Thursday, May 31, 2012

THE BELLE OF AMHERST

from STREET OF CROCODILES, a 21-minute-long stop-motion animation short subject 
directed and produced by the Brothers Quay and released in 1986 
It's that little glint, that privileged look into a keyhole, and realizing suddenly that there's this little universe that's probably suffering and barely breathing, but it's pulsating, vibrating, with its own life. That in itself is a metaphor of the universe.
--The Brothers Quay, filmmakers

New England has a long tradition of solitaries: Robert Frost and his “road less traveled,” Henry David Thoreau in his cabin at Walden Pond; Nathaniel Hawthorne, whose family of origin lived together but ate dinner alone in their separate rooms.

Twice, I've paid homage to the queen of them all: Emily Dickinson, the poet who, near the latter part of her life, took to shutting herself up in her bedroom, seating visitors in a chair in the hall, and speaking to them through a barely-cracked door. Emily was a genius—I don’t use the term lightly—whose work I revered and of whom I’d read several biographies, identifying deeply with her losses, lacks (by all accounts, she was a life-long celibate), and hard-eyed religious longing.

“I like a look of Agony,/Because I know it’s true—” she wrote about the face of a dying friend; and she was so conversant with naked suffering that to another bereaved friend, she observed that to approach “The crucifix requires no glove.”

Dickinson’s former home and gardens, now a museum, are in the western Massachusetts town of Amherst. The brick house, painted pale yellow and built in 1813, features a veranda, a cupola, and a shaded lawn. In the Tour Center on my last visit (circa 2007), I learned a new Emily quote: “Narcotics cannot still the tooth that nibbles at the soul.” Emily called immortality her “Flood subject.” “Emily’s job is to think,” her sister Lavinia had said. Why that’s my job as well! I mused. Too bad no-one wanted to pay me for it.

Simply be within the four walls where she’d lived, and reflected, and written, was to be in a holy place. To look out the dining room windows she’d looked out of, even if the view wasn’t the same (the land across the street had originally been a field where her brother Austin grew hay for his horses, instead of wooded as it was now). To survey the living room and think of her writing, “There’s a certain Slant of light,” and “After great pain, a formal feeling comes” and “The Brain—is wider than the Sky.” To stand in the bedroom and imagine her observing the snakes, frogs, flies, flowers of which she’d made a universe, the Universe.

In the upstairs hallway stood a Plexiglas case displaying The White Dress: the garment in which Emily had apparently floated through the gardens and house; a reproduction of the sole surviving item of her clothing. Similarly,  to date but a single photo had been unearthed. A single dress, a single photograph; of the more than 1200 poems she’d written, less than a dozen published during her lifetime: icons of her themes of death, Immortality, thwarted desire.

I gazed out through the tops of the elms across the street.  How much, of necessity, we hold in. How violently we desire. From her chaste bedroom in Amherst, Emily had written:

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!


EMILY DICKINSON'S BEDROOM

5 comments:

  1. -- And from the days of John the Baptist until now, the kingdom of heaven suffereth violence, and the violent bear it away.

    (Matthew 11:12, Douay-Rheims translation)

    I sometimes ponder this verse. What passion, desire, energy must come from our entire being -- a sort of love that is like violence in its intensity, but unlike it in its practice...I think of Dickinson, yes, and Dante and St. Teresa of Avila and so many other saints and seekers.

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  2. A now Dominican novice once told me that if he were alive during Emily Dickinson's time he felt he would have had a "different" vocation. Dickinson was truly an inspiring person, she lived like an anchoress. What a rare soul.

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  3. Hi Heather, Thanks for this post. I'm planning on going to ED's house the end of this month, I love her! Sometimes when I'm reading her poetry I feel her presence-- it's like I know her in a way that can't be explained. Warm regards, Christine

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  4. An engimatic poet, who always told the truth.

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  5. An engimatic poet and brilliant.

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