Conrad Aiken: Cosmic Mariner, Destination Unknown

When the American poet, novelist and critic, Conrad Aiken, was a child, he witnessed his mother’s murder and his father’s suicide when he was just eleven years old. His early life was spent in Savannah, a hot steamy city where passions run deep and in mysterious ways. To this day, even in this electronic world all digitally controlled, you can still feel the spirtitual dimension of the place in its lovely squares.

After the tragic death of both of his parents in 1901, ostensibly caused by his mother’s inordinate love of dinner parties, but perhaps caused by some darker financial crisis looming on the horizon, Conrad was whisked away to relatives in Massachussetts, to Harvard, and to a career in letters. He eventually won a Pulitzer Prize, a National Book Award, and a seat in poetry at the Library of Congress.

In 1962, when he retired, Aiken moved back to Savannah and bought a rowhouse at 230 East Oglethorpe Avenue, immediately next door to the site of his childhood tragedy. Separated only by the thickness of a single brick wall, he slept night after night with the ghosts of his family wafting in and out of his nightly dreams.

As the heat of his life wound down, he settled on a plot in Bonaventure Cemetery off Victory Drive on the outskirts of his beloved Savannah. Surrounded by a forest of primeval live oaks festooned with Spanish moss, he sat for hours admiring the view of the river. He loved to watch the boats pass by so much that he actually had a bench installed by his grave so others could enjoy it as well.

One day, while deep in meditation, a boat called the Cosmic Mariner passed by this magical place. He loved the name and eagerly sought out the shipping news to find out where it was going, but he was disappointed. All the Savannah Evening Press reported was “destination unknown.”

When Aiken came to composing the words for his tombstone, he recalled this suggestive event and had these words inscribed in granite to characterize his time on earth: Cosmic Mariner, Destination Unknown.

Gary Lehmann teaches writing and poetry at the Rochester Institute of Technology. His poetry and short stories are widely published— about 60 pieces a year. He is the director of the Athenaeum Poetry group which recently published their first chapbook, Poetic Visions. When not writing or teaching, he interprets 19th century shoemaking at the Genesee Country Museum.