Some say Emily Dickinson had a morbid fascination with death. Others see the fact that approximately 1/6th of all her poems and letters were about death as something not unusual for one who lived next to a cemetery and during a time when folks died of illnesses at a much younger age than we do today. Her poem #614 speaks of diggers attempting to find a man buried in rubble. Too late, the saving grace is Death, in that he is no longer suffering.
I saw the setting of the first line of #614 as a place where dreams die, aspirations are quashed and we sometimes don’t even understand that we have made ourselves prisoners. I imagined a frolic of mythical forest fairies engaging in a battle with death, attempting to coax it into and ward it off with their fairy ring of mushrooms, a place of legendary doom for non-fairy folk.
In researching fairy rings, I learned quite a bit and will definitely be on the lookout for them in the future. If there’s a full moon and you see me running around one nine times, from east to west (the direction of the sun), it will be in hopes of hearing the fairies dancing and frolicking underground. Please just watch from afar and don’t make me lose count, for legend has it if I run around a tenth time I will meet ill fate and be made to run to the point of exhaustion and death and/or perhaps become invisible.
According to some scholars, Dickinson’s poem #613 is quite the exercise in feminism. In it, she masterfully uses the imagery of a captive bird and speaks in a defiant voice about the struggles of being a female, expected to be silent and kept locked up by societal expectations of the mid 1800’s.
Although she never engaged in any public romantic relationships, researchers have long questioned the many cryptic references to “loves” in her poetry and posed questions about her private life and potential relationships with several men and also with her sister-in-law, Susan Huntington Gilbert Dickinson. In my version of this poem I imagine the coded language she used to send messages that would not be deemed appropriate during her time. Over a century and a half later, fans of her work are still looking for the meanings between her lines.
Note on “fascicles:
*During Dickinson’s intense writing period (1858-1864), she copied more than 800 of her poems into small booklets, forty in all, now called “fascicles.” She made the small volumes herself from folded sheets of paper that she stacked and then bound by stabbing two holes on the left side of the paper and tying the stacked sheets with string. She shared these with no one. They were discovered by her sister Lavinia after Emily’s death.
The kindness of strangers, the devotion of one who loves or simply cares. Emily most certainly knew and exercised both herself, as have you and I. Unable to sleep any later this morning, I rose early and flipped through my catalog of first lines and chose this one. I immediately thought of all of the times others have gifted me with exactly what I was unknowingly in need of and also of those times when strangers or kind hearts have seen an obvious need and spontaneously reached out to take my hand, light my way or lighten my load. Their kindnesses served to increase the want in me to do the same.
A moment in time that would register insignificant in the chronicles of world history could be a catalyst, a lifeboat, or a key to a long locked door. We often have no idea or at least not the full extent of the impact of a small act of kindness. That’s the key to it all though, to the world being a gentler place. If we are living and breathing, if we have eyes to see or ears to detect a need, we have it in us to inspire, to educate, and to influence and affect others in a positive way. May we all rise to the occasion.
I share one poem per blog post, but I’ve written many more. The lucky agent/publisher who decides I’m a good fit for their press will get to read all of the poems I’ve written with Emily’s first lines for this project! This morning I wrote about childhood memories in my grandparent’s attic bedroom, the interdependence of all living things, the hate I have for the scale at this point of my life, a certain type of friend we need and this one, about wild nights.
If Emily’s poem had truly been about a wild night she had or one she was desirous of, the mid 1800’s world she lived in would be “pull out the smelling salts” shocked. Ladies of that time period didn’t speak of such things. Hell, they weren’t even supposed to feel such things! Of course we don’t know if anyone actually did read it before her death, but even today it’s difficult to reconcile the reclusive poet to a such a passionate plea for wild nights with an unidentified lover. But who knows…
Now I may be a woman of a certain age with grown children and grandkids, but back in the late 70’s, (when I may not have always used the best judgement), I was nevertheless “Quite the Quite!
Although she isn’t here to verify it, if you Google poem 219, every analysis points to Emily Dickinson describing a sweeping multicolored sunset and referring to it as a housewife. She began the poem with a figurative first line. I took the opposite approach and quite literally made it a simple and sweet poem, about a woman, going about her daily chores with colored objects that remind her of a loved one, lost long ago. The different colors of the brooms remind her of specific things about their life together. A life that existed in the past, but one that she remembers fondly.
We all have objects, places, songs, as well as colors, scents and foods that remind us of someone we loved. Just seeing, hearing, or tasting them brings the moments we shared with them back to life in our minds. In today’s Carol and Emily poem, I was reminded of the fact that there is dignity in all work, and that we can choose to do even the most mundane tasks with utmost effort, pride and joy, focusing on whatever it is that makes us whistle while we work and bid that dust and dirt goodbye.
According to the Emily Dickinson Archive, there are 280 instances of bees in poems written by her. There is plenty of analysis out there regarding her personification of bees and flowers etc. and how it speaks of gender conventions, religion and eroticism, but that’s not what this blog is about. It’s widely accepted that she loved nature and spent quite a lot of time by herself in it, thus why so many of her poems contain references to the natural world. Emily no doubt knew of the bee’s importance in contributing to biodiversity, creating a food source, and as pollinators facilitating wild plant growth. Bees are also said to pollinate one-third of the global food supply, more than 90 different agricultural crops.
Like Emily, I find great beauty and solace in nature. It has many valuable lessons and secrets to teach us if we take the time to observe the cycles, habits, and behaviors of other living things. One might surmise that Emily preferred the natural world over human beings, especially toward the end of her life when she became more reclusive. I submit that she sincerely appreciated the contributions of the natural world to the beauty of our planet and took the time to write about it.
This photo came up as a serendipitous Facebook memory this morning. Serendipitous because I just finished a poem about kindness yesterday, with the intent of posting it today. This “Be Kind” pendant is one of the few relics I have from my teenage years. Three years ago I found it in a box of memories. Although it’s nearly 50 years old, its message is timeless. I remember buying it at The Infinite Mushroom, a really cool head shop in Orlando in the early 70s. It was where every teen went to get their black light posters, ultra-cool clothes/accessories, and of course the other things that made it a “head shop”.
Emily often sent poems as part of her letters or accompanying them, to family, friends and acquaintances. She wrote the first line of this poem in a letter to Samuel Bowles in August of 1858. Bowles was the Editor-In-Chief of the Springfield Republican newspaper. Over the years he became Emily’s confidant and would receive 40 poems in letters from her, but publish none of them. Seven of her poems were published in his paper during her lifetime, but the specifics of how they came to be published remain unknown.
Despite all the goodness and good people that are out there making the world a kinder place every day, today’s Carol and Emily poem recognizes the still ever present need for a “Kindness Revolution”. Because you can never have too much kindness or spread too much love.
In the Spring of 1862, Emily Dickinson wrote the words “The heart wants what it wants, or else it does not care” in a letter to her friend Mary Bowles. She was offering Mary consolation, as her husband was going abroad for an extended period of time. At the same time, Emily admits that there is really no way to console her friend, because the heart has a mind of its own and the friend’s husband will still be missed, even as she is assured of his return.
Throughout Emily’s 55 years she was never known to have a romantic relationship, but the letters she left behind suggest she did have several intimate relationships, which she “tells it slant” about in her poetry. “Tell it slant” was a phrase used in another poem of hers, whose first line is “Tell all the truth, but tell it slant” which seemed to suggest that rather than shocking a person with the whole big truth at once, one should start from a circuit around it and gradually reveal the whole picture. The phrase “tell it slant” has come to be associated with Dickinson and each year the Emily Dickinson Museum in Amherst holds a Tell It Slant poetry festival and gives a Tell It Slant award.
In researching analysis of “Is it true dear Sue?”, most agree that those words were directed to her lifelong friend, love and sister-in-law, Susan Huntington Gilbert with regards to Emily’s brother Austin, whom Sue would go on to marry. Emily is questioning whether or not there are now two who love her, and competing for her love.
Todays Carol and Emily poem is based on a real experience that I had at the end of a long term relationship, one that ended slowly, and slant, but led us both to where we belonged, with another.
Remember that one day of the week in Kindergarten? The day you were allowed to bring that special object of yours and tell the entire class all about it and why it was special to you? That’s what writers do every day, whether they are poets or novelists, screenwriters or essayists, they tell stories and paint pictures with their words. Today happens to be International Writer’s Day, a day established to recognize and honor those who chose a lifetime of show and tell.
There’s a so called Golden Rule of Writing that says you should show instead of tell, by using sensory details that allow the reader to be immersed in the scene or emotion, as if they were there, experiencing the action or sensing a character’s personality traits. Emily was quite adept at explaining abstract concepts using imagery and concrete objects that readers could easily relate to. In other words, she was really good at show and tell. When I read her work, I get the feeling that like me, she viewed words as almost sacred conveyors of emotions, thoughts and stories. The following quote illustrates her understanding of the power they hold.
Today’s Carol and Emily poem is about words, writing, and the hope that in sharing our words, we writers touch hearts. And perhaps, some of our words even shine.
An avid observer, Emily Dickinson began showing an interest in botany when she was 9 years old. She loved to help her mother in the family garden, which contained quite an extensive variety of flowers. When she went away to school at Mt. Holyoke, she was encouraged by the principal and founder of the school to create an herbarium. Emily went on to collect, press and classify 424 flowers from the Amherst region. The leather bound album she pressed and posted them in survived and has been digitized by Houghton Library at Harvard University. You can access it here Harvard Mirador Viewer. You can also tour the Homestead gardens at Dickinson’s family home in Amherst, MA. Although I haven’t yet been, it’s definitely on my “post Covid – when we can finally travel safely again” list of places to visit.
Emily often sent flowers with her letters to friends and family and gifted them on birthdays and occasion of deaths and illnesses. A large number of her poems contain references to them. According to Judith Farr, author of The Gardens of Emily Dickinson, one-third of Dickinson’s poems and half of her letters mention flowers, with the rose taking first place for most mentions. Pictured below is a page from Emily’s Herbarium and today’s Carol and Emily poem, which tells of one particular rosebush that she kept as a secret for herself and the bees.