HomeSouthern VoiceThe Wives of Jefferson Davis on the Corner of Locust and Maryland

The Wives of Jefferson Davis on the Corner of Locust and Maryland

by Jack Austin


You’re gone, while Knox looks permanently up from my history book.
I transpose her gaze up to modernity,
the passing students smell a handful of thrown dirt,
and taste acrid plant sap.

You’re bodily away, and  Knox, she died in eighteen thirty-five.
But I see her young gloved hands,
stretching her Indian Shawl down,
against the wind, against her cloaked shoulders.

You’re at home, out of my view, and up Maryland avenue.
In Louisiana there’s a set of bones I’m watching
stand in Milwaukee,
wearing a chemisette like rosette molding.

You’re long dead Knox, why did I want you near my Milwaukee haunt?
“I died from malaria at newlywed twenty one,
so I’m grateful for the living opportunity,
to be a young-man’s eyeful again.”

II. (Varina Howell brings the children)

The first two things child-faced Varina did as wife,
were to visit her not-long-now mother-in-law,
and dead Knox in Louisiana.
As florid, hot, and fragrant at the girl’s gravestone,
as she had been, balancing in her wedding dress.

From her own dead woman’s perspective,
They had six kids sometime the next day.
Three didn’t make it past eleven,
but they’re all crowded on the corner,
sniveling like Southern-weather kids in Wisconsin.

The whole family can’t smell anything with corpse noses.
“Mom, who’s that younger spirit?”

III. (Jefferson Davis Comes to the Corner)

“Knox!” the odd name comes out like a choke.
Spit from an old man’s bad jaw flares out.

IV. (Goodbye Phantasms, Milwaukee Again)

Before Davis can choose Knox
over Varina, his three gone,
and three longer gone children,
a student comes up with her pulse.

The reluctant Confederate ghosts return,
to Louisiana, to Mississippi.
They take their dirt rot, and romances, with them.

My breath is flat on my spine,
coffee taste returns sourly,
and the present gives me the sight
of a girl with moving blood.

Every cafe front door is rigged somehow,
the bells bang against, “dix-e, dix-e, dix-e”
After tea, she sits across the room from me.

She is too busy with malaria,
then having our kids, for me to study.

Jack Austin is a writer from Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and the founder and editor-in-chief of Brawler Lit, a Midwestern literary site. His family is from Texas by way of South Carolina, and “being Southern is something I grew up with,” he says. This poem was inspired by reading Shelby Foote’s Civil War narratives and is an experimental piece about Jefferson Davis’s first love, who died young. “I was intrigued by the idea that Davis was so deeply in love with Knox, but still remarried,” Austin explains. “I tried to imagine the potential conflict between the ghosts as I looked out on a grey afternoon in Milwaukee. I don’t know if anyone could chose between the first doomed love, and the love that ultimately lasted.” 

The Lafayette Confed
Literary Friday
  • frederick w bassett / October 19, 2012

    I like the poem, Jack Austin. I’d read Foote’s narrative of Jeff Davis, but somehow could not connect with him or his wives until I read Julia Oliver’s DEVOTION: A NOVEL BASED ON THE LIFE OF WINNIE DAVIS DAUGHTER OF THE CONFEDERACY. Now I’m intrigued with the whole family. I highly recommend Oliver’s novel. She live in Montgomery, Alabama, my home state.


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