A Singular Island: Poe and the Darkness
What does Edgar Allan Poe mean to you? On March 3, actor John Astin is scheduled to perform at the writer's grave at Westminster Church as a fundraiser for the Poe House. Here, writer Terin Miller gives a glimpse at Poe's influence in his life.
Editor's Note: Actor John Astin is scheduled to deliver dramatic readings of Edgar Allan Poe's writings at 7 p.m. on March 3 at the writer's grave at Westminster Church, 519 W. Fayette Street. The event will raise money for the Poe House.
By Terin Miller
When I think of Edgar Allan Poe, I think of darkness. Not a bad darkness, but the darkness of men’s souls and thoughts.
I’ve always shared Poe’s interest in that realm, where many of man’s basest desires lurk. And I admire his ability to show civilization as a veneer, the shiny outer shell with which we present ourselves to the world—as opposed to the place where Poe knows our stories truly lie.
I was introduced to Poe by my older brother Erik, who seemingly overnight became a Vincent Price and Christopher Lee fan and turned his bedroom into homage to all things haunted.
It was about the same time that he developed an interest in aquariums, and filled his first large tank with fish and some tiny frogs that apparently didn’t like each other. One afternoon, I was invited into this inner sanctum.
“Help me find that small frog I brought home yesterday.”
“What does it look like?”
“Well, about this big”—about as big as the distance between the tip of a finger and that finger’s first knuckle—“and slimy.”
I’m sure my brother inducted me into his search because he had a problem with “slimy” and I didn’t. I was the one who baited our fish hooks in the early days when we’d go to the lake with our bent pins and cane poles and thread in search of perch and “sunnies.”
I found the missing frog. That is to say, more correctly, I found its dried out and mummified cadaver.
“Is this it?”
“Yes! Cool. Look at it!”
I held it in the palm of my hand. It had all the appearance of a toy, or a bug, or a piece of candy. Except it had four legs, splayed like it had been trying to ward something off…
So I can’t think of Poe, or the darkness of men’s souls, without thinking of my brother.
My brother was a very shy boy, all of his life overweight and insecure. He tried to cover it with a sort of swagger, and a knowing smile that suggested he had a lot going on inside his head that only he could hear or ever would care to listen to.
He was into something he termed “dramatic oratory.” The whole extent of his artistry amounted to writing stories that he would then read into a tape recorder. He wrote one amazing story about essentially a lost boy, much in the vein of Poe.
He “played” the assignment for me, letting me read the script as the tape ran. I was truly impressed, but his 12th grade teachers were not. I’m not even sure they were as negative as he took it to be – my brother was extraordinarily shy and had a habit of interpreting even constructive criticism negatively.
Away went the tape recorder and the story. He took down all the Poe and Price and Lee things in his room except the aquarium. And refused to discuss it until the day he died.
(They’re all dead now—Erik, my parents, my sister; everyone but me. They didn’t intervene or try to give him insight. I don’t think he shared his sense of failure with them. He often avoided things he thought would increase his sense of failure. I never really had a chance to tell my brother much about my feelings. Same with my sister. I was too busy trying not to hurt their feelings.
So, when I think of Poe, and my brother—and Erik definitely had that slight tone of bemusement perfected by Vincent Price—I think of darkness locked inside. Poe’s darkness was born of loss: his parents died when he was a baby; his beloved foster mother, Frances Allan, died 183 years ago on Tuesday. His first wife, who was also his cousin, died after 12 years of marriage.
But I also think of the courage and talent Poe had to shatter the veneer of civilization with his seemingly civilized characters, exposing darkness to light.
One day I found myself having to spend the night in a church on a sparsely populated, overgrown island that once had been covered with slave-owning rice and sugar plantations, and I thought of Poe.
I thought of his short story, “The Gold Bug,” which had enough mystery and madness in it for me to see Poe as uniquely American and brilliant.
An excerpt: “This island is a very singular one,” he notes in the first two paragraphs, describing the island off Charleston, S.C. “It consists of little else than the sea sand, and is about three miles long. Its breadth at no point exceeds a quarter of a mile.
“It is separated from the mainland by a scarcely perceptible creek, oozing its way through a wilderness of reeds and slime, a favorite resort of the marsh hen. The vegetation, as might be supposed, is sand, or at least dwarfish. No trees of any magnitude are to be seen.
“Near the western extremity, where Fort Moultrie stands, and where are some miserable frame buildings, tenanted, during summer, by the fugitives from Charleston dust and fever, may be found, indeed, the bristly Palmetto…The shrub here often attains the height of fifteen or twenty feet, and forms an almost impenetrable coppice, burdening the air with its fragrance….”
I thought of “The Gold Bug” because the island on which I was to bivouac overnight was Daufuskie. It lies off the coast of South Carolina and Georgia, just off the delta of the Savannah River. And dark - every bit as dark as Poe’s Sullivan Island where a gentleman he ran into had acquired a most peculiar bug. If the creature bites, madness ensues.
Poe starts the story with this epigraph in which is contained the crux of the story:
“What ho! What ho! This fellow is dancing mad! He hath been bitten by the Tarantula. All in the wrong.”
Daufuskie Island, like the Sea Islands of Georgia, was occupied mostly by freed slaves following the American Civil War.
In semi-isolation, former slaves, many of whom were brought from West Africa, developed their own culture, and even their own language, living off the land by farming, catching shrimp, crabbing, and hunting alligator and crocodile when necessary. The plantations—some there since before the Revolutionary War—were abandoned, and quickly became overgrown by Palmetto trees, ferns and jungle-like foliage.
By the time I spent the night in the island’s one-room, African Methodist Episcopalian church, the streets were still dirt paths cut into the foliage by government road graders. They turned to mud in a rain, and survived under a canopy in the sun and heat by virtue of shade, which, even on a night of the brightest full moon, hid the sky and the promise of heaven.
Vehicles had to be brought to the island by barge, thus there were few vehicles. Most of locals walked everywhere. Some had rarely, if ever, been off the island their entire lives.
Into that environment I and a photographer descended to interview long-time residents about the pressures of development occurring everywhere around them on a once undisturbed island. Working hard, we missed the last ferry back to Hilton Head.
Near the church, a group of youths, who seemed unhappy and unimpressed with what we were doing, quickly circled us. I had rarely felt threatened as a reporter, and even more rarely by people who resented an outsider’s interest in their plight. Their intention was clearly not to discuss our story, or our political views.
One of them approached the photographer who continued taking pictures. Darkness dropped across the island like a black cloth over a birdcage, I stepped between the photog and the approaching young man and said: “Leave him alone. He’s just doing his job.”
Moments later, a minister checking up on his church disrupted the encirclement – calling the names of characters who’d surrounded us and telling them not unkindly to return to their parents and families, where they belonged; to leave the reporters alone.
It was the minister who opened the church and offered its pews—the ones closest to the front, under a few individual light bulbs strung with wire—for our rest that night. And it was the minister who protected us by staying through the night.
That night, and that incident, reminded me of the first time I’d felt so threatened for doing my job, which essentially consisted of talking to people and trying to tell their stories, in their way, to others unaware of even their existence.
I was reminded of a bright, slightly cloudy afternoon in a park in Chicago. My best friend and I had been given rides there by the Englewood branch of Vietnam Veterans Against the War from our apartment in Madison, Wis.
The VVAW had a “store-front,” a small office where they provided counseling and other outreach to veterans in the neighborhood. Englewood had been virtually abandoned by white residents, and appeared in its own way as insular and undisturbed as Daufuskie.
My friend—Thomas J. Schmidt, who would go on to write The National Geographic Guide to the Lewis & Clark Trail—had wanted to cover the event there for the local radio station. I tagged along out of curiosity. Both of us were still college students, covering the event though no one had assigned us to do so.
The park was Market Park. The event was a Neo-Nazi rally that had been given permission to be held in the park provided they did not march in the nearby heavily Jewish populated suburb of Skokie, Ill.
My friend and I managed to by-pass two heavily armed police cordons to make our way to where the rally was actually being held. The police were there ostensibly to prevent a riot. To their distaste, they were essentially there to prevent the larger number of anti-Nazi protesters from killing the small band of Nazi-uniform wearing, white supremacists who’d been granted a permit for the rally.
As the Nazi leaders ranted and raved, a crowd of Jewish protesters blew ram’s horns and tried to drown the hate coming from those atop a truck flatbed via a very old public address system. My friend and I made it almost as far as the ram’s horn blower, when the crowd surged left and we saw several white supremacists chasing a black teenager near a small river.
The young man appeared to be running for his life, his big over-alls hanging by one strap, the other apparently broken, as he stumbled.
I turned to say something to my friend but he was no longer next to me. I looked back at the wave of kickers and stompers approaching the poor young man and—standing over him, facing the oncoming crowd, was my friend, having just removed one or two people who’d jumped onto the black teenager.
Without thinking, I found myself standing next to my friend, shielding the young man, who was trying to get to his feet and breath and rest and continue running all at the same time.
My buddy and I stood back to back, giving the teen-ager room to run. As the angry crowd closed in on us, it suddenly stopped and surged in a different direction, away from the black kid who was now running free.
This time, a crowd descended on an undercover police officer, who was intending to catch a white supremacist whom he had just cuffed. When the officer fell we now found ourselves protecting the cop. The crowd surged away again, this time going after a Neo-Nazi who, in full uniform, had been driven into the river and was climbing out with help.
What I thought recalling the incident so many years later in the A.M.E. Church on Daufuskie Island was friendship, human passions, the darkness. And Poe.
I now have a son named Jordan, always a cheerful boy since the days of smiling and laughing in his crib. When he was barely walking, he toddled to our large bookshelf in the living room and pointed to the spines of a two volume of “The Borzoi Poe,” illustrations by E. McKnight Kauffer.
Jordan had already said his first words by then, and was now starting to imitate sounds that clearly were intended to be language. I pointed to the same spot he was pointing and said: “E-D-G-A-R.”
[Perhaps he wanted to know what the strange gold lines on the books stood for.]
He asked: “E-Dee-Jay-A-Ah?”
“Yes,” I said. “E-D-G-A-R.”
“Eeeee-Deee-Geeee-Ay-Ah!,” he shouted at the top of his little voice. “Eeeee-Deee-Geee-Ay-Ah! Eeee-Deeee-Geee-Ay-Ah! Eeeee-Deee-Geee-Ay-Ah!”
I hope someday that he reads the stories; that he recognizes and perhaps admires the lens through which Poe helped people see one another and themselves.
What does Poe mean to me?
He is the conscience that speaks to us in the silence.
The laughing older brother who truly does know what you’re thinking, and is slightly amused by it.