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Bend Sinister in Wales

“Ample make this bed” is so deeply intermeshed with the narrative and themes of Ten White Geese that the novel can be read, among other things, as a sophisticated commentary on the poem. Agnes’s first inkling of a possible new understanding of Dickinson comes when she contemplates the land adjacent to the farmhouse and notices the signs of human intention: the branches that form a border, the grassy field that was once a lawn, and the cows that were there when she looked before and are now gone:

When she stood up, she discovered that they were quite far away. She hadn’t noticed that at all, their walking away. A beautiful way of measuring the passing time: the sun that had suddenly leapt forward and was already quite low, a herd of cows that had silently and serenely relocated. She saw this for the first time and thought of her thesis.

The discarded thesis about the “plethora of lesser poems” in Dickinson’s oeuvre, her “lazy rhyming quatrains” and her “all-too-eager canonization,” yields to a more profound awareness of Dickinson as a poet of space and time, a Proustian connoisseur of recovered moments. “Was this it,” she wonders, “what Emily Dickinson had done for almost her entire adult life? Had she tried to hold back time, making it bearable and less lonely too perhaps, by capturing it in hundreds of poems?”

Agnes’s hostility to Dickinson scholars may explain an oddity in the book. The version of the poem she has chosen is from the edited versions of Dickinson’s work first published during the 1890s, when editors regularized Dickinson’s spelling, punctuation, capitalization, and sometimes even her rhymes, eliminating whole stanzas in certain cases and adjusting phrasing. These versions are now entirely discredited by scholars. In Dickinson’s manuscript version, “Ample make this Bed—” is full of capitalized nouns (Mattress and Pillow, Awe and Ground), dashes rather than commas or semicolons, and “it’s” rather than “its.”

Editors also added titles to the poems. “Ample make this bed” was given the title “A Country Burial,” a title of some significance for Agnes, since it chimes with the Welsh name for Mount Snowdon, Yr Wyddfa, or “Burial Place.” But Agnes is not wrong in her sense that the poem is multifaceted and “ample” in its meanings. She has, in a sense, amplified it by associating it with a particular place and time, and with a detour in a contemporary woman’s life.

How easy it is to lose one’s bearings, Ten White Geese seems intent on telling us, to go too far or, as we sometimes say, to go around the bend. At the end of the novel, Agnes, as the reader has long surmised, has reached the end of the road. She takes pain pills and lies down, for the last time, on her carefully arranged single mattress, in a shed where the surviving geese took shelter. “I’ve turned into a goose,” she tells herself, as one of the geese joins her on the mattress, and then, like a final prayer, “Let no sunrise’ yellow noise/Interrupt this ground.”

The point of view shifts abruptly, and for the first time, to Bradwen, the first to find her body, as he takes stock of his surroundings yet again, and decides to resume charting the path that had led him, weeks earlier, to the farmhouse where Emilie-Agnes was living, or hiding. Bradwen is determined to make another detour, canceling out the earlier one and righting himself, like one of the Grimms’ lost children:

He crosses the stream. He hasn’t decided yet whether to stay on the path or walk parallel to it, on the other side of the thick wooded bank. He knows he has to hike back a full day. He simply took the wrong direction.
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