Book: POE LAND by J.W. Ocker
REVIEW BY PAUL DAY CLEMENS
Having read as much as I have in the last 40 years both by and about Edgar Allan Poe, it is rare indeed that I encounter a book about EAP that can truly qualify as original. So imagine my surprise and delight upon reading J.W. Ocker's 'Poe-Land' to discover that Mr. O has managed to pull that most impressive rabbit called "Originality" out of his magician's topper first time up to bat, if you'll excuse the mixed metaphor. Hell, even the book's cover is delightfully unique, featuring a typically brooding Poe in a deliberately incongruous Coney Island style setting that frames Ocker's narrative to a proverbial T, inviting one and all, young and old, literary and non, to enter Poe-Land -- IF they dare! -- and experience the wonders therein.
With sustained wit, a charmingly informal (though very well-informed) writing style, and an infectious enthusiasm for his chosen subject -- namely the highways and byways of Edgar Allan Poe's complex, tempestuous, sometimes mysterious, and always fascinating Life and Times -- Mr. Ocker takes us on a compelling and, above all, FUN journey down the literal and literary memory lanes once frequented and occasionally lived in, by E.A. Poe. And one could not hope to find a better host and travelling companion while traversing this eponymous Poe-Land than J.W. Ocker.
I must admit, in all honesty, that I was expecting a much lighter (as in "insubstantial") reading experience that the one found between the covers of this marvelous new tome. I thought that it would be breezy, somewhat enjoyable in a surfacy kind of travelogue manner, but I certainly didn't expect to LEARN much along the way. Well, breezy it was, in the sense of refreshing and not dry or pedantic. But, Lo and Behold, the book also turned out to be a kaleidoscopic treasure trove of Poeana -- a virtual cornucopia of scintillating information, both substantial and less so, about that most mercurial and multifaceted of 19th Century American authors, who has, with some justification, been called "America's Shakespeare". And, reading 'Poe-Land', one can easily see why that moniker came about, for Poe has literally left his mark on his native US of A in much the same way that Shakespeare laid claim -- and still does -- to Great Britain.
But, speaking of Great Britain, Ocker does not confine his dogged tracing of Poe's convoluted footsteps to America alone but travels to the places Poe visited as a youth in the company of his Scottish merchant foster father, John Allan, leaving no stone unturned there, either. Whether in Boston, Virginia, Scotland, England, Baltimore, Philadelphia, South Carolina, or New York -- wherever Poe leads him, Mr. Ocker intrepidly follows, quill in hand, scribbling away for our continual entertainment and enlightenment. (And I would be remiss, Dear Reader, not to point out at this point in my review, that Mr. Ocker never met a PLAQUE he didn't like -- or at least that he didn't MENTION!)
Most importantly, however, while many a writer, given the overall concept of 'Poe-Land' plus sufficient travel-time and expenses, could have come up with a comparably comprehensive book in terms of all the Poe-related places covered between those covers, it still would likely not be even half the rich experience that Ocker's book is. And that is because the man truly "gets" it. Meaning "gets Poe" -- clearly grasping what made Eddy's Tell-Tale Heart tick so hauntingly, mesmerizingly, and uniquely.
At a key point late in his narrative Mr. O asks a deceptively simple question -- "Why is Poe cool?" -- which immediately sparked an enthusiastic mental response from me. Namely, that there exists a multitude of different Poes to explore -- a Poe for everyone, so to speak -- no matter the lifestyle or age of the audience or what age the audience lives in. Poe is perennially cool. Perpetually cool. 4-ever cool. Cool in a way that no other 19th Century writer was or is.
And this evergreen coolness is best understood by viewing Poe as a kind of literary/biographical/cultural Rorschach in which each person may see their own version or vision of the man -- to each their own Poe, so to speak. Poe as the personal property of all who seek to know him. And demonstrating that phenomenon in vivid and sometimes unexpected ways is exactly what Ocker does to exhilarating and often humorous effect throughout the gothically gloomy or mordantly mirthful environs of 'Poe-Land'.
But it's really impossible to convey just how Ocker "gets it" without quoting a few memorable lines and passages from his book...
For example, in relating Poe's move to the small cottage in Fordham (a set of neighborhoods in the west Bronx), New York, which still stands to this day, Ocker observes "At the time he, Virginia, and Maria moved into the cottage, Poe was still flying high off the reception to 'The Raven', and by flying high I mean broke and struggling and still caring for a dying wife."
Man, does that cut right to the ironic heart of Poe's "success" or what?
Or try this wry summation of Poe on for size: "...an American author whose works involved ripping the teeth out of victim's mouths with pliers or severing their heads with clock hands or -- and sorry to be so graphic on this one -- ruminating on the proper way to furnish a room."
And that's just a tiny sampling of Ocker's irresistibly irreverent yet often insightful style, which I could go on quoting for pages. But those bits will have to suffice. (For further examples, I implore you, Dear Reader, to simply purchase the book.)
Beyond his skillful and clever facility with words, Ocker also has a wonderful knack for collecting fascinating people along the way and bringing forth compelling, amusing, and/or revealing insights, observations and experiences from them, often merely by saying one simple thing to get the ball rolling: "Tell me your Poe story". And oh what stories he hears and shares with us, his lucky guests in Poe-Land!
From the marvelously talented Jeffrey Combs, Ocker learns of the actor's personal experiences exploring Poe's teeming and tormented psyche both on film -- in Stuart Gordon's 'Masters Of Horror' episode 'The Black Cat' -- and then live onstage in his one-man theatrical tour de force 'Nevermore'. And Ocker's account of meeting Peter Fawn in England, a section he fittingly titles 'The Man Who Collected Poe', is masterfully told as he wrestles with the problem of how the hell to sum up five hours ogling a stunning array of jaw-dropping gems from "The World's Largest Poe Collection". Ocker admits it was far from an easy task, yet he manages it eloquently and with palpable relish, painting an infectiously charming portrait of Mr. Fawn in the process.
Toward the end of Ocker's odyssey he pays an equally memorable visit to another celebrated Poe person -- Susan Jaffe Tane, the world's ultimate private collector of EAP first editions, hand-written manuscripts, letters, and other pricey and priceless mouth-watering treasures. And as he guides us through her state-of-the-art, climate-controlled Palace of Poe, Ocker brings to vivid life a woman who, prior to reading this book, had seemed a rather mysterious and intimidating figure to me, as enigmatic as the author whose works, writings and relics she has spent so many years preserving and protecting. But, during her extended visit with the ingratiatingly inquisitive author of 'Poe-Land', Ms. Tane revealed more of herself and her infectious passion for collecting Poe than she has done even in her own writings on the subject. And I soon found myself saying "Wow -- I really wanna meet this fascinating, inspiring woman!" (Yeah -- and steal her whole bloody collection too!) Okay -- that last bit was a joke. Though, as a serious Poe collector myself, I must admit to some major twinges of "Edgar envy" while perusing those particular chapters!
Folks, I could go on and on. But, like all trips to amusement parks and carnivals, this visit to Mr. Ocker's 'Poe-Land' must also come to an end. And if I have any negative comments to make about his book, it is only that I wish he could have included even MORE!
But then that's what a "Revised and Expanded Second Edition" is for, yes?