In 2008, on the eve of the 200th anniversary of Abraham Lincoln’s birth, author and playwright LeAnne Howe began researching the life of his wife, Mary Todd Lincoln. After the president’s assassination, Todd Lincoln’s mental health deteriorated rapidly. Their son Robert, the only one of their four children to survive to adulthood, committed his mother to Bellevue Place Sanitarium in Batavia, Ill. It was there, in the summer of 1875, that Todd Lincoln claimed an Indian spirit tortured her in her room every night.

“The Indian slits my eyelids and sews them open, always removing the wires by dawn’s first light,” Lincoln told her doctor.

These otherworldly nocturnal encounters embody Howe’s superb poetry collection, “Savage Conversation.”

In the mid-1800s, the U.S. government refused to abide by treaties it had signed with the Dakota people. White settlers stole their land and rations and raped the women. After the Dakota revolted, in what would become known as the Dakota War, President Lincoln ordered the simultaneous hanging of 38 Dakota men in Mankato on the morning of Dec. 26, 1862. It would be the largest mass execution in U.S. history.

A member of the Chocktaw Nation of Oklahoma, Howe imagines Todd Lincoln’s haint in “Savage Conversations,” as one of the 38 victims of this merciless retribution. Comprising three scenes, the book takes the form of a play with stage instructions, props and dialogue prompts, and an ominous “seething” narrator, “The Rope,” who assumes the form of both a man and a noose.

This lucid collection ingeniously examines the deep and sordid layers of complicity. Through her research, Howe suspected that Todd Lincoln lived with Munchausen syndrome by proxy, which may have contributed to three of her young children’s deaths. In “Savage Conversations,” when Todd Lincoln attempts to defend her integrity by proclaiming herself an abolitionist, the character known as Savage Indian counters with a chilling reminder of the secret crimes she committed to gain the attention of her husband.

“You bring a child into the world and intensely regret it, / Despite your theatrical tears for pity when another son dies.”

The exchanges between Todd Lincoln and Savage Indian consist of a masterful quid pro quo. Ultimately, the abandoned widow, through Savage Indian’s nightly retributions, finds a release from her guilt and an escape from the long days and lonely confinement of her room. And as their unlikely companionship evolves, Savage Indian comes to feel sorry for her and the harsh isolation that characterizes the last years of her life.

“When I look at your world, I weep / Because in the end, even your life is a captivity account. / Maybe we are all captives of one sort of the other.”

 

Anjali Enjeti’s reviews appear in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, the Georgia Review and elsewhere. She is vice president of membership for the National Book Critics Circle.

Savage Conversations
By: LeAnne Howe.
Publisher: Coffee House Press, 108 pages, $15.95.
Event: Wordplay festival, May 11-12, downtown Minneapolis.