Our Songs

Literary Foremothers: Emily Dickinson and Me

Emily Dickinson

So many writers have responded to the poems and person of Emily Dickinson that it seems extravagant, even self-indulgent, to add another word. Adrienne Rich, in her eloquent essay, “Vesuvius at Home: The Power of Emily Dickinson,” speculates on how Dickinson “came to be for-herself and how she identified with and was able to use women’s culture, a women’s tradition.” Rich presents the poet not as a strange recluse, but as a wordsmith whose work in seclusion “included a wide range of people, of reading and correspondence.”

I want to correspond with Emily. Her poems have touched me in ways profound and lasting, enhancing my understanding of the wide world and the women who write about it. During my last year of grade school, I remember reading the poem about a Bird who “came down the Walk.” I was reading through our textbook on my own, and the poem made my twelve-year-old self pause. He was a hungry, thirsty Bird, polite to beetles and rather nervous, and in the end, he flies away. The Angleworm was eaten “raw,” and the Bird came to life, flying away “plashless” as Butterflies. The capitalization personified and turned each creature into an individual.

Later on, I delighted in the poem when I discovered the clever break between the third and fourth stanzas, which goes like this:

He stirred his Velvet Head

Like one in danger, Cautious,

I offered him a Crumb  

Both the Bird and the speaker are described by “Cautious”! For me, the word goes both ways. The Bird is cautious of predator danger, and the speaker is cautious of appearing as a predator, and so both are careful with each other, if for different motives.

One Dickinson poem was never enough for me. I’ve become particularly fond of a trio of her afterlife poems. Despite stories and religious explanations that tell us what to expect after we die, no one knows for certain what will happen or where we will go, if anywhere. Dickinson confronts this uncertainty, creating a poetic dialectic that speculates different versions of life after death.  

My favorite is #712, an eternal ride around the earth with a civil coachman driving the horses and carriage (there are worst versions [Hell] of what happens when we die). As in the Bird poem, #712 has a radical turn between the third and fourth stanzas. In the third stanza, the speaker views the stages of life from the carriage window as it travels. She sees childhood and its rules of play, an adulthood like attentive grain, and old age like the setting sun.

But the relationship between the sun and the carriage is reversed in the first line of the fourth stanza: “Or rather—He passed Us—.” The sun’s journey through the sky is faster than the speed of the carriage. Maybe the carriage barely moves at all, an inch, a centimeter, a day. What does time matter in eternity anyway? Nature continues its cycles relentlessly, and by the time the carriage passes the speaker’s grave, it’s only a “Swelling of the Ground,” a site to see on the leisurely ride after one’s “labor” has been put away.

Emily’s best-known afterlife poem might be #465, “I heard a Fly buzz—when I died.” The speaker in this poem has been sick for a long time, long enough to assign their possessions to loved ones, who gather round, having cried so much, “The Eyes around—had wrung them dry.” Finally, at the moment of passing, the speaker says a Fly comes “Between the light—and me,” and the window closes before the speaker can move into the light, a portal to Heaven, possibly. Whatever the Fly represents—sin, distraction, corruption, decay, judgement—the speaker is stranded for eternity calmly puzzling over the Fly in absolute darkness.

At first, #449 presents a friendlier version of the afterlife, which begins when our speaker has just been interred, “scarce / Adjusted in the Tomb.” The guy in the next “Room” starts a conversation, stating he died for “Truth,” and asking what caused the speaker’s demise. Our speaker replies, “Beauty,” and the two become friendly, until organic cycles overcome the site, and “the Moss” grows over lips and names. Nature reclaims the body, but sentience exists as the speaker remains, formless, grounded and ungrounded in place.

My central question about the poem has become the reasons given for death, Truth and Beauty. At first, they appear to be noble causes, but as concepts, Truth and Beauty are less clearcut. If Beauty is literal, it could denote lead- and arsenic-based powders and creams used to improve a person’s complexion. Vanity can be deadly. Truth, also, bends in the wind of interpretation because it is a site of conflict. Perhaps the poem asks us to consider our worldly platforms and positions, and not to hold them so tightly we lose sight of the larger picture.

The last poem still intrigues me, as I’m not sure I’ve figured it out. What I do know is that these are only a few of Emily’s poems that have captured my imagination and curiosity since I first encountered her work. Her poems call me back as if their speakers know my name. As Adrienne Rich writes at the end of her essay, Dickinson was “not only a poet but a woman who explored her own mind, without any of the guidelines of orthodoxy.” As a literary foremother, I couldn’t ask for more.

1 reply »

  1. I really like how you wrote about Emily Dickinson. I haven’t enjoyed any studies of her before! I will give her poems another chance thanks to you. I never felt drawn to her work, but your essay is encouraging me to take on the challenge of what continues to block me from her as a poet and a woman.

    Liked by 1 person

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