Saturday, May 30, 2009

The Letter

This poem is occasioned by the discovery in an old stagecoach stop of an unopened letter from Mrs. Mary C. Mann to Mrs. William B. Taliaferro, wife of Confederate General William B. Taliaferro, written October 18, 1862.

The letter is property of my father, amateur Civil War historian, who traded an outboard motor for the find. It is now in the hands of a preservationist at the University of Virginia, but its fate rests on Dad’s decision either to donate to the College of William and Mary, where Taliaferro’s papers rest, or to hoard his find. Time will tell.

The details in the first two stanzas are gleaned from the letter. The commentary of the last two stanzas is mine. While I revile Mrs. Mann’s venomous sentiments regarding the North and Mr. Lincoln’s Proclamation, I sympathize with all women who have worried for their men and lived their lives helpless of the forces that make the rules. As human, we must try to understand those whose ideas are not our own.

The Letter

A clock ticks minutes, days,

Generations, centuries, more…

Behind the mantel, lodged within a crack,

A missive waits in silent, sad dismay,

While Pippins, those not fallen and decayed,

Make flat array on proffered china plate,

And garden gay with flowers not yet nipped,

Soft Dahlia and Verbena, ever bloom

And ward away the threat of early frost

Forever in the peace that holds off Doom.

The little ones stay well, the doctor ill;

The neighbor’s youngest daughter still is gone.

Your son remains enthralled by soldier’s turn;

The servants settled, yet you feel alone.

Your husband’s horse once more from you bespoke;

Your visit to the city unfulfilled,

Your thoughts on Proclamation, “vile, extreme,”

Disdain and fear of changes here revealed.

Oh, lady, have you wondered all of time

That words of honeyed warm Virginia Tide

Should fall on ears turned deaf to soft, sweet sounds

And bring no answering measure to your side?

Have you long feared for horrors of the march,

Stampedes of dreadful, frightful things to come?

Would you have been at peace if you had known

That brothers here once more would be as one?

Your genteel letter sent with faith and hope

To silence anxious hearts and fears allay

Was lost to chance behind a piece of wood

And holds your heart in stasis here today.

Go softly to your rest with this sweet thought:

That one who reads the words that went astray,

Long years beyond your joys and fears and love,

Feels these as you, a time and tide away.


  1. What a decision for your dad to make! Maybe he could prevail upon them to give him an outboard motor in return! Fascinating post, though. Interestingly, I thought that so far as the poem was concerned, the last two verses were clearly superior to the opening two. Unfettered you, I suppose.

  2. Imagine writing such a letter and wondering why the response never came! I love your opening quote...and I love love love your commentary stanza, it gave me chills and a wave of sadness. Very wonderful Karen. And what an amazing thing to find, my god.

  3. Such a classic feel to this poem! It has an Elizabethan feel to it, for me. Or maybe even Henry VIII.

  4. Oh, wow! How very interesting! And, yes, what a decision your dad must make. It's something how we live in this age of technology and it is the handwritten letter of long ago that stops us in our tracks. Did you see where a letter written by Abe Lincoln was found recently? It caused much excitement!

    The whole poem is fantastic, but it is that last heartfelt stanza that puts a lump in my throat. Stunning the way you created this poem from the letter. Another shining example of your creative mind!

  5. Go softly to your rest with this sweet thought:
    That one who reads the words that went astray,
    Long years beyond your joys and fears and love,
    Feels these as you, a time and tide away.
    This poem is wonderful. The kind of empathy present to create these lines wins my vote

  6. {{{Karen}}}
    Write 23 more as good as this and publish!

    Revile if you will but also understand that the meaning of the Proclamation came just as feared, in the march through Georgia and the inhumanity and cruelty visited not only on the soldiers but the countryside and the civilians in it. When Lincoln issued the Proclomation it was a prediction that if true killed a culture, and surely many, many people. The fear in this was beyond bearing. The Civil War was not a kind war. It was vicious and criminal by today's standards, but that because no one understood the magnitude of the mayhem that would happen. The South did not want to take the North. It just wanted to secede. The North to win had to take the South.

    The Civil War was the first modern war and the old ways were outmoded, with the new ways not yet understood. Thus the losses on both sides were far beyond what they might have been due to ignorance. Still when the North went into the South, they drove old Dixie down like a steam driven pile driver. As ever, there was a strange blindness to the alternatives and criminal cruelty ruled the day.

  7. Now whenever I come across the term 'Rich-Text', I'll think of this Karen.

    Your commentary stanza stanza was a classic and it did justice to what Mrs. Mary would have been feeling when she wrote this.

  8. Karen, How sad that Mrs. M never got a reply to this. she must have died wondering why.
    i cannot tell you how beautiful the commentary stanza was.
    as aniket says, deliciously rich.

  9. I absolutely love how you have taken to heart this letter that your father possesses. I find your use of not yet nipped buds so appropriate for the metaphor of lives cut down so young. The way you bring to life a realistic scene in the second verse, the turn in the third where you seek to find answers to what the writer thought and your final effort to console one already gone..."Go softly to your rest". Wonderful work!


  10. "Would you have been at peace if you had known
    That brothers here once more would be as one?"

    It is when the struggle, the fight, the victory, creates more division, more misunderstanding than resolve, that we question the futility of loss and gain. You captured and responded to this enigma and so awaken question and quest. Applause!

  11. Dave - I love the suggestion about the outboard! I can just see the faces of the university fellows when Dad asks for an outboard motor in exchange! :-) Thanks for the comment on the last two stanzas. I think you're right about the shift and the reason for it. The first two were a little stilted, reflecting both those times and the letter writer. Thanks, Dave, for your comments.

    Cat - Unopened - can you imagine? She must have wondered why she never heard back. Such a difficult time in our history, and especially so for the women left behind to manage the home and try to pretend that life was normal. Thanks for your comments.

    Rachel - Thanks for that. The subject dictated that feel.

    K - I'd love for you to see the handwritten version. The writing itself is lovely, spidery with many flourishes. The subject matter is so domestic yet it is overshadowed with worries about the effects of emancipation and the "Yankee masters." I think Dad will donate it, and I hope he does. It needs to be with the rest.

    Linda - Thank you. It's hard not to feel that empathy, I think.

    Christopher - Believe me, I know a bit about the Civil War! I say that as one whose father is a Civil War buff who can and will recite the most intricate details of causes, battles, alliances, misalliances, effects, etc., at the drop of a hat or the mention of Stonewall Jackson. Actually, Dad's great-grandfather was wounded and died during the Civil War. He was a Confederate soldier. Dad' great-grandmother was pregnant with my dad's grandfather at the time. Thank you for your comments. I know you are absolutely right about the effects this war had on the country. Puts Mrs. Mann's comments into their proper perspective.

  12. Ani - Thank you so much! I'm beaming!

    LGL - Ditto to Aniket response!

    Kat - Thank you for your comments on the moods and turns of the poem. Thanks, too, for your good eye edit of this one. I owe you for saving me a good deal of embarrassment! xoxo!!

    Rose Marie - As Christopher said, this war was brutal and divisive. Thankfully, it was the last war fought on our soil. I hope it remains so. Thank you for your comments. I'm so glad to get to know you this way!

    laughingwolf - Thank you. I'm glad you liked it, and I'm glad you're back after being gone for a while. I missed you!

  13. marvelous poem with grand historic undertone carrying a melody of personal angst that is torn from its own temporal context and vaulted into the present.....

    the War of Northern Aggression; the Civil War, rich in meanings that resonate to this day so long a time later, haunt our American psyche like a spectre refusing to recede into antiquities tomb.....

    have we not been all forever scarred by Stars and Bars run through the heart by a Yankee Bayonet?

  14. Ghost - Thank you for your most insightful comments and for the link to a really cool song that I didn't know! It relates to my personal history (see my comment to Christopher above) in the "big belly" line.

    I love the ending:
    "But oh my love, though our bodies may be parted
    Though our skin may not touch skin
    Look for me with the sun-bright sparrow
    I will come on the breath of the wind"

    Really, really pretty.

  15. it's interesting looking back in time through another's eyes; thanks for sharing that touchstone.

  16. Jana - We just crossed in Cyberspace! Thanks for coming and commenting.

  17. What a great story, easily the germ of a novel but boiled down here to a few verses. I'm afraid if I was your dad I'd be giving the archive a photocopy just to relieve my conscience about withholding historical evidence, and keeping the actual physical thing, feel and smell of old paper, look of old handwriting, history to hold in my own two hands, until I died, and then maybe I'd give it away.

  18. Mairi - I wish I could create a novel, but I don't have it in me. I don't have the hunger for it at all. I wonder what Dad will decide. At 85, he may need to make a decision! His mother, though, lived to be 102 and his great-aunt to be 103, so he may have some time. :-)

  19. Correction, Mairi, not his great-aunt, mine. She was his aunt.

  20. You mentioned a site called Breathing Poetry somewhere in the past couple of days and I checked it out. What a beautiful site. Thanks for the introduction.
    Why would you write a novel when you've managed to say what needs to be said in a poem?

  21. This is marvellous, Karen, from the details on the lost letter, through your Dad's dilemma, to your beautiful, beautiful verse.
    Your words fill my soul with the pleasure of your exquisite poetry.

  22. Karen, this is excellent and tugs at my heart. You capture the feelings with so many beautiful details. It tells the side of war that many people don't think about--those who are left to wait.

    My grandfather was an old man when I was born. His grandfather (or maybe great grandfather?) was in the war. He left a journal with his thoughts written in battle. They were poor and from the mountains of NC and had never seen an African American or a slave. He was opposed to slavery but was forced to go to war. A lot of people think Southerners were all down here with plantations. That's like saying the average American now lives the life of Donald Trump. The average person was far removed from that awful system and just trying to survive. I wish I had the journal now.

    Sorry...I always hog too much space!!! Wonderful poem, Karen. It deserves to be passed down. Maybe you could donate it with the letter? Or give it to your children. It is excellent.

  23. Vesper - Thank you. First, I'm pleased that you take pleasure in this; second, I'm grateful for your kindness.

    Julie - It was probably your grandfather's great-grandfather, since it was my father's great-grandfather, and as well as I can figure, that about fits our ages. I certainly understand what you mean about the poor mountain people fighting in a war of necessity. I am sure it was the case with my dad's great-grandfather. They were farmers from Wise County, Virginia, and they had no "help" other than their own hands.

    You should try to find that journal. That would be worth its weight in gold!

    Thanks for your comments. You have really added to the discussion. I am sure that some of the folks from other countries who read here don't know a lot about the war between the states.

    Hope you had a good time row, row, rowing your boat!

  24. JJ- Go up to Ghost Dansing's comment and follow the link to the Decemberists song. I had to google the lyrics, but it's really cool.

  25. Thank you dear Karen for all you give and so graciously receive. Indeed a poet's pulse.