On a chilly December day in 2016, a car whizzed crosstown in Philadelphia. We stayed huddled in the backseat, unused to the blast of frigid air. Over the past few days we had gotten our fill of winter, tramping across downtown on foot, to visit the museum, running up the steps like Rocky, doubling over at the top, heaving from the exertion of it or the cold air. But on this particular day, my pulse quickened for another reason. We would be visiting the Edgar Allan Poe house Philadelphia.
I am as familiar as the next person on Poe’s contributions to pop culture through poems that involve a heart beating under the floorboards, a raven that speaks. I was on a different kind of mission though, one of trying to better understand what does the life and livelihood look like for the working poet?
The car slowed in front of an old edifice and we walked around the blocks until the staff had returned from lunch, also ensuring we were the first ones to take a post-prandial tour. I’ve been under a working supposition that the life in which the writer find her or himself ensconced is directly responsible for the kind of writing they produce in their lifetime. It did not surprise me to learn that this particular house inhabited by Poe, his wife and mother-in-law, had a basement of substantial proportions to the rest of the house. Of course it did! So much of his work happens in the nether regions, especially when the life lived upstairs was fraught with such difficulty. The docent, eagerly pointed out a recession in the chimney where a stuffed black cat glared out. She described how that architectural feature had provided the impetus for Poe’s, “the black cat.” We wound our way back upstairs and along the way learned how gravely ill Mrs. Poe was, learned how her mother doting on EA Poe provided a kind of mooring in the restlessness of that stormy sea.
The ladies lived on the highest level of the house and you had to scale a very narrow stairway to access the space.
But what stood out to me most, even beyond the basement was the close proximity between his study and bedroom on the next level down.
At the time we visited, the light shimmered along the dilapidated walls of the study and I could envision sitting down at a desk to write, the window on my left, an option to look outside of self. I imagined him getting up in the middle of the night from his bed, an idea lightening his steps after flinging off the covers. How do we as creative people disconnect from the world of creative production really? Can dreams propel us into a new world on the page? Something about the short distance between those two rooms inspired me to wonder.
Not far from the Poe house, the Free Library holds secrets of its own. Notably, if you scale to the top of the building, you will happen upon the rare books room, free to access after signing in. The treasures housed within are nothing short of revelatory. Rejection letters to Beatrix Potter. A Maxfield Parrish painting. And the reason it was on our agenda, a very special taxidermied bird. A raven. The staff member flips a switch and the inside of a case lights up to reveal a glossy-feathered raven with an impossibly long beak. One eye that you might swear is twinkling and will continue watching you after you leave. This pet of Charles Dickens, a raven named Grip, inspired Edgar Allan Poe’s infamous raven. If you listen closely enough you might hear it squawk, “nevermore.”