By Matthew Mercier
I once lived underneath the last home of Edgar Allan Poe.
It’s in The Bronx. Hop on the four train, get off at the Kingsbridge Road station, walk east for three blocks until you reach the four-lane thoroughfare known as the Grand Concourse (modeled after the Champs-Elysees in Paris), which rumbles with a constant stream of traffic. There, across the street, at the northern end of a teardrop shaped city park, sits a humble, two-level white clapboard farm cottage with paned glass and green shutters, out of place among the rows of tenements.
Poe Park and its surroundings contain multitudes, befitting the borough it calls home. On the eastern end are Indian and Korean groceries, as well as a bodega and a Halal market. To the north, find a Mormon Church, and to the south, a dollar store renting space above a funeral home. Within the park is a historic alabaster bandstand and blacktop oval, which hosted jazz big-bands in the 1950s and hip-hop dance battles in the 1980s.
If our national parks are treasured museums where we catch a glimpse of what America might be like without we the people--literally without us--then our urban parks are snapshots of America that capture us in all our melting pot messiness, a multicultural populous striving for a democratic ideal inside a public green space built, ostensibly, for all races, all creeds, all sexualities, all generations. We need to get along in order to survive. That’s the ideal, a work in progress, America in microcosm. Here in the Bronx, a sprawling stew of Dominican, Jewish, Irish, Puerto Rican, Russian, African, Caribbean, Haitian, and Asian, heritage, Poe Cottage anchors the park in another shared resource, that of the written word, of literature, of story. Poe is widely translated. His name leaps across cultural lines. His cottage once stood across the street from the park, at the crest of the hill where the tenements now stand, and if not for the park, it might not have been saved, although you might also argue that if not for Poe, there might not be a park.
I lived in the basement of Poe’s Cottage in a cozy, one-window apartment. The park was surrounded by a locked gate. My major responsibility was to unlock the gates every Saturday from ten to four, and Sunday from one to five, and to give guided tours of the cottage for the public. Here is Poe’s kitchen. Here is Poe’s rocking chair. Here is the bed where his wife and cousin Virginia died from tuberculosis at the age of twenty-five. Virginia’s illness is the reason Poe came to The Bronx, which at the time was apple orchards and grassy hillsides—country air for ailing lungs.
Every morning and afternoon, I patrolled the lawn for wild, untamed waves of newspapers, paper cups, McDonalds wrappers, Big Gulp mugs, and plastic bags of dog excrement that found their way over the spiked fence. It never ended. Crack vials, lottery tickets, used condoms, Mormon pamphlets—human nature and Mother Nature, with a darker hue. I watched hawks eat rats, and rats gobble garbage. One poor shrub by the fence died from an overdose of urine, both canine and human.
But Poe Park is where kids also practiced saxophone and skateboarding. Where Santeria devotees lit their candles and teens played soccer. It’s where a pair of lonely Puerto Rican Goth kids dressed in capes and purple lipstick showed up at my door every other week to talk about horror novels and punk rock. Most Saturdays, younger, grade school kids would show up at my doorstep, wanting to hang out, wanting me to tell them stories, wanting me to fix their bikes, wanting, wanting, wanting. I had a video of Poe’s life running on a loop in the attic, so quite often I would plant the kids in front of this—like a haggard parent—so I could attend to the business of giving tours to adults. Soon, however, they grew bored with history lessons. They got history all week in school. Now they wanted recess, so they’d start running up and down the curving staircase, under the velvet ropes that cordoned off the exhibits, touching paintings and Poe’s rocking chair. So I’d get parental again and boot them into the park. The park, I would lecture, is for running and screaming and wrestling, not the cottage. They resented my adult authority. One girl plucked tulips from the garden. Another stole a book from the gift shop. And once, a fifth-grade Serbian boy took out his frustration by hurling a rock through the window. I remember him the most since this same boy stumbled onto the porch the next morning near tears, blood smearing his nose and lips. He’d been in a fight. We used a paper towel from my cleaning supplies, an alcohol pad from the first aid kit, and water from the garden spigot to clean his face. As I dabbed his cheek, he spat, “I hate this place.”I think he meant The Bronx or the United States, but I didn’t ask. He kept peering out the curtains, scoping the park for his bullies. “Can I stay in here for a while?”
“Sure,” I said, giving him a thin Dover edition of Poe’s poetry to read. Bless the age before smartphones, he actually glanced at it for a hot minute.
“Who’s Annabel Lee? What’s a…sep-ul-curr?”
Oh, I was in educator heaven. “Annabel Lee was Poe’s wife, except her real name was Virginia. And a sepulcher is a type of grave. Above ground.”
The Goth kids showed up, carrying volumes of H.P Lovecraft and Octavia Butler. They know the Serbian boy from school, and they gossiped about teachers, homework, and older kids they hated. They listened to me give tours. They stayed the whole afternoon. The cottage, more so than the park, was a safe space, but eventually I’d have to lock up and say good-night.
Poe’s life in The Bronx did not end well. After Virginia’s death he lived out his final years at the cottage with his mother-in-law Maria Clemm. They subsisted on dandelions for food, as Poe sank deeper into an alcoholic depression.
Before his death, however, he did us a great service of literary preservation by writing “Landor’s Cottage,” quite possibly one of his dullest works. No murder, no black cats, no dark humor, no murdering gorilla swinging a razor blade—but it’s beautiful and precise and overflowing with detail. It follows an unnamed traveler—the classic Poe hero— through the bucolic Hudson river valley until he comes upon an idealized version of Poe’s 19th century Bronx cottage. Here the narrator confesses, “It is not the purpose of this work to do more than give in detail a picture of Mr. Landor’s residence—as I found it.” And so he does:
“As regards vegetation, as well as in respect to everything else, the scene softened and sloped to the south. To the north—on the craggy precipice—a few pieces from the verge—up sprang the magnificent trunks of numerous hickories, black walnuts, and chestnuts, interspersed with occasional oak; and the strong lateral branches thrown out by the walnuts especially, spread far over the edge of the cliff.”
Lovely. Perfect. And there’s paragraphs of it—descriptions of trees, valleys, ridges, fog, sunlight. You can see and feel the rough skin of the oak trees and smell the rain-dampened moss. Blocks of nouns and adjectives heaped on top of the other, with nary a plot in sight—only in 19th century fiction did editors publish this type of work, it seems. (Think Herman Melville and whale blubber, Victor Hugo and Paris architecture, George Eliot and rural England) John Gardner, the critic and novelist, called it, “the story as painting” and Poe likely imagined that if he did not sketch the area for posterity, if he did not paint a picture, who would? The descriptions in “Landor’s Cottage” are given a romantic tweak, but The Bronx was, from all evidence, a country paradise. Poe must have known all that green would eventually disappear under concrete and asphalt, and that no photograph or painting, however lovely, might truly preserve it for generations. Photography, a young, complex technology hemmed in by silver-plated copper and mercury vapor, was mostly limited to daguerreotype portraits taken inside the climate controlled walls of a studio. Landscape painting was confined by the frame and the artist’s ability. Poetic language, however, was fairly universal, even democratic, and could mutate, transform, plant a picture in our brains with verbs, adjectives, nouns, and, most importantly, names. Names are the first step in preservation. It’s how we remember.
Famous for his knowledge of the criminal mind, Poe also knew the names of flora and fauna—he knew his begonias and bobolinks, his hydrangeas and honey bees, his mastiffs and magnolias. Much of his later and more obscure work (“The Domain of Arnheim,” “The Landscape Garden,” “Morning on the Wissahiccon”) is overflowing with a deep love of Nature and a distrust of modernity. Reading in the age of melting ice caps, his landscape descriptions pine for a halt to industrial progress, allowing us to see what has vanished.
When I started my tours on the porch, I often directed my guests to turn and gaze south toward the apartment buildings and cramped shopping plazas of Fordham Road. “Imagine,” I’d say, “a shimmering blue line in the distance with nothing to mar your view. That was Long Island Sound. Poe saw it every morning. It gave him hope.”
True, that view is now gone, but Poe Park is preserved forever, thanks to the graveyard poet, and you can still catch a scent of salt water if the wind is blowing from the east. It’s a lovely spot, a slice of vanished rural America that now belongs to urban America. It’s perhaps too easy to get nostalgic for that unseen, paved-over landscape in which we never lived, and nostalgia can be nothing but a toxic romance, doomed to fail.
I say bury it alive and be with the living, grateful for what we still have.
Matthew Mercier is a writer and storyteller who’s lucky enough to be living on a wild patch of forest and wetlands in upstate New York. He’s worked as a tour guide at the Mystic Aquarium in Connecticut, run a youth hostel in Albuquerque, New Mexico, been slimed as a salmon packer in Naknek, Alaska, provided showers for homeless men on the Bowery, and proudly served four years as docent and caretaker for the Edgar Allan Poe Cottage in The Bronx. He earned an MFA from Hunter College, where he taught writing and children’s literature. His stories and essays have appeared in The Brooklyn Rail, Mississippi Review, Glimmer Train, Rosebud Magazine, Creative Non-Fiction & The Fairy Tale Review. He’s told stories live on stage with The Moth and been heard on NPR’s The Moth Radio Hour, as well The Story Collider, RISK and The Truth podcasts. Most recently he was awarded the Leon B. Burstein scholarship for Mystery Writing from the New York chapter of Mystery Writers of America in order to complete his first novel, currently titled Poe & I, based on his time in The Bronx with Edgar.