Emily Dickinson – My Geography
Freshman year of college I passed out in the middle of a presentation in front of my entire intro to sociology course – full out unconscious on the floor.
I have always been shy. When I was younger, I was very, very shy. By the time I was in college, I wanted to break out of this “quiet girl” mode, but I didn’t know how. Then I passed out in the middle of a presentation. Whenever I ran into students who were in the class that day, they would greet me as if we had shared some deep common experience, rest a hand on my shoulder, and ask gently, “How are you doing?” Years later, when I told this story to a friend, he was impressed. “That’s hardcore,” he said, as if this humiliating episode were a proud testament to something – my intensity, I suppose.
At the Emily Dickinson House in Amherst, I visited the kitchen where every morning Dickinson came down early to bake bread. According to the docent, her father Edward Dickinson insisted that Emily made the best bread in the family, and so the task fell to her. It was easy to picture her in that nineteenth-century kitchen, clinking pans alone in the first morning light.
In later years, she was reported to make gingerbread and lower it down in a basket from her bedroom window for local children, including her niece and nephews. Gingerbread lowered, witch-like, in a basket from her solitary window. With that story alone we are already halfway to a fairy tale.
I have only recently become obsessed with Emily Dickinson. Perhaps it was inevitable. Really, it’s odd that I haven’t felt drawn to her before now. There were opportunities; I read some of her poems in high school and college, but neither the poems nor the myth – the reclusive Belle of Amherst – drew me in. And then one day I was watching a video discussion from a massive open online course – noncommittally watching really – and as the undergraduates stumbled line by line through a close reading of a Dickinson poem, something happened. The poem opened for me, and I realized how much of Dickinson I had been missing before.
Dickinson’s work is defined by extreme compression; you don’t sit down with the Collected Poems and begin reading sequentially – or at least I don't. I can’t. I think this may explain why, as much as I have come to love Dickinson, I have still only read a small fraction of the nearly two thousand poems that she produced. There’s a density in the poems that demands explication, thought, analysis. Her metaphors are intricate and shift unexpectedly. If we try to read her in the way that poetry is still too often taught in schools (Thing A represents Thing Z, and if we understand this than we have unlocked the poem and all its parts fall neatly into place) we will fail because the metaphors of the poems open outwards, amass more and more possibilities and become richer and stranger the more we think about them.
By the time I was eleven or twelve, I hardly spoke at all when I left my parents’ house. I attended school day after day in virtual silence, except at recess where I might become talkative around a couple of close friends. When a teacher called on me in class I either would not speak at all, or I would whisper the answer so quietly that no one could hear me. Yet I almost always knew the answer.
I was made fun of for my shyness at times, but mostly, luckily, I was ignored. When I came home from school I would seek refuge in my room. (Dickinson’s niece Martha records that Emily, while pretending to unlock the door to her bedroom with an imaginary key, said, “It’s just a turn – and freedom, Matty”). In middle school, I filled spiral notebooks with skewering observations about my “superficial” classmates. I began writing poems and stories. I also began to read voraciously. One day in middle school during silent reading a boy asked me if I was reading an encyclopedia; it was a hardcover copy of Great Expectations. I was twelve.
Girls who read too many books do not become popular. I had a few close friends in high school, but no boyfriends (Before coming to change her mind about Dickinson, the poet Denise Levertov said that, “She wrote some great things – saw strangely – makes one shudder with new truths – but ever and again one feels (or I do) – ‘Jesus, what a bitchy little spinster.’”).
My shyness was probably the great struggle of my childhood, which is to say that I have always been at war with myself, and through writing, and reading, tunneling my way out.
Here is the first poem that happened to draw me to Dickinson, a justly famous one:
I dwell in Possibility –
A fairer House than Prose –
More numerous of Windows –
Superior – for Doors –
Of Chambers as the Cedars –
Impregnable of eye –
And for an everlasting Roof
The Gambrels of the Sky –
Of Visitors – the fairest –
For Occupation – This –
The spreading wide my narrow Hands
To gather Paradise –
What does it mean to “dwell in possibility?” The second line draws a contrast between the house of possibility and the house of prose, and this leads naturally to an understanding of the poem as a kind of reflection on the nature of poetry itself as the realm of the possible. Dickinson is at home in the house of poetry, a stranger and more wondrous place than prose. There are more windows in this house and better doors; one can see more or perhaps better from the house of poetry than from the house of prose. Prose is the mundane, the banal, the everyday – poetry is something greater. But I don’t think poetry is all that Dickinson means by possibility; rather poetry is just one means – her preferred means, perhaps – for living in the realm of the possible.
There are always lines and often entire stanzas of Dickinson that I feel lost in, and in this poem I stumble somewhat in the second stanza. It took some puzzling out, but I finally arrived at an interpretation of the first two lines: The “chambers” or rooms of this house are like cedars in a wood, “impregnable of eye,” which is to say they are numerous, perhaps even uncountable – another amassing of the endlessly possible. The end of the stanza is more intuitive to me; rather than a real, solid roof, the open sky is the only limit, so not really a limit at all.
Dickinson writes frequently about nature – all those poems about bees and flowers – and she frequently records a sense of drunkenness (“I taste a liquor never brewed /… Inebriate of Air – am I – / and Debauchee of Dew”). The more I read Dickinson, the more I sense that all of these concepts – possibility, poetry, nature, even God – are a constellation of the same underlying concern, a compulsion to dig into the mysteries of the inner life.
The central conceit – Poetry as a house of endless possibilities – seems to culminate in that final stanza. Dickinson has found her occupation, and it is “ – This – ” capitalized, set off on both sides by dashes. Her occupation is poetry, this very poem that we are reading, and poetry is nothing less than “The spreading wide my narrow Hands – / to gather Paradise.” Paradise is the poetic occupation itself, the artist’s calling, the artist who can somehow assimilate the endless possibilities into some kind of poetic whole. It is, I think, the feeling Dickinson had when she was writing her poems, a sense of (oh gosh) spiritual transcendence – that in writing her “little” poems with their radical open-endedness, she was in touch with some deep and primal force.
Because Dickinson has now been read and written about so much, and because her poems are so dense and the metaphors so slippery, it seems that everyone has his or her take on her. I think that part of the reason that I, and apparently so many other women writers, feel this pull toward Dickinson is the combination of the multiple meanings inherent in the poems themselves, combined with how much remains unknown about Dickinson’s life.
The poet Susan Howe has a wonderful work called My Emily Dickinson that undertakes a book-length close reading of the difficult poem “My Life had stood – a loaded Gun.” Howe finds far-flung traces of inspiration in Dickinson’s Calvinist roots and in the racial unease of the frontier. In “Vesuvius at Home,” Adrienne Rich lays out her own view of Dickinson who is for her, among so many other things, a “grandmother” figure for American poets.
We all have our own Emily Dickinson. It is hard to write about Dickinson without giving into the myth of Dickinson (gingerbread lowered in a basket), and I am as guilty of this as anyone else. The biography may help us to understand the poetry more fully, perhaps to see connections we might not have seen or to place her concerns against the context of her time, but the poetry is also a thing unto itself. When I say we all have our Emily Dickinson, I don’t mean that all interpretations of the poems are equally valid. I mean that her work is wide enough and open enough that we can always find some aspect of ourselves contained there and learn others still (“The brain is wider than the sky – / For—put them side by side – / The one the other will contain / With ease – and You – beside –”).
Only a few of Dickinson’s poems were published in her lifetime, mostly without her consent (“Publication is the auction of the soul,” famously begins one poem). Sometime in the 1860s she began to enact her own form of publication; she folded paper and stitched the sheets together to form notebooks, then copied out her poems by hand into these self-made books, which Dickinson scholars call fascicles. Sometimes she recorded multiple versions of the same poem. The fascicles contain her long, slanted script and also those dashes – the most obvious feature of her style. For decades those dashes were omitted, corrected over by her editors; they are now seen as an essential feature of her verse. Publication in the conventional sense erases uncertainty; even though writers must submit to editors through the publication process, we tend to accept the published version, approved by the author, as a kind of original. Dickinson has left us no officially sanctioned originals, only a record of her process of endless revision.
When I was fifteen or sixteen, for some holiday that I had failed to buy a real present for, I printed out several of my own poems, put them in a spare binder, and presented them to my mother as a gift. This “collection” astounded my parents, who both sat paging through it, and asking me, “When did you write all of these?” I had announced my serious intention of becoming a writer when I was 9 or 10, and I guess I had assumed that the family was aware that all that time in my room alone, when I wasn’t listening to my moody music or crying – I was “at work.” I remember being puzzled: what did they think I was doing in there?
Dickinson lived her whole life in her father’s house in Amherst, Massachusetts. When he died, her fate was left largely in the hand of her older brother, Austin, who lived with his wife and children in a house next door to the one where Emily spent the entirety of her adult life.
I visited this house in Amherst on a warm, overcast spring day. The rooms are relatively empty of furniture; according to the docent, most of the original furnishings have been lost and the museum is working to acquire the funds to buy period-appropriate pieces. Nevertheless, there are some treasures here.
On the mantle in the living room there is a portrait of the three Dickinson children – Austin, Emily, and Lavinia. Even in this childhood portrait, Emily is holding a book. There is also the daguerreotype taken around 1846 of Emily at the age of 16. Some version of this image appears on almost every book about the poet. It is the only photographic image that remains from her lifetime. In his biography of Dickinson, My Wars Are Laid Away in Books, Alfred Habegger observes that Dickinson was recovering from an illness when the photograph was taken. The girl in this picture, right arm perched on a table upon which rests – of course – a book, looks seriously and gravely into the camera. She is quite thin; it’s easy to believe that she has been unwell. In black and white, she looks pale and her hair and eyes appear dark. Her hair is pulled back and this, along with the lack of a smile, makes her look serious, even severe. (“She looks strangely like you,” my friend Katie has commented to me.) According to all accounts, Emily Dickinson was actually a redhead, but facts never matter as much as a single image, caught and endlessly reproduced. In all our collective minds, Dickinson is this thin, girlish person with a solemn expression on her face. Adrienne Rich notes that many critics for years dismissed her as “a girl,” despite the fact that she was fifty-five when she died (Archibald MacLeish: “Most of us are half in love with this dead girl”). This is undoubtedly a sign of the critics’ paternalistic condescension, but it is also, I suspect, a testament to the enduring influence of that single image.
The museum also has on display her simple white dress, the one that she wore when she stopped leaving the house (She wrote to Thomas Wentworth Higginson in response to his offer for her to visit, “Could it please your convenience to come so far as Amherst I should be very glad, but I do not cross my father’s ground to any House or town.”) The docent reminded us of the elaborate dress of women in the mid-nineteenth century, the Civil-War-era giant hoop skirts and corsets that were required even for a simple visit to a friend’s house. It was easy to see why a person might prefer to give that up. On days when I don’t leave the house, when I stay at home and write, I wear T-shirts and yoga pants – “comfy pants,” my husband calls them. Seeing Emily’s dress in its glass case, I wondered which came first – the decision not to leave the house, or the decision to no longer bother with the confining styles of the age?
Upstairs, one of the bedrooms contains benches for visitors to sit on while the docent lectures. The walls are hung with displays. One of these displays contains the full text of “I dwell in Possibility.” The others feature photos of some of Dickinson’s drafts, with certain words crossed out and written over.
Across the hall, in the corner facing Main Street and downtown Amherst – the best view in the house – is Emily’s room. On the day that I visited, the floor had been stripped down to its original pine boards and looked very much under construction. These were the original boards – the ones that Emily walked on. There was a bed and bedside table, not original to the house. In the corner, in front of the window, was a single piece of furniture that as far as I am concerned completed the room and obviated the need for any more original pieces: Emily’s writing desk. It is quite small. It looked to me more like a wooden music stand than a desk. The legend of the Belle of Amherst was fueled partly by the light that stayed lit late into the night in the window of the large house on the corner. The supposition during her lifetime was apparently that something ghostly was taking place in the spinster’s room, and perhaps it was; she was writing her poetry.
It was also in this room that Dickinson hid away, in a chest of drawers, the fascicles filled with her life’s work. This is a moment that I find myself picturing clearly, in a way that I don’t think I would have before I visited the house: I can imagine Emily’s sister Lavinia, always Vinnie in the letters, screwing up her courage one morning to go through her dead sister’s things. I imagine her pulling open the drawer and the notebooks springing out, overflowing. I think that Vinnie must have been surprised at first, but then, maybe, after a moment’s reflection, she wasn’t surprised at all.
We all have our own Emily Dickinson, our own reasons for being drawn to her, for filling in the gaps in her life and the space between words with our own interpretations. (“To fill a Gap/ Insert the Thing that Caused it – / Block it up / With Other – and ‘twill yawn the more – “). If I see an affinity between me and Emily Dickinson it is, inevitably, a manufactured one, a way of filling in the gaps of her own biography with my own, a reading over that a critic should avoid, but that a reader-writer sometimes cannot.
The first time I heard about Emily Dickinson was when I was quite young. My mother had bought a set of cassette tapes about famous American women. I listened to several of these tapes over and over, including ones about Amelia Earhart, Harriet Tubman, and Deborah Samson (who posed as a man in order to fight in the Revolutionary War). One of these tapes was about Emily Dickinson, but unlike the stories that I loved, full of adventure and external conflict, the tape about Dickinson described her life in the town of Amherst, mixed in with readings of the poems. Whenever the reader recited a poem, a strange, hypnotic-sounding music would come on in the background; in my memory it is a little like the soundtrack from Hitchcock’s Vertigo that plays whenever Jimmy Stewart’s character is about to pass out. I remember my mother snapping the tape off a few minutes in. I was probably about seven.
What the weird hypnotic music was saying about poetry and about Dickinson circa 1985 is still relevant, I think. It painted her poetic impulse as pathologic in the extreme, and her life and work are still read too often through the lens of pathology. She was not always a recluse. Through her twenties she was known to ramble through the fields in search of wildflower specimens for her herbarium. She was also, through the 1850s, a frequent visitor at her brother’s literary salons next door; the docent told a story about her father having to come fetch her with a lantern from Austin’s when she had stayed too late one night. But sometime in the 1860s, around the time that she experienced her first poetic explosion, she began to venture out less and less. By the time of her death in 1886, she almost never left the premises at all. When her beloved nephew, eight year-old Gilbert, was on his deathbed, it seems to have taken all her willpower to go over to the house next door to say goodbye. She suffered a period of unspecific illness following Gil’s death that sounds a lot to my ears like a bout of depression. Her withdrawal around strangers (she was known to listen to visitors in the drawing room from the kitchen or upstairs without ever showing her face) raises questions as to whether she might not now be diagnosed with some form of social anxiety.
I’m not interested in diagnosing Emily Dickinson, though it’s no stretch to posit that someone with such pronounced avoidant behavior might have been socially anxious. But whether or not that is the case, when I read about Dickinson, I am perhaps more inclined than the average person to sympathize with her unusual behavior. More than that: in a strange, perverse way, I admire it.
I was more radical at fifteen than I would dare to be now. I have socialized myself, tamed myself to fit in (better anyway) with the dictates of my social world. I am more woven into the fabric of that world than Dickinson ever was. I am married; I want children. I have worked for years, unbelievably, as a teacher. I would not return now to the radical estrangement of my childhood, to the hours I spent as a moody adolescent alone in my room, but there are still days when I sit in a room alone – blissfully alone – and write. I understand the impulse although I would not dare, now, to give into it so completely.
Dickinson’s withdrawal may well have been strategic rather than pathological. Adrienne Rich recognizes this, and so, in his biography, does Alfred Habegger. For Habegger, Dickinson was constrained by the patriarchal authority of her father, a political conservative who believed that a woman’s place was in the home. In this environment, her seclusion represented a strategic withdrawal, a means of achieving an inner freedom through writing that she was denied in the world of 19th-century restraint. Practically speaking, it may also have been the only way she could create time in which to write; the 19th-century woman of the house had plenty to do between childrearing and caring for the home. It was a lonely path, but in Habegger’s terms, Dickinson achieved victory in this “war”: the poetry is a testament to it.
Poignantly, Habegger poses the question in the final chapter of his biography, discussing the poet’s failure to “clean up” her notebooks or leave explicit instructions for publication: “Didn’t she know how good she was? That may be what we want to know must of all.” As much as I enjoyed Habegger’s biography, the question itself suggests to me that he is too interested in the life and not enough in the poetry.
Not every poem Dickinson ever wrote is a meta-reflection upon her powers as a poet, but there are many of these “meta” poems, and they seem to pop up the more one reads Dickinson and reads the poems not in isolation but in dialogue with one another. Here is another such poem (which provided Rich with the title of her essay and has also provided the title for this website):
Volcanoes be in Sicily
And South America
I judge from my Geography—
Volcanoes nearer here
A Lava step at any time
Am I inclined to climb—
A Crater I may contemplate
Vesuvius at Home.
Like so many of Dickinson’s poems, one could read this in several ways. But set next to poems such as “I dwell in Possibility,” it is hard not to see it as another expression of the female poet’s contained yet potentially explosive power.
If we read Dickinson’s poems closely enough, we do not have to ask ourselves if she was aware of her own achievement. The answer is there in the poems. The fact that we are still asking these questions is proof of how our tendencies to read into the mysterious lives of poets can flatten rather than deepen our readings. My own tendency to impose upon Dickinson’s biography does not replace or obscure the necessity of reading the poems on their own terms. Dickinson did not lead a life full of external incidents and events; if we want to understand her, we might as well look to the one place where she carefully crafted insights into her inner life, namely the poetry itself. Those poems remain slippery and demanding yet worth the effort. In them we find the best clues we will ever find to “figuring out” Emily Dickinson, who mastered so well the art of hiding in plain sight. Each of her poems is an invitation to journey with her into the dangerous land of the inner life, a promise that if we can go deep enough in, we will somehow open out.
To tell the Beauty would decrease
To state the Spell demean –
There is a syllable-less Sea
Of which it is the sign –
My will endeavors for its word
And fails, but entertains
A Rapture as of Legacies –
Of introspective Mines –