Two Mistakes is a drama-length poem in metered verse for which I won second place in the Tom Howard / Margaret Reid Poetry Prize. The full work is posted here.

It is based on Shakespeare’s A Comedy of Errors.

I transplanted the location, beginning it in the 1820s in Louisville, Kentucky, a city at the border of North and South. A steamboat explosion along the Ohio river separate the pairs of twins. One child and slave are rescued and taken back to their home in Kentucky, a slave state. The corresponding pair are placed in an ash tub as part of their rescue. They wash down the river to where they arrive in Troy, Indiana. There, they are raised by an abolitionist family. Twenty years later, circumstance leads the twins who were raised by abolitionists to go to Louisville where they encounter those raised by slave owners.

Although my piece retains some of the farcical nature of the Shakespeare play, it also undertakes a serious exploration of the nature of slavery and how the institution destroys both slave and slaveholder.

 

Main Characters, abbreviated for the purpose of this excerpt:

Annie and Frances: Identical twin sisters born to Claude and Mamie Sharper, Louisville.

Anthony and Remmy Cobb: Identical twin slaves, purchased as a birthday gift for Annie and Frances. Remmy is renamed Moses after his adoption.

Demetrius Darling: An abolitionist living in Troy, Indiana who rescues and raises Remmy and Frances.

Excerpts:

Early on, a seeress, warns Mamie.

“Your daughters are cloaked in a dark veil of gloom;
You must keep their names stitched to the clothing they wear
Or else Annie and Frances will meet with their doom.
Say you’ll contract a seamstress.” She made Mamie swear.
Claude Sharper, her husband, said, “Dearie, be brave.”
But, because of her nerves, to protect and to serve,
As a gift for his daughters, he purchased twin slaves.

When Annie, Frances, Remmy and Anthony are one years of age, the Sharper family takes them on a steamboat excursion. There is an explosion.

It would never have burst were it tough as Old Hans:
If the boiler ‘d been forged from the flesh of its stoker.
A hulk of a giant with brawn cast from bronze,
His two hands vast as shovels, his fingers like pokers.
But the steam pipes were brittle, their knuckles corroded.
With a blast of hot steam a bolt ripped from a seam.
The pressure increased and then soon overloaded.

Hans rescues Remmy and Frances from the sinking ship by setting them in an ash tub. It floats far down the Ohio River.

Enduring a rite that was grimly baptismal
The two in the tub got a rude sort of christening.
Struck by hail and cold showers, their prospects seemed dismal.
As their tub filled they cried out, but who would be listening?
Cheating death, born again, and now back where they started
To be drowned in their font as though hope were a taunt.
When their fortunes looked bleakest at last the clouds parted.

They are rescued by Demetrius Darling, an abolitionist, who lives in Troy, Indiana, at that time also home to a young Abraham Lincoln, who gives him advice.

Abe weighed out each word as he carved on a spud,
“So you hunt down their story with eyes wide and starry,
But let’s say that pale child holds a drop of slave blood.
When they herd them away, will you say, ‘Gosh, I’m sorry?’
If a wound is still bleeding, words make a poor dressing.
Don’t be a woodenhead, keep the two pudden-heads,
And welcome this boon as a sign of God’s blessing.”

Later, in the 1840s, Remmy (renamed Moses) and Frances (she had her first name stitched to her blanket), are full-grown. Demetrius has been swindled out of his home and Moses and Frances must go to Louisville to deal with the swindler. Demetrius (Shorty) is:

In a wreckage of shadows, alone and alone,
His soul crumbled to dust and then sifted through floorboards.
Shorty hurtled his armchair to shatter his throne.
Splinters scattered like seeds that could grow ever more boards.
His life bound to a plow, his hands blistered and gritty,
He’d refrained from obsessing or else second-guessing,
Steering clear of the poisonous charms of self-pity.

Meanwhile, the other separated twins, Anthony and Annie, have been raised in Louisville, in the Sharper household. Anthony is the house slave. Annie is about to be pawned off in marriage. Her father rhapsodizes about her suitor.

“Buttons Bellamy, Viscount, a purebred Virginian,
A man of refinement, the bluest of bloods.
But my hymns are much more than some random opinion,
He’s awash in endorsements, a virtual flood:
All assert he is princely, high-minded, complete
With intrigue and romance. With such praise in advance
Imagine the awe when we finally meet.

“He’s fought twenty-one duels and lost but his nose.
While a score of those foes never dared to appear!”

Anthony is polishing the piano keys as Annie describes her doubts.

Each key thumped as he rubbed in a smudge of beeswax.
He began at the bass end, the throatier notes.
Tensions peaked then released as he scaled whites and blacks.
Bitter tones were relieved by their sweet antidotes.
There were candle snuff notes that could put out a flame.
Some delivered a shiver without a deliverance.
There were notes for emotions that no one could name.

Without breaking her rhythm she switched from her book
To her grievances, “Dare and the world always yields?
I’m just property.” Anthony shot her a look.
“To daddy, I’m merely some crop from his fields.
To be bartered for status. He’ll rue my departure.
I’ll be free once I marry this big dignitary,
He’s a viscount—that’s like an archduke, only archer.

“Yes’m,” Anthony said, hammers pounding their strings.
“He owns his own vineyards and label of wine.”
“Yes’m.” Anthony felt every sharp leave a sting.
“Don’t you fret, you and Marlowe will always be mine.”
“Yes’m.” Notes were steep steps on his way to the gallows.
Once the last key was beat, his ascension complete,
The piano lid dropped with a jolt swift and shallow.

Frances arrives in Louisville dressed as a man, while Moses comes dressed as a slave.

Wearing trousers, a frock coat, hair hidden in hat,
Frances journeyed through Louisville dressed as a man.
With her voice low and booming, she grumbled and spat.

Meanwhile Moses conducted his own masquerade
As a house servant dressed in a vest of green baize,
A grey waistcoat and breeches. His manner conveyed
A docile domestic. He felt every gaze.

From here, there are varied mistaken identities. Moses is mistaken for Anthony, Frances, dressed as a man, is mistaken by her sister for her never-yet-seen fiancé.

Annie lazed on the lounge with a pose that declared
Just how little she cared. But why feign such a look
If no one is looking?
She got up and stared
Through the keyhole at Frances whom Annie mistook
To be Buttons. In awe, she concluded that he
Was the handsomest creature with elegant features—
If this man weren’t a man then this man would be… me.

I’ve gone on for awhile. The poem proceeds through a game of Russian Roulette and Moses tries to win back his father’s farm in a crooked poker game. Behind, losing, and cheated, he takes an audacious risk. The swindler says:

“Ain’t no matter the cards, since you can’t match my bet
You’re already the loser. Good luck your next game.
I sense you’re regretting we ever done met.
Give or take a few thousand, my feeling’s the same.
Now, get out of my place! Leave your stash on the shelf.”
Moses felt his hopes drained only one choice remained.
He said, “I’ll see your wager. I’m betting myself.

“You can auction me off if you don’t want a slave.
My value at market is one grand or more.”

How does the story conclude? You’ll have to read the rest to find out. Again, the full work is posted here.

 

 

Martin Hill Ortiz is a researcher and professor at the Ponce University of Health Sciences in Ponce, PR where he lives with his wife and son. He has three novels published by small presses: A Predatory Mind (Loose Leaves Publishing, 2013),  Never Kill A Friend, (Ransom Note Press, 2015), and A Predator’s Game (Rook’s Page, 2016). 


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4 Responses

  1. C.B. Anderson

    From the lack of comments so far, I must conclude that most readers don’t have the patience for delving through epics. The meter was suspect in almost every line, but it was consistent, which goes a long way in evening out the total effect. It was quite a tale, all in all, and should stand up to works such as Huckleberry Finn.

    Reply
    • Martin Hill Ortiz

      Thank you for taking the time to read it and especially the comment about Huckleberry Finn. It is a complex poem. This isn’t my first narrative poem, but it is by far the longest.

      The scene with the wheelbarrow races is self-indulgently long. I had in mind introducing four characters and their rivalries and wanted to do it with action underway. The wheelbarrow race is modeled in spirit after the chariot race in Ben-Hur.

      As for the rhythm. There are places where I dropped the strict meter, but not that often. However I set about to make it in anapestic meter according to the way it would be read out loud, in the sense of making specific choices for emphasis. As Robert Frost once said, meaning has a rhythm.

      So, while the page reader might read:

      WEARing TROUsers, a FROCK coat, HAIR HIDden in HAT,
      FRANces JOURneyed through LOUisville DRESSED as a MAN.

      I wrote this section to be spoken with a sort of Seussian form of wonder:

      Wearing TROUsers, a FROCK coat, hair HIDden in HAT,
      Frances JOURneyed through LOUisville DRESSED as a MAN.

      Reply
      • C.B. Anderson

        I see it better now, but how do you get the average reader to that place?

  2. Martin Hill Ortiz

    I think that it comes out only when being read out loud with the right choices, or by a reader who will tune in to the rhythm.

    All communication loses something on the written page. I’ve seen times when the news report quotes, (correctly), “I fully agree with you.” When the spoken words are sarcastic.

    I wrote a poem called, “What We Lost When the Storyteller Died.” It’s not metered, so it’s not here.

    “She could lift an elephant with her eyebrows.”

    Its point is that the paper loses a portion of the meaning. The poem ends by critiquing the internet, where we have lost one thing more level of connection. Casual cruelty appears online because:

    The fist [is] so distant from the bruise.

    So, how to bring the poem’s rhythm to life? Reading it out loud.

    Reply

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