Friday, December 7, 2012

After Watching the Film LINCOLN, I Think Again About Mary Todd

I wrote "Mary Todd on her Deathbed" many years ago. It was a very early poem of mine, my first to be picked up for the Best American Poetry series (chosen by Rita Dove), later performed at Symphony Space in New York, and reprinted by Ta-Nehisi Coates for his Atlantic Monthly blog. It's now included in my collection of poems written in women's voices, Lizzie Borden in Love.

Written in the voice of Mary Todd Lincoln at the end of her life, the poem addresses her time in an insane asylum, her paranoia, her stealing, her fear of poverty, her love of her dead husband -- I touch on their sex life -- and her love of her children. 

In the scene between Sally Field, as Mary Todd, and Tommy Lee Jones, as Stevens, her finances were brought up. Mary Todd loved fine things and was known for overspending, but this goes back to her childhood, I believe, the loss of her mother and being raised by her stepmother. I nod to this in the final line about her having to make her own hoop skirt as a young woman.

What fascinated me about the research and the scene I would have shoved into the end of the film is after the death of Lincoln -- how they opened the White House to mourners, while Mary Todd herself was still mourning. I write about his open coffin in this poem... 

I have great sympathy for Mary Todd. I thought that the film's portrayal was generous. She was a complex human being. 

Mary Todd on her Deathbed

I can hear them, choking on spoons, screaming
in shower stalls; the fat are given only
a raw egg and whiskey
                      and those who refuse
to eat are force-fed. The least crazy sing,
picking scalp scabs in window seats.
One woman finds scissors
                         and stabs herself
again and again. It was the tireless Jew
who wore me down; no one believed
that he followed me
                    from train to train
with his satchel of poisons, sneering
as they searched my baggage
for the stolen hotel foot stools, how he knew                
that I shuffled because my petticoats,                                                    
stitched so tight with money,
                              had become a heavy net
for dredging the lost. And I do not speak of the lost:
Abe could have worn me as a boutonniere,
my pinched face, say it: an ugly plump bud,
hoisted skirts and petticoats
                              the leaf and ribbon trim.
I remember the hoisted skirts,
how his body seemed
                    a long white country of its own.
But it was owned by a country
of citizens as unruly as my dead boys,
my dead boys
             roaring through the White House.
Nothing was mine, after all. Strangers
crowded his open coffin, snipped souvenirs
from the curtains,
                   slipped hands
into the casket to unclip his cufflinks.
All the while, they could hear me
                                   wailing from bed.
Every day I can move slightly less;
each body hinge becomes more stubborn
                                      than memory.
I know how I will die: a clenched jaw,
fists gripping bed sheets. Stiff with longing,
I will have to break
                     into heaven, the willows
in my handmade girlhood hoop-skirt snapping.

From Lizzie Borden in Love