Roving thoughts and provocations

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Emily Dickinson in the Bronx

Houghton Library, Harvard University
A digital fascimile from Emily Dickinson’s Herbarium

It would be difficult to describe the sheer strangeness, for me, of driving down from Amherst last month to pay tribute to Emily Dickinson in the Bronx. I had been invited, along with the novelist Jerome Charyn, to give a talk at “Emily Dickinson’s Garden: The Poetry of Flowers,” a ravishingly colorful and informative exhibition at the New York Botanical Garden. The exhibition at the garden’s Mertz Library—which includes, along with a selection of Dickinson manuscripts and artifacts, a reproduction of the poet’s famous white dress and a digital version of her teenage collection of more than 400 wildflowers, each of them carefully classified and labeled—remains on view until August 1.  (The garden portion of the show closed on June 13.) Wittily etched on the elevator leading to the library are her forbidding lines: “The Soul selects her own Society/ Then—shuts the door.”

I happen to live in Amherst. Like Dickinson, I see the Pelham Hills to the East when I wake up in the morning, and I see the Homestead, where Dickinson was a passionate gardener, almost every day. (Dickinson apparently sometimes even gardened at night, by the light of a lantern; she shunned men and women because, she explained, “they talk of Hallowed things, aloud—and embarrass my Dog.” When she wrote, “Nobody knows this little Rose,” she was almost certainly talking about herself.)

But on that sweltering June morning, I had come three and a half hours from Amherst, only to find a virtual Amherst among the 250 lushly wooded acres of the Botanical Garden. The walks and flourishing garden plots around the imposing conservatory, the largest Victorian glass-house in the United States, were studded with placards of Dickinson’s poems, about a third of which deal in some way with flowers, sometimes invoking that traditional poetic code, as old as Shakespeare, where lilies signify coquetry and daisies innocence.

Below four stately locust trees leading to the conservatory was her great poem that begins “Four Trees—opon a solitary Acre,” with its Darwinian claim that nature is “Without Design,/ Or Order, or Apparent Action,” and its poignantly uncertain conclusion:

What Deed is Their’s unto the General Nature—
What Plan
They severally-retard-or further—
Unknown—

Inside the building was an installation, with facades and foreshortened interiors (outfitted with tiny bed and desk) of the Homestead and of the Evergreens, the Italianate villa with grounds laid out by Frederick Law Olmsted, where Dickinson’s brother Austin, a tree enthusiast, lived.

Jones Library, Amherst, Mass.
The Dickinson Homestead; lithograph by J.B. Bachelder, 1858

I could imagine how the fifteen-year-old Emily Dickinson must have felt when she traveled to Boston during the fall of 1846 and visited something billed—shades of Barnum or Madame Tussauds— as the Chinese Museum. “There are an endless variety of Wax figures made to resemble the Chinese & dressed in their costume,” Dickinson wrote to her Amherst friend Abiah Root. But there were also, Dickinson noted, two real Chinese men who, as she put it, “go with the exhibition.” Both of them were teachers and also, Dickinson explained, “Opium Eaters”; they had come to America to break what she called the “rigid chain of habit.” “There is something peculiarly interesting,” she noted, “in their self denial.”

Standing at the podium at the Botanical Garden, I felt about as real as one of those Chinese professors. There I was, an authentic Amherst resident and a teacher to boot, plunked down amid that vivid exhibit—part of it, in fact. What rigid chain of habit was I trying to kick?

A year after her visit to the Chinese Museum, Dickinson found herself at Mount Holyoke, where I now teach. She couldn’t quite believe it when she learned that “those foolish notes called Valentines,” as the formidable school head Mary Lyon referred to them, were prohibited at the school; Jerome Charyn, in his lively novel The Secret Life of Emily Dickinson, has written a lot about those Valentines. The school has changed a great deal since Dickinson’s single year there. Students no longer celebrate Christmas by fasting. They are allowed to leave campus on Sundays, the school apparently having come around to Dickinson’s view:

Some keep the Sabbath going to Church—
I keep it, staying at Home—
With a Bobolink for a Chorister—
And an Orchard, for a Dome—

One aim of the exhibition in the Bronx is to show how sophisticated, even scientific, Dickinson’s knowledge of flowers was. She read Darwin, studied botany, and knew her way around microscopes (more prudent than faith in an emergency, she remarked). During her lifetime, she was, as the scholar Judith Farr has argued, better known as a gardener than a poet. But Dickinson’s flowers, at least the flowers she writes about in her poems, occupy two worlds at once: a real world of earthworms and regular watering, and an imaginary world of flux and inevitable loss, what Dickinson called “evanescence.”

A poem that is prominently displayed at the Botanical Garden homes in on this fleeting aspect of reality:

A Route of Evanescence,
With a revolving Wheel—
A Resonance of Emerald
A Rush of Cochineal—
And every Blossom on the Bush
Adjusts it’s tumbled Head—
The Mail from Tunis—probably,
An easy Morning’s Ride—

When I test this riddle in verse on bright Mount Holyoke undergrads, they always make excellent guesses about its (which Dickinson always spelled “it’s”) unnamed subject. The seasons, they say, or time, or the revolving earth, or the sun, or, getting warmer, a butterfly.

It occurred to me, as I recited these enigmatic lines to the audience under the orchard dome in the Bronx, that this was another poem about that feeling of unreality I had kept feeling all that day. You look at the bush and the blossoms are shaking. Wasn’t there something there a moment ago? What was it exactly? Maybe, and this is Dickinson’s answer, a hummingbird.

But all we see, all we know, is the route of evanescence.

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