Thursday, June 05, 2014

`The Broken Conversation We Call Prayer'

In time for the seventieth anniversary of D-Day, the Allied invasion of Hitler’s Europe on June 6, 1944, The Sewanee Review devotes an issue to “War – That Devil’s Madness.” Every poem, essay and review addresses that theme, including Helen Pinkerton’s “The Old Poet: Margaret Preston Remembers,” described in a prose note as an “interior monologue” spoken by Preston to her dead husband. Preston was a poet, novelist and essayist, born in Pennsylvania in 1820. In 1848, she moved to Lexington, Va., when her father was named president of Washington College (later Washington and Lee). The Rev. George Junkin, her father, schooled her in Greek, Latin and Hebrew. In 1857 she married a professor of Latin at the Virginia Military Institute in Lexington, John T.L. Preston, a native Virginian. At the start of the Civil War, her father, a staunch unionist, returned to Pennsylvania. With her husband, a colonel in the Confederate army, Preston remained in Virginia. 

In Pinkerton’s poem, Preston mentions her stepson, William, who was killed at Second Manassas. Preston also speaks of “Thomas” – Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson – who also taught at VMI and whose first wife was Preston’s sister, Elinor Junkin, who died in childbirth. Jackson, of course, is one of the great martyrs of the Confederacy, shot by Confederate skirmishers on May 2, 1862, near Chancellorsville, Va. The sentries mistook Jackson and his staff for Union cavalry. The general was hit by three bullets, two in the left arm and one in the right hand. Doctors amputated the arm and Jackson died May 10 from pneumonia and complications of the field-hospital surgery. The message Gen. Robert E. Lee sent after Jackson’s arm was amputated has become holy writ for many Southerners: “Give him my affectionate regards, and tell him to make haste and get well, and come back to me as soon as he can. He has lost his left arm, but I have lost my right.” 

Preston continued writing into the late 1880s, when she became blind. Her husband died in 1890 and she followed in 1897. In her life is distilled the life of the divided nation, with her roots in the North and South, and so much death by war and otherwise. Pinkerton’s 116-line poem may be read as a continuation of “Crossing the Pedgregal,” the four Civil War-related dramatic monologues collected in Taken in Faith: Poems (2002). One of those poems, also titled “Crossing the Pedregal,” is also spoken by a woman left behind – Mary Custis Lee to her husband, Gen. Lee, in the final days of the war. In the poem, Preston is writing on July 21, 1891. Her final lines transcend American history and speak for all who are humanly frail: 

“When I was small I thought perhaps there was
A place of rest for us sometime, somewhere,
Where no one called and no one cried aloud.
I sometimes thought of death as offering that.
Your God is still my God and yet his Son,
Merciful and forgiving, now eludes me.
My sins are manifold. I feel myself
Exemplary of the seven and faith a state
I must remake each day, never a fixed
And steadfast thing like Thomas’s or yours.
As each sense fails, my consciousness narrows.
A deep fear comes and not a childhood dream.
I am not ready for my death. I fear
My fear’s betrayal of my long-held faith.
Nor is there anyone to comfort me,
Unless, in some form God shapes for our souls
I trust that you are here, that I am heard,
In the broken conversation we call prayer.” 

I suspect Helen has never written more moving lines than these. The depth of feeling is almost unbearable. I think of the lines she addressed to a late friend in “Coronach for Christopher Drummond”: 

“Whether Jonson's grieving prayers,
Or Milton's rich designs,
Or Melville's rugged verse,
Or Winters' densest lines, 

“Your mind knew the intent,
Your voice wakened the sound—
The sleeping beauty pent
In chambers underground.”
Also in the latest Sewanee Review are three poems by R.L. Barth from a sequence titled “The Battle of Dien Bien Phu.” Barth, one of the most industrious of poets, publishers and editors, is a Marine Corps veteran of Vietnam. Here is “A Radioman at HQ Overhears Gen. Cogny”: 

“`. . .Now, Castries, listen carefully:
Cease fire, but no white flags. You see?’ 

“And so, at last, it comes to this:
Honor reduced to pedantry.” 

[For more on Preston see Margaret Junkin Preston, Poet of the Confederacy: A Literary Life (University of South Carolina Press, 2007) by Stacey Jean Klein.]

1 comment:

Amanda McLoughlin said...

I have been a frequent reader of your blog for two years, but have not commented before. Thank you for publishing such thoughtful entries on such a regular basis. I sometimes save several and then dive in on a weekend morning with my coffee and a record on. I just had to let you know how precious your words are to me. Thanks x