John Lee Clark

THE RETROACTIVE POEMS OF ALFRED CASTNER KING

At the close of the nineteenth century, there was an aspiring poet working in a mine in Ouray, Colorado. Although he had written many poems, he felt he could not justify adding yet another book to "our already inflated and overloaded literature, unless it should contain something in the nature of a deviation from beaten literary paths." He was content to wait until his work matured after further studies in "etymology, rhetoric, Latin and Greek."

The justification for publishing his w came to Alfred Castner King sooner than expected. On March 17, 1900—one day after his twenty-sixth birthday—there was an accident in the mine. The explosion, he wrote, "banished the light of the Colorado sun from his eyes forever." In the following months he went from hospital to hospital "in an ineffectual attempt to regain even partial sight." Then his "ambition slowly rallied." His physical recovery from the accident was also a recovery of his "ideas and efforts of past years." He and his mother quickly worked to put them into publishable form. The first of his two collections of poems appeared the following year, thus launching his long career as a lecturer and performer.

Most of his poems were drafted before he became DeafBlind, and, indeed, they speak of mountaintop vistas and the music of nature. A few poems were created after the accident, such as "Lifeís Undercurrent," in which the speaker contrasts his fate with that of other hospital patients. It is harder to tell with a few other poems whether they had been written after the accident, such as "The Miner" and "The Suicide." "The Miner" is an anthem to the dangerous profession. Was it a daring young man who had written it, or a proud survivor?

"The Suicide" also offers us very different possible readings. On the subject the speaker expresses horror and compassion. If it was written after Kingís traumatic accident, it is an example, one of many in literature, of a disabled poet seeking to stand alongside abled society by bidding it to gaze at someone else. Did King direct that gaze as a hearing-sighted man or after he had become DeafBlind?

Even if "The Suicide" was written before the accident, it is a product, retroactively, of our literature because King published and recited the poem as a DeafBlind man. There hadnít been enough time between the accident and the publication of his first book for him to make much progress in adopting his new identity. "Lifeís Undercurrent" finds the speaker still feeling that his situation is worse than any other patientís. In time, however, King would become comfortable as a DeafBlind person. Thus, he may have circled back to assume the same attitude toward suicide that he once held as a hearing-sighted person, horrified and moved by it but not identifying with it at all.

As it happeneed, suicide was a favorite topic on the same lecture circuits King traveled in. Also, the British writer William Hurrell Mallochís controversial 1879 book Is Life Worth Living? had made that question one of the most frequently discussed in these lecture halls. Eugenics was gaining traction, turning the issue into a question not of whether but whose life was worth living, and Kingís audiences must have often wondered how he could bear to live in his condition. Aside from "Lifeís Undercurrent," his implicit response is that his life is unquestionably worth living. If he suggests a line between lives worth and not worth living, it is based on love, the subject of "Deprive this strange and complex world…" and "Missed."

King lived in a society at the peak of its preoccupation, grounded in nineteenth-century sentimentality, with different kinds of love—romantic, patriotic, maternal, and Christian. Malloch lamented that romantic love, in particular, was "endowed with something that is almost of the nature of a duty. He went on to explain that "If a man cannot love, it is looked on as a sort of moral misfortune, if not as a moral fault in him."

Through his poetry, King repeatedly reinforces the view of love as the most basic human attainment and he reassures his readers and himself that he is morally secure. For the speaker of "Deprive this strange and complex world…," it doesnít matter if one is deprived of hearing and sight, so long thereís still love. The speaker in "Missed," like the one in "The Suicide," turns the readerís attention away from himself and toward those so unfortunate as to have never experienced love or to be incapable of it.

Kingís most persuasive claim to kinship with his readers, however, is human mortality. He wrote many poems on the subject, most of them tedious—one labors under the title of "Mortality: A Dissertation"—but the short "Thoughts" is one of his loveliest poems. Here, death is tangible, something that the speaker has handled and taken the measure of while digging a grave on three occasions. He wonders "Where, and by whom, would my last home be made."

Alfred Castner King was born on March 16, 1874, to Lillian T. Vanca of Leslie, Michigan. As a boy his family moved to Colorado, where he attended school in Buena Vista. He was working as an assayer in an Ouray mining operation when an explosion blinded him. He would also experience varying degrees of deafness for the rest of his life.

This change prompted him to publish his poetry and to travel across the United States, lecturing, performing with his flute, and selling his books. Sometime before 1904, he married Florence Wheeler, and they settled in Fruita, raising three children, two of whom, Alfred Jr. and Virgil, reached adulthood. By 1925, according to Outlook for the Blind, he had sold 150,000 copies of Mountain Idylls (1901) and The Passing of the Storm and Other Poems (1907). Affectionately known as "Cass" among intimates and as "the blind bard of Colorado" in the newspapers, he died on August 30, 1941, in Grand Junction, Colorado.

 

Six Poems from Mountain Idylls (1901)

The Miner

Clink! Clink! Clink!
The song of the hammer and drill!
At the sound of the whistle so shrill and clear,
He must leave the wife and the children dear,
In his cabin upon the hill.
Clink! Clink! Clink!
But the arms that deliver the sturdy stroke,
Ere the shift is done, may be crushed or broke,
Or the life may succumb to the gas and smoke,
Which the underground caverns fill.

Clink! Clink! Clink!
The song of the hammer and drill!
As he toils in the shaft, in the stope or raise,
'Mid dangers which lurk, but elude the gaze,
His nerves with no terrors thrill.
Clink! Clink! Clink!
For the heart of the miner is strong and brave;
Though the rocks may fall, and the shaft may cave
And become his dungeon, if not his grave,
He braves every thought of ill.

Clink! Clink! Clink!
The song of the hammer and drill!
But the heart which is beating in unison
With the steady stroke, e'er the shift is done,
May be cold and forever still.
Clink! Clink! Clink!
He may reap the harvest of danger sowed,
The hole which he drills he may never load,
For the powder may e'en in his hand explode,
To mangle, if not to kill.

Clink! Clink! Clink!
The song of the hammer and drill!
Facing dangers more grim than the cannon's mouth;
Breathing poisons more foul than the swamps of the south
In their tropical fens distill.
Clink! Clink! Clink!
Thus the battle he fights for his daily bread;
Thus our gold and our silver, our iron and lead,
Cost us lives, as true as our blood is red,
And probably always will.

* * *

Life's Undercurrent

Within the precincts of a hospital,
I wandered in a sympathetic mood;
Where face to face with wormwood and with gall,
With wrecks of pain and stern vicissitude,
The eye unused to human misery
Might view life's undercurrent vividly.

My gaze soon rested on the stricken form
Of one succumbing to the fever's drouth,
With throbbing brow intolerably warm,
With wasted lips and mute appealing mouth;
And when I watched that prostrate figure there
I thought that fate must be the worst to bear.

I next beheld a thin but patient face,
Aged by the constant twinge of hopeless pain,
Wheeled in an easy chair from place to place,
A form which ne'er might stand erect again;
I viewed that human shipwreck in his chair,
And thought a fate like that was worst to bear.

Within her room a beauteous maiden lay,
Moaning in agony no words express,
A cancer eating rapidly away
Her vital force, &msash; so foul and pitiless;
And when I saw that face, so young and fair,
I thought such anguish was the worst to bear.

A helpless paralytic met my eyes,
Whose hands might never grasp a friendly hand,
But hung distorted and of shrunken size,
Insensible to muscular command;
His face an abject picture of despair;
I thought a fate like that was worst to bear.

With wasted form, emaciate and wan,
A pale consumptive coughed with labored breath,
His sunken eyes and hectic flush upon
His cheek, foretold a sure but lingering death;
I thought, whene'er I met his hollow stare,
A wasting death like that was worst to bear.

That day with fetters obdurate and fast,
With chain of summer, winter, spring and fall,
Is bounden to the dim receding past;
Time o'er my life has spread a somber pall,
With sightless eyes I grope and clutch the air,
My lot is now the hardest lot to bear.

* * *

"Deprive this strange and complex world&hellip:"

Deprive this strange and complex world
Of all the charms of art;
Deprive it of those sweeter joys
Which music doth impart;
But oh, preserve that smile, which tells
The secret of the heart!

The world may lose its massive piles
Which point their spires above;
May spare the tuneful nightingale
And gently cooing dove;
But woe betide it, if it lose
The sentiment of love!

* * *

The Suicide

What anguish rankled 'neath that silent breast?
What spectral figures mocked those staring e
yes,
Luring them on to Stygian mysteries?
What overpowering sense of grief distressed?

What desperation nerved that rigid hand
To pull the trigger with such deadly aim?
What deep remorse, or terror, overcame
The dread inherent, of death's shadowy strand?

Perhaps the hand of unrelenting fate
Fell with such tragic pressure, that the mind
In frenzy, uncontrollable and blind,
Sought but the darkness, black and desolate.

Perhaps 'twas some misfortune's stunning blight,
Perhaps unmerited, though deep disgrace,
Or vision of a wronged accusing face
Pictured indelibly before the sight.

Perhaps the gnawing of some secret sin,
Some aberration fraught with morbid gloom,
A buried hope which ever burst its tomb,
Despondency, disaster, or chagrin.

That heart which throbbed in pain and discontent
Is silent as the grave for which it yearned;
That brain, which once with proud ambition burned,
Now oozes through the bullet's ghastly rent.

Those eyes, transfixed with such a gruesome stare,
Once beamed with laughter, innocent and bright;
The morning gave no presage of the night;
A smile may be the prelude of despair.

Whate'er his secret, it remains untold,
For why to human anguish add one groan?
Is grief the deeper grief because unknown?
So let the grave his form and burden hold.

Ye who have felt no crushing weight of care,
From blame profuse, in charity refrain;
Some depths of sorrow overwhelm the brain,
Some loads too great for human strength to bear.

* * *

Missed

Pity the child who never feels
A mother's fond caress;
That childish smile a void conceals
Of aching loneliness.

Pity the heart which loves in vain,
What balm or mystic spell
Can soothe that bosom's secret pain,
The pain it may not tell?

Pity those missed by Cupid's darts,
For 'twas ordained for such,
Who love at random, but whose hearts
Feel no responsive touch.

* * *

Thoughts

I dug a grave, one smiling April day,
A grave whose small proportions testified
To empty arms, and playthings put away,
To ears which heard, when only fancy cried;
I wondered, as I shaped that little mound,
If in my home such grief should e'er be found.

I dug a grave, 'twas in the month of June;
A grave for one who at his zenith died;
When, on that mound with floral tributes strewn,
The tear-drops fell of one but late his bride,
I wondered if upon my silent bier
Should rest the moist impression of a tear.

I dug a grave by Autumn's sober light,
A grave of full dimensions ; 'twas for one
Whose hair had changed its raven hue to white,
Whose course had finished with the setting sun;
I wondered, as I toiled with pick and spade,
Where, and by whom, would my last home be made.

 

John Lee Clark is the author, most recently, of the essay collection Where I Stand (Handtype Press, 2014). His recent poems have appeared in or are forthcoming in Rattle, Poem-a-Day, Poetry, Poetry International, and The Nation. This piece is from his manuscript A Hidden Legacy: Early DeafBlind Literature 1820-1933.