Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Poe house falls dark as Ravens soar

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BALTIMORE -- In the city of the Ravens and The Raven, the football pros are having a better season than the poet who gave them their name.

It is the coldest morning of the winter, and less than two weeks before bare-bones Baltimore is to meet halcyon San Francisco's 49ers in the Super Bowl, when I park in front of a row of low-rise welfare tenements on little Amity Street in the Maryland metropolis, with an empty lot strewn with trash and scrap wood on the other side of the lane. At the red-brick house at the butt-end of the barrack, green shutters cover the windows, the door is bolted and only a plaque on the western wall gives the secret away:

Edgar Allan Poe House

Following the appearance of cholera in Baltimore in 1832, the family moved to this little duplex, surrounded then by countryside and pastureland... it is here that Poe decided to turn his hand from writing poetry to fiction.

Standing here, shivering here, a vagrant's mind is filled with famous verses -- Once upon a midnight dreary, while I pondered, weak and weary... -- and shadowed by the spectre of a stately raven of the sainted days of yore, perched in darkness, cloaked in mourning, croaking, cruelly, "Nevermore."

My reverie is rattled by a police cruiser creeping down the block -- the officer watches me watch her as she slides by -- and then by a hunched man in a grey jacket over a Ravens hoodie, veritably shaking with the cold.

"Do you live around here?" I ask the passerby.

"Right there," he motions. "Next door to Edgar Allan Poe."

The man gives his name as Lucky Jackson and he says his parents dubbed him thus because he was their seventh child. Fifty-one years later, however, favour has abandoned Mr. Jackson -- he tells me he no longer is able to work as a power-washer at Camden Yards, where the baseball Orioles play, because "I had an epileptic seizure and fell down 17 steps and cracked three ribs."

He has ventured out today in the -20 C wind chill, he tells me, "to see if I can find somebody to give me a couple of cigarettes."

Then he tells me of a time when the unemployed mendicant was a roguish young quarterback in a housing-project pickup league, where, he says, "rain or snow or whatever weather, we would be out there playing football and the people would bring out their chairs and watch us."

"To them, we were the NFL," Lucky Jackson says.

I ask Jackson if he has been inside the historic home with which he shares a bedroom wall, and he confesses he has not. (Recently closed for lack of visitors, the Poe manse and museum now is city property and may or may not reopen this summer.)

Then he says he never once has delved into the sad fancy of The Raven, or any of his neighbour's other works.

"Will the Ravens beat the 'Niners down in New Orleans?" I ask him, bringing the conversation back to 2013.

"If we can beat Denver, we can beat anybody," Lucky Jackson replies -- the Ravens did, in the AFC semifinal, winning on the road, 38-35, on a field goal in the second overtime period, after trailing the Broncos by seven points with less than 40 seconds remaining in the fourth quarter.

"I think this team is going all the way."

In a macabre way, Edgar Allan Poe was himself a '49er -- he died, delirious, in Baltimore in October of that gold rush year, as poor as the hope-deserted citizens who now share his little block of Amity Street. (Born in Boston, Poe wrote The Raven in New York -- he sold it for $9 -- and also lived in Philadelphia and Richmond.)

Now I head for his grave, which is inside a fenced churchyard downtown, across the street from a Veterans Administration Hospital, as befits a former U.S. Army sergeant major who never went to war.

For 50 years or more, in the pre-dawn darkness of each Jan. 19, the poet's birthday, the burial ground had been visited by the so-called "Poe Toaster," this being one man, or several, who would deposit on the tomb three red roses and a bottle of cognac.

But that quaint and curious custom, possibly perpetrated and/or perpetuated by the curator of the now-shuttered Poe House and Museum himself, ended without explanation in 2009.

This year, I find Edgar Allan Poe's headstone smothered uncouthly in hundreds of pennies and nickels, dozens of red roses and a single, open bottle of locally brewed Raven Beer.

On the southern skyline, I can see the home of the Super Bowl-bound pigskinners, the gigantic M&T Bank Stadium, itself perhaps doomed, as the centuries pass, to suffer the same fate as the great arena of Ancient Rome in Poe's poem The Coliseum:

Vastness! and Age! and Memories of Eld!

Silence and Desolation! and dim Night!

Gaunt vestibules! and phantom-peopled aisles!

Should humanity -- or at least Baltimore -- outlive professional football, this would not be inequitable to a man named Jeffrey Savoye, a computer programmer, native of this city and the longtime president of the E.A. Poe Society of the so-called Charm City.

"I don't understand a lot of big guys running around a field chasing a ball," Jeffrey Savoye says. He's never been to M&T.

Savoye says his role at the society is "to try to set the record straight. People like the dark, dysfunctional image of Poe and they don't want to give that up."

"What adjectives would you use to replace dark and dysfunctional?" I ask him.

"Genius, artistic, hard-working, a wide range of interests -- from horror to the humourous," Savoye replies.

"Did he know how good he was?" I wonder.

"Yes, I think he did," the president says. "He managed to achieve a certain amount of fame, but no money."

Savoye confirms the Baltimore football team was indeed named, by popular ballot, for the ebony bird with "the grave and stern decorum" of Poe's most famous poem.

"The raven is a big, scary bird," he says, defending the choice. "It's not a titmouse."

Neither is it incentive enough for a deacon of the local literati to view the flock in its artificially turfed habitat.

He is hardly missed. Southward to the Super Bowl barrel the heroes of Baltimore, emissaries of a town where the president of the Poe Society has never attended a football game and Edgar Allan's next-door neighbour has never read a poem.

Allen Abel is a Brooklyn-born Canadian journalist based in Washington, D.C.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition January 26, 2013 j11

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