At Emily Dickinson’s house

Standing outside Emily Dickinson's house

I'm holding a copy of Open Me Carefully, a collection of Emily Dickinson's letters to her best friend and sister-in-law Susan, compiled by Martha Nell Smith and my friend Ellen Louise Hart.

 A week ago, I was at the Emily Dickinson house. I felt a sense of wonder standing in the hallway–maybe there more than anywhere, because I could imagine people bustling through the house. The hallway, with its pale green wall paper of delicate swirls, and the stairs, truly held that sense of possibility.  And then upstairs, Emily’s room–so perfect for light.

And the white dress–because we have only the one picture of Emily (when she was 16!) and it’s very dark. But now I can imagine her managing the household or sitting at her writing table in her corner room (such a perfect room for light) in her white dress.

We took the full tour, walking across to The Evergreens, where Austin and Susan lived. Such a different house! (And shambling–and the stories of that house!). There, we  got to see the dining room and the kitchen and climb upstairs (hoping the stairs would hold) to see the nursery.

Then the moment that sears me–Emily coming across to the Evergreens, like another ghost the night her nephew Gilbert died, and collapsing beneath the trees. I come back to that image and then I return to the hallway, with it’s pale wallpaper, its flood of sunlight, and everything hasn’t happened yet.

In one of the rooms of the Dickinson homestead, the museum has set up an interactive display to show Emily’s variants. According to the tour guide, it isn’t known whether these were revisions (a process of changing) or just options to switch in and out.

But what really struck me was the poem they used to show these. Here it is in a slightly different version than in the museum:

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–

I’ve been struggling with poemness–what makes a poem a poem and not just lines broken. What differentiates a poem from prose. The other day, I was driving to the store and hearing someone on the radio and it sounded maybe like a poem, but maybe like a story, and because it had already started I didn’t know. It was lovely–so vivid and poignant–and it turned out that it was a poem. But I couldn’t tell just by listening. I suspect that if I heard this poem on the radio, I’d know immediately that it was a poem.

Poetry has room for all kinds of voices and all kinds of writing, but in my current quest for poemness, this poem helped a lot.Now I need to get a Franklin edition so that I can read truer versions of Emily Dickinson’s poems.

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1 comment

  1. Sylvia Vaughn’s avatar

    I enjoyed this post. Your description helped me visualize this wondrous site.

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