Emily, Oh Emily

On my Facebook account, I’ve been updating my status frequently with the comments about my work on “the Emily and Susan” story. I’m always a bit obtuse about it because, like all writers, I have this basic fear that someone else will see the story and decide to do something similar. And I think this is a really good, really amazing story.

A bit more than two years ago, I was “in a poetry phase.” I’d recently re-watched SHAKESPEARE IN LOVE and was enamored of the written word. I started messing around with sonnets … again … almost with the same enthusiasm as when I was in college. Soon, the rigor of the form dampened creativity and the sonnet lost its appeal. So I started playing with free verse and, for inspiration, I spent time re-reading my favorite poets. only known image of emily dickinsonI stumbled back into Emily Dickinson. Her biography was well-known to me. Unmarried, probably agoraphobic, woman dies with only ten (10!) poems published. Following her death, over 1700 (that’s one thousand, seven hundred) poems are discovered in her home in bound books she called “fasicles.” One thousand, seven hundred.

I started writing a poem a day using Dickinson as my standard bearer. I loved her imagery, her cadence, her style.

Her breast is fit for pearls,
But I was not a “Diver”–
Her brow is fit for thrones
But I have not a crest.
Her heart is fit for home–
I–a Sparrow–built there
Sweet of twigs and twine
My perennial nest.

I started noticing the tenderness and longing and eroticism in her writing. So, how does a reputed agoraphobe have these sorts of thoughts? Did she have relationships in her adolescence of which I was unaware? So, I started reading more. More on her biography and more of her poetry.

WILD nights! Wild nights!
Were I with thee,
Wild nights should be
Our luxury!
Susan Gilbert Dickinson
Futile the winds
To a heart in port,—
Done with the compass,
Done with the chart.

Rowing in Eden!
Ah! the sea!
Might I but moor
To-night in thee!

Who the heck is she mooring in? Wild nights with whom? Whose breasts? Doesn’t sound much like a (male) editor that she’s pining for, does it? And then I find information on Susan Gilbert Dickinson, her sister-in-law. A woman she knew from school, a woman who married her brother, Austin, and lived next door to family home for Emily’s entire adult life. About half of Emily’s correspondence was to Susan and many poems were written TO her or ABOUT her (in spite of efforts by others to obliterate Susan from Emily’s writings.

Mutilation

Scholar Martha Nell Smith‘s wonderful books OPEN ME CAREFULLY and ROWING IN EDEN offered a more complete, richer biography of Emily. Using the poetry and correspondence of both Emily and Susan, Professor Smith brought an entirely new understanding of Emily Dickinson and her work.

Tomorrow, more about the mistress of Austin Dickinson and the writings of Susan Dickinson. If you haven’t figured it out, I’m working on a screenplay about the Dickinsons.

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