“At the Raven” by Alyce Miller

Raven (linoleum monoprint) by Jennifer Berman

It’s worth noting that Edgar Allan Poe, destitute and struggling, was paid only 9 dollars for his successful poem “The Raven,” just a dollar more than the famous house drink combo consisting of a can of Natty Boh and a double shot glass of Rebel Yell Kentucky bourbon at The Raven Grill in Mount Pleasant, DC. “Anyone know if the Raven Grill was named for Poe’s poem?” I ask the bored middle-aged bartender with gauged ears and a long white beard he continually strokes into a point. I’ve just arrived on one of the coldest winter nights we’ve had yet, encased in my down-alternative jacket, boots, and hat. The bartender’s eyes are trained on the movie Legends playing on the overhead mounted TV screen and pauses before answering. A bar regular who’s been verbally glossing the movie for him shifts on his stool and chimes in, “No one knows. The bar was opened in 1932.” “’35,” corrects the bartender. To me he says, “We’d like to think so.” “Makes sense,” I say, “given he’s buried in Baltimore, and anything ‘Raven’ in this area, like the Baltimore team, seems to point to Poe.”

I take my “Raven Combo” to a vintage booth where, yes, the jagged tears in the vinyl seat covers are barely taped together, and speak to eighty-five years of history and the various clientele reflecting the changing demographics of the neighborhood over the years, local residents, the occasional tourist or hipster, millennials, all of whom are likely there for the cheap drinks and the no-pressure atmosphere.

I’ve brought along my own dinner, vegan soul food from Elife—”chicken” drummies, melt-in-your-mouth collard greens, spiced cabbage in a carryout box, and peach sorbet in a cup, which I arrange on the booth table. It’s a known fact that the word “grill” in the Raven’s name is a misnomer, since there is no grill and they serve no food, unless you count the dollar bags of chips hanging on the wall behind the bar. But you’re welcome to bring your own meal, so long as you clean up after yourself. The dim lighting is just enough to see what you’re drinking and eating, and yet easy on the eyes if you simply want to sit and lose yourself in your thoughts, which is what I’ve come to do.

My first time at the Raven was ten days ago with a friend visiting from Chicago. That evening we had picked up falafels for takeout from Marx Café’s self-described “revolutionary menu” to eat at the lone table by the window so we could watch people walking by on the main drag as the sky darkened. Different bartender that night, a young guy with a mop of dark hair who explained that despite the neon sign out front advertising cocktails, there wasn’t a cocktail to be had, though he could, he said after explaining he didn’t know how to make a cocktail, and come to think of it, they didn’t even have the makings of one, fix me up a whiskey with ginger. My friend ordered whiskey neat. “Do you think this is a dive?” I ask my friend. He briefly glances around, then grins. “Yes,” he says, “it’s a dive.”

The Mt. Pleasant neighborhood, like other areas of DC in the northwest quadrant, was part of a land grant given back in 1727 by Charles Calvert, aka Lord Baltimore, then governor of the colony of Maryland. Originally known as Pleasant Plains, the neighborhood evolved over the decades and centuries from a rural outpost of DC, which explains its lack of rectilinear street conformity, to a streetcar fulcrum, then a segregated haven for middle and upper class white residents who included actress Helen Hayes, followed by an influx of black residents after the’64 Civil Rights Act was passed, and simultaneously a destination for Salvadorans and Dominicans. In the early ’90s, as the rise in property values and gentrification colluded, wealthy white professionals began moving back into what was once a minority-majority area. As in so many cities around the U.S., the rise in DC real estate prices pushed out black and brown residents who went to other corners of the city or into the suburbs in search of more affordable housing. But Mt. Pleasant still retains much of its distinct culture, including the rowhouses and narrow, tree-lined streets, while accommodating the arrival of such upscale places as Beau Thai (get it?), a hip, industrial restaurant just a block from the Raven, and the newer condos and apartment buildings. Still, laundromats, hair and nail salons, check cashing places, dollar stores, and convenience marts, along with El Progresso Market, Ercilio’s and Don Jaime’s restaurants continue to thrive. And the Raven Grill, with its two graffiti-walled bathroom stalls, and bizarre shared sink set outside (everyone knows if you skip hand washing), its perhaps aspirational posters of Jimi Hendrix and Janice Joplin and other rock greats who never stepped foot inside here, the old, cloudy-glassed tabletop jukebox selectors, and the wall light cylinders casting a dim warm glow, lives on as it has for eighty-five years, unpretentious and welcoming.

It’s probably fair to mention that today is Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, being celebrated all around Baltimore and DC through organized walks, service opportunities, and formalized visits to King’s commanding monument next to the Tidal Basin. As many of us remember, the shocking assassination of King, though he had predicted it himself, unleashed riots in many major American cities, but were particularly intense in Baltimore and DC; here the cities burned along with pain and rage. King’s revolutionary legacy has been sadly whitewashed, but throughout the day my favorite DC radio station WPFW, Jazz and Justice, has been airing some of King’s speeches as he railed against the immorality of racial injustice, the Vietnam War, capitalism, and our government’s straying from basic democratic principles. In fact, I was listening to King right up until the moment I pulled into a miraculously open parking spot just a couple blocks from the Raven.

Shifting around in that uncomfortable straight-back booth, sipping my “combo,” I have the urge to re-read Poe’s “The Raven” on my cellphone. The setting here is perfect for the doom and gloom of Poe’s lovelorn narrator on a bleak December night mourning the dead Lenore, whose name means “light” or “torch,” but whose death has left the narrator in semi-darkness. When his reading is disrupted by the appearance of the raucous bird, the narrator begins a downward spiral into madness. “The Raven” is a poem I adored as a child, with its repetitions, deep sense of foreboding, and the final coming unglued. The figure of the raven, larger than a crow, and less communal, but featured in so much lore, was aptly described by Claude Levi-Strauss as being mythic because of its role as a mediator between life and death. By age ten, I was as morbid as they come, devouring Poe’s short stories with macabre delight, and joyfully spooked by the mad confession at the end of “Tell-Tale Heart: “’Villains!’” I shrieked, “’dissemble no more! I admit the deed! –tear up the planks! Here, here! –It is the beating of his hideous heart!’” And thrilled by the justification for the cruel murder of the ironically-monikered Fortunato in that gorgeous first line of “The Cask of Amontillado”: “The Thousand injuries of Fortunato I had borne as best I could, but when he ventured upon insult I vowed revenge.” A line I memorized and repeated over and over for years for its seductive theme of vengeance and its poetic melody. An enemy walled up to slowly suffocate to death. It didn’t get much better than that.

Much has been made of, contested, and promoted about Poe’s complex life, as well as his mysterious death. Thrust into the popular imagination as parallel to his gothic tales, his legacy was hyperbolized by the fabrications of rival peer and editor Rufus Griswold who depicted Poe as a drug fiend and madman, most of which has been discounted, though alcohol seems to have affected him greatly on the occasions he imbibed. We know that Poe’s life was not easy, that he struggled financially, and that the loss of those close to him took its toll on him from an early age. Some of his early biographers seemed to have too quickly drawn parallels between Poe’s protagonists and Poe himself, assuming he was a laudanum addict, or that he suffered from serious mental illness. Whatever the case, Poe clearly had his moments and his failings and his melancholy.

Here are some of the more well-known Poe facts: Poe’s mother, Eliza, a successful actress, singer, and beauty, died at 24, just shy of Poe’s third birthday, of tuberculosis. He was then sent to live with the Allans, who treated him as a son. Much has been made of Poe’s controversial marriage at age twenty-seven to his thirteen-year-old cousin, Virginia Clemm, who loved and supported him even through the years poverty and hard times, and who died, as his mother had, of tuberculosis, a couple of years after “The Raven” was published. (His older brother, an alcoholic, had also died, like Virginia and Eliza, of consumption.) Evocative details about the invalid Virginia included this unforgettable one that plagued me as a child: she was so cold and tuberculosis-ridden at the end, but too poor to have proper heat, that she slept with her beloved cat, Caterina, on her chest to warm her. And while this image of the consumptive tragic woman, not unlike the operatic Violetta dying on her divan, imprinted itself on my mind, it turns out that Virginia herself has maybe been overlooked as a vibrant, musically talented woman, whose 1846 Valentine’s Day acrostic to her husband offers evidence of her cleverness:

Ever with thee I wish to roam— Dearest my life is thine. Give me a cottage for my home And a rich old cypress vine, Removed from the world with its sin and care And the tattling of many tongues. Love alone shall guide us when we are there— Love shall heal my weakened lungs; And Oh, the tranquil hours we’ll spend, Never wishing that others may see! Perfect ease we’ll enjoy, without thinking to lend Ourselves to the world and its glee— Ever peaceful and blissful we’ll be.

Virginia’s optimism was not shared by Poe himself, as several of his biographers detail his descent into depression over her illness and his own poverty-plagued circumstances. And there were also his alleged affairs, apparently mostly of the heart, with other women. It’s safe to say, I think, that Poe was a troubled man, whose life slowly began to come apart at the seams and who was eventually found by an acquaintance delirious and by some accounts, dressed in clothes that were not his, outside a tavern on the mean streets of Baltimore. It has been variously speculated that Poe was attacked by thugs, had contracted rabies, suffered from lead or mercury poisoning, or had developed a brain tumor, etc. His death was not immediate, but when it came, he was buried, then unearthed, and reburied in proper fashion, a ghoulish fact that seems consonant with his own literary obsessions with death and exhumation. And while the cause of death is still debated, many medical researchers now believe Poe died of rabies.

It’s easy to forget that Baltimore and DC both fall below the Mason-Dixon line and like other southern cities were both active participants in the original sin of slavery whose legacy and the legal and immoral cruelties it spawned and furthered, continues to haunt us all today. Simply put, a legacy we have never fully dealt with. Though Black characters are far and few between in Poe’s fiction, his work offers evidence of his racist separatist views, and contempt for blackness. “The Narrative of A. Gordon Pym” and “Murders in the Rue Morgue” are just two of the complicated pieces in which his antebellum perspective are woven into the narratives, what Toni Morrison would refer to as “the Africanist presence” and the Black force that operates within the white literary imagination. Sure, one can also say that Poe was a man of his time, offering a context for such actions as his selling of an enslaved man, Henry Ridgway, for his aunt Maria Clemm, and signing his name to this bill of sale:

Know all men by these presents that I, Edgar Allan Poe, agent for Maria Clemm of Baltimore City and County and State of Maryland, for and in consideration of the sum of $40 in hand paid by Henry Ridgway of Baltimore City at or before the sealing and delivery of these presents, the receipt whereof is hereby acknowledged, have granted, bargained and sold and by these presents do grant, bargain and sell unto the said Henry Ridgway . . . a negro man named Edwin, aged 21 years on the first day of March next to serve until he shall arrive at the age of 30 years, no longer.

Of course Poe lived in a turbulent time, born the same year as Lincoln and Darwin, during the presidency of Thomas Jefferson. He would have been quite familiar with the Nat Turner slave rebellion in 1831, though he died a decade before John Brown’s raid on Harper’s Ferry. During the War of 1812, British forces burned DC and Dolley Madison famously fled the White House; she was praised for saving George Washington’s portrait, when the credit should go to the enslaved man Paul Jennings.

To write Poe off as a racist may be to miss a larger point. Poe’s life and its role in his literary worldview should serve not as mere dismissal of him, but as a reckoning with the co-existing contradictions inherent more generally in what it means to be an American and how we each live with the contemporary shadows of the collective past.

And shadows abound in “The Raven,” just as dualities, both literal and metaphorical entombments and crushing mental anguish, run through Poe’s work. As we all know, the “Raven’s” heartbroken speaker is startled by a repetitive tapping from outside that he presumes to signal a visitor, but when he finds himself peering only into darkness and “dreaming dreams no mortal ever dared to dream before,” he whispers the name “Lenore” but hears back only an echo of her name, the now lost and unattainable woman idealized in death as the “rare and radiant maiden whom the angels name Lenore.” Resolved to find the source of the tapping, he swings open his shutter, and in steps the bold raven, whom he describes as “stately,” with the “mien of lord or lady” and perches itself on a bust of Pallas above his door. All the associations with Athena’s having sprung from the head of Zeus, wisdom, virginity, and the arts converge in that moment. But in the remainder of the poem, the narrator convinces himself of more sinister intentions from the raven, and tries to cast him out, asking first if he’s a “prophet,” then a devil,” but the raven remains, with those final moments in the poem subject to numerous interpretations by critics and readers alike.

That the Raven Grill is likely named after the “Nevermore” bird in Poe’s legendary poem positions its role in the neighborhood with more significance than likely its first owners ever imagined. What Poe’s psychic shadow world shares with the present day is how we are all haunted by the past. The Raven Grill has seen its share of turbulent histories up to the present and as gentrification spreads, the Raven serves as a kind of anchor in a neighborhood of so many ghosts, including those of more than 8000 freed Black people buried in unmarked graves in the Mt. Pleasant Plains Cemetery between 1870 and 1890, with half the graves belonging to children. And then in the early ‘90s, riots broke out in Mt. Pleasant when a Black woman police officer shot and killed a Hispanic man, expanding the dialog about race and the complex histories of Black Americans and immigrants.

Maybe because it’s Martin Luther King, Jr’s birthday, I’m ruminating on a lot of these facts and intersections as I sip my Raven combo, an awkward juggling act between a few swallows of Natty Bo and a quick gulp of Rebel Yell (a bourbon it’s worth noting was apparently favored by Mick Jagger), and reading Poe’s poem. While I’m there, several other customers trickle in, a couple of young women who take the booth directly behind mine, a group of folks loudly and passionately discussing improv, a solo man who takes the booth in front of me, puts in his ear pods, and broodingly peruses his laptop under the soft lighting.

I keep thinking of King’s words about justice being indivisible, how it is our moral imperative to fight for the rights of all, to push back against the forces of capitalism and violent war, to confront ourselves head-on and ask what kind of world we want to live in. A lightweight drinker, I can’t polish off the rest of my combo, so begin cleaning up my takeout meal, and collecting my jacket and gloves.

The door to the Raven bursts open and a large, loud man enters laughing, with a blast of cold rushing in behind him. He jokes with the bartender and the regular customer on the bar stool who are still watching Legends, a film about criminal greed, and “based on a true story,” according to the regular customer. The brooding man with the laptop has just exited into the night, and the loud man brushes so close to me he actually makes contact though he’s so oblivious he hasn’t noticed I’ve tried to step aside.

Tonight I don’t need to use the restroom, but a bit of the wall graffiti penned in all caps over the toilet paper rod springs to mind:




To which has been carefully added in smaller caps:


Here’s the thing about dive bars, that is, the real ones, the ones that remain. You can sit by yourself in a dimly lit booth with duct-taped-up seats in a cocoon of coziness, scroll through an ancient jukebox selector, ponder the loftier existential realities of what it means to be a human being, reflect on the past and the future, drink an explosive combo, be reminded of the mundane, and the limits of our mortal bodies—“wipe and flush”—and then wander back onto the street outside to people of all sorts going about their business, the mother with her young son emerging with folded clothes in a cart from a laundromat, a couple folks walking their dogs, a drunk man yelling outside the 7-Eleven, two men in lighted vests unlocking their e-bikes, a woman in tights jogging by. And you can wonder how it is any of us get to where we are, how we each understand ourselves and life as we are living it at this moment. Poe’s raven responds to the narrator with “Nevermore.” Was it the raven’s name? the narrator initially wonders. The impossibility of love? Is Lenore in heaven or somewhere else? Only then does he begin to realize the raven is far more ominous. Perhaps we, too, are like the raven, our own mediators between life and death, our own omens for what we know will come without knowing when it will. But the answer, I like to think, is that the Raven Grill offers not so much “nevermore” but “furthermore.” Meaning that we keep on going, that we believe we will return, as I believe I will for another combo on another night, seeking solitude and contemplation in a public place that asks nothing of me. And with that I walk the couple blocks back to my car just in time to hear the last section of another broadcast Martin Luther King, Jr., speech, urging us all to search our consciences and our hearts and our minds, to do what we know is right not what’s politic or what will get us ahead. When King was assassinated in Memphis, he was a year younger at thirty-nine than Poe was when he was found derelict in a Baltimore gutter. I have no words of wisdom on why those two facts seem to mean something, but perhaps it’s my own aging that’s on my mind, my own losses, and my lifelong love of a poem that meant something entirely different to me when I was young and immortal.


Alyce Miller is the author of five books, as well as numerous poems, essays, stories, and articles. Her work has appeared in Kenyon Review, Southern Review, Story, New England Review, Glimmer Train, Ploughshares, Iowa Review, Humanimalia, Journal of Animal Law, Alaska Quarterly Review, and River Styx, among others. Her writing has been awarded the Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction, the Mary McCarthy Prize, the Ellen Gilchrist award, the Kenyon Review Award for Literary Excellence in Fiction, and the Lawrence Prize. Her work has received numerous honorable mentions in the Best American series, for fiction and nonfiction. She resides in the Washington, DC, metro area.