Over the Fourth of July weekend, I took a day trip up to Baltimore to visit the grave site of one of my favorite writers, Edgar Allan Poe. I fell in love with Poe’s poetry in middle school and came to respect his stories as my collegiate and graduate literary studies took me down the windy road of Gothic Literature. I jokingly referred to my trip to Baltimore as my “Poe Pilgrimage” and eagerly sought to pay respect to the great writer who has influenced me both academically and creatively for much of my life.
It was hot and sticky as I made my way through the streets of Baltimore. The sun rose higher as I walked and though I got a little lost along the way, I did not let either experience deter me or dampen my mood. The people I passed often leered at me and made comments. Being a lone girl wandering the city, I suppose I should have expected that. People would drive past and honk their horns, yell out of their vehicles, and lean so far out of the windows that I thought they may fall flat on their faces into the street. I imagined that Poe would have been aghast at the lewd behavior of his fellow men.
At last, I ascended the final hill and came face-to-face with Westminster Hall Church and the grounds that house Poe’s grave. I was lucky to have started out early. I had the luxury of experiencing the graveyard on my own—no noisy tourists making comments and snapping photos. I got to be alone with my thoughts in the shade of the church and knotted trees. I stood for a few minutes, taking in the first memorial, a tall, white tribute. I mused about the quiet setting in the churchyard and how much the city must have changed since Poe himself walked its streets.
I stood for a while because I wanted to take away something within me, some small seed of inspiration. I have always had an uncharacteristic fascination with cemeteries and so being physically at Poe’s grave was, in a word, momentous. I grew up visiting cemeteries on Memorial Day, placing flowers on the graves of relatives near and far. Some were so ancient that no one alive could remember them, not even my great-grandmother. Every year, aunts, uncles, cousins, my great-grandmother, grandmother, mother, sister and I would make the trek up to St. Joseph, Missouri to pay our respects.
Sometimes we visited a cemetery out in the middle of nowhere off of highway 36—Bethel Cemetery. It’s a little place with very old tombstones that sit on top of a hill with a tiny country church surrounded by farmland. This cemetery is not regulated so bushes of peonies grow next to graves, planted years ago by caring descendants. It is my favorite and I loved going there as a child. I love seeing the colorful, bulbous blossoms rocking in the late spring sun.
I guess it’s strange to have a favorite cemetery. It’s not exactly like having a favorite restaurant or coffee shop. But yes, I do in fact have a favorite cemetery. Bethel makes me feel like I am in a story or another world, far from civilization. A number of the stories I have imagined in my years as a writer have their origins in that cemetery (that is to say, the stories begin there, not that I was physically sitting there when the ideas came to me).
My fascination with cemeteries was never fueled by religious fervor of any kind. We were brought up in a secular home. To my dreamy self, cemeteries have always seemed a place in between, a world of possibility. It’s the same reason I like the beach, where the land meets the ocean—is this the place where the land begins and the ocean ends? Or is it where the ocean begins and the land ends? The two are locked in an infinite battle. As the tide rises and falls, the territory constantly changes hands.
To others, I suppose a cemetery is far from in between and is instead, much more final considering that the people who reside there are beyond the concept of possibility. But to me, a cemetery is like dusk or dawn. It is a meeting place of opposites—life and death—and mystery and possibility abound. I suppose I read too much Fantasy as a child. But it is this same love of Fantasy that still fuels my imagination today. And it is with imagination that one is able to dream.
“Those who dream by day are cognizant of many things which escape those who dream only by night.” — Edgar Allan Poe. Eleanora
My dreams of visiting Baltimore and standing before Poe’s resting place had been tugging at my consciousness for years and I expected to feel changed or connected with the past in some way once I found myself there. The cemetery itself transported me back in time, to a simpler world and I memorized and photographed the graveyard. I was pleased with what I had seen until I looked closer at the marker and noticed…they got Poe’s birth date wrong! Poe was born on January 19th, 1809. Not January 20th. Perhaps a day is not a big deal in the grand scheme of things. But, in a place where one is to reflect and pay tribute to those who have gone before and the only thing that marks your existence is a hefty piece of rock, it would seem only right to etch these miniscule truths accurately.
I continued my walk through the cemetery, visiting the resting places of many famous Baltimore residents, marveling at the various burial techniques, ornamentation, and epitaphs characteristic of the time. In the middle of the cemetery, I came upon Poe’s original resting place. This space felt more real, though the marker was disappointingly modern. The grave was littered with unlit cigarettes, pens and a bottle of Knob Creek, gifts from various visitors and admirers. I suppose the gestures were nice, but I found them distracting. They forced me back into the modern world when I had fervently sought respite in a city of long ago. And yet, there was a quiet dignity to this place. For here lay a man who the world chose not to forget, and though the manner of remembrance has changed since his passing, the implication and the meaning are the same.
I did not bring anything with me to leave behind as a memento for the man who has inspired me through much of my life as a creative. If I had seen a florist along my trek, I would have brought some flowers, some intricate blossoms like peonies. I think Poe would have liked peonies because of their complexity and their beauty. I think he would also have been intrigued by the gesture because a peony stands for bashfulness, shame, happy marriage or compassion in the Victorian Flower Language; perhaps just the right hint of feminine in both their look and their fickle meaning to please a lover of women like Poe. If Poe were to stand in front of me, I imagine that I would meet him with a combination of bashfulness and compassion. Plus, just like our distant relatives who planted peonies for their loved ones, my family always left peonies when we visited the graves of ours.
Upon exiting the cemetery, I returned fully to the garish, modern world. I had imagined feeling closer to Poe and to the time in which he lived when visiting the cemetery. I thought I would feel a connection to the world he experienced both in the cemetery and the city beyond. Instead I experienced this story, this creative kinship with the concept of life and death and the possibilities held therein. I remembered the strange yet tranquil beauty to be found in the cemetery, an environment characterized by bitter weeping and regret mixed with reflection and remembrance. I think this is the message that Poe left with me as I turned from him and continued on my journey. And though Baltimore, at least the parts I had time to experience, had moved on into the future with statuesque buildings and bustling tourists, leaving this lover of the Gothic in its proverbial dust, Poe knew as I know that there is more to life than meets the eye. There is beauty to be found in every crevice, as much in a joyous moment as at the tomb of one beloved and even in that dark corner of sorrow.
NOTE: All photos were taken by me, except for the peony shot.