- Davenport’s Version, and: Not So the Chairs: Selected and New Poems
The first Gothic novel appeared in 1763, when the English aristocrat and literary dilettante Horace Walpole published The Castle of Otranto. In that novel's first edition, Walpole introduced one of the most venerable of fictional subterfuges, the so-called "found manuscript." A nameless fictional "editor" reports in a prefatory essay that he has discovered a mysterious old, unattributed manuscript dating, he believes, from early Renaissance Italy and whose curious nature and sensational story has motivated him to edit and publish it. The tale, full of crumbling castles, mysterious apparitions, mistaken identities, lascivious old men, endangered young women, and heroic young men, was of course Walpole's invention, a fact that he admitted in a new preface when the novel went into a second edition. The device has become ubiquitous in our own time, and not just in Gothic tales any more, but also in mainstream literature and, perhaps more notoriously, in journalistic phenomena like the stories attributed to "unnamed sources." [End Page 188]
John Gery has taken up this framing device in Davenport's Version, a long and wonderfully engaging pseudo-historical tale set in New Orleans during the Civil War. For Gery, a widely-published poet and cultural critic, a long poem of this sort marks both a departure from and an extension of his previous work, in which the intersection of history and human affairs have figured prominently.
Gery trumps Walpole (and others, like the Coleridge of "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner") in his handling of the framing device, however, embedding the tale within not just one but several fictional and metafictional frames. His own prefatory essay, "A Brief History of the Poem," introduces him as a well-known but harried "poet and teacher" up for promotion in an English department and worrying about the associate dean's ominous hint that his "faltering status on the faculty" stems from the administration's view that his "scholarly output did not really suit the direction of the college" (p. 10). Into his office wanders a strange, twitchy, conspiratorial man, a teller at a local New Orleans bank, with a tale to tell of an old man with indefinable accent who had plagued him at the bank and subsequently enticed him to his filthy and derelict French Quarter residence, where the old man entrusted to the teller an ancient manuscript, telling him he would know what to do with it. The teller wants the poet-professor to read the manuscript, but the busy writer, with too much already on his mind, responds dismissively and the teller disappears, never to return. The mail soon brings a fat envelope with no return address. It is, of course, the mysterious manuscript, which the professor glances at and then shoves into a stack of papers where it languishes for a year. One day, struggling with writer's block, he pulls out the manuscript and becomes intrigued – indeed obsessed – with the verse tale of a curious relationship among New Orleans figures, centering upon a woman called Bressie LaRouché and told from the perspective of a Federal officer during the city's occupation by Farragut's forces during the Civil War.
So far, so good. The professor-poet now edits the manuscript, he tells us, regularizing spellings and generally "cleaning it up" as unintrusively as possible. But he also tells us that among the manuscript pages is an excerpt "copied from a letter by Lafcadio Hearn to his friend H. E. Krehbiel" and describing a mystical sort of poetical prose that is neither antique Greek nor Sanskrit but something powerfully fanciful. Also in the manuscript are a pair of epigraphs (from Chaucer and Crane), but none of these materials, the "editor" tells us, goes very far toward solving "the mystery behind thus poem" (p. 10), which he says he has decided on his own to call Davenport's Version, an enigmatic title that communicates nothing while hinting at an apparently well known story that exists, "off-stage...