Wednesday, April 25, 2007


Quite a few years (decades) ago, I was able to visit scenes of Emily Dickinson's life in Amherst, with two Bostonian friends. I arrived late for one of the rarely scheduled tours of the Dickinson home, the width and breadth of Emily's life (except that her imagination ranged the universe). Being late was a great aid so that I could photograph, undetected, the old black silhouette cutout of Emily and the painting of her and her sister and brother, and her bedroom, like a nun's cell (although I do not want to reinforce that stereotype of Emily as more dessicated than alive) where she retreated each day to write her verses. I don't know how often Emily would lower one of her little bound books of verses in a basket to someone below -- one of the stories people like to repeat to emphasize her isolation -- but in the home they have been true to that iconography -- Looking toward her window, the basket by the window, and looking up at her window...the large Dickinson home...

Those who venture beyond Emily's simpler (but noteworthy) verses may wonder if she was not transplanted from Mars -- so alone, yet so original, leading one around the most surprising corners in the mind, leading to the visions of a highly sensitive mind...I would not want my own work to stand next to hers, and so I introduce my verse to her before quoting three of her own.

For Emily Dickinson

Saved in a box or in a basket –
She knew – these were
Her better kisses.
For life? She would risk it.

Eternal notes – small and fair –
Were all her own faces.
Each offers each of us
Her kiss and their business –

Cool, spare, and curious –
Even as teaspoons or scalpels.
Pruner of roses, she parries
In air – touche!

Avec le mot juste
She severs their stems:
The fit words fall that
She then runs through.

-- James McColley Eilers, copyright 2007

Once I could no longer lag behind the professor from Amherst College who was leading the tour, he said wryly, "Well, you arrived late so you may not have heard that no photographs are allowed -- so I won't destroy your camera." Emily's garden was one aspect of her life, and I took these photogaphs, and recently came across the plant I had picked there and pressed and dried:

As you probably know, the dashes in her verses are Emily's notation on where to pause.
Emily's verse, once numbered 754, now numbered 764:

My Life had stood -- a Loaded Gun --
In Corners --till a Day
The Owner passed -- identified --
And carried Me away --

And now We roam in Sovereign Woods --
And now We hunt the Doe --
And every time I speak for Him --
The Mountains straight reply --

And do I smile, such cordial light
Upon the Valley glow --
It is as a Vesuvian face
Had let its pleasure through --

And when at Night -- Our good Day done --
I guard My Master's Head --
'Tis better than the Eider-Duck's
Deep Pillow -- to have shared --

To foe of His -- I'm deadly foe --
None stir the second time --
On whom I lay a Yellow Eye --
Or an emphatic Thumb --

Though I than He -- may longer live
He longer must -- than I --
For I have but the power to kill,
Without -- the power to die --

With my friends Charles and Robert, I visited her gravesite, and took away the faded flowers left by previous visitors, and put my own gift of lilies on top the gravestone, and read one of her verses aloud. I doubt if she very often attended the church her family attended, or only attended as a skeptic. In the religious girls' schol she attended, she was considered a little rebel, and in her verses, she plays around with the notion of God, as if ironic about a ficton. Did she indicate the epitaph, "Called Back"? If so, I suspect she left with the same sense of irony she had while alive.

The following verse that shows Emily's passion (She was probably very much in love with her sister-in-law Susan Dickinson for whom she wrote about 250 of her verses) was given a very powerful choral setting, as wild as its title, by composer John Adams:

Verse 249 (now numbered 269):

Wild Nights -- Wild Nights!
Were I with thee
Wild Nights should be
Our luxury!

Futile -- the Winds --
To a Heart in port --
Done with the Compass --
Done with the Chart!

Rowing in Eden --
Ah, the Sea!
Might I but moor -- Tonight --
In Thee!

Drawing all these materials out of an old box while trying to put my apartment in order for a visit from my old friend Peter Arvanitis, I decided to make a collage of some of it, and place it under glass...

Emily's Verse 544 (now 665:

The Martyr Poets -- did not tell --
But wrought their Pang in syllable --
That when their mortal name be numb --
Their mortal fate -- encourage Some --

The Martyr Painters -- never spoke --
Bequesting -- rather -- to their Work --
That when their conscious fingers cease --
Some seek in Art -- the Art of Peace --

The only photograph of Emily has often been blighted -- as when early editions of her poetry included only the simpler, less adventurous verses, and the image in her photograph was changed to a girl in a summer smock, with puffy sleeves, and long curls in her hair. The only photo is rather scratched up, and so I tried to help its appearance via Photoshop:

1 comment:

Junk Thief said...

Hi "Blue". Great photos and verse on Emily. She always challenges the argument that you can't write until you've seen the world and lived a full life. Perhaps, from her small window in Amherst, she did.