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I Went to Thank Her

Today Jane and I went to Amherst. I wanted to see the ghost of Emily Dickinson, but I had no such luck. Her kitchen has been converted to a gift shop, and the bookshelves in her family’s library are mostly bare, so it makes sense that her ghost would prefer to be somewhere else. I felt a little silly hoping to have a metaphysical experience. I wouldn’t have had much time to savor it in the hour of the tour, the last hour before the museum closed for the day.

Her room was particularly underwhelming. The tour guide shared a laminated facsimile of notes Dickinson had written on the back of a chocolate wrapper. The guide said Dickinson was frugal, but I don’t think that’s the only reason she wrote on wrappers. Even if she kept a journal nearby as she went about daily chores, wouldn’t she grab the first thing handy to catch an idea before it flew out of reach? Isn’t this a habit common to artists–we grasp, afraid of losing ideas, willing to scrawl graffiti on every wall of the house if necessary?

I couldn’t imagine Dickinson in her room. I believe that she had been there, but something about the arrangement of the furniture made it feel like no one could be comfortable there, the bed, wash basin, tiny desk and chair shoved to one side of the room so we could enter, look, and leave without disturbing anything. Again I felt foolish for expecting that the museum could preserve more than is reasonable. I could see the place, but it’s probably not possible to get a sense of how the place felt to her.

But I did feel something as I stood in her room. The tour guide said Dickinson cared about words, loved the dictionary, felt her lexicon was important. Duh, duh, duh. Then she read one of Dickinson’s poems. I can’t remember which one, just the feeling I had, which was approximately what I’d wanted to feel all along. Just a few lines made me so happy, so full. I listened to every word. It was all I wanted to do at that moment.

Later, Jane and I went to her grave, laid large white paper over part of her name and birth date, and rubbed it with a brown crayon. Then we did the other half, then with a third piece we captured the year she was “called back.” Jane insisted that we do a rubbing of Lavinia’s grave, too. Having shared Emily’s poetry with the world, she should be honored. Of course.

Here’s today’s excerpt, started before we left for Amherst and finished while sitting at Amherst Coffee after our visit to Dickinson’s house and grave

He has nothing but time, too much of it. Too much sand through the hourglass, slowly dumped on him, into his house, hardly noticeable until it rises above his ankles, making it hard to walk to the garage for a shovel, too heavy to scoop it all away, his bed and other furniture lost, it fills his room, the attic, until there is no room for him in his own life. It spills out from open doors and windows, so he stays as far away as he can but finds grains in his pockets, stuck to his sweaty body, in the corners of his eyes like after a long sleep that doesn’t refresh.
Time flies away, its flapping wings dark against the setting sun, it could be a seagull looking for food, a crow frightened away from a cemetery, a dove with no place to land.

Today’s total: 1629 words

3 Responses

  1. […] Check out James’s more sustained description of the same field trip on his new blog, Quota. Possibly related posts: (automatically generated)Hot Shots: Black+White All […]

  2. Seeing that chocolate label with Emily’s notes on its back reminded me how much I like my own scraps, and also ones that I have of others’. In fact, in something I wrote this week, I mention a little notepad of my grandmother’s that I keep as a memento of a thought that flitted through her mind (more quotidian than a full-fledged idea, but a thought nonetheless):

    I do not have much of a collector’s urge. In my possession are no clothes from college. I keep few knick knacks and souvenirs and no extra dishes, multiples of single items like salt shakers, sheet music, dolls, paperweights, foreign currency, candlesticks, family hand-me-downs, angel figurines, or bits of bark and driftwood. I do, however, hold on to paper: cards, letters, notebooks. For example, I treasure inexplicably a small white memo pad found among the sparse possessions left in my grandmother Ellen’s apartment when she died in 1988. On one page is a three-item shopping list; in her own hand, she reminds herself to get “batteries.” I see her hearing aids; I remember her fiddling with them; I hear her alto voice barking, “What?”

  3. I love it that you have honored Lavinia! And, though sorry you didn’t have time for your feelings to catch up with being there (maybe), it is amazing to read that when a poem was read, it made up for other losses in the visit. That’s it, isn’t it.

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