Monday, December 10, 2007


(Authenticated Emily Dickinson daguerrotype circa 1846 and likely newly-discovered Emily Dickinson photo circa 1856)

Emily Elizabeth Dickinson was born 177 years ago today and lived 56 years (two Saturn cycles). During her lifetime, she wrote a known 1775 poems, of which only seven were published. Her work was not understood for what it is, and it is for this reason that she appears to have retreated from the idea of publication. After her death, her poetry was discovered and atrociously edited into a series of volumes which increasingly established her as a singular American voice despite the revision of her style. It was only in 1955, the year I was born, that the first somewhat authentic version of her poetry was published. The understanding of her genius continues to grow as the originals of her poems and letters, mutilated as they have been by editors (often physically so), come to scholarly scrutiny and public readership.

She began writing seriously in her 20s, during the late 1840s, after exposure to higher education and a strong social life with other women. Her production reached fever pitch during the 1850s and continued through the years of the Civil War, but declined somewhat after 1865 when she was advised by an eye specialist to stop reading and writing (she did not stop, fortunately.) Even if you average her production over 40 years, it comes to 45 poems a year or almost a poem a week. As a poet myself, I would consider that a respectable output even if I were not of the calibre of Emily Dickinson and inventing a new style of writing as I went along. The reality, however, is that her writing pace was often much more intense, and that's only if you consider the primary construction, not the continuous discussion and rewrite she undertook of her own work. She was a career writer, by any definition of the term.

She was better known and highly respected in her time as a gardener -- really, a horticulturalist. In addition to this activity, and her writing, she also ran her father's household which was in itself a full-time job. She had enough class, race and cultural advantage to keep her from worse manual labor, but not enough to allow her escape from a heavy housework burden. It's no wonder that so many of her poems begin on scraps of paper used for other purposes and shoved into her apron pocket. She did not have the leisure to sit down and write when the muse struck.

This may help explain her style, her short lines and stanzas, the condensation of meaning and ellipsis that make her work instantly recognizable. She was definitely writing for a public, however imaginary. But she also wrote for her sister-in-law, Susan Gilbert, who lived next door with her brother Austin and was her daily advisor and critic.

(Susan Gilbert circa 1856)

Since her death, those who write about Emily Dickinson have gone through outrageous contortions trying to name who was the object of her passionate love poems. Even now, Serious White Men of Letters pee on themselves when anyone implies she was clearly fixated on her Susie. It simply cannot be that the greatest American female poet was, well, her generation's version of a dyke. No, it has to be some bewhiskered old fart she wrote a letter to once, or saw across the commons, or whatever.

Here's what can be documented:

Emily's greatest outpouring of poetry occurred around the time she met and got close to Susan, then lost her to her brother Austin. Indeed, Emily's body of poetry coincides temporally with her 40-year relationship with Susan.

In at least one of her letters, Emily states flatly she is in competition with her brother for the courting of Susan.

Austin Dickinson had a long, scandalous affair with Mabel Loomis Todd which he claimed was justified because of Susan's "marital coldness" toward him.

Emily wrote over 300 letters to Susan, more than any other correspondent.

Susan entertained every editor who published Emily's poems during her lifetime, and there is strong evidence that Susan was responsible for passing Emily's poetry along to editors.

Susan Dickinson was as well-read as Emily -- indeed, they shared books and influences between themselves. They were equally passionate about music and nature, and Susan was an intellectual. She was also a critical and prolific writer herself, producing poetry, essays, reviews, published stories and voluminous correspondence.

Susan's letters to Emily, which she had reclaimed after Emily passed away, were destroyed after her death by Mabel Loomis Todd. Thus, we have only Emily's side of their correspondence, which is often overtly erotic and effusive.

In an 1860 letter-poem to Susan, Emily writes:
for the Woman
whom I prefer
Here is Festival -
When my Hands
are Cut, Her
fingers will be
found inside -

Most telling, the editing of Emily's work after her death by Mabel Loomis Todd amounts to pervasive and fanatical censorship focused on Susan Gilbert's presence in Emily's life. Not only are female pronouns changed to male, but far more telling, almost every reference to Susan is inked over, altered, or literally cut from the page. For details, read Martha Nell Smith's essay "Mutilations: What Was Erased, Inked Over and Cut Away". What on earth could they have been trying to conceal unless it was the nature of their relationship?

Along with the distortion and erasure of Emily Dickinson's relationship with the woman she referred to as her "Imagination" is the portrayal of her as agoraphobic and reclusive. The reality, revealed by her letters and journals, is that visitors to her home were extremely frequent and no doubt time-consuming, but seldom discouraged. She was outside in her garden a great deal as well.

She did abstain from the endless cycle of social visits common to the era, which may in part have been because she found them tedious, but the best explanation for which is the simplest: Emily suffered from (and died of) what was then called "Bright's disease", a form of nephritis that was progressive in her case. Symptoms common to this illness include profound edema to such an extent that breathing is impaired (imagine trying to put on that era's restrictive women's garments for out-of-the-house-wear in such circumstances), back pain, vomiting, fever, and the need for frequent urination. No wonder she stuck close to home. The fact is, she was heroic in all that she managed to accomplished with this burden.

For accurate and open-minded examination of Emily Dickinson's life and work, I recommend the Dickinson Electronic Archive, which allows us the rare opportunity to see digitized copies of Emily's poems as she wrote them. The executive editor of this site is Martha Nell Smith, who wrote the definitive books Rowing in Eden: Rereading Emily Dickinson and Open Me Carefully: Emily Dickinson's Intimate Letters to Susan Huntington Dickinson, among others. Bartleby also has online the 1924 edition of Emily Dickinson's Complete Poems, although in fact these are only 597 in number and repeat many of the egregious editing errors (especially alteration of pronouns) found in earlier volumes of her work.

A few years ago, I wrote a short story about an homage journey I made to Emily's home ground. I close with this.


After forty, good Christmases are often hard to come by. In 2001, Zerra lost her favorite aunts, her oldest friend, the best cat ever, and then her little brother in a streak of incomprehensible death. She lost the ability to walk and consented to losing her left knee, replaced by a titanium and plastic arrangement that did not quite work. She lost her job and then, perhaps inevitably, her girlfriend. By November she was too crippled and numb to do herself in. Well, the truth was, she had made a promise that suicide would not be an option No Matter What. Still, testing her resolve this way was a stupid move on god's part.

At Thanksgiving she realized she had no one to spend Christmas with and no money to go anywhere. But on December 1st, two good friends, a lesbian couple in Boston, called her to say Come have Christmas here. We're sending you a ticket. She said yes, of course. They knew.

This is one year post 9/11, and the day she flies into Logan is the same day some guy on a flight out of Boston tries to set off explosives in his sneakers. When she arrives, Logan has or less come unhinged. But her competent friends, one a Harvard professor and the other director of the Jewish Film Festival, smoothly extricate her with a wheelchair and big smiles. They go to a falafel joint (not as good as California, she thinks) and over the meal, they discuss what to do with their holiday. There, within sight of the Old North Church, they hatch the first Muffdivers of American Literature Tour. Day one will be ESVM, or Vincent, as she preferred to sign her letters. Camden, Maine is within driving range. Day Two will be Emily of course. Day Three they stretch the parameters a little bit to decide on Salem and witchburning. That is enough to begin with.

The next morning three fat women and a four-pronged aluminum cane squeeze into Shelly's Honda and head north. They drive by the headquarters of Land's End. They drive through a small town with its frozen pond crowded by bundled-up kids playing hockey with much more energy than grace. They stop at Moody's Diner where her vegetarian friends have issue with the menu, but there are always potatoes to fall back on. Zerra has scallops fresh and buttery, followed by rhubarb cobbler. Tomorrow, she plans, chowdah and Boston Cream Pie. The parking lot is a sheet of ice, and her cane seems inadequate. It gets dark alarmingly fast. She thinks of the planet Winter that Ursula Leguin wrote about; if they were in Oregon, Ursula would be on the tour list, husband or no.

(Moody's Diner, Waldoboro, Maine)

Shelly was raised in New York and Miami. She drives with an aggression Zerra has forgotten after all her years in Texas, but recognizes from her sojourn in San Francisco. They tend to zoom past destinations and Shelly has to come back around. This is complicated by her enormous resistance to making left turns. By making a series of right turns, it's possible to avoid left turns altogether, and Shelly is of the mind that this is a preferred course. But Zerra is from Texas, patient and already thinking This will make a great story someday.

Maxine is from Pittsburgh and has only learned to drive in the last year. If Shelly is like this in Boston, well, there is no reckoning what Maxine's driving might be like.

When they reach Camden, Zerra cracks open her copy of Savage Beauty (she and Maxine have one each) and tries to come up with a Millay home address. Near the center of town is a Camden map posted on the wall of a bank, but, inconceivably, there is no mention among all the landmarks of anything to do with the first American woman to ever win a Pulitzer, home town girl who changed the face of poetry. There is a badly-cast statue of a forgotten military doofus, but nothing for Vincent. Finally Shelly finds a street just outside of town, leading down to the harbor, named Millay Road. Jackpot.

(Edna St. Vincent Millay, 1928)

Although it is a right turn, Shelly misses Millay Road and getting back to it takes fifteen minutes. It rapidly stops being paved and turns into frozen mud ruts. It also heads down at a rather sharp angle, which Shelly treats a little like a sled ride. The only houses on the road are at the beginning, and they are new-looking. Nothing like a Millay homestead. They find a place to turn around and head back up the hill. The car, however, is not cooperative. Two-thirds of the way up it falters and skids to a stop. For once Zerra wishes Shelly would be a little more aggressive, but her expertise on driving in winter conditions is limited to one season at the lesbian land collective in Colorado in 1977, so she keeps quiet.

Shelly decides to go far enough back to get a running start at the hill and pray there is no cross traffic at the crest as they shoot out onto level. By this time it is pitch dark. Shelly opts to let the car slide back, rather than put it in reverse down the hill. It begins sliding, not just backwards but also to the side of the road. Zerra's side. When it finally comes to a stop, it seems distressingly as if they are at the very edge of the road.

Shelly asks Zerra to have a looksee. Zerra opens her car door and leans out an inch. Directly below her is a ten-foot drop into a rocky ditch. Maxine in the back seat slides over and is trying to see out, too. Zerra waves her back into the middle of the car. She faces Shelly with what she hopes is a reassuring grin and says We've still got traction, but no more sliding in any direction, okay? Just gun it forward, you can do it, Shelly. Then she tests her seatbelt and takes a deep breath.

At that instant a knock on Shelly's window scares them all almost into unconsciousness. Shelly keeps her foot clamped on the brake as she rolls down the window. A burly young man with a frost-flecked beard say What are you doing? Shelly explains We are having trouble getting back up the hill. Then she asks brightly Do you know of anything on this road having to do with Edna St. Vincent Millay? He looks blank.

She tries again: If we turn right, will that lead us to Mount Battie? Zerra prays she would not go on to explain that Edna had written the first lines of "Renascence" inspired by the view from the top of Mount Battie. He pauses before replying The park and mountain are closed for the season. Then he says You're blocking the road, we need to leave soon, please get out of the way, and walks back toward one of the houses. Zerra thinks We sure are not in Texas.

Shelly guns it and they make it back to the main road. Shelly says she is willing to have a try at Mount Battie anyhow, maybe they could get past the barrier and go on to the top, it's not that icy. Zerra remembers the rocky ditch and says No thanks. As they drive back into Camden, around a bend they see the harbor and there are the "three islands in a bay". She cracks open Savage Beauty to the index and, using the light from the glove compartment, tries to find more addresses in Camden. The Millays were always moving. It reminds her of her own family, one trailer park after another. If Vince had been born in Texas during the 1950's, she'd have been trailer trash, too.

(View of Camden, Maine from Mount Battie showing part of "three islands in a bay")

The next address she digs up is no longer there, a skip in the numbers on the street where apparently someone has absorbed the lot to add on a skylighted wing. They drive up and down, trying to decide which buildings might have been there in Vince's time. At a long traffic light, she has enough time to come up with a third address, on the other side of town. But when they track it down, it's now a car wash.

Maxine says Let's stop anyhow, I need to stretch my legs. It's a right turn, so they pull in. Zerra says she wants something to commemorate their quest for Vince, something tangible. Maxine looks around the car wash, comes back with an orange cream soda from the coke machine. This is how Zerra's altar at home has come to hold the Edna St. Vincent Millay Memorial Car Wash Orange Cream Soda, next to a Virgen de Guadalupe candle.

(Edna St. Vincent Millay protesting proposed execution of Sacco and Vanzetti)

They go back to Somerville. Zerra takes Savage Beauty to bed with her, but it's too chilly to keep her hands outside the covers for reading.

The next morning, Maxine says it is her turn to drive. Shelly is a soft butch but too intellectual to admit she has trouble giving up the keys. She gets into the back seat with only a tiny sigh. Maxine turns out to be a wonderful driver. She and Zerra are talking like old times, going along at five mph under the speed limit, when Shelly interrupts to say This is way too fast for this neighborhood. It is, in fact, slower than she drove it yesterday, but whatever, Maxine eases off the accelerator.

A couple of minutes later, Shelly interrupts again: I don't want to spoil your fun, but you're not focusing on the road enough. Shelly has a full side view of Zerra's face, so Zerra can't roll her eyes at Maxine. They stop talking. After another minute, Shelly points to a car so far ahead of them that Zerra can't make out all of the license plate numbers and says ominously, Following distance...

Maxine puts on the turn signal, makes a deft left turn into a gas station. She gets out of the car and walks around to Zerra's side. Zerra grabs her four-pronged cane and gets out of the car as well. Maxine is trembling. Shelly has now gotten into the driver's seat. Maxine crawls in the back. Nobody has said a word. Zerra thinks Middle class. But she knows how to pass.

Back on the road, they pass a sign announcing Walden City Limits. Zerra interrupts Shelly's stream of chatter to ask if they can see Walden Pond. Maxine warns her that it is not what she might expect, it is almost as developed as where they are driving through.

When Zerra was a sophomore and her class was assigned Thoreau, it had gobsmacked her. She took down all decorations, even the curtains, from her tiny trailer bedroom. She stopped wearing make-up and stopped gossiping with her friends. On her notebook she wrote "Simplify, simplify." Years later she found out her mother had called her English teacher to talk it over. They decided it was just a phase, and a benign one at that. She really does want to see Walden Pond, in any permutation. But it's a left turn, and after a few minutes of trying to find a turnaround that Shelly can make while speeding, Zerra says Never mind.

It is Zerra's turn to choose the CD, so she slides in James Taylor's Greatest Hits, just for the pleasure of them all singing Well the Berkshires seemed dreamlike on accounta that frostin' while they were actually on the turnpike from Stockbridge to Boston. Zerra once lived in a household with a dyke who had gone through high school with James Taylor and his siblings, Alex, Livingston, Kate. She said they were all pretty fucked up people. Zerra doesn't care, if she could ever write anything like "Sweet Baby James" or "Millworker", she would consider herself to have achieved muffdiver literary greatness.

Because they get to Northhampton early, they drive around the grounds of Smith. With the new snow, it is unbelievably beautiful. A rich girl's school, for sure. Zerra has arranged for them to have lunch with a Smith professor who interviewed her last year over the phone about her role in forming one of the first incest survivor groups in the country, back in 1980. They meet up at a vegetarian Japanese restaurant downtown. The professor is hilarious, the edamame was the best Zerra has ever tasted, and the conversation makes her feel really, really good about her life choices.

After lunch Shelly offers to drive by the neighborhood where Ravel, one of Zerra's exes, lives. Shelly knows her a little because they are in the same New England women's martial arts circle. At first Zerra says okay. But then she thinks it would be just her luck to have Ravel be standing outside and see her. The idea makes her clammy. So they go on toward Amherst.

On the way, Shelly and Maxine insist they stop at a place called Atkins Farm Stand. They say the doughnuts and apple fritters here are the best in all Western Mass. So far, Zerra is not that impressed with the New England version of doughnuts; to be honest, she prefers Krispy Kreme. But some kind of doughnut is better than none at all.

Zerra's metal knee is starting to throb, so she waits in the car. She asks them to get her those little log cabins of maple syrup. She also says I would like to have something to leave at Emily Dickinson's grave, perhaps a libation -- if you find anything appropriate, grab it for me, okay? After they leave, she turns on the heater full blast. When they come back, they won't show her what they got for Emily: It's a surprise.

They reach Amherst at twilight. The town commons is strung with fairy lights, and a church at the end of the street is picture-postcard. Zerra has a map she pulled off the internet, but this town, at least, knows how to commemorate its famous women: Signs direct them to the Dickinson home. It is within sight of the commons, and dark. A big parking lot at the back no doubt covers up precious Emily-era garden, but the main herb garden and other growth going back into a woods are intact. There is a trail through it. Shelly and Maxine go walk it, while Zerra sits in the car, staring up at Emily's attic window. It is quiet as the grave -- no, wait, that's a line from Vincent.

(Emily Dickinson's bedroom)

The map is a vague about where the town cemetery is, but Zerra remembers reading that it is almost within sight of the Dickinson homestead. So they basically make the block, right, right, right again, and there's the entrance to the cemetery. A sign says it closes at sundown, and since it is full dark, Shelly puts on the brakes. But the gate is still open, and Zerra says Oh please, go in. It turns out to be much bigger than any of them expected. Zerra is a well-trained Southern country girl and knows her way around a graveyard; still, this is a lot of graveyard. Shelly asks what to do.

Zerra closes her eyes and says I will channel Emily. Drive really slow, I mean SLOW, creep, and I'll tell you where to go. Shelly puts the car in gear and there is a small crunch of gravel. Zerra opens her eyes every now and then to say Turn here. They are somewhere in the middle, a couple of minutes later, when Maxine says Uh----. Shelly stops, and they look where Maxine is pointing. A tall white headstone says "Edward Dickinson". That's her father says Zerra. She is scrambling to get out of the car, then remembers she can't scramble any more.

(Dickinson family plot, Amherst Cemetery, Massachusetts, photo by Linda Tate)

Emily's grave also has a tall white headstone, plain and gleaming in the moonlight. The family plot has a black metal fence around it, but the stones face the fence a few inches away, so they can read the inscriptions and they can, if they wish, touch the stones. A collection of small objects are arranged on the top rim of Emily's marker: A few shriveled flowers, a piece of colored glass, and a child's toy car.

Zerra finds she cannot speak. Her hands are shoved down deep into her coat pocket and she is shaking, not from the cold, she thinks. Behind her she hears the rustle of a paper bag. Maxine shows her what they bought at Atkins. It's a carton of carob soy milk. Oh, for god's sake. She lets Maxine open the carton and pour it on Emily's grave. Maybe they're right, maybe if Emily were alive today she'd be a vegan lesbian-feminist. Not such a stretch.

It is Christmas Eve. Zerra wishes she had the will to go into the church on the commons and attend service. Her relationship with Christianity no longer allows her this kind of slack. Instead, she reaches out her hand and places her palm flat over Emily's name on the headstone. The marble is shockingly cold, and she realizes the ground is probably that cold, too.

She bursts into tears. Emily has been dead so long. So many people she has loved have been dead for so long. Maxine moves up to press against Zerra's back but this just makes her cry harder. It's not enough, our time here is not enough, and Emily waited for something that never came. She wrote her heart out, and maybe that was enough; maybe it wasn't. Zerra promises to herself, silently and ferociously, to not give up. She will not wait for a letter from the world, she will not go into the cold willingly.

© 2007 Maggie Jochild

(Emily Dickinson's grave)


Multisubj Yb TruthSeeker said...

Well written. But I read only about Emily Dickinson, for lack of time. Thank you.

cardamom said...

This is really beautiful. Thanks!

shadocat said...

Oh Emily, now, forever and always!

I first discovered her poetry at age 10 (The "I'm nobody..." poem)
I've long been derided for claiming her as my favorite poet (mostly by men) but I don't care. That women could put more into three or four words than her contemporaries could put in a hundred. I never bought the story of her being a "recluse"---as a person who likes to stay close to home anyway, and has health problems, I think the Bright's disease reason is spot on. Great story as well; makes me want to take a trip of my own.

kat said...

So, at the risk of being eaten alive, I must admit that I've never been a big Emily Dickinson fan.
I'm currently trying to figure out why that is, because from Maggie's awesome article, it seems she was a totally fascinating woman who revolutionized american poetry.
I'm wondering whether I was subjected to the badly edited versions of her high school, my main reason for not being into Dickinson was that it seemed soppy and whirly-girly to me. Maybe it was all those (incorrect) male pronouns?

I am willing to accept that I am horribly misguided, and would appreciate attempts at re-education. Suggestions on what to read?

I do like "I'm Nobody," which I first encounted in its song form. An Italian-American classical composer named Persichetti set it, and 3 other Dickinson poems for Mezzo Soprano and piano. They're ok, but he's not the most amazing composer or anything....

Just to play devil's advocate for a moment: Maggie, you ask (rhetorically, but I'm answering anyway) what other motives the first editor could have had (in changing pronoun genders). Wasn't the first editor the same person who was the brother's mistress?
Could it have been a misplaced act of revenge to strike out at the friend/soul mate of the wife who kept her from the man she wanted?

Whoa, that sentence makes no sense. I hope you get what I'm saying. Its not an argument that I find convincing, but I felt like being a little contrary today.....

I had not previously heard that Emily Dickinson might have had lesbian leanings, but it seems totally plausible based on what you presented. Interesting.....