moved into Illinois as word of the rich farmland spread eastward — and as technological improvements such as the John Deere plow allowed farmers to plow up the dense prairie sod and prairie grass nearly 3 meters high. Lincoln knew all the Illinois counties comprised by the 8th Judicial Circuit, and he traversed most of the rest of the state by raft, rail, and horse. He had, in one sense, devoured the state.
The tender parts, the haunch And liver and sweetbreads, Are the first to go.
Like counties, their overcooked Joints fall apart, meat tattered on the bone, Smaller and smaller fragments, Shelby From Crawford, Macon from Shelby And from Macon itself, Moultrie and Piatt.
The lonely line of separation, the cord Knotted from mother through sons To fathers, stretches taut as a towline A clean and legal demarcation Like townships into counties.
We live as maps, The menus of the earth. And under it all the heart beats incessantly While the river flows in a crooked black line Even when covered with ice.
Choke Cherries
The choke cherry (Prunus virginiana) is a common tree east of the Mississippi River, usually found growing along fence rows and hedges. It produces brilliant but bitter red fruit that cooks down into excellent jam and jelly. Lincoln certainly encountered this familiar tree (really a large bush) during his frequent circuit riding and other travels in central Illinois. Choke cherries are abundant along the watercourse of the Kaskaskia River in Shelby County.
The trees are tenanted with red fruit And October visitors, tourists From Canada, Michigan, and New York.
Ordinary robins and spattered starlings Gossiping in strange Northern dialects, Debating the sectional politics
Of land use and ownership, here In this grove of choke cherry, fruited With berries that are acid on the tongue.
They sing of boundaries and the ending Of the day, an unmistakable note of sadness That lingers, even in translation.
Flub Dubs By the fall of 1861, Mary Todd Lincoln had already overspent her $20,000 household allowance by $6,800. Doris Kearns Goodwin, in Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln (2005), quotes Benjamin French, the commissioner of public buildings, whom Mary had enlisted to speak to the president on her behalf. French reported that the president said, “It would stink in the land to have it said that an appropriation of $20,000 for furnishing the house had been overrun by the President when the poor freezing soldiers could not have blankets, and he swore he would never approve the bills for flub dubs for that damned house!” Like Jackie Kennedy and Nancy Reagan after her, Mary left her mark on the old mansion. When the Lincolns arrived in Washington, the Capitol dome was still under construction. Like the nation, it was a work in progress.
Like a hatless man, the Capitol dome Remains uncovered, while canvas-tented soldiers
Sleep on the ice-hard ground, blanket money Going to Mary’s silver tea trays and sugar bowls,
Heavy candlesticks, gas lamps with glass globes, Limoges dinner plates, gold-roped tapestries, Damask curtains, and carpets, carpets, carpets!
Seemingly, there is no end Of buying goods and making war. In the slough between the White House And Potomac, good Washingtonians Dispose of the odd carcass, Feline, human, or canine —
How merciful were it mine.
Tom Thumb at the White House, February 13, 1863 “General” Charles Stratton, 36 inches high, was the star attraction of P.T. Barnum’s circus. He married Lavinia Warren, who stood only 32 inches high. To celebrate this marriage — and Valentine’s Day — Mary Todd Lincoln invited the diminutive couple to a special party at the White House. According to Daniel Epstein, author of Lincoln and Whitman: Parallel Lives in Civil War Washington, most of the Cabinet members attended this gala event, which was well reported by the press. Stratton often depicted the little figure of Cupid, cavorting about the stage and shooting tiny arrows of love at his appreciative audience.
Lavinia is a little beauty in white satin And massive diamond necklace — Charles Is attired in simple black with heavy gold watch
And elegant white kid gloves. Two human dolls,
They stand no taller than the bottom Of my waistcoat — Charles and Lavinia, Abraham and Mary, twin odd couples On display in the White House Circus. Show your ticket and behold two pairs Of documented freaks, each one shot By the unerring Arrow of Love, drawn From the bottomless quiver of Desire.
Keckley, Dressing My Hair Elizabeth Keckley — modiste, or seamstress, to Mary Todd Lincoln — was a former Virginia slave who had purchased her freedom and that of her son by dint of hard work and perseverance. She composed a famous autobiography, Behind the Scenes or Thirty Years a Slave, and Four Years in the White House (originally published in 1868 by G.W. Carleton and reprinted in 1988 by the Oxford University Press). Keckley was a remarkable woman who became the most trusted servant of Mary and Abraham. President Lincoln often requested Keckley’s tonsorial services before events of state. After the president’s assassination, she was dispatched to New York to sell off Mary’s considerable wardrobe in a futile attempt to raise cash for the beleaguered former first lady. In 2003, historian Jennifer Fleischner published Mrs. Lincoln and Mrs. Keckly [sic]: The Remarkable Story of a Friendship Between a First lady and a Former Slave.

She flexes her fingers like a concert pianist, This African queen, teasing grace notes From my choppy thatch, gracefully playing Glissandos on my crown. She presses ever so Close, the joist of her hip touching my ribs, Her pneumatic bosom swelling Against my back, her hands fluttering Over my cheeks and beard. And thus The Presidential locks lie down in perfect Harmony as Lizzy strikes the final chord, Gently withdrawing her hands, stepping Away, as she admires her artistry When, all too suddenly, the music dies.
The One-Legged Man, August 11, 1863 On a torrid day in the summer of 1863, President Lincoln encountered a one-legged former slave who was begging on the dusty streets near the White House. According to Epstein, Lincoln stopped and wrote a check on the spot for $5. That amount would equal more than $100 in today’s currency. At this time, the city of Washington was swarming with soldiers on leave and refugees from the “slaveocracy” of the Confederate South. There was no federal policy for dealing with this influx of hungry, homeless, and disoriented persons into the nation’s capital.
To lose your nation, Your native tongue, your wife, Your little children, and everything Familiar — that is Tragedy enough.
Then to suffer the loss of a leg, Hobbling around Washington in wartime, Like a three-legged hound, grateful For scraps — that is insupportable.
So on Riggs Bank I draw a cheque For five American Dollars, payable To the “Bearer,” whom I emancipated Into a life almost as bad as slavery Contact Dan Guillory at dan1944@frontiernet.net.

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