It seems an odd thing to celebrate the birth day of someone long deceased, someone we have immortalized, in a way, as the British Romantic poets desired: “Ah, happy, happy boughs! that cannot shed /Your leaves, nor ever bid the Spring adieu,” John Keats exclaims in celebration of the immutability of art—the recreation of foliage on the urn (art on art, as it were) as superior to actual vegetation doomed to mortality.
Emily Dickinson was born 10 December 1830, and then, after her death—like Jean Grey in the Marvel Universe—Dickinson was reborn again and again through a series of appropriations and reductive mystifications common in a patriarchal culture.
Dickinson’s poetry was edited (read: corrected) and published after her death, and then her legacy was fodder for the careers of scholars who have yet to find an end to recreating Dickinson.
My journey to Dickinson was fraught with stumbles and restarts.
The seminal stumble was a 62 on Mr. Pruitt’s Dickinson exam when I was in junior college. Despite that grade being entirely my own failure as a student (a rare thing, but my fault none the less), I turned that experience into a revolt against Dickinson.
Years later, I found myself a teacher of high school English/ELA, and thus, during poetry units, a teacher of Dickinson’s poetry. Disturbingly aware of my inadequate work as a teacher of Dickinson—although I believed myself a strong teacher of poetry, especially through the music of R.E.M.—I invited my former high school English teacher (then at the district office) to do a lesson for my students on Dickinson.
This was one of many important epiphanies for me about Dickinson as well as teaching. Lynn Harrill, my former teacher, focused on examining Dickinson through whole-to-part strategies, unlike my analytical approach grounded in an uncritical New Criticism.
His joy for Dickinson and his honoring how students naturally responded to her poetry made my lessons seem lifeless and uninspired. Watching Lynn teach also unlocked the door I had shut to Dickinson.
But the most important moments came when I was in my doctoral program working on becoming a biographer. Reading Judith Farr’s biography of Dickinson and teaching Adrienne Rich’s re-examination of Dickinson—these moments were profound for me as a reader of her poetry as well as a teacher and writer.
Rich shook me with her exploration of Dickinson’s “My Life had stood – a Loaded Gun,” and thus began my journey to “This World is not Conclusion,” “I’m Nobody! Who are you?,” and “Wild nights – Wild nights!”
Gone was my reductive lenses into both Dickinson as a person and her poetry.
My poetry unit soon weaved Dickinson and R.E.M., resulting in one of my first scholarly publications—“It Beckons, and It Baffles—”: Resurrecting Emily Dickinson (and Poetry) in the Student-Centered Classroom, English Journal (March 1998).
“This World is not Conclusion.”—begins Dickinson, twisting the reader with both the rare period to end her opening line as a sentence and with the paradox of declaring “not Conclusion” with that end mark concluding the thought.
This poem, for me, displays Dickinson’s incredible sharpness that blurs humor and incisive commentary on both humanity and the society in which she lived.
The slant/half rhyme, the weighty metaphorical layers, and the challenging syntactical journey all drive her wrestling with seeking ways in which we must navigate knowing and not knowing, the observed world laid bare by science and the world “beyond” that she both assures is there but rejects the “Narcotics” of “Much Gesture, from the Pulpit.”
Ultimately, to reduce Dickinson to recluse, to mysterious frailty, this erases that Dickinson was very much of the world, and her world included Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, Charles Darwin, and Karl Marx—a world being built by men standing on the privileges denied Dickinson as a woman and countless other people due to race and poverty.
And here we sit in a very disturbing 2016, and we can imagine how Dickinson would view this insanity. No, we have the words already:
I’m Nobody! Who are you?
Are you – Nobody – too?
Then there’s a pair of us!
Don’t tell! they’d advertise – you know!
How dreary – to be – Somebody!
How public – like a Frog –
To tell one’s name – the livelong June –
To an admiring Bog!
Below are poetry of mine inspired by Dickinson in those years when the door was opened again to her and I walked through, newly reborn myself:
channeling emily dickinson: a man speaks her voice
tearing out a poem—
line by line—
from your Spine—Industry—
of a kind—Unkind—
I lie here—Fallen—
shallow as a spoon—
Spade for grave digging—Stolen—
encrypted on the headstone—
god strikes down—Nothing—
a silver platter—no head—
tapping out in morse Code—
signals—for the Dead
sometimes there are Pauses—
great Gaps of time, of space
of You not holding me—
you are not there—Eternity—
distance beyond voices—or Reaching—
and I am spilled, scattered
yet christ doesn’t enter—There—
that Inn too is closed—
except to you—Blank—
the scattered Ashes—memory—
blown like snow or dust—
of you not there—Pause
the heaviness of your breasts—
cupped in my hands—Time—
stills me through the Eye—
She grabbed onto the Soul of Me—
the anchored thought inside—to Free
the drowned unKnown—unconsciousness—
like wrestling over emily—
on carpet Red & Gold—undressed—
undone as Silver jewelry—
entwined, her limbs, my limbs—confessed—
in Prayer—to hold Eternity—
we lie—plush pile of pettiness—
so twisted, torn—Enamored—chess—
too sure to treasure Dignity—
soft pearls, cool stones—Profanity—
we Swear—on tablets—white Litanies
for Alters—sacred blessedness—
our sweat—entangled, Poetry—
then We are risen—restlessness—
channeling cummings and Dickinson at Christmas
i. a hedonist’s plea
the syntax of things
forgive me my hedonism
& i’ll forgive you your stunning beauty
that leaves me nearly unable to stand
not only upright but myself
for desiring you this way
the curves of an ear, a neck, a thigh
but i am after all merely a man
the lesser part of human & woman
my linguistic slights of hand cannot mask
my mouth’s silent intentions
warm as sheets & pillows beneath us
in the afternoons of my mind
ii. if in the Arc of the Night
An imperial affliction
Sent us of the Air –
Daily we turn
on the Sun—
on this Earth
Might the Sun
our cyclic Sin—
If in the Arc
of the Night
we hold fast
to the One