Monday, October 31, 2016

An Autumn Afternoon at the Athenaeum

"Haunted House 3D" by Karen Burene (see artist bio below article);
An Autumn Afternoon at the Athenaeum

By Nicole M. Bouchard

Once upon a gray New England day dreary, I wandered bewitched, quite cold and weary, over many a quaint and curious volume of beloved lore in the Athenaeum…

The labyrinthine streets of the east side make up a living, harried maze of movement, traveling up and down steep hills, and around tight, sharp corners, heavily populated with college students, professors, natives and tourists. These streets are as precarious as they are pretty; there is often little regard for traffic laws, including a peculiar preference of pedestrians to walk out in front of cars quite suddenly as though oblivious to their existence, trying to be fashionably dissident, or in perpetual search of an adrenaline rush.

Buildings over a century old frame the area, their paternal, seasoned presence bestowing caring and censorious gazes, sometimes both at once. From earlier ages, they may not quite grasp green hair and ear buds tuning out the world and running through traffic, but home to some of the finest schools in the country, they simply aim to educate, understanding that children will go their own way. Their structural constancy assures a measure of order in ever-changing seasons and eras. As did their human forebears, they reign in a growing, bustling new world with precise lines, strict paths, and cloistered proximity. There always exists an attractive juxtaposition of historic and modern-day in Providence.

On a Saturday, there is an elevated kind of momentum in the city—an elixir of excitement evaporated into the air and rained back down on the masses to cure all manner of doldrums. It’s one that I’ve drunk many a time over the years, and recently having learned the legend of the fountain at the Athenaeum, I quite agree that there is something, once tasted, that brings one back to Rhode Island.

The Saturday I wish to share with you, was no different in this, spare for the fact that the effect seemed somehow magnified. The winds seemed to recall something wild and their exuberant dance through the streets—sending up blizzards of golden leaves—seemed to defy the sober structures with their subtle palettes against a dark lead gray sky. Young and old, on every sidewalk, were fighting their way forward through the turbulent unseen. As I ascended the Athenaeum steps, the wind seemed to switch allegiances, no longer a force of resistance, but a powerful shove to usher myself and my trusty assistant editor up and into the building. 

We looked at one another and smiled; two mirrors, one mother-daughter reflection with the matching thought of how perfect it was to have strange, cold, blustery weather while exploring a temple of books known to have been frequented by Poe. She reached for her camera, I reached for my notebook, and intent on discovery, we stepped inside.

Standing at the front, looking around and tilting my head back to see the exposed upper level, I was flooded with all my expectations and initial assessments. It seemed, however, that the weight of these and more, were inflicted back upon me. My observing eyes were being observed by the sculpted visages of the early officers of the Athenaeum, and famed greats of the past. In that moment, I stood as a stranger “whose worth’s unknown, although his height be taken.” Shakespeare couldn’t help me then. They took stock of me as I took stock of their home. The observations weren’t as if to say, So, what do you think of our place? but rather, So, what do we think of you?

I imagine that there is a test upon entering. A kind of invisible barrier to pass through. At first, I’d thought it a function of my having been a first-timer. Yet I saw no one rushing in. Everyone seemed to linger near the entry—excited, tentative, reverent. Even those who were familiar visitors. I believe it is because it is a sacred space—it has been described as such in different centuries by a number of its prominent guests—and would-be parishioners respect this aspect with their pause.

I can only say that I must have met with some measure of approval, due to the richness of my experiences there. It unfolded to me in a way that was marked by meaning and wonder. How to describe a place like this?

I think it must mold to the individual visitor, becoming an extension of one’s own mind with hopes, dreams, memories, and passions, shelved and alphabetized accordingly. The way one walks through it, what they see, what they notice, follows a map only they can read. And I? I can only humbly describe what it was for me. For you, I’d wager that it would be another adventure altogether.

One wonders what it was like for the Dark Romantic master himself, Edgar Allan Poe, who, with poet Sarah Helen Whitman, saw the cultivation and ending of a courtship within its walls. How did it speak to H. P. Lovecraft, Bronson Alcott, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, and Charlotte Perkins Gilman? Is the building itself a story, or a collection of many that grows with every new footfall through its doors?

Given the diverse history and mysterious lore the Athenaeum is known for, the front glass case with its vintage costume ideas from the pages of decades past, struck me as a comparatively minor nod to Halloween. Charming to be sure, yet the building’s claim on associations with the holiday would seemingly be more extensive. I wasn’t yet aware of all the stories (these I’d discover later in researching for this piece), but there was a feeling that there was more. I found it in keeping with the way the entry told one to leave their preconceived notions at the door; the building would reveal its secrets in its own time in the subtle way truer “magic” does. A purposeful red herring? Perhaps. I didn’t know what I’d be in for, nor what I’d learn after the fact.

I was making my way around the front case to the side shelves displaying a myriad of topics to entice the passerby. The older volumes call to me; you know the look of them, the worn covers, the smell of the pages, the tea-stain tint around the margins. Gorgeous things. So many beautifully preserved that I hardly knew where to start. Luckily, the library told me. What else for a French woman who loves history to find first but a book from 1902 on Napoleon? Whatever the opinions of this controversial figure, never have I seen such human engravings that appeared to stare out of the page, past the skin, into the very spirit. Another instance where I the observer, felt as though I’d become the observed. These images were of the intensity and vulnerability of the man, not the legend, viscerally portrayed. If historic figures were given voice, only if for a moment, I could imagine it happening there in that space.

Agreeing to meet my mother, who would be joined by my father on yet another level of the Athenaeum, I heeded the strong call to the upper tier. Tiny, narrow passageways threaded themselves between what I liked thinking of as open stalls of books with small wooden writing desks that faced outward across the way, visible to the main floor. Mainly thin, dim, nearly dark in some corners, the passageways require deliberate, paced steps and along the way, one might fancy that they could encounter anyone or anything from any time period at any given moment. Scanning the shelves felt like reading names of old friends. I was greeted at the top of the steps by the Bronte sisters. I found my way to the affecting sculptress, Camille Claudel. I took the biography of Claudel with me and walked until I found an unoccupied alcove. I treaded lightly so as not to disturb others as I passed.

I sat at my writing desk, removed my coat and scarf, and placing the book down, took a good look around me. The beauty of it all, the cozy lighting, the endless books, engaging sculptures, all the old world charm would make any book lover feel at home. I turned to study the titles that framed my alcove and found what I’d been thinking about the week prior. I have it as a life goal to visit the UK. I’d been hearing about one area in particular, running it over in my mind. Now, dear readers, I can swear to you that I did not choose to sit in a spot devoted to books on Scotland, but then, that’s hardly the most curious thing I may ask you to believe about my time in that desk.

I laid out my small notebook and pen, choosing to jot down some notes for this piece after reading the book on Claudel for awhile. I was looking across at others in their desks on the other side of the Athenaeum, all of us under the same tender spell that comes of a romance with words. The intoxicating quiet was not to last. I heard heavy footsteps and imagined other impassioned readers tramping through the narrow passageways along the map lines of their own odysseys. The passageways run behind each alcove, so I wasn’t facing the sound. Again, the sound came, yet this time, into my alcove. I admit I was selfish about my embracing space, and, though errant readers had every right to the books on the shelves surrounding me, I was a bit cross about my meditative space being encroached upon. I waited. The footsteps came up behind my chair. Ha! I grinned because I then knew it had to be one of my party sneaking up on me to give me a pre-Halloween jolt. I’d get the better of them. I whipped around about to say something and saw no one.

Considering the layout and the nearness of everything, I knew my ears could be misleading me. There were people going back and forth time to time along the floors behind me and this was a case of oversensitive senses. Back to writing. Again, loud steps over my shoulder. I thought it was like a game to turn fast enough to see who was walking past and catch myself in this silliness. I’d not only turn around this time, I’d listen for the footsteps leaving and going onto another alcove. I used to love reading mysteries when I was little and using reason to foster explanations. Faster this time. No one. Nothing. No retreating steps. I thought it strange, but not overly so. I stayed and wrote a bit more, then gathered up my things. I’d felt comfortable in the alcove. Content. It wouldn’t be until about a week later when I would Google the building and read three articles discussing it supposedly being haunted with one of the trademarks being heavy footsteps in the alcoves on the second floor. At least I didn’t see the moving books that were mentioned.

I did, however, get to see early architectural plans for the building laid out in another alcove before going down to the main level and taking the stairs to the lower level to rejoin my group. I was enchanted not in spite of, but perhaps because of the peculiarities. There’s a streak of gray sky in the blood of any born New Englander. We like things a little interesting.

Descending from the upper tier to the main level, down the wooden staircase to the floor below, I was met with a portrait of Washington. He presides over the reading room. His open, outstretched hand appears to gesture toward a quill, books, and a scroll in the painting. It reminded me of the power of words to forge a nation and influence the future. Timely, no? Thank you, George, I thought as I stopped to note my impressions. We writers must always be cognizant of the privilege and responsibility of our vocation. Words are wonderful and formidable things. So too, should public speakers/figures remain aware of this privilege and responsibility to use words well. Come November, “the people” will have spoken, but whatever the outcome, as it always has around the world, it falls to the writers and artists of every age to help shape the times, represent the human condition, and give voice to the unheard.

Scanning the shelves, I looked for a volume to take with me to the table where I’d rejoin my family and swap experiences. White letters on a black spine sparked recognition. Poe. Ah. There you are. I’d hoped to see his signature on display, yet was informed that due to the condition of the documents, it had to be retired a few years ago. I was promised a look at photographs and copies before leaving, but I was intent on finding something particular to him during my visit. Finding a place at the table, following some conversation, I opened what was a book of his critical essays. The page I opened to had a quote that made me think he’d been watching the recent political campaigns and televised debates. It read as an eloquent admonishment, but reinforced the heart of liberty. I doubt if there’s anyone, living or deceased, that doesn’t have something to say about all this, but the sheer chance of opening to that page made it feel as though there was a discussion going on.

The discussion must have continued itself in my thoughts as I drifted off on my own again to explore. There was an open door leading to an elegant space empty spare for the books on the shelves, some stacked chairs toward the back, a few low tables toward the front, and my solitary presence. I didn’t know if I was supposed to be in there; there had been an event earlier and it was now emptied, significantly cooler than the other rooms. A few fellow bibliophiles peaked in the doorway, but seeing no one but the pacing young woman madly scribbling in her notebook, they left.

There was what I recall to have been early literature from countries and cultures across the globe, those at peace, those in conflict, all neatly standing together. It caused me to reflect on how our forms of expression, our universal experiences, emotions, qualities, unite us, and how these similarities and shared influences are easily seen in ancient texts. There is a oneness we are quick to forget, but walk into a library and it’s all there on display within a room, upon a shelf. There is a peaceful simplicity in this; would that it could extend outward into the overtended fields of belief where complexity is sown. Yet that is what these sacred places are for; we can find the sunlight inside a library on a dark day.

With internal inquires of a more personal nature, I was drawn to the poems of Rainer Maria Rilke; a bilingual edition translated by Edward Snow. I transcribed what I opened to by hand, relishing the experience of pen to paper vs. the highly efficient yet less stimulating typing or copy/paste of computer notes. The hand-eye movement of such a task involves the cerebral cortex that includes sensory associations and, as recent studies suggest, long-term memory. A reason why a number of writers still write by hand. What I found was this:

Again and again, even though we know love’s landscape
and the little churchyard with its lamenting names
and the terrible reticent gorge in which the others
end: again and again the two of us walk out together
under the ancient trees, lay ourselves down again and again
among the flowers, and look up into the sky. —“Again and again, even though we know love’s landscape” from Uncollected Poems by Rainer Maria Rilke, translated by Edward Snow. Translation copyright © 1996 by Edward Snow.

Yes, toward it we venture “again and again, even though we know love’s landscape.” This would be all the more meaningful when I later read about the Athenaeum’s own love story.

Not getting ahead of myself, however, I want to include what I felt before leaving the reading room at closing time. I exited the side room, asked questions of staff about exhibits, and returned to the table where I and my family started to gather up our things as it was announced that the library would be closing shortly. There, in the silver light coming through the large, stately windows, was a hypnotic pull that told me not to head upstairs just yet. I followed no more than a feeling to a corner, quite sure that somewhere behind the chair and lamp, there would be something of significance. I put out my hand, closed my eyes, and touched the nearest book I could reach. Frost.

Suddenly I was eleven years old in my elementary school library. I remember the dark wood, the exact place on which shelf from which I first drew forth the work of Robert Frost. The book was yellow ochre in hue and its title poem, “The Road Not Taken” would be a kind of life guide in later years or a hint of paths I’d make and “that has made all the difference.” I was an avid reader from an early age, but it was that day that I fell deeply in love with poetry, understanding just how it could understand me.

My day was ending by bringing me back to a beginning. I felt as though I’d visited with near and dear friends, words restoring and rejuvenating me down to my core.

Only one thing further I desired before I left the Athenaeum.

I went to the front desk and asked to see Poe’s signature. A binder was brought out with photographs and copies of what Poe had signed, what he had read, and a poem of significance to his relationship with Ms. Whitman. I lingered over it all for a time and reluctantly relinquished it as the building had very nearly emptied. I joined my family outside and spare for the warm memory of the visit, thought my adventure of the day to be through.

It was later as I read more about the building, the courtship between Poe and Whitman, and re-read the text of the poem I’d glimpsed in the binder, that the significance settled in.

Edgar Allan Poe first glimpsed Sarah Helen Whitman at home in her rose garden while he was out walking with a friend. Their path to love was sure but not steady. On Valentine’s Day, Whitman recited a poem she’d written in tribute to Poe at a gathering she expected him to attend, unaware that he had not been invited. He learned of the poem and responded in kind, yet did so anonymously, referencing the day he saw her in her garden. They would officially meet some time later and these meetings culminated in a graveyard marriage proposal. The engagement was discouraged, particularly by those close to Whitman. She wrote to express said doubts, but love letters and visitations cemented the bond. They spent time in the Athenaeum where Whitman frequently was found in a literary capacity. She mentioned a poem entitled “Ulalume” to Poe and he revealed himself as the author, signing it for her.

Still bearing past grief, there was a supposed suicide attempt on the part of Poe and some sources indicate that Whitman was by his side in recovery. Two days prior to their planned Christmas day wedding, the pair was nestled in an alcove of the Athenaeum. A messenger arrived with a letter that so disturbed Whitman, that she fled the building, calling off the wedding. The letter informed her that Poe had broken significant promises concerning sobriety and detailed his infractions. According to the Athenaeum history, she induced herself into a faint at her home, despite Poe’s efforts at consolation, and whispered the words “I love you,” before losing consciousness. They would not meet again. Less than ten months later, Poe died in Baltimore. Whitman remained true, continuing to defend Poe and his work for the remaining decades of her life.

Within the haunting legends, some say it is Poe himself that returns to the Athenaeum and walks the upstairs floors in the alcoves. Though I am at a loss as to explain my curious experience of footsteps heard without a clear owner, I would not dare to presume the honor of such a visit, but instead acknowledge the romantic in me that aches over their broken union. In re-reading “Ulalume” in “lonesome October,” I had a thought that the piece might have had another unintentional meaning.

It was published in December of 1847 and their discord occurred in December of 1848. The poem speaks about the significance of a year later, the same month (in the poem, as referenced above, October is the month). This is by no means any kind of complete or even slightly formal analysis, but just a notion of it being a kind of eerie foreshadowing. The meaning of the piece has been extensively debated. Though I know about what literal grief it could refer to given the loss of his wife, Virginia, I wonder if it is not so much about death, as it is about his relationship to love—a relationship marked by loss, but one, as with Rilke’s poem, that “again and again” is revisited with hope though we know “love’s landscape.”

The speaker talks of “beauty,” “hope,” “love in her luminous eyes,” and tries to comfort the misgivings of the soul, personified as Psyche. It would read as though trying for love again, yet his soul knowing it would not end well and that there would be loss as there was before, a pattern in his life, but of a different nature this time; this time, meeting his own end. The allusions to the “sinfully scintillant planet” Venus speak of trouble. It is interesting that Psyche is involved to represent his soul, because in certain versions of the myth, Venus, feeling provoked, sought to throw obstacles in the way of the union of her son, Cupid and Psyche, and it was said that Poe felt Whitman’s mother largely to blame for the downturn of their relationship. The poem speaks of what was “written” as the realization of tragedy occurs and it was with a letter that the engagement was dissolved.

Perhaps an unlikely theory, but it has to do with Poe after all, and the poem remains a mystery.

What I can say for certain is that my visit to the Athenaeum reflects the very nature of my love for literature and my native New England roots. It fitted itself to me, snug and warm, a black velvet embrace. It is a place that has a capacity to fill all the unnamed hollow spaces that get worn through in the wear and tear of everyday life. I understand why it fed the souls of the literary and why it is ageless. I know why it was called “holy” and as an ardent pilgrim, I will return there to pray, book placed between open palms.

Link for further info:     

Artist Bio (for image above article):

Karen Burene is a self-taught artist living in southeast
Michigan. Her favorite genres are mixed media and
"altered" art but she also works with polymer clay,
digital art, and has recently taken an interest in making
jewelry. She drew from her early experiences in art class
at school, working with paper, cardboard, markers, and

Burene likes to incorporate items that would normally
be thrown away into her artwork—small pieces of lace,
ribbon, string, wire, cardboard from boxes, and any
other kind of found object might work. Her piece "Alice
in Wonderland" appeared in Somerset Studio Gallery
magazine Winter 2012.