Who would have thought we’d be celebrating reclusive Emily Dickinson’s birthday all these years later? For sure, not Emily. There are some who speculate that E.D. would have loved the Internet age, but I can’t imagine she would have loved Zoom and all this showing up in a non-human way anymore than she wanted to show up in a here-I-am physical way.
But there we were last Thursday, December 10, an eclectic gathering of people celebrating her poems, obviously online — so, of course, it was also a house tour, or sometimes bedroom tour. Appropriate since Emily spent most of her life (might as well say “all”) in her childhood home, and much of that in her bedroom.
Let’s remember that for all the poems she wrote — 1,800 plus — she never intended to publish them (and only ten found their way, anonymously, to the public eye in her lifetime). She sent them to people in letters, often accompanied by other things like a pressed flower or a dead insect, and for about a half-dozen years collected them in handmade folded-paper booklets. She wrote on backs of envelopes, pieces of newspaper, scraps, much the way I have for decades — mine out of necessity (only in these last years can I buy reams of blank paper or paints and materials). I came to art-making through pressed flowers — because they were free and so were the roof slates I mounted them on.
Let me make this clear. I’m no scholar or E.D. aficionado. That fact has troubled me most of my life — not specifically what I don’t know about her and her work, but what I don’t know or haven’t studied in any kind of deep or scholarly way about, what feels like, everything and everyone. And yet I have always felt energetically connected to so much — a puller and pusher of permutations, not any of it cast in exactness or exactitude, rightness or precision.
Living with her family of origin all her life, she had no real responsibilities other than caring for the “ailers” as time passed. Not a responsibility but a choice was the writing, and the correspondence, the gardening and pressing of flowers. She hung out in her bedroom, in the conservatory, in the gardens.
She spread her words like artworks across the page, dynamic visual structures minimized by print and containment. Breaths and rhythms, the curl and shape and plunk of letters, the dashes, both vertical and horizontal. Likely the publishing world of the day, its technology and its heartbeat, would try to box her into/onto the stiff, unyielding printed page. The first posthumous collections were stripped of all her quirks — the random capitals and erratic dashes, repetitives and abrupt drop-offs. Even with the stripping of her personal energetics, she shone through enough to keep the traveling words alive until they were restored to themselves. It’s like telling me I couldn’t wear mismatched socks or unmated earrings in five ear holes, long before people were doing either, that dancing must be choreographed or partnered, not wild and free, communal and solitary.
Although I might have many more poems and essays, I can only think how much less I would be had I stayed in my childhood bedroom.
In the end, Emily tasked her only sister with destroying all her writing — poems and letters — when she died. You see how well that went. As we gathered and read poem after poem after poem, I had to wonder what she’s thinking now.
I read “Because I could not stop for Death” because I could not stop for death.