During an Epileptic Fit, Ida Saxton McKinley has a Premonition of her Husband’s Assassination

by Ellen Kombiyil
Third Place, July 2007
Judged by Maurya Simon

Just now I have seen it, fluttering,
William’s handkerchief, sailing towards my face
to conceal my expression — (Oh, I know
what I must look like, my rolling eyes, my spit) —
But it couldn’t have been — William has gone
to the Exhibition. The white handkerchief
wasn’t his at all; it was rimmed with blue lilies.
Goodbye, it said, a ghost hand waving
from the bow of a ship. That sound!
A horn-blast, a shot from a gun,
an air-organ’s fanfare: Bach’s concerto
had begun. The moment was eternal,
the handkerchief falling, falling, never
landing, on fire and floating as it fell,
the flap of doves. Be quick! Send word —
he has gone to the Reception. I fear
the President has set sail for the far shore
and we shall find him already fallen.

This dramatic monologue assumes the voice of Ida McKinley, wife to our 25th President, William McKinley, as she experiences a moment of deja vu, precipitated by an epileptic seizure. Ida's premonition of her husband's assassination is compelling and persuasive because the poet reveals the character's altered consciousness as it amplifies the sensual events Ida's experiencing: a hallucination of a "white handkerchief" saying " Goodbye," heightened aural effects ("A horn-blast, a shot from a gun,/ an air-organ's fanfare"), and the sense that time is slowing to eternalize this horrifying moment. The handkerchief is emblematic of McKinley's death and spiritual deliverance: "the cloth on fire and floating as it fell/ like the flap of doves," and the poem fittingly ends with a denouement that returns Ida to normal consciousness and a call to action, though she knows that "we shall find him already fallen. --Maurya Simon

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