My garrulous neighbor, Walter—a red-nosed U.S. Army Major (retired)—gives me books, volumes that he snatches up at the occasional library inventory purges at the University of Idaho, where I teach. Some are good, others not as good. Some I park on my bookshelves, others I recycle or use as doorstops. In exchange, I give him cold beer, a carton of our chicken eggs, or a quart of garden pickles. A couple of springs back, however, one of the better books showed up on my stoop: a 1944 volume of The Poems of Emily Dickinson, edited by Martha Dickinson Bianchi and Alfred Leete Hampson. It’s a green hardback edition that smells like an attic and shows what booksellers describe as “moderate shelf wear.” Bibliophile that I am, I welcomed it into my library at once.
However, I must own up to the following: prior to receiving this volume from Walter, I hadn’t really read Emily Dickinson. I know this is shameful; after all, I took my undergraduate degree in English literature, and when I was earning my master’s degree in American Studies, I even worked under a Dickinson scholar (though we didn’t study the great poetess herself). If I read her poems in high school, I don’t recall them now.
My one remembered brush with her work came on a random fall afternoon in my favorite undergraduate poetry class when the professor stated the following: “Any poet whose every poem can be sung to ‘The Yellow Rose of Texas’ is a poet not worth reading.” I laughed and then, with great care, wrote that line in my notebook, underlining it three times. Ever after, if someone mentioned Dickinson I would scoff and regurgitate that line verbatim as though it was my own. That I had no memory of reading a single poem of hers didn’t seem to matter, and after that class, I had the surest excuse to never pick up her work.
Thanks to Walter, on a bright spring morning I poured some coffee and headed upstairs to my office to sift through this book’s pages and give Dickinson her due. I had just taken the kids to school and had the house to myself. It was quiet save the occasional chirping from the parakeets downstairs and the clucking of chickens in our backyard. When I opened the book, I scanned a few lines and flipped back to the table of contents, divided into seven sections: Life, Nature, Love, Time and Eternity, The Single Hound, Further Poems, and, finally, Additional Poems. Then, when I gave the book a quick fanning with my thumb, it fell open to page 188, where I discovered something so strange, so startling, that I caught my breath.
Taped flap-like over poem LXVIII, in the Time and Eternity section, was a black-and-white photograph. The tape was whiskey-yellow from age and was fastened to the right edge of the photo, forming a hinge so you could lift it and read the poem beneath. The image is that of a young woman with dark hair lying supine on a swatch of grass near a sidewalk, her head turned away from the camera. She looks dead. Her arm, bent at the elbow, is at rest on the grass above her head, and her hand is open slightly toward the sky. Nothing below her waist appears in the frame of the picture. She is wearing what appears to be a white, short-sleeved polo shirt with a ruffled scarf.
Alarmingly, what looks like a large bloodstain covers the entire left side of her chest. On the back of the photograph, in careful black-ink cursive, I found this:
Elizabeth [last name illegible]
Jan. 16, 1936–Oct. 11, 1952
In the margin of the poem, in the same mindful hand but in blue ink, I also found this:
Beloved daughter of
Mildred and Howard
Jan. 16, 1936–Oct. 11, 1952
Sixteen at the time of death, she looks sixteen in the photograph. That blot on her chest—it’s apparently either blood or shadow, and I couldn’t be sure which. Curious, I scanned the image at 1,200 dpi and blew it up on my monitor to see if any details could be pulled forth, but nothing rose up out of the image.
Beneath the photograph, this mysterious death, was this poem:
Her final summer was it,
And yet we guessed it not;
If tenderer industriousness
Pervaded her, we thought
A further force of life
Developed from within,—
When Death lit all the shortness up,
And made the hurry plain.
We wondered at our blindness,—
When nothing was to see
But her Carrara guide-post,—
At our stupidity,
When, duller than our dulness,
The busy darling lay,
So busy was she, finishing,
So leisurely were we!*
So the first poem of Emily Dickinson’s that I ever truly read, considered, or otherwise engaged with accompanied a photograph of a complete stranger who died far too young. As a partial consequence, I would come back to this poem time and time again with such frequency that its lines became indelible in my mind.
What can be gleaned from this poem as it relates to the image of this girl, Elizabeth, and its attendant epigraphs? For one thing, her death came, it seems, as a surprise. When Death lit all the shortness up, / And made the hurry plain. Has anyone else rendered so well that most unbearable realization of a person being alive one minute and dead the next? We wondered at our blindness,— / When nothing was to see. Grief works that way sometimes. It blows in all at once, leaving the aggrieved in a passive, dumb-stricken state. Clearly I was seeing the relic of a heartbroken mother trying to reconcile her own blindness in the face of sudden, inexplicable death.
Still, I had so many questions. What was the state of Elizabeth in the black-and-white photograph? Was she alive or was she dead when the camera shot her likeness? Who took the photo and why? Further: why is it this photograph that is taped into the book, and not another—a portrait, say?
I’m briefly reminded of Susan Sontag’s pairing of cameras and guns in On Photography for their shared nomenclature: “However hazy our awareness of this fantasy [the camera-as-gun metaphor], it is named without subtlety whenever we talk about ‘loading’ and ‘aiming’ a camera, about ‘shooting a film.’ ” As I mooned over this photograph, I found myself troubled by the spell it had cast upon me, and could not help but feel as though I had peered into a crime scene six decades after the fact. Sontag continues this way: “Just as the camera is a sublimation of the gun, to photograph someone is a sublimated murder—a soft murder, appropriate to a sad, frightened time.” But what if you “shoot” a photograph of someone who is already dead? What if you then take that “snapshot” and tape it into a volume of poems whose primary preoccupations include death itself? You are left to stare into a layering of deaths, a hall of mirrors wherein the past haunts the present. After all, as Sontag points out, a photograph—like a poem— “is stenciled off the real, like a footprint or a death mask.”
My questions accrued, but so too did trace clues left behind in the handwriting of, presumably, Elizabeth’s mother, Mildred. In fact, what I came to find in those initial days with the book was a litany of notes, annotations, and marginalia all pointing, through Emily Dickinson’s poems, to the death of Elizabeth. Here grief is caught on the page, here the process of mourning is documented: the strain for understanding what can never be understood is fixed to the leaf and twinned with so many of the poems that I couldn’t read Emily without reading Elizabeth; the ghost of each stares back from this green volume of verse, and I felt a strange and pressing need to search them out.
Why I felt compelled to seek out Dickinson was a matter of personal repair. But this compulsion to ferret out clues that led to the death of a stranger was more complicated. Why did I care? What business was it of mine? I could lay no claim to this life that flickered out all too soon, and yet I have come back to the book time and again. Something about it won’t let loose my wondering. So, I began to ask corollary questions of Mildred: Who was your audience? To whom were these jottings, notes, marginalia, and photograph addressed? Into whose hands, if anyone’s, did you imagine this book might eventually fall? Finally, how did the book come to find its way not into the private collection of an attentive heir, but into the holdings of a university library only to be discarded years later?
On page 187, accompanying poem LXVII, I found this clue written in light pencil:
To Faculty of
Dec. 2, 1952
Curious, I logged into a genealogical website and discovered that the family had lived in Queens, New York, at the time, also home to Jamaica High School. On a lark, I decided to e-mail the high school to see if they had any records of Elizabeth or her memorial. Not surprisingly, I heard nothing back.
Here is poem LXVII:
If I should die,
And you should live,
And time should gurgle on,
And morn should beam,
And noon should burn,
As it has usual done;
If birds should build as early,
And bees as bustling go,—
One might depart at option
From enterprise below!
’Tis sweet to know that stocks will stand
When we with daisies lie,
That commerce will continue,
And trades as briskly fly.
It makes the parting tranquil
And keeps the soul serene
That gentlemen so sprightly
Conduct the pleasing scene.
These lines offered, I imagined, a kind of salve to the deepening wounds of those who survived Elizabeth. Knowledge “makes the parting tranquil,” Dickinson wrote. Or at least as tranquil as such a parting can be. So to come back to my earlier question about audience, the Jamaica High faculty constituted the intended one, at least initially. I could only imagine Elizabeth’s mourning mother addressing the crowd in a darkened auditorium while snow blew through the streets of Queens outside. Dressed in black with this very hardback volume of Dickinson in her trembling hand, she would have looked out over the sea of morose faces, adjusted the microphone, and begun: If I should die, / And you should live . . .
Several days after Walter dropped this book on my porch, I set out to educate myself about Emily Dickinson. So on a blustery spring afternoon I left my office at the University of Idaho and made the quick walk to the library where I buried myself in the stacks of Dickinson biographies, studies, letters, analyses, critical essays, and other sources. After an hour or so, I felt as though I had gathered enough material to get started, so I checked out the dozen or so books and carted them home.
What I learned—and what surely almost everyone else knew—was that Emily Elizabeth Dickinson was born on 10 December 1830 in Amherst, Massachusetts. Her parents, Edward and Emily Norcross Dickinson, had three children: Austin, the eldest; Emily Elizabeth, the middle child; and Lavinia. Of the three Austin was the only one to marry. His wife, Susan Gilbert, became one of the poet’s closest friends and confidants, and although they were next-door neighbors (Emily and Lavinia lived in “The Homestead” while Austin and Susan lived in “The Evergreens”), the two maintained written correspondence that was staggering in scope. Of course, it is well known that Dickinson spent most of her life rather withdrawn. Some viewed her social reticence and spinster status as peculiar; others have rightly pointed out that many women in the nineteenth century lived such lives. What separated Dickinson from those other women was that she was a poet, a writer, a visionary.
My volume contains one of the only known likenesses of Emily Dickinson. She is pictured as a gaunt young girl whose stare is deep. Her hair is parted down the middle and the collar of her gown is ruffled like a great cotton wreath. Below the picture is her signature in a strange, almost childlike penmanship, and the page preceding the table of contents features more of her handwriting:
No matter where
the Saints abide
they make their
accompanies a Star.
The holograph letters appear on the page like hieroglyphs. Considerable space occurs between each letter and even more between whole words. I needed some time to decipher fair, which to me looked more like u a i n.
I learned other things by the by. I read, for instance, the now famous correspondence between Dickinson and Thomas Wentworth Higginson wherein Emily sought his advice on her poetry, asking if her verse was “alive.” Reflecting on their relationship in a piece for the Atlantic in October 1891, Higginson excerpted several of her letters and poems to him from the 1860s. Her handwriting, Higginson noted, “was so peculiar that it seemed as if the writer might have taken her first lessons by studying . . . fossil bird-tracks.” But Higginson was baffled by more than the poet’s handwriting: her poems, safe to say, left him stunned and very often speechless.
Beyond the subject of the letters (and poems), I found myself drawn to Dickinson’s wildly unpredictable language, syntax, and cadence. Her manner of writing exists on a level far above the usual affectations seen in the letters of her contemporaries such as Helen Hunt Jackson and Louisa May Alcott.
In her letters, a kind of cyclonic genius is at work. One, dated 8 June 1862, begins this way:
Dear friend—Your letter gave no drunkenness, because I tasted rum before. Domingo comes but once; yet I have had few pleasures so deep as your opinion . . . My dying tutor told me that he would like to live till I had been a poet, but Death was much of mob as I could master, then. And when, far afterward, a sudden light on orchards, or a new fashion in the wind troubled my attention, I felt a palsy, here, the verses just relieve.
Granted, the student does not want to bore her teacher with flat, unimaginative prose, so there is an effort at play. Still, what can we make of such a strange opening in the letter, or more specifically, how to read her use of “mob”? The letters and the attendant verses—“As if I asked a common alms / And in my wondering hand / A stranger pressed a kingdom / And I, bewildered, stand”—are remarkable for their surprising turns. I have come to learn that one can never, not once, guess or intuit what word might follow the next from Dickinson. Each word or image throws the reader into new states of amazement and possibility.
From my stack of tomes I learned still more. Much of her work centers on themes of death, illness, mourning, and grief, but she also wrote of and to children. As David Higgins points out in Portrait of Emily Dickinson, “The cult of childhood is one of the few elements of romanticism which Emily retained to the end of her life.” At its best, Higgins notes, this aesthetic trope echoed the work of “Traherne and Blake . . . before her.” At its worst, however, it could devolve into “childish bathos.” After reading Dickinson’s letters and poems, I saw clearly that she had a hypersensitivity toward children. Consider for instance her urgent and rapturous attachment to her young nephew Gilbert, or “God’s little Blond Blessing,” as she called him. She once recollected this: “Twice when I had Red Flowers out, Gilbert knocked, raised his sweet Hat, and asked if he might touch them—Yes, and take them too, I said, but chivalry forbade him—Besides, he gathered Hearts, not Flowers—.”
Imagine, then, the devastation she must have felt when, stricken with typhoid fever, young Gilbert died on 5 October 1883. He was eight years old. Dickinson reeled in the wake of his untimely death. A little over a week after the boy passed, a family friend wrote the following observation: “Miss Emily Dickinson . . . went over to Austin’s with Maggie the night Gilbert died, the first time she had been in the house in 15 years—and the odor of the disinfectants used, sickened her so that she was obliged to go home about 3 am—and vomited—went to bed and has been feeble ever since, with terrible pain in the back of her head.”
Three months later, Dickinson confessed the depth of her anguish in a letter to a friend. Haunting and succinct, the letter describes the poet’s protracted suffering this way: “Chill, then stupor, then the letting go.” The one and only guidepost she could follow out of those tortuous waters was poetry itself. Putting words to paper, attempting to throw some semblance of order onto chaos (even while recognizing the inevitability of chaos), allowed Dickinson to work through the grief.
Write through the grief. That was Emily Dickinson.
Read through the grief. This was Elizabeth’s mother Mildred.
At the end of my volume I found an index of first lines, but I found much more than that: clues and hints written in the same mindful hand (though this time in soft, almost apologetic, pencil), with each item at once enigmatic and remotely desperate. On the bottom of page 461, for instance (the first page of the index), I spotted the line “A mien to move a queen—” and, hanging in the margin next to it, this handwritten word: revere.
Curious, I flipped to 395 and poem XXXIV, which begins like this:
A MIEN to move a queen—
Half child, half heroine—
An Orleans in the eye
That puts its manner by
For humbler company
When none are near—
Even a tear
Its frequent visitor.
The poem, I came to learn, is a kind of homage to Joan of Arc, “the Maid of Orleans,” who like Elizabeth died young. The final lines of the poem lend insight into Dickinson’s treatment of Joan of Arc and, perhaps, into Mildred’s process of mourning her daughter’s death:
Too small to fear,
Too distant to endear,—
And so men just compromise
And just revere.
That closing word revere is the one to which Elizabeth’s mother held fast.
The next annotation that appears in the index is once again scribed in ghostly pencil. Attending the line “Arcturus is his other name—” I found this: Eliz.
Well known by Dickinson scholars, this poem reveals someone who throws a skeptical gaze on science, classification, and all things of the natural world that have been, as Dickinson puts it, “mapped and charted.” Science, Dickinson suggests, saps the mystery out of the world, and the more I learn about her, the more it seems that she coaxed her poems from the realm of the mysterious.
Why then did Elizabeth’s mother feel compelled to attach her daughter’s name to this poem? Did Elizabeth share a similar sensibility, casting a doubtful eye on systems in the early 1950s, on the machinations of an ordered and therefore non-mysterious world? Did Dickinson somehow remind Mildred of her own daughter? Reading XXXIV through, I saw at once a poet and heard a rancor in the verse and voice—the voice of a woman who chafed against such strictures her entire life. But then I read the closing lines and once again was transported back to the singular tragedy that accompanies this particular copy of Dickinson’s work.
I hope the father in the skies
Will lift his little girl,—
Old fashioned, naughty, everything,—
Over the stile of pearl!
In the index of first lines I also found Eliz written into the margin next to this: “Candor, my tepid friend . . .” The poem, CIX, continues this way:
Come not to play with me!
The Myrrhs and Mochas of the Mind
Are its Iniquity.
Given the context of Mildred mourning Elizabeth’s death, this poem is more difficult to read. Something in these scant lines compelled her to attach Eliz to it, to these few lines. Some early critics dismissed this poem in particular; Harold Monro wrote in 1925 that Dickinson “gives the impression of wanting to keep some secret. Clarity of thought is constantly veiled in obscurity of expression. She was not candid . . .” However, more contemporary critics reject such analysis as shortsighted, and after reading this poem through several times in my study, over coffee in the mornings or over a glass of wine at night, I tend to find myself agreeing with scholars such as Eileen Gregory: there is a rather subversive hue coloring this poem in that Dickinson sees candor as something almost false, and her dismissal of candor’s true import gives way to what Gregory calls an “erotic preference,” noting that “friend candor is tepid, but the elect imaginative playmates are, one infers, hot.” Gregory is here referring to the “Myrrhs and Mochas of the Mind,” which she considers to be “sensuous, exotic, subliminal in their affects . . .”
What, then, might this tell us of Elizabeth? Of her grieving mother? I began to wonder if there was a pattern to the marginalia, a pattern that might point to a precocious young woman who, in 1952—a kind of roaring heyday of female oppression—was ahead of her time even while she was running out of time on this earth. I am, of course, aware of the fragility of my conjecture, but if I allow for the sake of argument that Elizabeth was forward-thinking, then it is also remarkable that her mother recognized her daughter as such and celebrated the quality by affixing Eliz to Dickinson’s nearly electric lines.
More clues, more annotations. The word ether appears in the margin on page 464, and the poem it references is haunting. Reading poem LXXIII is like walking to the gallows, or edging your way out onto the gangplank that protrudes over a dark abyss.
Dropped into the
Wearing the sod gown—
Bonnet of Everlasting laces—
Brooch frozen on!
Horses of blonde—
And coach of silver,
Baggage a strapped Pearl!
Journey of Down
And whip of Diamond—
Riding to meet the Earl!
Here an imagined woman is not running away from the clutches of death, nor is her death a surprise. Rather she is dressed for the occasion, wearing a terrifying “sod gown” and “Bonnet of Everlasting laces.” The woman—Emily? Elizabeth?—is racing to her grave and making an opulent spectacle of her “journey.” Death is an Earl, and there is a strange kind of urgency in arriving on his stoop.
So I am left to wonder—was Elizabeth’s death sudden and unforeseen? That her photograph—or “death mask” as Susan Sontag would have it—is taped over “Her final summer was it, / And yet we guessed it not,” leads me to believe the death was sudden, even random—and not the sort of anticipated death that invites weeks and weeks of preplanned funereal ceremony and something so chillingly preconceived as a “sod gown.” Why, too, did Elizabeth’s mother select ether over any other word in the poem? Is it because like me, she found an eerie sense of infinite disquietude in such a term? Did Mildred find the ethereal vagueness of ether haunting because it conjures neither heaven nor hell, but something else entirely, something ultimately unnamable or, worse, unknowable?
For me, the eternal vastness of ether called to mind another Dickinson line I had found in my study: “just miles of stare.” I began to see ether as absence, a vacuous space into which a mother lost her daughter. Finally, why Mildred selected the word ether is as mysterious and possibly as random as the death of Elizabeth herself.
This much is clear: Emily Dickinson consistently said what Elizabeth’s mother felt. Yet another poem, CXIII, is annotated with Eliz:
I MEANT to find her when I came;
Death had the same design;
But the success was his, it seems,
And the discomfit mine.
I meant to tell her how I longed
For just this single time;
But Death had told her so the first,
And she had hearkened him.
Grief does strange things to the mind. Grief can admit to death’s “success” . . . can suggest, somehow, that a young woman obeyed death by “hearkening” her grim agent of mortality . . . can pull one fully into the pages of a green hardback volume and set her on an answerless course of studying humanity’s most ponderous questions. This is what grief looks like: a mother holding fast to the words of a woman one hundred years before her time, and availing herself of the pangs and mysteries of life and death. Grief is pencil on paper. Grief is two voices in the ancient dark asking, Why?
Mildred wrote school in the margin on page 465 of the index. The poem, CIII, reads:
From all the jails the boys and girls
Beloved, only afternoon
That prison doesn’t keep.
They storm the earth and stun the air,
A mob of solid bliss.
Alas! That frowns could lie in wait
For such a foe as this!
The more I read Emily Dickinson and the more I learn about her, the more I am in awe. If I had any notion of Dickinson all those years ago when I dismissed her outright because my favorite professor prescribed his disdain for her, it was that of a spinster-outcast toiling away in some stony turret where hundreds of dreadful leaves of verse littered the floor. Indeed, for all the talk and chatter about Dickinson being such a shut-in, a remote satellite merely orbiting social affairs, there is (as I have mentioned) evidence to the contrary. She thrived on friendship, and the poem above points to this truth. As Dickinson biographer Milton Meltzer suggests of this poem, Dickinson “tells us what the release from school at noon on Saturday felt like.” He further notes that “Emily had no trouble making friends at school. At thirteen, she was one of a group of girls called ‘The Five.’ ” He also adds, “Friends noted later that she was quick to attach herself to others, and to hang on to them long after.” Did Mildred, who was as far as I can tell a keen reader, find social parallels between Emily and Elizabeth? I am tempted for reasons that aren’t clear to me now to read Mildred’s reading of this poem as a fond memory that Elizabeth was like any other teen, precocious or not: they all felt “solid bliss” when the school bell rang.
But if this poem offered Elizabeth’s mother a fond remembrance of a typical American schoolgirl, other poems brought her back into the chill waters of mourning. Next to this line in the index, “I wish I knew that woman’s name,” Mildred wrote sobbed. That poem, CX, continues this way:
So when she comes this way,
To hold my life, and hold my ears,
For fear I hear her say
She’s ‘sorry I am dead,’ again,
Just when the grave and I
Have sobbed ourselves almost to sleep,—
Our only lullaby.
Among the many things I have learned in my attempt to “find” Emily Dickinson, there is one that sticks out glaringly as it pertains to this particular poem: the green hardback volume I possess is corrupted—it is not true Dickinson. Editors treated Emily somewhat as a child and edited—manhandled might be a better word—accordingly. They saw her unconventional syntax, punctuation, deployment of dashes, and other idiosyncrasies as flaws, mistakes, or the hiccups of an untutored voice, rather than what they really were: deliberate and visionary poetical strategies. In some cases, editors hacked whole poems into bits like fish meat, which happens to be the case with this poem. When I did a quick search online to track down background information on these few lines, I discovered that they came from a larger, highly stylized, and complex poem, #588, that begins, “I cried at Pity—not at Pain—.”
In 1965, critic John Emerson Todd called “So when she comes this way” a maudlin piece, but Elizabeth Petrino has praised its richly layered and nuanced architecture, couching it as a subversive poem in a kind of subgenre of “the child elegy.” The speaker, Petrino contends, is a dead child. If Mildred saw this, then the speaker for her is Elizabeth—talking, if not from the grave, then at least from the page. For Petrino, the final moment of the poem—“Just when the Grave and I— / Have sobbed ourselves almost to sleep . . .”— points to how the speaker “longs for the forgetfulness of death, but rather than listen to a mother’s voice singing her to sleep, she will lull herself into oblivion with the sounds of her own sobs.”
Mildred wrote sobbed in the margin of the index. It’s impossible to know what she was thinking when she spirited that word into the leaves of this volume, but I’ d like to think that, like me, Mildred cast Elizabeth in the role of the poem’s dead child. I’ d like to think that by so doing, this grieving mother could, communing with Elizabeth through Emily, emancipate herself from keeping pity and the death—rather than her memory—of Elizabeth “perpetually alive.”
Because my volume of The Poems of Emily Dickinson is now fringed with scores of colored sticky notes, my six-year-old daughter, Madeline Beth, has started calling it the “Colorful Emily Book.” I call it the “Grief Book.” I sense a kind of frenetic presence in the foxed leaves. I hear Emily’s voice, but I also hear Elizabeth’s.
How and in what manner the 1944 Poems of Emily Dickinson made its way from that cold day in Queens to a spring day in my small college town in northern Idaho is beyond me. I’ve wondered, too, why it has held me so fast in its spell, and why it moves me so—perhaps because I’m a father of two and cannot fathom the loss of a child. To my knowledge, I have nothing in common with Elizabeth outside my daughter’s middle name, but even that is a stretch. I suppose we may each have an affinity for Emily Dickinson, though hers would have come much earlier in her short life than mine. Alternatively, even if Elizabeth didn’t like Dickinson, clearly Emily meant something to Mildred, and because she meant something to this aggrieved, anonymous woman, she means something to me—at long last.
The more I read this volume, the more I can hear these three women’s voices—static-filled through space and thin through time. One woman, a visionary in Amherst, Massachusetts, writing about the death of children, grief, and the allure of the mysterious world, speaking one hundred years too soon to a woman in Queens, New York, who is trying to pick up the pieces in the wake of her daughter’s death.
And I can hear Elizabeth asking not for pity but for peace.
Hearing the voice of the dead speak to you from the ether can be a sobering experience. Although I’m not a praying man, I do count myself as lucky because my children are alive and well, and in a sense I do pray. I pray that I will never have to face a sea of sullen faces while snows blow through the streets outside a stone chapel, where I lay a child to rest. I pray to the ether, the “miles of stare,” that I will not in my lifetime have to come to the “Grief Book” and insert my own annotations; I pray that I won’t have to pick up those kinds of pieces and find myself, broken, taping a snapshot of my daughter or son over a death poem and asking Emily Dickinson 150 years too late how to grieve and how to live. But if I do, I know well the poem that I would begin with. I would draw the microphone near, clear my throat, and say,
If I should die, / And you should live . . .
I imagine, too, how I would spend the following weeks and then months, and perhaps years, reading these poems, scratching clues into the margins, hoping to find some way to face the world. I imagine, still, how the book might fall out of my possession, travel the country or globe and arrive on someone else’s stoop fifty or a hundred years later like a gift or a koan, and how its leaves would fall open for that person to a photograph of a stranger taped over a poem that would speak right out. I imagine how that person might see the layers of mystery the book holds, and how he might puzzle over its poems and the chorus of jottings and clues, the photographs of children, the epigraphs. Finally, I imagine how he might—at long last—hear the voices of the visionary and vulnerable crackle through time and space before lifting forever into the ether that is the fate of humankind and our humanity.
*Author’s note: It’s worth mentioning that this poem is a variant of the original, and that one of the greatest points of contention in Dickinson studies is the manner and extent that her poems were edited. It is an issue that I will address later.