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This is my entry this week for therealljidol. I invite you to read and vote for the many fine entries. This week's topic is "Open Topic," meaning we can write about anything

Loose bricks wobble under me as I perch in a basement alcove in Edgar Allan Poe's home on Spring Garden Street, Philadelphia. Afternoon light slants through the small window. This sparse, unfinished basement has an unwholesome air about it.

"Smile," my friend Connie tells me, and I look at the camera. We are shooting a project for her photography class. The assignment: an environmental portrait illustrating the profession of the subject (writer and poet). Shooting at the Edgar Allan Poe house was my idea; the alcove was hers.

Later, when the film is developed, a red and yellow aura surrounds me. Practical Connie, 20 years my senior, insists the streaks came from the window light.

Aura Surrounds Me
A red and yellow aura surrounds me as I clutch papers
thoughtfully in an alcove in the basement
of the Edgar Allan Poe House in Philadelphia.

Red and Yellow Follows Me
A red and yellow streak is to the left of my face
as I look up from writing on some paper.

Red Streak by My Face
A red streak is to my right as I touch
a pen thoughtfully to my face.

From two floors up, his wife's labored breathing haunted Edgar. She had retired early, to lie on a hard bed and stare out the window until sleep overcame her.

On a pretense of gathering flour for his mother-in-law, he had retreated to the basement. But he ignored the shelves lined with dwindling supplies. Instead, he stuck his hand into the alcove formed by the half-undone false chimney. He seized a black bag and pulled from it a flask.

As he drank, he noted how the bricks had been pulled down from the false wall, as if someone had broken into it with haste. Since he rented this rowhouse, he had no idea of its history, but he imagined the false receptacle had once housed macabre secrets.

A second swig. Upstairs a cough. He turned his gaze towards the stairs, listening for her voice. If she should call, he could be at her side in seconds. Nothing more. He walked slowly towards the afternoon light slanting in the window. Gazing out, he let the dark thoughts grow. As long as he could expel them through writing, he could render them all safe.

With a last swig, he crossed to return his secret to its tomb. In the gloom, he thought he saw the outline of a figure, sitting in the alcove. "Hello?" he spoke. Nothing.

Something brushed his leg, and he dropped the metal flask with a clank. The creature offered a plaintive mew. It was only his tortoiseshell cat, Cattarina.

Connie and I take photos in nearly every room. She is enamored of the life-sized canvas prints, with their two-dimensional furniture, designed to show how the house might have been used. Again and again, Connie poses me in front of these facades: pretending to write at a secretary, or reading in front of a false fireplace. I am fascinated, instead, by the bones of this house: empty and exposed, the peeling paint and pocked plaster speaks to me.

In Poe's study, I am overcome with grief. Connie chats happily as she sets up the camera. I interrupt: "It feels so sad up here."

"Because he's gone?" she asks.

Even if he had not died young, Poe would be long gone. "No," I say. "I don't know why."

"Well, smile anyway," she says. The window looks out on a straggly, dark tree, but I sit in front of the life-sized canvas print of Poe's desk. You can see the sadness in my eyes.

Me and Edgar
Me in front of the canvas depicting
Poe's writing desk, and his cat, Cattarina.

Elsewhere in the house, I pose before a life-sized canvas print depicting a table with some fruit. In the second such photo, I am in focus, but the table is blurred as if being yanked sideways (if such a phenomenon happened, neither of us saw). The following frames show only the blurred table. Connie offers no explanation.

Portrait in Poe's Study
I am lit with soft natural light from the window just out of frame.
To my right is a life-sized still-life of a desk
with fruit and a water pitcher.

Ghostly Streak
An unexplained streaking blurs the still-life next to me, but I am still in focus.

Unknown Streak
The table is a blurred streak; I am not in the photo. Camera error?

A streak fills the left side of the frame.
At the right is a pitcher and then a ragged, inky triangle.
This was also the end of the roll.

In his study, Edgar put pen to paper, but the words failed to come. He was aware, always, of his wife's labored breathing from the next room. The doctors had given him no explanation for her lingering illness but no hope, either. She'd alternately recovered and relapsed since two years ago, when she'd ruptured a blood vessel while singing. If he could only earn enough, he could increase her comfort.

Perhaps it had been a mistake to leave the editorship at Graham's to write full-time. Yet, now he was free to assist his mother-in-law with Virginia's care. On her best days, Virginia was the graceful bird he'd loved since she was a girl. On her worst, her pallor aged her decades beyond her scant years.

As he let the darkness in, he gazed at the young tree outside his window, the crown just now topping the windowsill. With a start, he saw a figure sitting near his desk, facing away, and for a moment, the walls seemed to flake and crumble. His wife's snoring grew louder and more sonorous to his confused ears, and he shook his head wildly from side to side until the phantom disappeared.

Among our last photos, we walk out to the lawn, where a statue of a raven stands on a pedestal. I feel as if a cloud has lifted, and I joke with Connie that she ought to examine these photos later for any ghosts. At my suggestion, she frames a shot so that the shadow of the raven statue lurks over my shoulder. In the bright late-afternoon sun, I can barely open my eyes. In the one shot where I succeed, my eyes look almost manic. This shot was Connie's favorite.

Alyce and the Raven
The shadow of a raven statue, on a brick wall, lurks over my shoulder.
I wear a black and teal velvet shawl.

Edgar walked outside to clear his head in the late afternoon air. Horses and carriages shuffled by at the southern tip of the lawn. Wearing black, he imagined he must be a shadowy figure, behind the tree and the ever-lengthening grass. He filled his lungs with the chilly spring air; a bouquet of cherry blossom and pollen and damp earth.

Was that a cry from the second story? He whipped around to glance at Virginia's window, his every nerve tuned for any small noise. No more. He let his gaze trail slowly down from the window, over the plain brick, and gasped. On the wall, he saw the shadow of a great black bird, where the young tree could not possibly have thrown it. He turned to look at the tree and found himself staring into the sun; if there was a bird there, he could not see. Turning back to the wall, he saw nothing but brick.

His mind was made up: he would pack up all their belongings and seek better fortunes for them all in New York. Perhaps, he could escape his demons and find, instead, some small heaven.

Edgar Allan Poe wrote many classic stories in Philadelphia, including "The Black Cat" and "The Fall of the House of Usher." It's difficult to tell exactly which home he was living in at the time, since he rented at least five different homes in his six years in the city. The Spring Garden home was his last Philadelphia residence and is the only one that remains. While "The Raven" was published shortly after his arrival in New York, many believe it was written in Philadelphia.

Sadly, Poe's wife died in 1847, just three years after leaving Philadelphia, and his quest for a literary backer never came to fruition. He died in 1849, on his way to meet with a would-be angel.


Edgar Allan Poe in Philadelphia

A review of the Poe house tour (with a photo of the home)

A short biography of Edgar Allan Poe

All photos are by Connie Komm and have been unaltered except for being scanned into the computer. You can click on each photo to see a larger version.

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( 28 comments — Leave a comment )
Mar. 27th, 2012 12:57 am (UTC)
I LOVE Poe! He's my literary hero, and I carried a collection of his work around with me everywhere in middle school, and a while ago my husband got me a complete collection, with stories I'd never heard of and the poem Alone (which gets left out of a lot of collections for some reasons) and I hugged it all night, because.

So of course I love this post. Although the beautiful pictures (you're very pretty) and the excellent writing and haunting atmosphere don't hurt either. :)

The pictures are so interesting, with the colors and streaks.
Mar. 27th, 2012 01:05 am (UTC)
Yay! I'm so glad you like it. I devoured Poe's writings after we first read a handful of stories in high school. I'll never forget one particularly troublesome afternoon dream about floating in corpse-infested seas, when I fell asleep while reading "Msg. in a Bottle."

A couple years ago I was on a panel about Poe's poetry at Philcon, the Philadelphia area SF convention. Not until I actually analyzed his poetry did I realize how skillful he was in his use of poetic techniques to underscore the story.

That said, it's sort of amazing that I've lived in this area 12 years (longer than I lived anywhere else, aside from my hometown) and had not yet gone to the house.

Thanks for the compliments, too, on how I look. I'm still carting around 50 pounds of pregnancy weight, so I'm sort of hypercritical lately.
Mar. 29th, 2012 03:07 am (UTC)
Oooh, I like that story. Which one is your favorite? Mine is Hop-Frog.

That panel sounds awesome. I definitely want to read more about your analysis of his stuff.

Check out this icon I found! :)
Mar. 27th, 2012 05:27 pm (UTC)
Yikes. That must have been very spooky.

I love the way you've framed this, with the story about Poe mixed in with your trip to the house and the photographs. :)
Mar. 27th, 2012 07:35 pm (UTC)
Thank you! Noises really carry in that house, which make me think it helped inspire such pieces as "The Fall of the House of Usher" and "The Tell-tale Heart."

I'm glad you liked the framing of it. I was trying to do a "Julie & Julia" sort of piece, where I talked about my modern-day experiences and then talked about historical aspects of Poe's life. I liked the idea that something from the present would bleed back to the past and appear to be ghosts to him.
Mar. 28th, 2012 06:10 am (UTC)
You're welcome! Spooky houses are a definite benefit to creepiness, IMO. :)

I liked that, too. It made it seem very interconnected. :)
(Deleted comment)
Mar. 27th, 2012 07:36 pm (UTC)
Thank you! You say the raven statue, but it's actually only the shadow visible in the photo. It turned out really well. I'm glad she didn't take my further suggestion for doing it as a low-angle shot, because that wouldn't have been as flattering.
Mar. 27th, 2012 07:07 pm (UTC)
I liked this entry a lot!

Your use of photos was great. :)
Mar. 27th, 2012 07:38 pm (UTC)
Thank you very much. The photos were the real inspiration for this piece, although I considered working it into my entry from two weeks ago and decided it didn't fit at all.
Mar. 28th, 2012 12:31 am (UTC)
Wow. Those are some pictures! You told a great story using them.
Who's to say there were not ghosts or spirits there messing with the results. It sounds like you were really sensitive to the feelings left behind in the home, too. Enjoyed the history part, learned something new about Poe.
Mar. 28th, 2012 01:30 am (UTC)
I'm glad I could help you learn something new. The research I did for this piece was fascinating to me, as well.

Thanks for reading and commenting!
Mar. 28th, 2012 09:56 am (UTC)
Houses keep secrets, I have felt the vibes in old places. Loved the photos, they were all special. Liked the raven, the composition was so perfect. Great entry.
Mar. 28th, 2012 03:01 pm (UTC)
They do. Except for the basement, the house wasn't really spooky. I wouldn't want to be there at night alone, though! The raven photo is great. It was her idea to wrap the shawl around myself like that, and I think it looks appropriate for the location.
Mar. 28th, 2012 02:52 pm (UTC)
Hey, we both did history-geek posts this week! I struggled with making mine relatable. I really like how you made yours personal with all of the pictures interspersed. :D
Mar. 28th, 2012 03:02 pm (UTC)
Thanks! I struggled with this one, which kept getting way too wordy for myself. I wondered if I should have made it even more personal, but I thought that if I expanded those sections, I would end up taking away from the imaginary sections about Poe.

Yay for history!
Mar. 28th, 2012 03:04 pm (UTC)
I think you had a good balance of personal and Poe here. :D

Mine kept wanting to get really wordy, too. It ended up pretty long. I'm not sure if the fact that it's a Gatekeeper week makes my topic choice better or worse, but it is what it is.
Mar. 28th, 2012 06:48 pm (UTC)
Of course, it all depends on who the Gatekeepers are, doesn't it? But personally, I think it's always a good idea to do something that stands out, and your historical fiction does. I enjoyed it.
Mar. 28th, 2012 06:56 pm (UTC)
Well, thank you - I hope you're right. :D

I was pretty sure it was going to be a Gatekeeper week before I decided what to write. So I did know what I was getting into!

Good luck! We only have to wait another day and change to find out. *tears more hair out*
Mar. 29th, 2012 06:05 am (UTC)
I'd always associated Poe with Baltimore more than Philadelphia--thanks for the insight into his time there.

(I *used* to have The Raven memorized; give me a day or two and I could probably get it back.)
Jul. 5th, 2012 09:08 pm (UTC)
I was never quite that good with memorization, but I could probably recite much of it with you, following your lead.

Sorry about the delayed response. I'm trying to get caught up on my comments in case I get voted out this week, which is looking increasingly more likely, given the tight polls! Well, in four hours, I'll know my fate. *crosses fingers*
Mar. 29th, 2012 12:32 pm (UTC)
As you are probably well aware, Poe lived and worked in New York City for a time. They saved the tiny two-room cottage that he lived in with his wife and mother-in-law. I only visited the place once... but after imagining what it would be like to be cooped up in such a cramped space with two other people, I gained a lot of insight into his dark view on life and death.

If you ever have an opportunity to come to NYC, drop me a line. I'd love to chat with you about Poe.

PS: Gorgeously written.
Jul. 5th, 2012 09:09 pm (UTC)
Poe seems to have hit all the major East Coast cities except D.C. I'll keep your invitation in mind. A good friend lives in NYC, but I haven't visited her since before my son was born.

Sorry about the delayed response. I'm trying to get caught up on my comments in case I get voted out this week, which is looking increasingly more likely, given the tight polls! Well, in four hours, I'll know my fate. *crosses fingers*
Mar. 29th, 2012 05:52 pm (UTC)
This is so compelling. I've been a fan of Poe's since I was 10 years old. I'd consumed all of his works by the time I was 12, and I believe they had a huge influence on me as a writer. I saw the movie The Fall of The House of Usher, with Vincent Price, when I was only 10, and visions from it haunted my dreams and fueled my fantasies for years to come. I would love to see this bit of history... I have toured Philadelphia, and will happily make note to add this gem to my itinerary for the next visit. Thanks for sharing.
Jul. 5th, 2012 09:10 pm (UTC)
Vincent Price was a master. He could deliver a line in such a way that it was absolutely bone-chilling. The house doesn't look like much, but for a fan like you, it's a worthwhile pilgrimage.

I'm trying to get caught up on my comments in case I get voted out this week, which is looking increasingly more likely, given the tight polls! Well, in four hours, I'll know my fate. *crosses fingers*
Mar. 29th, 2012 08:21 pm (UTC)
I've always been fascinated by Poe. He had such a sad life too:( His work is amazing. I studied him a whole lot last semester when I made him the subject of an online course I had to write.

I really like your photos, especially the Raven shadow one:)
Jul. 5th, 2012 09:11 pm (UTC)
You wrote an entire course on him? I'd love to see an outline for it. The Raven shadow pic is now my profile pic on YouTube, where I'm shantipoet.

Ack! I'm trying to get caught up on my comments in case I get voted out this week, which is looking increasingly more likely, given the tight polls! Well, in four hours, I'll know my fate. *crosses fingers*
Mar. 30th, 2012 02:18 am (UTC)
Very well done. Enjoyed the atmosphere and the pictures and how they formed a cohesive whole.
Jul. 5th, 2012 09:12 pm (UTC)
Thanks so much. I remember being worried that I hadn't gone far enough with my observations about the place, but as it turned out, it was enough for the gatekeepers.

Ack! I'm trying to get caught up on my comments in case I get voted out this week, which is looking increasingly more likely, given the tight polls! Well, in four hours, I'll know my fate. *crosses fingers*
( 28 comments — Leave a comment )

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