A 19th-Century Friend

(A Narrative in Verse)

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"A 19th-Century Friend" is a book written by Bruce Craig in the form of a narrative, using a classical sonnet form. The first chapter is given below in its entirety:

Chapter  1         Meeting

     A nineteenth-century friend of mine,
     Whose life had long since passed to prayer,
     Came through some strangely laid design 
     To make myself of him aware.
     For reasons I could not suspect
     Although, perhaps, his choice was driven
     By want of what to him was given.
     In any case, however meant,
     I came, in time, with him to share
     A bond which, balanced by our care,
     Replaced suspicion with consent.
     The history that I now recount
     Holds parts of each in like amount.

     How does one sense that life has changed,
     When old from new begins to part?
     In ways that now seem quite deranged,
     A subtle change made known its start.
     Through long-years' use I'd sleep rehearse
     By means of oft-repeated verse.
     A calmness from the words descends
     Which sleep confers before it ends.
     But then, during some familiar line,
     A transformation would take place
     In which the horizontal space
     A new direction would define.
     Both rhyme and metered sense would change,
     The meaning slowly grow more strange.

     Thus was by him a shadow cast,
     Through which his spirit entered mine.
     The verse I knew from habit past
     Became reshaped to his incline.
     The words dissolved to show a place
     In which his time had formed the space.
     A manor in my mind took shape
     Which for his life had been escape.
     The images took on a strength
     To which the old lines now subserved.
     The sleep which I had thought reserved
     Would fade in ever-shrinking length.
     The path down which the verse once led
     In thought and power left my head.

     At times, strange voices insecure
     Would leave me haunted by their calls:
     The sounds of presences impure
     And spirits in those manored walls.
     A woman's cry would alternate
     With music played in measured gait;
     A sudden burst of unmet wrath
     Would turn to madness in its path.
     The ways in which he made this known
     Would sometimes leave me quite unnerved:
     That sense which for his value served
     Could often be to malice prone.
     When peace in him I'd think to see,
     More often followed enmity.

     The images took on such force,
     I started to mistrust my head;
     And in my search for some recourse,
     My fascination turned to dread.
     The mind I once had occupied 
     Now shared a presence from outside.
     I learned to fear the subtle ways
     By which his hold my mind could daze.
     At first, his visits paid at night
     Left each new day quite undisturbed;
     The images my mind perturbed
     Were quickly gone, left out of sight.
     But then each night, I came to learn,
     His form and presence would return.

     I questioned now his whole intent,
     Of how and why he sought my ear.
     I asked from where he had been sent,
     And had I cause from him to fear.
     I worried now to what degree
     His will could be imposed on me,
     And if I still retained a choice
     In that which I had thought my voice.
     I knew no more where lay the wall
     Which separated him from me,
     Or if I could, without some key,
     The peace I'd known again recall.
     His answer came quite undismayed,
     As though surprised I'd be afraid.

     "The way in which our minds converse
     Is not by my intrusion.
     That I'd myself in you immerse
     Is but your own delusion.
     Existence is a sort of mime
     By which we think to measure time.
     The door through which I find egress
     Is keyed by means that you possess.
     That part of history I have known
     Includes no times since that I left.
     The crack in time that you have cleft
     Is but a slit through walls of stone.
     Your fears that I on you could feed
     Ignores by whom the door is keyed.

     "Or has your fear a different source
     Than that I could yourself replace?
     Perhaps my presence has a force
     Through memories you cannot erase.
     Is that which leads into your head
     A gate through which you've others led,
     Its ponderous swing a mindless task
     Whose exercise may boredom mask?
     Although I suffer not from haste,
     If it's a call to me you've made
     With consequences not yet weighed,
     Do not my chance to exit waste.
     You have the means at your employ
     My presence quickly to destroy."

     The thought appeared to me absurd
     That he would think me devious,
     When all that had as yet occurred
     Seemed linked to nothing previous.
     When voices from within control,
     Theirs is no weak impassive role.
     The question then is who's being taught,
     And on whose side is formed the thought.
     I weighed the strangeness of his speech,
     While asking what might well be lost,
     Or if there were some hidden cost
     To place myself beyond his reach.
     The doubt my silence thus implied
     He countered from a different side.

     "The world from which I took my leave
     Precedes yours by a lifetime's span.
     Within that time man could achieve
     The dreams that during my life began.
     Although for that I've little mind,
     There is one lesser thing in kind:
     My life played out before its end
     With little left it to commend;
     My restlessness transcends the grave
     In ways perhaps somewhat unearned.
     I would through future memories learned
     Regain the peace which now I crave.
     I seek a future long since past,
     Which frozen in its time is cast.

     "Could we through trust a means create
     By which each shows his inner side?
     My history I'll to you relate,
     Such that your fears of me subside.
     You would in turn impart to me
     That portion of your history
     Which has a bearing on my own,
     And which I could not learn alone.
     Through such could we our trust exchange
     And thereby give us each the means
     To penetrate those inner screens 
     Which work our purpose to estrange.
     The knowledge of my life I'd gain
     Would in its history yours contain.

     "But where in you exists such worth
     That drives me from the grave to climb?
     Our paths have met upon this earth,
     But intersect in place, not time.
     That settled spot where I my days
     Played out in their accustomed ways
     Is, quite remarkably, the same
     As that from which your forebears came.
     The threads of mine are somehow lost,
     But seem to yours to be quite near.
     In ways as yet not fully clear
     Our family ties are mixed and crossed.
     The narrative whose thread I seek
     Holds strands which from our two worlds speak."

     By bits and pieces we arrived
     At times and places somehow shared,
     Although his knowledge was derived
     From sources which he'd not declared.
     The place was Russia's northern clime;
     The nineteenth century was the time.
     Through circumstances inexact
     Our families' pasts had briefly tracked.
     The roots, which we at length debated,
     Seemed from a forebear to derive,
     Who had in eighteen-ninety-five
     From Russia westwards emigrated.
     My mother's father, long since dead,
     From czarist Russia's heart had fled.

     This narrative whose lines I sketch
     I sometimes doubt I should relate.
     How does one's hand, indeed, outstretch
     With spirits to negotiate?
     Or have words power to create
     The image I'd articulate?
     Between awakedness and sleep
     Exists the region spirits keep;
     The journey through its hazy veil
     Can quickly pass or slowly creep,
     The passage either mild or steep,
     And of direction knows no trail.
     The language of its brief domain
     Is one which we from birth retain.

     The path by which recited verse
     Led now into my family tree,
     As though to dredge up some lost curse,
     Was one that deeply puzzled me.
     But strangeness soon takes on a feel
     By which it seems no less than real;
     And so I simply stumbled on,
     By fascination made a pawn.
     Our minds were of a separate part
     How best our stories to relate;
     To keep the flow of history straight,
     I thought that he as first should start.
     This logic, which I felt quite sound,
     He chose, however, to confound.

     "A story read from start to end
     Makes use of time's familiar flow.
     Its subtleties of plot depend
     On characters who live and grow.
     But no such history marks the place
     Of such as us, whose plots unlace
     The order in which time intends
     That life progresses and ascends.
     The climax of the plot I seek
     Is twisted from its normal state.
     The sequence I would re-create
     Is scattered through the words we speak.
     The links that form its inner part
     Might well progress from end to start."

     Confusion functions as a screen
     To save what logic treats as lost;
     The doubled strength two minds convene
     Can even these remains exhaust.
     Our conversation stumbled on
     As though all logic's use was gone,
     Until the time had finally come
     Of what we knew to form a sum.
     Fatigued by senseless argument,
     I, with regret, my thoughts forsook
     And so the project undertook
     My Russian past to document.
     What follows is, from family lore,
     That glimpse through history's long-closed door...

Copies of this book may obtained for $10. each (including postage and handling) by using the Order Form. A billing invoice will be sent along with the book. ISBN is 0-966-56140-6. LCCN is 98-090570.

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