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Man of Three Cities
by Burgess Needle

What caused your face to break
your social mask in two?
Couldn't you have just killed
John Allan when he kept you from Jane's grave?
Was southern composure shattered
when you discovered her father
had burned all your letters?
Or, was it with that sudden chill at the Point
when that man stopped your stipend
and you had to burn your desk for warmth?
The cadets applauded your verse:
were those few lines of doggerel
the hairline crack that defined
the edge of composure's demise?
When did that mustache appear? After Tamerlane?
Perhaps, after the petal tide of fame that swept you away.
Mad in ecstasy, you scribbled, as the mind
behind your damp, gray eyes rested
upon sweet laudanum's easy release.
A swirl of dark feathers circled above.
Drunkard! Some cried.
What did they know of torment
or wild anguish as you saw
not Annabel but the real Virginia cough
blood up and away?
Your mind so sharp it swallowed every code,
and chewed it up like a gold bug on a geometric leaf;
but parallel to every equation
arose some ghastly spectre.
From stage to podium, even though
your southern lilt held
them, every dream returned
you to a small, bricked-in square
or within the confines of a wooden box
where loose earth fell from above.
Shovel after shovel your heart beat
hidden away, thumping like thunder
in a hidden place only one could hear.
All those years, Aunt Maria's cabin was
your retreat, until love's white-faced grief
and though Mrs. Clemm calmed
the rage and sadness, nothing slowed creation.
You said,
“No man lives unless he is famous!”
And so you did become,
except for the dismissive elders.
What did one call you? The jingle man!
News came of Sarah's release
and your heart fluttered as if
back in the South. Would she reply?
Born in Boston, bred in Richmond, how
would you know death waited in Baltimore?
Yes, she said, yes, and you went
but they later found you dressed
the same way you'd imagined
an inside-out world of terror --
in someone else's clothes, with a mystery-man's
name on your death bed:
Reynolds! Reynolds! You cried
as poor Sarah paced and waited.
Would she ever see her dear Eddie's
forlorn smile again?


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