from The Lost Letters of Frederick Douglass
June 5, 1892
Can you be fifty-three this
month? I still look for you to peek around
my door as if you’d discovered a toy
you thought gone for good, ready at my smile
to run up and press your fist into my
broken palm. But your own girls have outgrown
such games, and I cannot pilfer back time
I spent pursuing Freedom. Fair to you,
to your brothers, your mother? Hardly.
what other choice did I have? What sham,
what shabby love could I offer you, so
long as Thomas Auld held the law over
my head? And when the personal threat was
ended, whose eyes could mine enter without
shame, if turning toward my wife and children
meant turning my back?
Your mother’s eyes stare
out at me through yours, of late. You think I
didn’t love her, that my quick remarriage
makes a Gertrude of me, a corseted
Hamlet of you. You’re as wrong as you are
lucky. Had Anna Murray had your
education as a girl, my love for
her would have been as passionate as it
was grateful. But she died illiterate,
when I had risked my life to master language.
The pleasures of book and pen retain
the thrill of danger even now, and you
may understand why Ottilie Assing,
come into our house to translate me into
German, could command so many hours,
years, of my time—or, as you would likely
say, of your mother’s time.
Rosetta, for broaching such indelicate
subjects, but as my eldest child and
only living daughter, I want you to
feel certain that Helen became the new
Mrs. Douglass because of what we shared
in sheaves of my papers: let no one
persuade you I coveted her skin.
I am not proud of how I husbanded
your mother all those years, but marriage,
too, is a peculiar institution.
I could not have stayed so unequally yoked
so long, without a kind of Freedom in
it. Anna accepted this, and I don’t
have to tell you that her lot was better
and she, happier, than if she’d squatted
with some other man in a mutual
Perhaps I will post, rather
than burn, this letter, this time. I’ve written it
so often, right down to these closing lines,
in which I beg you to be kinder, much
kinder, to your step-mother. You two are
of an age to be sisters, and of like
temperament—under other circumstances,
you might have found Friendship in each other.
With regards to your husband—I am, as
ever, your loving father—
Craft: How I love a letter. I especially love letters that are also poems. These are formally called epistolary poems.They make a direct address to a specific reader, real or imagined. Part of what I love is the intimacy in tone and blurring between written and spoken speech. Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice was written originally as an epistolary novel. Murasaki Shikibu’s Tale of Genji has love letter poems within the prose narrative. John Steinbeck’s advice on writing includes using direct address:
Forget your generalized audience. In the first place, the nameless, faceless audience will scare you to death and in the second place, unlike the theater, it doesn’t exist. In writing, your audience is one single reader. I have found that sometimes it helps to pick out one person—a real person you know, or an imagined person and write to that one.
Prompt: Write a poem addressed to a specific person, someone you are not regularly in touch with. This could be a dear friend, a spirit, a sibling, a departed relative, an author whose work you have read, a stranger you passed on the street, and so on.
Press: Consider submitting to the broadside contest at Littoral Press. They are taking submissions until August 15, 2020. Terry Lucas will be the judge this year. The winner will have a beautiful broadside made of their poem.
Recipe: Artichoke pasta with goat cheese. I’ve never made this recipe but it looks like a good idea.