A Pencil for Emily Dickinson

Sometimes I poke a little fun at things I don’t understand. It helps me cope with the despair that might otherwise creep in at the thought of not understanding something.

And so it is I must confess I have poked fun at Emily Dickinson. I made light of her alleged bad attitude and disdain for authority. I chuckled when her poem got workshopped. I questioned her sincerity and even made up a story about her recently discovered portrait.

Emily Dickinson MuseumI began to feel misgivings over my teasing. After all, I’d hardly even read her poetry and knew only that she preferred the inside of her four walls. I stopped recently at her Amherst, Mass., home to make things right. And sweet baby irony—would you guess she stood me up? Apparently, she does not take callers on Mondays.

In a delightful twist of fate, instead of meeting Emily Dickinson the poet, we met Anne O’Sullivan the actress, who portrays Emily Dickinson the poet in the one-woman biographical play, Belle of Amherst. Anne had stopped at the museum as part of her ongoing research to know her character better. She was all the Emily Dickinson we needed.

We walked around the grounds of the Emily Dickinson Museum while Anne told of a woman who may not have gone out of the house, but enjoyed a rich social life within her four walls. She loved deeply, one friend in particular whom she called “warm, wild, and mighty.”

Her unfashionable white linen dresses? She didn’t wear them just to be strange, but to make the laundry more efficient. Whites could be washed with the bed linens.

Unlike the creepy lady who lived at the end of my block when I was growing up and shouted terrifying things at kids who walked by her house, Dickinson was known as a prolific baker who lowered baskets of goodies out the window to visiting children. She wrote poems more often than she baked, but often even while she baked–scratching them out on the backs of the chocolate wrappers when that was the only paper at hand.

Dickinson, I would learn, was known for her biting wit and mimicking ways. Now, if someone would have just told me this from the beginning…

And so, finally, I began to understand. Who wouldn’t love a poet that loved to stay home, hated laundry, gave away baked goods, knew her way around a piece of sarcasm, and used chocolate wrappers for her Moleskine?

Emily Dickinson Tomb

I would need to leave off with my needling and read some of Dickinson’s poems. More, I would need to learn more of Dickinson’s story. Anne suggested I read Lives Like Loaded Guns. I scribbled the title in my black notebook. I would stop short of ordering table linens with Dickinson’s poetry typed on them, but I started to think I might just be able to like this woman.

Legend has it that not long before her death, Emily wrote to a family member that she was being “Called back.” We made our way to West Cemetery to pay our respects and see these words engraved on her headstone. There, lining the top of the marker was a makeshift shrine, items left by adoring fans: a bottlecap, half a pair of dice, a medal, a ticket to her own museum. In the middle of the collection sat a small yellow pencil.

Is it that her 2000-plus poems were  not enough? Or is it simply too hard to believe that she’s not still writing, somewhere? Of all the things to leave a dead poet, I suppose a pencil might be as good as any.

Emily Dickinson, I’m sorry.

Think of me as your newest groupie. I’ll make up for my past transgressions. FedEx just dropped off my copy of Lives Like Loaded Guns. I’ll write you a book report, and I promise to sharpen a new yellow pencil for you when I’m done.

Top and bottom photos by L.L. Barkat, used with permission. Center photo and post by LW Lindquist.


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  1. says

    Wonderful post, Lyla. And what a wonderful way to go about Amherst, with Anne O’Sullivan (am jealous).

    I think Dickinson had a very original feminist streak (cite “disdain for authority” here), and I don’t give much mind to the notions of her solitariness, as she enjoyed a large network of correspondents who simply relief on paper instead of FaceBook (she was ahead of her time).

    I have a wonderful book of Dickinson’s poems from Arion Press with artwork by Kiki Smith. It’s a treasure.

    Will look forward to hearing your thoughts on “Lives Like Loaded Guns”.

  2. says

    How did I miss this I do not know! So glad I saw it today – today, for some reason, feels just right. Lyla… this is beautiful and, well, the most convincing invitation to Dickinson I have ever seen. I hope you’ll share your ‘book report’. :)


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