Wordsworth wrote an endless poem in blank verse on” the growth of a poet’s mind.” I shall attempt a more modest feat for a more distracted age: a blog, “Things which a Lifetime of Trying to Be a Poet has Taught Me.”
It is now 1980-81. I have finished my course work for the PhD at the University of Georgia and been admitted to candidacy; all that is left is the minor detail of finishing my dissertation. Meanwhile, I have been offered a job at UGA as full time Temporary Lecturer in Freshman English, just to make sure I don’t get too much work done on that dissertation. Meanwhile there were stories to be told, some historical, some fictional, and some personal (a sub-set of historical). The next poem is in the latter category.
On My Grandmother’s Father, His Wife,
Minnie Ellabella Huitt,
And a Tenuous Connection With Robert E. Lee
William Forney Lee had a long, white, drooping mustache
And a black string tie in the pictures in the drawer
At my grandmother’s house. She was all I knew of him,
The old photographs and the stories that she told:
How his father had been sick and couldn’t go to fight the Yankees,
And old Marse Robert had come down himself to see him
And give such comfort as could be for such a woe,
And left him a daguerreotype, a new-fangled picture
Of himself on Traveler, and written on the bottom
With his own hand, “To my favorite nephew.” That was all.
That was all! It was enough. To have such a contact
Was more than I have even yet begun to comprehend.
But was the story true? There wasn’t any need to doubt it.
Her very own eyes had seen the picture more than once,
And that was back when she could see as well as anyone.
Well, now she is as old, almost, as William Forney’s wife
Had been when I, a boy, barely able to remember,
Had been led up to the wheelchair where the tiny woman sat,
Her hair up in a bun, the whitest white I’d ever seen,
And someone shouted, “This is Vera Lee’s boy, your great grandson,”
And slowly her ancient hand had reached out to touch me.
There was an old country house with a long porch, and horses
At the far end of the pasture, and a calf in the barn,
And bird-dogs in a pen who jumped up to lick my fingers.
There were long tables spread in the yard beneath the oak tree.
The spiced tea was strange on my tongue–I wouldn’t drink it,
But there was chicken and dumplings and a giant birthday cake,
And water that you drank with a ladle from a bucket
That you cranked up creaking on a rope from the well.
It was all Great Grandma Lee, it was all the Birthday Dinner,
And it happened every year. When we came back again,
The horses and the bird-dogs were still there, but she was not.
Well, William Forney Lee had mouldered twenty years already,
And now twenty more have passed. The horses and the dogs
Have followed both their mistress and their master into dust.
The old house is gone; there is a new brick one now,
With all the modern plumbing, but it does not have a porch.
Only the old oak tree remains as a reminder,
And the pictures I the drawer, and the pictures in my mind.
“But where is the daguerrotype?” I ask, but get no answer.
“Oh surely it is somewhere in the family, but I can’t say
Exactly where. It’s been so long, there are so many branches.”
As many as the branches of the oak that was a sapling
When William Forney’s father took an unexpected present
From the kindest hand that ever held a sword. And I have touched
The wife of the son of the man who was that nephew of Marse Robert,
And oh, I wish that I had known, I wish that I had known!
Remember: for more poetry like this, go to https://lanternhollow.wordpress.com/store/ and order Stars Through the Clouds! Also look for Inklings of Reality and Reflections from Plato’s Cave, Williams’ newest books from Lantern Hollow Press: Evangelical essays in pursuit of Truth, Goodness, and Beauty.
Donald T. Williams, PhD