AT THE TIME Emily Dickinson wrote many of her poems, Charles Darwin had just published The Origin of Species and Henry David Thoreau had just published On Walden Pond. And amidst all that publishing of independence and evolution, the scheduled creation of the world thrown into doubt, the need for community questioned, a singular woman sat behind her locked bedroom door at an improbably small desk, the surface about the size of a chessboard, to write poems that, after her death, would eventually make an indelible mark on literature. In her lifetime she remained largely unpublished.
The Civil War was on. Walt Whitman read letters under tents to soldiers with amputated limbs. During these years, Dickinson experienced her greatest poetic output. In 1862 she wrote nearly a poem a day. A new train, whose passage through town her father had been instrumental in arranging, hooted down its track, sometimes bringing with it the corpses from the war. As the world progressed with its murders and steel wheels, Dickinson grew more stationary.
To most she seems a doubter and outsider. Some cannot imagine fitting any of her thought through a church door, let alone using it in sermons. She is heretical, mocking. In a letter, she off-handedly comments, “but we thought Darwin had thrown ‘the Redeemer’ away.” Her quotation marks already surround the noun in skeptical cotton wool. And, in her slant-speak, wasn’t it actually she who was tempted to throw the Redeemer away?
Despite all the obfuscation, her cerebral smoke and mirrors, Dickinson, I contend, could be considered a religious poet, even within, and perhaps because of, her great doubts. She is religious without religion. She is a mystic. “Take all away from me,” she wrote, “But leave me ecstasy.” That “all” mostly includes organized religion. Her prophecy happened outside pews and pulpits, collars and revival meetings. Dorothea Sölle, a contemporary German philosopher, has written: “Every idea we have of God fails God.” Dickinson’s poetry somehow manages to lodge in that space between every idea we have and God, and there her work pulses and does not fail. Her outsider status gave her a unique perspective from which to observe church in her world, an awakened religion that gripped her New England town of Amherst. In her poems she becomes, in many ways, her own priest.
As George Herbert wrote in light of the Elizabethan Settlement, Gerard Manley Hopkins in light of the Oxford Movement, so Dickinson wrote not long after the Great Awakening, and during the time of the Second Great Awakening, two waves of a religious movement that spread in America, calling into question organized Christian ritual and ceremony. There were revival tents in the woods. People spontaneously converted. In the first wave, people wept the moment preacher George Whitfield uttered the word “Mesopotamia.” John Wesley had people preach who were not ordained. The Second Awakening reached out more to the unchurched. New denominations were founded: Mormons and Seventh-day Adventists. In all this theological creativity, Dickinson, un-ordained, will make her own poems in an open air service attended by none but herself. She will be a denomination of herself. Society affects poetry in one way or another. As the effects of a newly defined religion can be felt in Herbert’s poems, as conversions were in the air as Hopkins converted normal meter into sprung, so this sense of American religious entrepreneurialism and rebelliousness can be felt in the nerve endings of Dickinson’s lines.
Months before she died, Dickinson referred to herself as “Pugilist and Poet.” She had lived a hermit’s life, not unlike the fourteenth-century beguines, medieval lay women who formed their own monastic lives and owned their own houses up until the French Revolution. She took to wearing white dresses like a nun’s habit. She made her aloof hymnal with her title-less, dash-laden, unexpectedly capitalized poems, eighteen hundred in all. The telegram had just been invented, and there is something telegraphic about these poems. The pronoun “I” will be her most used word, and yet the poems will mainly elude personal narrative. They look like hymns in their four-line stanzas and three- or four-beat scansion. She pushed Isaac Watts’s meters until they buckled.
She was an accomplished pianist who loved to improvise. “The Battle Hymn of the Republic,” with lyrics by Julia Ward Howe, was published in her lifetime, and juxtaposing the anthem to Dickinson’s rhymes, you can see how Dickinson was composing her own unique tunes on her spiritual piano.
Here, for example, is one of her unmistakable sets of chords:
In the name of the Bee—
And of the Butterfly
And of the Breeze—Amen!
Dickinson found God outdoors. There’s a bit of Eve in her. She speaks to us in a field, in the grass with a snake, overlooking a June bog, irritated by a fly before she dies or listening to a “phrase-less melody” of the wind. When God’s voice knocked Paul off his horse and blinded him, he converted to Christianity and sent out all his letters. When this happened he, too, was outside.
If you are reading this before a church service, when you get inside, take a look at the stained-glass windows about you. In my experience nearly all their depictions of biblical heroes take place outside. The burning bush, the tablets coming down from Mount Sinai, the sacrifice of Isaac, the twenty-third Psalm: very little in the Bible, in terms of revelation, happens indoors. God speaks to us, and to Dickinson, from volcanoes, seas, forests.
Bernard of Clairvaux, a medieval theologian and monk, said whatever he knew of divine things and holy scriptures he learned in the woods and the fields: “I have had no other masters than the beeches and the oaks.” So, too, with Dickinson. Nowadays many of our roads to Damascus are paved with road kill and pot holes. In New Guinea, the natives no longer sing with the waterfalls. Ear-buds and ringing cell phones interpose between us and birdcalls. By Dickinson’s time, her Congregational church had put a firm roof over God, but Dickinson is more intent on blowing the timbers off, getting back to a ruined Eden. She, like her Christ, will become a “tender pioneer.”
The modesty of “In the Name of the Bee” belies its intricacy: with its whimsical surface, this little triplet is almost like a toy Dickinson has wound up to crawl across the floor of literature. The first line might be seen as the beginning of a liturgy, Dickinson’s prayer, defined not so much by theology as by nature. Her God is a “bee,” punning perhaps on the verb “to be.” Her Christ is a “butterfly,” an insect driven by transformation. Her Holy Ghost is a breeze that carries and supports the bee and the butterfly. Helen Vendler writes: “This light—but blasphemous—little poem parodies the Trinitarian formula of baptism, initiated by Jesus’ commandment to his disciples that they should go forth baptizing all nations in the ‘name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost.’” Like a bee, Vendler writes, this poem touches us first with its charm, then with its sting. The choice of three things beginning with the letter b also feels close to rebuttal, “but” being our most common word for contradiction. The traditional genuflection before receiving the Eucharist has been taken out into the open fields and flipped on its head.
Can we not imagine Saint Francis saying something similar? Dickinson is creating a sacrament in plain sight. Dickinson knew her Bible well, even if she used it mostly as a doorstop. She knew the things Paul had said about women, that they were to serve first, that they needed to keep their heads covered and their mouths shut. A patriarchal misogynist, and possibly a self-hating gay man, he is used to this day to keep women from ordained ministry. But, as he lay dying in prison, Paul wrote one last letter to Timothy about faith, and he said to Timothy that he recognized his faith because he had seen it in Timothy’s grandmother Lois and in his mother Eunice. Paul recognized faith passed down through women and could see women as portals and icons of faith. Dickinson, in my eyes, can easily join this multi-gendered apostolic succession: from Lois to Eunice to Timothy to Dickinson.
Philosopher Karsten Harries writes: “part of the human being is this longing for more openness.” Dickinson makes words her church in an open field. Few poets have hungered for openness more. Anne Spirn, a scholar of landscape architecture, writes: “Landscape is scene of life, cultivated construction, carrier of meaning. It is language.” Dickinson’s space reflects her formless, un-manifested nature. Outside the regiments of pulpits, she is making her own language. From this poem onwards, Dickinson will deal with the human problem of banishment from Eden, on her own terms. Her plight will be that of the fugitive seeking to regain a lost sacred space.
I say she is my evangelist perhaps because she is an outsider. I, too, always feel a little like someone looking in from the outside, even though as I write this I am definitely in. Perhaps I’d feel that way no matter what. Still, I have felt like an outsider a million times over. First of all, I was more or less Protestant, and with a name like Spencer Reece what else would I be? But my father never really had any religion growing up besides something vaguely Protestant (a high school crush on a girl led him to a Presbyterian church for a few weeks), and my mother had grown up Catholic with a supposedly Jewish father who’d buried his identity to assimilate into American culture in the forties and fifties. At home my mother developed a wide circle of immigrant friends, from Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Lithuania, and Poland. All had gone through the war. My godfather had been in the Polish underground and his wife had gone through Bergen-Belsen with Anne Frank. I could hardly claim a long line of Episcopalians. In fact, I couldn’t claim any.
Furthermore, I am gay. What long years have gone before I could write that short sentence. Every fundamentalist I’d ever met had made me feel completely outside. What society would I select? Dickinson herself may have been gay. Many have speculated as much, but a woman as private as she would hardly say so straightforwardly in her poems. And just as with Hopkins, it’s troubling to measure the manners and ways of a person who lived nearly 150 years ago by today’s standards. Spinsterhood was far more commonplace then, and rarely questioned. Whatever the case, Dickinson makes up her own rules, and I relate to that, at least in the private world of the mind.
Her work is also supremely nonjudgmental, and that speaks to me. The minute I hear a priest being judgmental I feel the oxygen leaving the sanctuary. I like how Dickinson thinks outside the box of the Bible. You might say she invented the concept of “church without walls” before church types used that phrase. She gives me a blueprint to make my way as someone who often feels very different. I’d say she’s close to Jesus’s ideas, for Jesus was eccentric, however much his eccentricity has been muted in our time. I am never going to be conventional, and Dickinson is never going to ask that of me. She’s often going to command me to find God outside of church. Although I love liturgy, choral music, cathedrals, and even the decorum of hierarchy and obedience, I often find my priestly inspiration outside the church, and the more I’m in, the more I need to go out. Dickinson’s relationship to her God remains indescribable. Meister Eckhart, a fourteenth-century German theologian and philosopher, wrote: “And so I ask God to rid me of God.” Mystics through history have made a habit of separating themselves from existing religions. And Dickinson certainly did that.
She’s a mystical evangelist. She inspires me, in the literal meaning of that word, from its Latin roots: in spiritu. I feel God’s spirit in me when reading her. Thus, she’s mine.
Here she is providing us with her résumé:
I’m Nobody! Who are you?
Are you nobody, too?
Then there’s a pair of us—don’t tell!
They’d banish us, you know.
How dreary to be somebody!
How public, like a frog
To tell your name the livelong day
To an admiring bog!
The poem makes me think of so many voiceless people who have passed through this world. Septima Clark, for example. In the photograph, date unknown, Septima Clark has her arm around a young Rosa Parks. Her hair is gray. Her mouth is open, generous, kind. Her teeth show gold caps. Her eyes are cast down and do not engage us. Her body is not hunched. Her carriage indicates grace. Married in 1920 to a country-club waiter, she had survived the death of her one-month-old daughter and the death of her husband in 1925 from kidney disease. She never remarried and devoted her life to teaching. Her one surviving son was raised by relatives. The photographer would have taken this picture after Clark had refused to leave the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. The year was 1956. She had been a high school teacher in South Carolina for more than thirty years.
Just two years before, the NAACP won Brown vs. Board of Education and public schools were ordered to desegregate. In the South, where the Klu Klux Klan still burned their crosses, white officials were trying to circumvent the new ruling. In South Carolina this included developing a state committee on segregation, and a 1956 statute that made “unlawful the employment by the state, school and district or any county or municipality…of any member of the NAACP, and to provide penalties for violations.” Clark, refusing to deny her membership, was not asked to come back the following year, and her pension was revoked.
She took herself to the Highlander Folk School in Tennessee, teaching uneducated blacks to read and write. One of her students was Rosa Parks. Clark wrote: “I was not nervous and not afraid. I was somewhat surprised, of course, and considerably hurt. But I was not frightened. I felt then—and I feel now—that a kind of Providence directs us when we strive to do what we think is right, and I have sought all the years…to do what is right, not only for my own people, but for all people.” Clark taught black adults to read throughout the South.
Of this itinerant, pension-less work, she wrote: “I’d prefer to be looked on as a worker, a woman who loves her fellow man, white and Negro alike, and yellow, red and brown…working—not fighting.” Clark moved quietly. What Martin Luther King Jr. spread through his oratory, Clark did one student at a time, one desk at a time, opening a book, getting embarrassed southern black adults to pronounce words and read so they could understand and interpret the US Constitution in order to register their votes.
Clark said: “This is what I do. But [Martin Luther King] couldn’t see it. I would not have ever been able to work in Mississippi and Alabama and all those places if I had done all the talking.” Clark, late in life, won the battle to reinstate her pension. When her pension was revoked, the press descended on her, but despite her requests, her pastor did not come to support her. When she died on December 15, 1987, she was buried in her pastor’s churchyard.
Sylvia Canner, an eighty-five-year-old freed slave, said in a 1937 interview: “The white folks didn’t never help none of we black people to read and write no time.” Clark said: “They didn’t want the white people to know that we were teaching blacks to write their names.” Dickinson, poem after poem, evangelizes in anonymity. I like the sound of that. Turns out the unseen life suits me.
In a letter to her friend Abiah Root, Dickinson wrote in 1846:
I was almost persuaded to be a christian. I thought I never again could be thoughtless and worldly—and I can say that I never enjoyed such perfect peace and happiness as the short time in which I felt I found my savior…. Last winter there was a revival here…but I attended none of the meetings…. although I am not a christian still I feel deeply the importance of attending to the subject before it is too late.
Dickinson’s outsider status will be her strength. You might call her an unchristian Christian. Or just unchristian. Or a counterintuitive Christian. She exists in the blur between all of these. As she ages she will identify with the suffering of Christ. His salvation promises she will ignore or dismiss. In her one year at Mount Holyoke Female Seminary, the young women were divided into three self-designated categories: “no hopers,” “hopers,” and “Christians.” The latter group was the largest; they were women who testified to a certainty of salvation. There were 230 Christians and fifty hopers. The remaining thirty, of which Dickinson was one, were “without hope.” By the end of the year many of the thirty had found hope, but not Dickinson. To Abiah Root she wrote: “I am not happy…and I regret that…I did not give up and become a christian.” Of all the curious words she chooses to capitalize in her poems, it is noteworthy that she fails to capitalize Christian.
The Bible she so questions abounds with hopers and no hopers and Christians. Of the Bible, she wrote: “It stills, incites, infatuates—blesses and blames in one. Like Human Affection, we dare not touch it, yet flee, what else remains?” In the Dickinson collection at Harvard there are nineteen Bibles. The Bible was read at great length from the pulpit and in family prayers; her father read a chapter a day, although Dickinson absented herself from family Bible readings. There exists a King James Version inscribed to her. How often she read it is conjecture, but in her work she will quote it more than any work but Shakespeare. The Bible was all around her and permeated her consciousness the way the internet does ours. Her Bible, described in her poem, is unpredictable as a person. Such a description does capture that book in all its paradoxes. If you were to reduce the Bible to one topic, “Human Affection” would be a fair starting point. And it is not impossible to see Dickinson in the Bible even if she seems squeamish before it.
Take the Book of Ruth for example. Ruth is an outsider, a Moabite, a nonbeliever without hope. Ruth and Naomi, her mother-in-law, come to work because they need food. Their admission into the Israelite society is affirmed. Ruth has a child with the Israelite Boaz, and her mother-in-law Naomi is named as the boy’s mother. Ruth is left out and at the same time included in the genealogy that will culminate with King David. Dickinson, too, is a woman outside, shutting the door to her majority. In fact, she will identify herself with Ruth, writing in a play-acting fashion in Ruth’s voice: “My father will be your father, and my home will be your home.” With the Bible’s laconic prose, we never are sure how Ruth felt about being adopted. But we certainly know how Dickinson felt; she would rather select her own society. She was in charge of her homelessness. Sue Dickinson, her sister-in-law, wrote in Dickinson’s obituary that Emily had “no creed, no formulated faith…[she] walked this life with the gentleness and reverence of the old saint, with the firm steps of martyrs who sing while they suffer.” A non-saint saint, Dickinson occupies the margins along with Ruth, a non-Jew Jew, lauded yet different: Dickinson stands beside Christians as Ruth stands beside Jews.
Much has been made of Dickinson’s “Queen Recluse” existence: except for one academic year at Mount Holyoke and two extended trips for an eye illness in the 1860s, Dickinson rarely left her house. After her mid-thirties few ever saw her again. She would speak to people through a door left slightly ajar. In the last twenty years of her life, she left her home once, to visit her young nephew at the house next door, the night before he died. Perhaps Dickinson’s much-mentioned isolation can be seen less as mad than sane, less agoraphobic than ascetic—like Simeon the Stylite who sat on a pillar for forty years or Julian of Norwich who had her revelations while walled into a stone cell.
Christ isolated himself, too. Crowds gathered around him as he turned from a nobody into a miracle-healing celebrity. In Mark 4, we see him paddle out in a little boat to mark a boundary: “such a very large crowd gathered around him that he got into his boat on the sea and sat there, while the whole crowd was beside the sea on the land.” Christ needs his boat as Dickinson needs her room, as Simeon needs his pillar. Dickinson’s niece wrote: “She was truly a nun as any vowed celibate, but the altar she served was veiled from every eye save that of God.” Those who have loved this world most, it often seems to me, have been misfits who needed distance from the crowd.
Dickinson wrote in a letter to her cousins, after the death of their father: “Let Emily sing for you because she cannot pray.”
Although she could not pray, she sure could write. And isn’t writing a form of praying? I think it could be seen that way, in which case Dickinson was praying with some fervor, one little mind-bending rosary after the next.
This is my letter to the World
That never wrote to me.
No one writes letters anymore, and with them a certain intimacy has left our culture. The intimacy in Dickinson’s correspondences and her poems, which in a way are letters she never sent, is inescapable: she breathes behind the museum glass. While it is true she discouraged publication of her poems, thinking of it as publishing her soul, we do know she sent out nearly one third of them, 575 to be exact, in letters to her friends. She might be considered one of the most intimate of evangelists.
Paul evangelized in letters. He writes his last letter to Timothy as he lay dying in prison: “I am reminded of your sincere faith, a faith that lived first in your grandmother…and now, I am sure, lives in you.” Paul sees faith in this young man because it is something he has inherited like a gene or a chromosome, from his grandmother.
America is a land of religious freedom and great mobility and choices; a recent study showed that 44 percent of Americans leave the religious tradition they were raised in. Many have asked me why I have decided to become a priest now. Why join the Anglican Communion? There seemed to be few outward signs: unchurched parents—some might call them pagans—a life in retail, quiet back-seat attendance at church. For thirteen years I attended an Episcopal prep school that stressed the pledge of allegiance more than meditations on the crucifix. Many of my classmates were Jews, and by the time I graduated it would be safe to say I knew more about seders than I did about Thomas Cranmer. When bishops began asking me where my faith was coming from, I understandably paused. But after a moment, I would usually cite my Catholic grandmother.
My grandmother had a famous sister who sang for the Metropolitan Opera with Lily Pons in Rigoletto. But my grandmother’s life was spent off stage. By the time I knew her she had buried her husband and one son, who died in an automobile accident when he was twenty-four years old. When the policeman came to the door and gave my grandmother the news, she took to her bed and prayed to the cross above her head. By the time I knew her, twenty-years after those events, hers was a ministry of presence. Her altar was the Formica table where she made instant coffee and often I was the only parishioner. The world has its unexpected priests. My grandmother had endured her losses with quiet fortitude and ended her conversations always by saying, “God bless you, darling”—like the blessing from Paul: “To Timothy, my beloved child.”
Like Paul, like Dickinson, my grandmother remained on in the world, with a courageous endurance, and much of the time she was alone. Paul says: “God did not give us a spirit of cowardice.” Neither my grandmother nor Dickinson nor Paul was a coward. It took courage for my grandmother to go on. Not a very important person in the world’s estimation, an accountant in a department store, she lived another fifty years. I often think of her quiet faith when I need priestly inspiration. It took courage for Dickinson to see outside the constructs of her father’s house and her town, to connect with the spirit world outside the society she lived in. She would not know her effect on the world; so, too, my grandmother.
My Protestant faith had been cast, in many ways, by a Catholic. What Queen Elizabeth the First would think of such a Gerard Manley Hopkins in reverse I can hardly imagine. At me, an Episcopalian who mostly prayed with Jews and was anointed by a Catholic, my discernment committee scratched their heads in some wonderment. Such things concern the living. But the dead, I imagine, could care less. That thin place of nonchalance belonging mainly to the dead is where Dickinson hums.
The first time I gave a homily at Saint Luke in the Fields in New York City was on October 3. The reading for that Sunday included a passage from Second Timothy, the sole time the word “grandmother” appears in the Bible. Then I said to my mother: “October 3, that date, why do I remember it?”
My mother sounded like Mary Tyrone then, at the end of Eugene O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey into Night, both wistful and lost in the past: “That date. What happened then? Oh yes, I remember…. It was your grandmother’s birthday.”
My mother would later be prompted to remember something else about my grandmother. After I was born, she remembers bringing me back to my grandmother’s house and laying me on the bed. My grandmother hovered over me like an Indian elder and prophesied I’d be a priest. Like Timothy, it turned out that I, too, had some faith chromosomes.
I don’t remember what I said in that homily. It wasn’t important. What was significant was the moment. I’m hesitant to admit that in a church liturgy, the homily is usually least interesting to me. Music reaches me much quicker. What that says about my take on the priestly life or the poetic life I am not sure. Perhaps words are better seen.
Dickinson died unacknowledged. She had stuffed her poems into her underwear drawer. Paul died in prison. My grandmother died before I stood before a congregation on her birthday. The timing was eerie yet somehow perfect in its delay: so much of my life had gone this way—the book of poems had come at forty when I was just ready to give up; the call to the priesthood had come just when I’d almost forgotten it. Yet there I was, a priest, speaking on the birthday of the woman who had most influenced me religiously. And she was nowhere and everywhere. Wasn’t I speaking to her, like in a letter? Is that not what this is? Some kind of conversation between the living and the dead? Isn’t that what so much of this writing business is about? Isn’t that what the Bible is?
On a clear April day, the first bright warm day in New England, in 2011, I traveled to Amherst, Massachusetts, to visit the home of Emily Dickinson. I had never been before. I traveled through the beautiful green hill towns of Connecticut, around streams and pine forests. The world felt full of feathers and hope. Amherst comes up on one out of the trees and small bucolic towns, all of a sudden. College students were darting through the woods, books in their hands, cell phones in their ears. The Dickinson house is imposing; the railroad can still be heard; the tour guides show you about cheerfully as they do in churches in Europe. I took the tour.
Her room is small. Her narrow bed small. The windows bright with a southwestern exposure. That single bed held my attention. Of that bed she had written:
Be its Mattress straight
Be its Pillow round—
Let no Sunrise’s Yellow noise
Interrupt this ground—
Her bed was the size I imagined for Christ’s small rowboat. I could almost hear the creak of oars in their locks. All the joy and suffering it contained, the bed sheets like sails folded. All about her bed was the strangest sea of commerce, traffic, visitors. This was her place without interruptions, self-designed, moated, where she could write after the domestic chores and gardening were complete.
Dickinson died in 1886, four years after her mother. After her mother’s death, Dickinson regretted how she had treated her, and in those final years she reversed many of her former critical attitudes. In a letter she comments on a friend’s mother’s death with awe, quite unlike her stance toward her own mother, whom she often made fun of or discounted: “To have had a Mother—how mighty!” She saw she had judged her mother harshly. “My mother does not care for thought,” she had written. Four more years, she lived. She would have seen hay bales across the street. Her sister Lavinia wrote: “Keep fast hold of your parents, for the world will always be strange and homesick without their affection.” Parents are mysteries made more mysterious in their deaths, and in those final years Dickinson was overcome with mystery.
Despite her bravery in writing about death, deaths of her loved ones shook her. When her aunt died in 1860, she wrote to her sister: “I sob and cry till I can hardly see my way ’round the house again…. The birds keep singing just the same. Oh! The thoughtless birds!” In those final years, she was besieged with death. In 1883 came the worst blow. Her young nephew Gilbert, age eight, the glue holding her brother and sister-in-law’s marriage together, died of an acute fever. She seemed to suffer a breakdown after his passing, what a doctor called “nervous prostration.” After she left the house for the first time in fifteen years, to cross over to the Evergreens next door to see him dying, she wrote: “‘Open the Door, Open the Door, they are waiting for me,’ was Gilbert’s sweet command in delirium. Who was waiting for him, all we possess we would give to know—Anguish at last opened it, and he ran to the little Grave at his Grandparents’ feet—All this and more, though is there more? More than Love and Death? Then tell me its name!” Dickinson returned to her room, sick, unsteady on her feet, overcome with grief. She wrote: “the Dyings have been too deep for me, and before I could raise my Heart from one, another has come.” Today, in the sealed nursery room at the Evergreens, you can see Gilbert’s disintegrating toys still.
Her white dress lay encased in the hallway like a moth in formaldehyde. The clothes without the body made me think about the body of that single woman. I thought of Dickinson on that bed, alone, knowing in her last years, a woman in her fifties, having buried her parents, that she would most likely not marry now. The bulk of her poems were behind her. She had thought about her specific funeral arrangements. The six Irish laborers who had worked for the Dickinsons would carry her coffin over the hill in the backyard to the cemetery. Death had been her great subject, her “Flood” subject. No door could hold back the flood now. Maybe she thought about her friend Sue next door, betrayed by her own brother Austin, who had had an affair with a young woman right under all of their noses. “Life,” she would write, “is what we make it.” She had made much of it without much affirmation.
In her final illness, Dickinson wrote to her cousins that she was being “called back.” Called back to be with her parents, her nephew, her friends. She had taken to her bed in November of 1885 and by May 13 of 1886 she had died. Two days later, her brother Austin wrote in his diary: “She ceased to breathe that terrible breathing just before the whistles sounded for six…. I was nearby.” Her funeral was on May 19. Her closed coffin was covered with violets. A Congregationalist minister led the short service. Thomas Higginson, the one man she had reached out to, to comment on her poems, whom she had thanked for his “surgery,” whom she met only twice, came from Boston to read a poem by Emily Brontë entitled “Immortality.” The coffin was then taken in a circle around the garden, through the barn from the front to the back and then up the footpaths to the cemetery, to give the body one last tour of the grounds.
In all her wild ambivalence, Dickinson leaves us her riddles. She was an existentialist who wrote in nursery rhymes. While Darwin encountered mockingbirds, marsupials, kangaroos, platypuses, and tortoises, she wrote alone and stitched her fascicles and then shoved them into drawers and suitcases, poems written on chocolate candy wrappers and the backs of envelopes. Many she had given to the Irish maid.
What were those last days like? Perhaps she looked out and saw the dew sparkle. Perhaps she looked beyond the bright green hedge to her sister-in-law’s house. Perhaps she thought of her countrymen under the auburn complication of roofs. Perhaps she pondered the sun’s yellow noise one last time. Perhaps she listened to her sister stir among the applause of the roses. Perhaps she heard her brother’s footsteps under the maple, ruffling once more into a novel of truths. At hospice, they told us that hearing is the last sense to go. Her little boat of a bed eddied before the edge of the waterfall. She had placed her poems, day after day, into cracks and fissures, like prayers placed into the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem. Poised so, did she wonder what would become of her poems? Poised so, did she wonder what would become of her? I think I will always wonder what she wondered.
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