By the time we got back to school, the period was almost over. And after we had put away our coats and gathered our books and made it to Ms. Medwin’s classroom, we barely had time to sit down and hear her say “Tomorrow, bring in some ideas for your poems,” when the bell rang, and all humanity was on the move, flowing into and down the hallways. The current separated me from Gil and Harriet, and I was once again alone, moving toward math class.
That night, at home, I took a closer look at Father’s copy of Spoon River Anthology in our sitting room/library. I read quite a few of the poems and was saddened by many of them. So many people with regrets, I thought, turning pages. It is a volume about lost love and prejudice and cruelty and misunderstandings and falseness and abandonment and dreams that died. But there were also amusing ones, as well, and poems about people who’d loved their lives—had loved the people in their lives. And great surprises … like this one.
I turned the page to poem number thirty-four and found this:
Percy Bysshe Shelley
My father who owned the wagon-shop
And grew rich shoeing horses
Sent me to the University of Montreal.
I learned nothing and returned home,
Roaming the fields with Bert Kessler,
Hunting quail and snipe.
At Thompson’s Lake the trigger of my gun
Caught in the side of the boat
And a great hole was shot through my heart.
Over me a fond father erected this marble shaft,
On which stands the figure of a woman
Carved by an Italian artist.
They say the ashes of my namesake
Were scattered near the pyramid of Caius Cestius[i]
Somewhere near Rome.
I was shocked. A Spoon River poem by a young man named Percy Bysshe Shelley, who, like his namesake, died young. In July 1822, Bysshe Shelley, who’d never learned how to swim, had drowned at sea in a storm in the Gulf of Spezia (part of the Mediterranean) when their small boat was apparently swamped by high waves. He left his wife, Mary, a widow for her remaining twenty-nine years. When he died, his age, oddly, was twenty-nine.
The Spoon River poem mentioned that Shelley’s ashes are buried near a pyramid in Rome. They are—in the Protestant Cemetery there. And I thought, reading this poem, about Mary, who in 1816 had begun writing about Victor Frankenstein and the monster he created. She’d had no idea at the time that another monster awaited her only a handful of years later, a monster that rose from the Gulf of Spezia and dragged her husband down to his death.
Here’s one of the more amusing ones—if, that is, you can find anything amusing about a death in the Civil War.
I was the first fruits of the battle of Missionary Ridge.
When I felt the bullet enter my heart
I wished I had staid at home and gone to jail
For stealing the hogs of Curl Trenary,
Instead of running away and joining the army.
Rather a thousand times the country jail
Than to lie under this marble figure with wings,
And this granite pedestal
Bearing the words, ”Pro Patria.”[ii]
What do they mean, anyway?
I decided I was going to try to mix emotions in my own poem, too—sadness, humor. For that’s what life is, isn’t it? A mixture? Every book I ever read—every good book—shows that mixture, that blend of wonder and horror that is a human life.