A POEM FOR CITY COUNCIL

Last night I was asked to appear before city council here and read a poem. I chose to read one about Alexander Bartlet, Windsor’s first town clerk (born 1780). He was also a magistrate. He resided at the corner of Chatham and Ferry Streets in a building that was replaced by the Old Fish Market. The house he owned was moved to a nearby street. For years, I have gone in search of this old Georgian residence. I haven’t located it. I’ve seen two or three that could possibly be Bartlet’s home.

The poem begins with that search, but tells about the morning that Bartlet heard about the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln. The poem is dedicated to Bartlet, but also to Thomas Hines who was chased in Detroit on April 16th because people mistook him for Lincoln’s assassin, John Wilkes Booth, who was still on the run. Hines made his way to the ferry docks in Detroit, forced a ferry boat operator at gunpoint to take him across to Windsor. So overwhelmed with guilt over having treated the man that way, Hines offered the operator $5 for the trouble. The story I am telling in this narrative is based in part — with a lot of poetic licence — on the diaries Bartlet left behind. These are housed at the University of Windsor Archives in the basement of the university library. Here is the poem:

The Magistrate’s House

For Alexander Bartlet and Thomas Hines

 

Sometimes I go out

in early morning

cruising up and down Windsor streets

in search of his house

—its sprawling Georgian verandah

the usual sash windows

sturdy front door with transom

and sidelights

They’ve moved it, but not far

I’ve narrowed it down

to two or three —

In a way I don’t want to know

I want to paint my own story

of that that morning: 1865

of the billy-goat bearded town clerk

racing down a flight of stairs

to the landing —

paperboys fanning out into Ferry Street

from the ferry docks

a cold Easter Monday

the boys shouting “Lincoln Shot!”

I see the magistrate’s frown

in the dim April dawn

his voice summoning the boys

to bring him the paper

see him pausing there in the gaping entrance

wondering what went wrong

a civil war across the river

the flight of slaves to his shores

now rumours of John Wilkes Booth

making his own run across the river

That Easter Monday

a sleepy town rouses itself awake

to the scuttlebutts

of a ferry boat captain

who stopped at nothing to spin the legend

of being held at gunpoint

by Lincoln’s assassin

and the magistrate sorts out

the hearsay down by the docks

wind howling up that street

sweeping its way into the

shopkeepers’ doorways

on that spit-gray day

It’s all gone now but for that story

and the ramshackle house

that sits somewhere

quietly breathing

telling no one

the truth

 

 

One comment on “A POEM FOR CITY COUNCIL

  1. Diana says:

    Loved this poem! What a rich history we have here in Windsor and what great writers. Atmosphere you created with so few words and images drew me in. I was there too and loved every second.

    Like

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