Listening to Lincoln in the Bardo


Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders

Audiobook with a cast of 166 narrators

A “reader” response-in-progress by Kathleen Kirk

I say “listening” because I am still listening—not at this moment (when I am beginning to write) but only after the first disc, which has moved me. Having once written a poem about Abraham Lincoln in the afterlife, I knew I would want to read George Saunders’s new book about Lincoln in the “bardo,” a sort of purgatory or in-between condition, a liminal or intermediate state after life and before death in Tibetan Buddhism.

So far, it’s not Lincoln who’s there but Willie, his son, who was deathly ill the night of a big party at the White House, and died a few days later on February 20, 1862. Lincoln visits him in the cemetery, which is also populated by others in the bardo. Perhaps they don’t all know they are dead.

I say “reader” because I am not reading but truly listening, closely, to the cast of 166, including Nick Offerman, David Sedaris, Saunders himself, Bill Hader, Mary Karr, Julianne Moore, Susan Sarandon, and Rainn Wilson. Usually I prefer to read a book, to hold it in my hand, to pick it up, put it down, and return to it on my own schedule. But this time I will listen, disc by disc, at the rate of these readers, taking in the story and the information in, for me, a new way.

By “information,” I do mean information—historical accounts, footnotes, facts, and memories supplied by witnesses who lived with, attended, or visited the Lincolns. The book is a collage of history and fiction; the history is a collage of fact and fabrication, showing the tricks that memory plays or how the moods and needs of storytellers, even history-tellers, supply the “necessary details.” The moon that night was every kind of moon—full, crescent, new, silver, golden, absent.

I have a shelf of Lincoln books, and several have already been cited on disc one of Lincoln in the Bardo. I’ve read Team of Rivals, by Doris Kearns Goodwin, and Daniel Mark Epstein’s book about Lincoln and Walt Whitman. On my shelf and among the footnotes recited in the audiobook is Epstein’s book The Lincolns: Portrait of a Marriage. No doubt I’ll want to read that next, or soon.

Speaking of Whitman, he wrote the famous elegy “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d” for Lincoln, who is not named in the poem but powerfully evoked. Lincoln died on April 15, and indeed my lilacs were blooming then and are blooming still. Here is my own poem, recently read aloud in a history museum, about the time Lincoln was asked to toast his favorite poet, Robert Burns, a Scottish poet and fellow rail splitter, and came up speechless (for once)! I wrote it many years before Saunders put us in the bardo. In my own version of Lincoln’s moment in the afterlife, he gets to see Willie, and another son, Tad, and then realizes they are all there, his sons, and the Civil War soldiers, too. 

Abraham Lincoln Raises a Glass to Robert Burns in the Afterlife

Once, asked to raise a toast to you,
I was struck dumb.

But here we all are, rattling and dust. 
The sounds we make
might not frighten a mouse.

What hurts most, I know you know it,
is the harm we ourselves have done,
not what was done to us.

I do not mean to mumble, or go silent again.
Not here, in the lilac fog.

Here, all I can remember is joy—
dancing with a fine woman, the heart of the wood
when I split it, my mother when I was a child.

You and Shakespeare!
And Mr. Whitman.
Ah, Willie!  Ah, Tad, ah—!

All my boys, all my boys!

 

[first published in Feast: Poetry & Recipes for a Full Seating at Dinner (Black Lawrence Press, 2015)]

And, as April comes toward its end, Happy National Poetry Month! 

“When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d” by Walt Whitman at the Poetry Foundation 

Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders at Penguin Random House 

Story about the audiobook cast at Entertainment Weekly

Feast at Black Lawrence Press