Sunday, September 13, 2009

Emily From Different Angles

There is no frigate
like a book
To take us lands away,
Nor any coursers
like a page
Of prancing poetry.
This traverse may
the poorest take
Without oppress of toll;
How frugal is the chariot
That bears a human soul!

by Emily Dickinson
American Poet
1830 - 1886

Young Girl Reading
by French artist Jean-Honoré Fragonard, 1732 - 1806

Emily Dickinson

We think of hidden in a white dress
among the folded linens and sachets
of well-kept cupboards, or just out of sight
sending jellies and notes with no address
to all the wondering Amherst neighbors.
Eccentric as New England weather
the stiff wind of her mind, stinging or gentle,
blew two half imagined lovers off.
Yet legend won't explain the sheer sanity
of vision, the serious mischief
of language, the economy of pain.

by Linda Pastan, American Poet, b. 1932

A couple of novels for E.D. fans:


Who: Assorted Emily Dickinson followers and Detective Homer Kelly
What: A college town murder mystery
Where: At an Amherst poetry / history symposium
When: The centenary anniversary of Emily Dickinson's death
Why: Envy, classism.

Years ago I saved a review of this book but only recently obtained a used copy and actually read it, then happily passed it on to one of my murder - mystery - loving fellow readers. The text honors Emily Dickinson and her admirers but also takes into consideration the community at the outer fringes of Emily's circle of intellectual and economic privilege. This observation has stayed with me long after finishing the novel:

"Oh, it was all very well, reflected Homer, for Miss Emily Dickinson of Main Street in Amherst to sit in her garden, basking in eternity, but what about the Jesse Gaws of the town of Ware, and people like that? They had surely done very little basking. For the working people of Ware, life must have been an endless succession of long days in the mills, fastening heavy soles to leather uppers, or endless days at home, weaving palm-leaf hats by hand. Of course, sometimes the monotony was varied by national strife. Homer winced, remembering all the gold stars on the memorial tablets in the Quabbin Cemetery. In the grim company of Mr. and Mrs. Jesse Gaw, the ethereal respectability of Emily Dickinson seemed a cruel irrelevance. For an instant Homer saw a new Emily, cross-eyed with mystical rapture, clasping her hands at butterflies while her brother paid a substitute to fight in his place in the Civil War and her father drove hard bargains in his office in the Palmer Block. Homer snarled, and wrenched the car to the side of the road. "This doesn't feel right. I'll bet we've gone too far." (204 - 05)

That last sentence might be a metaphor . . .


Slightly confusing until you immerse yourself in Fuller's project; the words here are Fuller's, but written in the style of Dickinson. The fabricated diary entries range from Emily's spiritual meditations, to her reflections on the natural world, her apprehensions about sharing her writing, and her internal conflict over her role in the family -- all as imagined by Fuller:

"Housewifery is wearisome -- but Devotion shapes the task. As we all sat at table -- so different in our longings and secret sorrows yet joined by Love's mysterious adhesive power -- I thought again how holy a place is home. For though we share meals more easily than minds, in no other ground could my seed take root. Here no man times my toil and I answer to none for it. Though I must do my part for the family's comforts, yet I have the freedom -- and solitude -- for my truest work . . . There is safety in their familiar affection -- demonstrated warily. To ask for understanding were -- perhaps -- ingratitude." (25)

THE VANISHING ACT OF ESME LENNOX by Maggie O'Farrell is a novel about sibling rivalry, Alzheimer's, and madness -- not about Emily Dickinson. However, while thinking about what stays fixed in a woman's memory even as her sanity slips away, Esme shares an Emily-like thought about the ritual of housekeeping: "It is always the meaningless tasks that endure: the washing, the cooking, the clearing, the cleaning. Never anything majestic or significant, just the tiny rituals that hold together the seams of human life." (2)

Esme's conclusion seems perfectly applicable to a woman's saner moments as well. Why, for example, do household tasks so often come across as a peculiar self-indulgent hobby rather than a way of keeping the house holy and holding the seams together? Is Emily ungrateful to wish her family understood her talent? Or selfish to desire their gratitude for her plain old everyday wearisome necessary housework? Better to have a calmer heart (more like solitary Emily), learning to appreciate for one's own self the "Devotion" which shapes the perpetual tasks, the tiny rituals.

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