Review

Mary Falls
Requiem for Mrs. Surratt

by Christopher Conlon (Botswana 1988–90)
The Word Works Capital Collection
July 2007
76 pages
$10.00

Reviewed by Tony Zurlo (Nigeria 1964–65)

    CHRISTOPHER CONLON, LIKE many major American poets, finds inspiration for much of his poetry from American history. The Weeping Time, his moving collection about a slave auction, and his award-winning Gilbert & Garbo are two outstanding examples.
         Poets with Conlon’s talent step far beyond the history, however. He writes, “[T]here are different ways for a thing to be true.” And only literature can even hint at these enigmatic, primal emotions and thoughts that drive human behavior. To account for his own inspiration Conlon quotes Arthur Miller’s idea of dreams: “First find facts. . . and then dream about them.” Conlon says, “The writing comes from the dreaming.”
         Conlon’s newest book of poems Mary Falls: Requiem for Mrs. Surratt speculates on the emotional life of Mary Surratt, a forgotten character in the plot to assassinate President Abraham Lincoln. Convicted of conspiracy in the plot, Mary Surratt was hanged on July 7, 1865 with three other male conspirators. She was the first woman executed by the U.S. government. President Andrew Johnson refused to commute her sentence to life, saying she “She Kept the Nest That Hatched the Egg.”
         Mary Falls: Requiem for Mrs. Surratt forces readers to imagine themselves as Southern-bred Mrs. Surratt, schooled at a Roman Catholic female seminary. Conlon offers a sympathetic view, presenting her as a victim of an alcoholic husband who raped and brutalized her continuously. The poem “The Last Time” portrays their last sexual encounter: “he’s mad-eyes / with drink, leaping atop her, . . . / pulling apart her legs / like dismembering a chicken.”
         When her husband John dies, Mrs. Surratt, who became sole owner of a boarding house in Washington, D.C., expresses the bitter-sweet emotion that widows in that era must have all experienced. In the poem “Free,” she watches “the wild geese / glide over the trees, / free as they are / from profit / or loss, from / patrons or creditors, / free from / the life that shackles / her with her / widow’s freedom.”
         Conlon also brings into play the rumor of an affair between Mrs. Surratt and her parish priest Father Finotti. In “Thief in the Night” she “weeps openly, . . / for days” because father Finotti has been “banished (everyone knows why) / . . . When he goes / it’s under cover of darkness, as if / in shame . . ..”
         The suspense is highest in the third portion of the book, “Theater of War.” Conlon presents Mrs. Surratt as a naïve but suspicious outsider who watches as her son John, a Confederate spy, seems to be plotting with John Wilkes Booth and others. Conlon writes in “January 1, 1865” that when Booth “appears for the first time / . . . Mary is struck dumb: / he’s the most beautiful man — but / more than a man!” Her fascination with Booth reflects one of Conlon’s major themes: Mrs. Surratt was dominated by men, from her husband, Father Finotti, her son, Booth, and others. In “The Immaculate” Conlon presents Mrs. Surratt’s awe of men.

    There is
    something inescapably
    foreign about them . . . as if they had
    descended from some other world to dazzle,
    to enchant, to abuse, to kill, but never
    just to live, never simply to be, not born
    of woman at all — or rather, not of man;
    . . . each one distant, alone,
    immaculate in his beauty and violence, poised
    to engulf her in his icy, alienated embrace.

         I agree completely with Earl Hamner, author of Spencer’s Mountain and creator of The Waltons, who writes about Conlon: “I am convinced that Christopher Conlon is an extremely important poet, and that in time to come he will be recognized as a major voice in our literature.”

    Tony Zurlo’s poetry and fiction have appeared in more than one hundred print and online journals, including Red River Review, Clockwise Cat, Long Story Short, Peace Corps Writers, Fickle Muses, Open Window, VerbSap, November 3rd Club, Armageddon Buffet, Literary Fever, and The Cynic. He also has published books on Vietnam, China, Hong Kong, Japan, Japanese Americans, West Africa, Algeria, and Syria. His op-eds and reviews have appeared in many newspapers and online journals, including the Houston Chronicle, the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, Online Journal, and Democrats.US.