Today I packed my trunks with borrowed books and made my way through the gray and thoughtful day to fulfill my duty returning my overdue books to the library.
The library is my main charity because I am almost always late returning books and consequently pay nice fat fines. We have a very good deal worked out between us: I check out books whose yellowed pages crack with unused age; and in exchange give them money they can use to buy bright, eye-catching masterpieces of the moment, such as Who Moved my Cheese.
Still, my room has taken on a slightly acidic smell from failing books and my cat can’t lie in the sun on my desk, and it’s time to return my library and begin anew.
Among the books I returned today were Emily Dickinson books: the spine stretched Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson; Emily Dickinson: Woman Poet, the book that roared; Portrait of Emily Dickinson by Higgens with is mention of Emily like bits of candied pineapple among the cake of others faces.
Tell all the Truth but tell it slant –
Success in Circuit lies
Too bright for our infirm Delight
The Truth’s superb surprise
As Lightning to the Children eased
With explanation kind
The Truth must dazzle gradually
Or every man be blind –
There was the enigmatic Open me Carefully with letters from Emily to her sister-in-law with little interpretation, which was remarkably refreshing. Fisher’s We Dickinsons was an easy read, a fanciful tale of Emily told from the perspective of her brother and geared for young high school eyes and ears — all goodness and humor with nary a dark spot to spoil the white pages. It’s badly out of print, having scrubbed all the parts suited to the macabre nature of youth.
There was Habegger’s My Wars are Laid Away in Books: The Life of Emily Dickson, with a minimum of all that sentimental rubbish about the poet. There was another book, and now I can’t even remember the name but it had a green cover, an author whose name began with ‘H’ and repeated bits and pieces from most of what the other books said, which is probably why I can’t remember it and didn’t bother to write down the title. I am not a biographer or responsible historian. I am only a curious person.
If you search for books on Emily Dickinson at Amazon or some other online books store you’ll literally find thousands about her, covering every aspect of her life from sex to prayer:
Emily Dickinson and the Art of Belief, by Roger Lundin
My Emily Dickinson by Susan Howe
The Life and Mind of Emily Dickinson, by Genevieve Taggard
Emily Dickinson and her Culture: The Soul’s Society, by Barton Levi St. Armand
Emily Dickinson’s Gothic: Goblin with a Gauge, by Daneen Wardrop
Feminists Critics read Emily Dickinson, by Suzanne Juhasz (ed)
Visiting Emily, The Diary of Emily Dickinson, Taking off Emily Dickinson’s Clothes, A Vice for Voices, Emily Dickinson the Metaphysical Tradition…
After a while, though, the books begin to blur together, differing only in their amazing variation of interpretation of a single word or simple act.
There are online sources devoted to Emily, too. One only has to search on Emily Dickinson to return hundreds of thousands of pages, including complete collections of her poems — in two different spots. Considering the number of poems in question, that’s a lot of poetry. Emily Dickinson wrote close to 2000 poems, and over 1000 of her letters to friends and family have survived, though not always unedited.
And the conjecture about her life! There is much fascination with the fact that she only wore white later in life, but if she had just chosen to wear black, nothing would have been said about the sameness of her dress. Her letters and poems are pulled and used as proof of her erotic love for both man and woman, so much so that it began to irritate me greatly, the historians can become so self-sure about their interpretations. I have to think that if she had truly loved as many people as has been claimed, there would have been no room left for writing — all her time would have been spent in a tizzy of frustrated longing with swirls of faces floating about.
Then there are the bees. She wrote passionately several times about the bees. I am sure there was something kinky about that.
To make a prairie it takes a clover and one bee,
One clover, and a bee,
The revery alone will do,
If bees are few.
We hear stories about her reclusiveness, but facts surface and we find out that she actually attended church from time to time, or would visit a friend, and see people who visited. In truth, if she weren’t Emily Dickinson we would look at her life and not see anything more than an affluent, educated woman with a small circle of friends and family who liked to write a lot, was generous with those in need, but reserved and even shy around strangers and larger crowds, liked to cook and garden, didn’t like to travel, and didn’t go out very much.
There are facts we know: Emily Dickinson was the middle child of three children, born to affluent parents in a town, Amherst, Massachusetts, steeped in family history. An Older brother named William Austen, a younger sister named Lavinia. Mother ill much of her life, father domineering, but not punitive, and brother leading an interesting but not outstanding life. She and her sister were educated, and were encouraged in their education but not to the point of independence; neither married, both lived at home, took care of their mother, and then their father and then each other.
They had a considerable number of friends who held them in respect and affection, and both were regular correspondents, even with those who lived in town. Both did travel some, but not much and primarily to visit family, or in Emily’s case, to get care for her eyes, which troubled her most of her life.
Emily was interested in books and magazines and journals and was very well read; she loved her dictionary and liked to spend time just reading its pages, discovering new words. To some extent she was interested in the politics of the time, being for the freeing of slaves, but resisting the popular call to join the Christian revolution sweeping New England when she was younger. In fact, if she stood out for any one thing more than another, it was her ambivalent feelings about religion.
“Heavenly Father” — take to thee
The supreme iniquity
Fashioned by thy candid Hand
In a moment contraband –
Though to trust us — seems to us
More respectful — “We are Dust” –
We apologize to thee
For thine own Duplicity –
Emily was a good cook and had a passion for gardening but was indifferent to most other housework. She would make care baskets for those ill, worry about those in trouble, mourn, greatly, friends and family who died, and liked to tease those she cherished. She was friendly with neighborhood children, but didn’t attend many functions, nor did she see many people. One can sense in her letters and in letters about her, that she lived the life she wanted, not one forced on her, by either family or circumstances. In my favorite letter to her sister-in-law Sue, Emily wrote:
We go out very little – once in a month or two, we both set sail in silks – touch at the principal points, and then put into port again – Vinnie cruises about some to transact the commerce, but coming to anchor is most that I can do. Mr. and Mrs. Dwight are a sunlight to me, which no night can shade, and I shall perform weekly journeys there, much to Austin’s dudgeon and my sister’s rage.
I could go on and doing so repeat other facts easily found online (thus forcing that student coming here to seek answers for their paper, “Who is Emily Dickinson” to give up in frustration at this point and move on…). I think the important thing to remember, though, is that Emily Dickinson wasn’t that different from many unmarried, affluent, strong-minded, white women of the time except for two important things: she loved to write, and she could write. Whether you like her writing or not, it was and is powerful and complex, and I think that’s why so much conjecture happens — how could someone who writes like this lead such a simple life?
The answer is in her work. Emily saw the richness, the nuances in everyday life — of simple likes and dislikes, bees in the spring, autumn leaves, books, family and friends, dictionaries and words, questions of God, slavery, and dying.
How happy is the little Stone
That rambles in the Road alone,
And doesn’t care about Careers
And Exigencies never fears –
Whose Coat of elemental Brown
A passing Universe put on,
And independent as the Sun
Associates or glows alone,
Fulfilling absolute Decree
In casual simplicity –
I started this quest trying to better understand Emily Dickinson but after reading page after page about her life, I find myself no closer to understanding what she was like, fully, as a person. All we know about her is through her writing: her poetry and her letters. Unfortunately, writing allows the writer to hide in plain view.
The funny thing about this research is that I am not, or was not, a fan of Dickinson poetry. Oh, there were some poems that I liked, but for the most part, I found her work to be cryptic: too verbally rich with too many impressions compressed into too few words. I could not find the key that would open her poetry to me and allow to read poem after poem without feeling an ache in my neck, product of restlessness that lets me know that no matter how much I try to discipline my mind, what I am reading is not connecting with me.
It was a chance remark that sent me on this quest: about Emily Dickinson being unpublished except for a few friends and family while she was alive. I had not studied about Emily Dickinson in school and didn’t know about her obscurity in her lifetime. It amazed me that she wrote thousands and thousands of words that went unpublished during a time when all intellectuals — male and female — aspired to appear in print in one way or another.
I wondered, did she mind?
He scanned it-staggered-
Dropped the Loop
To Past or Period-
Caught helpless at a sense as if
His Mind were going blind-
Groped up, to see if God was there-
Groped backward at Himself
Caressed a Trigger absently
And wandered out of Life.
Did she mind that she was unknown? Did she mind that her works weren’t being read by many others? We talk about the writer who loves to write regardless of the audience but scratch this insouciance ever so slightly, and you’ll find that there is a drive within most of us to be read. I am not so ‘pure’ as a writer as to be indifferent whether my writing is read or not.
Was Emily indifferent? This sent me to the library and the Internet, and eventually, to a deeper look at her work. In them, over time, I found a connection to Emily Dickinson and her work, and I wonder if that is the strength of her longevity and the root of her popularity — she articulates our formless thoughts and that’s why her writing is so unique, and sometimes so difficult.
Before my readings, I found Emily’s poems difficult to read, and could count on two hands ones that I liked; now, I find I can read all of her work and it means something to me and I can’t bear to choose between the writings to find favorites.
I found the key to Emily Dickinson’s poems — it was within me all along. But it was in her letters and in the words of those who discussed her after death that I found the answer to the question, “Did she mind?”
You cannot make Remembrance grow
When it has lost its Root –
The tightening the Soil around
And setting it upright
Deceives perhaps the Universe
But not retrieves the Plant –
Real Memory, like Cedar Feet
Is shod with Adamant –
Nor can you cut Remembrance down
When it shall once have grown –
Its Iron Buds will sprout anew
However overthrown –