It’s 7am…and 25 degrees (fahrenheit) in the Hudson valley as I’m driven to Croton-Harmon train station. I stand in the glass capsule in the middle of the platform that keeps the winter out and blows heat from the celling, providing much needed warmth for passengers waiting for the train to taxi then to Grand Central Station…and the one thought that continues to circulate my mind… “why do we not have these in Australia?” Ever been to Melbourne in July? Then you know what I’m on about.
It’s an hour smooth ride right along the Hudson River, which is completely frozen over. Past infamous Sing Sing prison (which I’m excited to set my eyes on, being the tourist that I am), but it’s not a lonely ride. Hundreds of commuters are on their way to work. (One evens offers me half his morning coffee that he’s just purchased, after I exclaimed that I didn’t have time to fill my Keep Cup this morning. I politely decline…not based on the fact he is a complete stranger…but that he’s opted for a full cream milk latte… and I am sadly one of those who must stick to the humble soy bean…did I mention I’m from Newtown?)
Grand Central Station is swimming with people as I step on to the platform and, after much confusion and circling back on myself, find my way to the platform which will take me to the place Edgar Allan Poe called home, Baltimore. It’s a full train this morning to Baltimore City, so I’m pleased I made the decision to pre-book. I intended on getting some more research done on my phone into Poe’s wonderful history with Baltimore…but I’ve set myself down next to a born and bred New Yorker, so conversation is inevitable. He talks mostly about his love for music, and the quintessential grunge band of the 90’s, Nirvana. Being a fan myself, I try to offer what little knowledge I can on their history, but he dumbfounds me with the bands turbulent history with Courtney Love, and how she gained exclusive rights to every song they every produced. A subtle dislike of Courtney Love has stayed with me ever since that train ride.
We pull into Baltimore City and I’m straight to the information desk. Time and money are limited. I have 5 hours in the city Poe called his birth place (he told very few he hailed from Boston) to explore the rich history he left behind. First on the agenda is Edgar Allan Poe’s statue out front of the Baltimore University of Law. Four police officers over hear me asking for directions to the University and, I assume after hearing my Aussie twang and noticing that I am traveling alone, ask me why I’m off to the Law department. I tell them I’m off to visit Mr Poe. “Why?” They inquire once more, “Because I love him.”
I find him easily. Siting on his throne, winter coat draped over the back, and covered in glistening white snow. I step up to him and say hello. Expecting a reply? Maybe? It is the first time I have ever encountered a life like, to scale image of Edgar, so naturally I’m a little more than excited to witness such a fine monument. I step onto the marble platform that holds him. It’s covered with snow, but the staff here are clearly taking care of him throughout the heavy winter. No snow covers his writing chair, head or shoulders. I inspect every part. His face, hair, the detail in his hands, then step back to read the inscription sitting at his feet….. “Edgar Allan Poe. 19 January 1809 – 7 October 1849. Dreaming Dreams No Mortal Ever Dared To Dream Before.” How appropriate….right outside the entrance to the University.
A long session of selfies follows. I am traveling alone, so my chances of a good photo with the man him self are somewhat limited. That is until I stop two uni students, who I assume are on their way to class, hand them my phone and ask if they will kindly take a photo for us. Politely they agree, laughing to themselves (at me) as they take them. They know I’m a tourist and why I want a picture with this man. I sit with him for a short while, then bid him farewell. There is another location of somewhat greater importance I need to make time for before 6pm.
The Baltimore public library. Being the Poe dork I am, I did a little research into what he left behind, literally, in Baltimore. The Library holds a lock of his hair and original letters written to and from him. You can only imagine my heartbreak when the library clerk tells me those artefacts are kept locked in a safe, and the only employee with the key has the day off. I gently ask (beg rather) her to inquire if there is a spare key floating about. She makes three phone calls for me…but to no avail. Looking back on it now, any sane person would have politely thanked her and left. In the most appealing manner I can manage, I ask her to call the employee with the key and ask him to come into work… “I’ll pay him”, I add. Surprisingly, she makes the call…not surprisingly, he refuses. I can’t hide my disappointment. She soothes me by informing me they have a board room upstairs called the Poe Room, filled with portraits and rear copies of his work. They don’t allow visitors to access the room….but she makes an exception. She unlocks the door for me and I step inside. It’s majestic. Polished oak skirting along the walls, and a gold-framed portrait of Edgar hanging above the fireplace. I spend as much time in here as I can spare. Time is getting away…and the location on the top of my list is a fair walk away.
I follow the little blue flashing circle on my iPhone down the snow-drenched streets of Baltimore City. My torso can hardly keep up with my feet. I encourage myself to take in the parks and monuments I pass. Baltimore is breathtaking. I pause to take a snap of a statue I later find out is the Lafayette Monument. But I can’t quell the desire in my belly propelling me toward the Westminster Church and Burial Ground. I cross another street and see the gothic arches straight ahead. Before I have time to ponder if I’m going in the right direction, and if the arches I see are the ones I’m looking for….I see it. White marble, like a beacon beckoning me. I loose my breath and begin to run…and the sobbing begins.
I reached the Westminster Church to find the Cemetery gates that surround it are locked. Heavy snow that time of year had made parks and burial grounds to dangerous to be walking around in. Standing behind those black gothic gates, face frozen and fingers numb, peering through them at Edgar Allan Poe’s grave. The first thought that penetrates my mind…this 8 foot high iron gate is not going to keep me from getting to that grave and paying my respects…I hadn’t come half way across the world to stare at his monument from behind a locked gate. So I start to climb, and hoist myself up and over the gate. I know that some caretaker will be here any moment to shoo me out of the yard, so I run as fast as I can to his monument. I’m 10 feet away when I suddenly slip over on a patch of black ice and land hard on my side. Completely winded, I pick myself up slowly, apologise to the deceased of who’s grave I’ve toppled onto, and now, more carefully hurry to the foot of Edgar Allan Poe’s grave. It’s surreal to say the least. This monument, which was erected for him in 1875, when they relocated his body from the other side of the graveyard, now towers over me. The marble is clean and glistening. The tears begin to flow as I drop my head back, look up into the sky and weep. I will never be able to describe the emotional and physical exhaustion I felt in that moment, and in trying to do so, would nowhere near do it justice. But I can tell you that standing in front of that grave was something I had wanted my whole life, and finally I was here. I wiped my face and had a chat with him, as I sat at the foot of his grave. White snow and red roses covered the ground around his monument. All year round people pass by here, say hello to him, and place roses in front of his grave. My heart rate finally slows, and I realise that no one is coming to kick me out of the yard. I’m alone with the Poe family: Eddy, Maria and Virginia, and I take my time to enjoy their company.
Time is still the enemy, and with two more stops to make, I bid Edgar Allan Poe a goodbye kiss to his portrait on the front of his monument, and head back to the gate….which yes…I have to try and climb back over to escape. Up I go, and as I reach the top, my right thigh gets strategically wedged between the pointed arrows at the top. I stop a moment, traffic whizzing by, trying to wriggle free. A Baltimore resident turns the corner, sees my dilemma and stops. “Hello”, I say, a little more than embarrassed I’m straddling an iron gate. Still staring, I wonder when he’s going to walk over and help me. “Nice”, he says with a big grin, giving me the thumbs up…then continuing on….leaving me firmly wedged atop the iron gate. Part of me is flattered he thinks I’m such a bad ass, but the larger part of me is frustrated he’s decided to leave me here…clearly in need of assistance. I decide to slowly slide done sideways and, ah yes, the leg follows and I’m finally free. A little sore, but free. After double-checking my phone, it confirms that the Poe Cottage on North Amity Street is in fact, closed for restorations. That leaves me with one more location to hit, The Annabel Lee Tavern. As I walk back past the monument, a young boy and girl are peering into the graveyard at it from behind the iron gates. “Just jump over”, I say with a grin, “No one’s going to stop you.” They laugh and shake their head’s, “We’ve been here before. We’ll come back when it’s open.” We chat away briefly about Poe, as I’m searching on my phone for directions to the tavern. “Well, we’re off to the Annabel Lee Tavern now.” I almost drop my phone. “Are you serious?” They sense my astonishment. “Want to come?” They laugh. I’m still dumbfounded as I explain that’s where I’m headed. I jump in their car, and we drive for 20 minutes before hitting 601 S Clinton street…and there sits the stunning Annabel Lee. The outside is painted with Raven’s and a more than appropriate Poe quote, which reads, “I Am Drinking Ale Today.” Stepping inside, it’s a treasure trove of Poe portraits and Raven inspired beers. The precious 15 minutes I have left are spent drinking a Tell Tale Ale and chatting away to my new found Poe friends, Tara and David. But sadly, the Uber must be ordered if I’m going to make it to Baltimore station in time to catch my returning train to New York City.
Sadly, my train pulls away from Baltimore Station, and as I sit in the carriage looking out at the beautiful city it is, I’m exhausted, but very content…and it’s not long before a new Yorker strikes up some conversation with me…this time about Dogs and living in Long Island.
I made a promise to Edgar Allan Poe that day that I would dedicate a significant portion of my life to keeping his memory alive. To find a way of sharing his life story, his stories, his poems, with people on the other side of the world. I want people to admire Poe for his work, and how hard it was for him to accomplish the things he did. The first American writer who attempted to make a living solely from writing. For me, it’s such an injustice to him when you mention his name, and people say “oh yeah, the Raven guy?” He wrote reviews, essays, created the detective fiction genre, and achieved all this with next to no financial aid. People are always amazed when I tell them how tough he had it…but that he never gave in to go work in finance, or a factory where he could have made a decent wage for himself. For me, he is the poster boy for the struggling artist. He set the bar. And I thank him for that.
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Hannah Raven Smith
Curator of Edgar Allan Poe Australia and Artistic Director of Poe Productions Australia.