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W&L's Smith Wins Gerald T. Perkoff Prize in Poetry

R. T. Smith has been awarded the 2012-2013 Gerald T. Perkoff Prize in Poetry by “The Missouri Review” for his suite of poems, “Mary Lincoln Triptych.”

Smith is writer-in-residence at Washington and Lee University, editor of W&L’s literary journal “Shenandoah” and author of a dozen books of poetry. The “Georgia Review” has described him as “one of the most vital voices in contemporary American poetry.”

“Mary Lincoln was far more sophisticated, erudite and sympathetic than I had guessed,” said Smith, “and I was captivated and wanted to find a voice that would do her justice.”

As a southerner from Kentucky, Lincoln was not well received when her husband was elected president, Smith observed. She had a nervous temperament and was very well educated, although she didn’t bear that education lightly. According to Smith, she liked to break into French when people were disagreeing with her so that they couldn’t follow her.

Of the many fascinating things Smith discovered about Lincoln, the ones that struck the most resonant chord involved her obsessive shopping, her immersion in spiritualism and her arrest on charges of insanity. The three monologs Smith wrote each has its own focus, with elements from each one seeping into the other poems.

The first poem, “Gloves,” details Mrs. Lincoln’s obsession with finances on the one hand while also putting up a good show. She was the first President’s wife who said the White House should be a showcase to the American people and visiting dignitaries so they could see it as real sign of prosperity, hope and guaranteed success: If the house was wonderfully decorated how could the Union be losing the war?

So she kept buying things, although it provoked conflict with her husband who referred to them as her “fliberitjibs.”

  “Debt, of course, hovers,
and in private, without his corvid uniform
and cannon hat, he will admonish me: Pray, Mother,
how can I pay Haughwout’s, Galt’s Emporium, Mr. Stewart,
and all the rest of  your glovers while our soldiers
in the field have no blankets?
But his heart knows we are a symbol and must shine.

In “Summoning Shades” Smith addresses Lincoln’s great burden of personal grief. She and her husband lost one son before they came to Washington, and then lost their son Willie after they had been in the White House about a year. A few years after her husband was assassinated, she lost a third son, Tad, who lived only into his teens.

It was more than she could bear, and she never got over it.
Scripture records the intimates of Job counted his suffering just,
reasoning, as he bathed in dust, he must have sinned deeply,
but how have I deserved such wealth of loss?

The rise of spiritualism in American culture in the late 1840s and early 1850s coincided with a time when families had multiple people to grieve. Homes were devastated and people were so desperate they grasped at straws. But much was hocus pocus and fakery, with lamps moving outside windows and somebody talking from behind a curtain as if from the grave. “Mary Lincoln bought all this hook, line and sinker because she was so desperate to talk to her dead sons,” said Smith.

  Veiled, I sail under false flags to test every mystic,
that they will not guess my famous sons and Mr. Lincoln
are the voices I eagerly seek. Can I trust them at all,
my faculties so shaken by grief?

The third poem, “A Serpent’s Tooth,” deals with the open hostility between Lincoln and their only remaining son, Robert.

They disagreed about how to keep President Lincoln’s name and reputation alive. For example, Lincoln ignited a great scandal and outraged her son when she tried to earn more money, not that she really needed it, by selling many of the gowns she had as first lady. Also, Robert didn’t believe in spiritualism and knew that Lincoln had visions and dreamed that there was an Indian in her room.

He decided she was insane.

“The most amazing thing I discovered when researching Mary Lincoln, was that in some states back in the 1870s insanity wasn’t a medical problem: it was a crime. You could be accused of it, taken to court, tried for it, convicted of it and sentenced to incarceration,” said Smith.

Smith described how Lincoln was in her hotel room one day and there came a knock at the door. It was somebody she knew, and he had two other men with him. They told her they had come to take her to court. It was out of the blue, with no warning at all.

They had procured a lawyer for her but he agreed with Robert that she was insane. Ten doctors testified that she was insane although only one of them had ever met her.

Hopeless, I did not ascend the stand, half afraid
they would hold my Kentucky tongue against me,
as RTL sat there, his elf ears and high collar, a local civic pillar
with his official accent bland as clabber.
And it would not have mattered an inch or an ounce,
as already the newspapers were tomahawking me sans mercy:
“The Demented Widow,” “A Nation’s Shame.”

Lincoln was confined in a very fancy resort for the upper class insane where she was probably given morphine, opium and lemonade cocktails to calm her down since that was part of the daily routine. However, she clearly wasn’t reduced to the zombie-like state such medicines were intended to induce since she escaped after a few months with the help of another lawyer.

“In the poem she thinks back a year later about the torture and insult of that place,” said Smith. “But she also talks about conversations she has with a little blue bird that gives her warnings. So maybe she’s not crazy and shouldn’t be locked up, but she’s not playing with a full deck either.

“Since Mary Lincoln didn’t testify at her own insanity trial, or on many other occasions in her life, I hope the three monologues I’ve written will allow a credible version of her voice to be heard today.

“I’m pleased and honored to win this award because “The Missouri Review” is a highly respected magazine and even to have been mentioned as one of the candidates would have been nice,” he said. “To win it is enough to make me dance.”

Smith credits a summer research travel grant from Washington and Lee’s office of the dean with allowing him to conduct research for this project in Gettysburg, where a new museum has a special emphasis on Mary Lincoln.

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