Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Continuing coverage of Jacksonville 2009 - Poets extraordinaire

In recent weeks as I’ve had time, I’ve shared my continuing chronicle of the events of the Illinois State Historical Society’s 2009 Illinois History Symposium, “Abraham Lincoln in Ante-bellum Illinois, 1830-1861.”

When I last wrote, I shared my recollections of the Friday luncheon program featuring Michael Burlingame. Let’s pick up where we left off – but first we need to step back a few decades for the intro, then few weeks earlier for part of the story and a day earlier for the rest.

A poet and you don’t know it
My maternal grandmother was a tiny little lady, never five feet tall and increasingly shorter the older she got. Yet, her small stature held great wisdom. Though she had but an eighth-grade education, she was one of the smartest people I’ve ever known – and I’m hard-pressed to find someone who could remember as many birthdays as well as she could.

Grandma was also known for reaching somewhere deep – maybe into a big pocket on one of the home-sewn calico aprons she always wore – and pulling out witty sayings or pieces of verse. She drew upon one of her favorites whenever someone accidentally said something that rhymed. Grandma would say, without fail, “You’re a poet and don’t know it, but your feet sure show it.”

Now, as wise as Grandma was, that never seemed to make much sense to me. I’d look down at my toes, thinking perhaps the short big toe and longer second one were the mark of a poet. That was the one thing that seemed to differentiate me from all of my friends. Alas, though, my feet let me down. I never was very good at verse. Narrative seemed to be my gift.

Poets and we all know it
On the other hand, the presenters at the afternoon session I attended were poets – no doubt about it.

I first met Dan Guillory a few months earlier at a poetry reading in Bloomington, and again at Springfield he week of the bicentennial. Once again, at Jacksonville, Guillory read from his Lincoln Poems, and once again, he wowed the crowd.

Oh, my goodness, I can hear you, Grandma. I wasn’t trying to rhyme, really I wasn’t!

Please be sure to read my earlier accounts to hear about Guillory’s readings at the McLean County Museum of History and the Vachel Lindsay Home. It will paint a clear picture of the palate of poems we heard at the symposium presentation.

The other poet presenting was someone I’d just met at lunch the day before, when we gravitated to each other around a round banquet table. At first there was a seat between us, but as we strained to talk across the empty seat, it made sense to sit next to each other. I knew immediately this college professor from Washington, D.C., by way of Chicago, was a delightful tablemate, but it would be quite some time before I’d realize what a gifted person she was.

You know how sometimes you meet someone and there’s no “getting acquainted” period? You just feel as if you’ve known the person forever, and you share a friendship – almost magically - from the moment you meet? Martha Vertreace-Doody is that kind of person. We enjoyed each other’s company at lunch, walked to my car to get a notebook and walked across campus to the next event.

Vertreace-Doody even convinced me that I should attend the Thursday evening event at the Duncan Mansion, where she would be dressed in 19th century period costume. What I didn’t realize was that the mansion event would set the stage for her poetry reading on Friday afternoon.

You see, a few years ago, this 21st century big-city woman became the voice of a 19th century prairie governor’s wife – the one who lived in that mansion. From diaries and letters, Martha Vertreace-Doody began to craft poems chronicling the life of Elizabeth Duncan, the 4’5” tall (or should it be short) wife of the sixth governor of Illinois, Joseph Duncan. (Grandma would have been tall next to Mrs. Duncan!)

Vertreace-Doody is no novice poet. Quite the contrary. She’s got more than a dozen volumes of poetry under her belt. And, though the Duncan poems are not yet in print - in fact not even all written, I’m sure - there’s no doubt they’re bound to make the grade as another brilliant volume by a talented Illinois author. If the various university presses here in Illinois haven’t got this Chicago poet who writes prairie verse on their radar, they should have!

In retrospect, I wish I’d written down a few lines of this beautiful work to share with you, but I can’t recreate specific poems for you. What I can share is that this poet has found the heart and soul of her subject, a woman much different than herself, and she’s pouring it out in verse so moving it draws listeners in and takes them back to that same time and place. Sure, the poet had Duncan’s own words to draw the stories from, but she weaves a fresh tapestry of verse so intricate the readers can't help but get caught up in it, savoring every detail of each magnificent creation.

That Thursday afternoon, I had to choose between three symposium offerings, all great programs, I’m sure. I’m glad I selected the one I did, not only because the presenters were two people I’ve grown to count among my friends, but also because they’ve created their own legacy of Illinois literature, and I was there to hear them share it. Can’t get much more fortunate than that!

© Copyright 2009 Ann Tracy Mueller. All rights reserved.

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