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My My Emily Dickinson

Last week I finally visited Emily Dickinson’s house, a place that had haunted me as though I’d been there before but couldn’t recall the wallpaper, and couldn’t let go of trying to know exactly the windowsills’ height, or the creak on which stair descending. In reality, I’d just read an obsessive lot about the place by its famed inhabitant, and in fact, the walls in her bedroom were stripped of their paper, as renovators prepared to reproduce a pattern from a lately discovered scrap that Emily would have looked upon until the day she died. I stood beside her bed in my body. There, she died there. Visions, sweat, rattled breath, a place for the eyes to land above the mantle. Surely all the tour-guides must have snuck turns reclining on her pillow? How to get to closest knowing. As to the wallpaper, I appreciated but was not interested in reproductions. I wanted to know exactly what in the room was original: bed, yes, washstand, yes, chair and desk where so many poems were composed, no. Floor matting, no. Floorboards, yes. Dust, no, and yes. I surveyed the perimeter where the floor mat didn’t reach, searching the deepest crack between boards. This quiet Dust was Gentlemen and Ladies, she wrote, and surely, some of this dust now was her, still her, however unbelievably divided. If allowed alone in the room for a moment, I would’ve reached as far as possible into the crack.

But I was dutiful, even if throughout the tour I struggled to not feel possessive of Emily. When the guide offered quiz questions I bit my tongue to blanket my extremity. The truth is, I wanted to occupy the house alone, to be physically haunted at the source, by she who has always haunted me. I couldn’t feel my feelings fully behind the velvet rope.

I don’t doubt many people share this sentiment about Dickinson, and to be sure, others have noted their private intensity about her before me. In fact, the week before my visit to Amherst I happened to read Mary Ruefle’s brilliant, moving essay, “My Emily Dickinson,” in which she writes about this sense of Dickinson possessiveness:

In the end, I have said very little about my Emily Dickinson. I would prefer not to, said Bartleby. My Emily Dickinson is nobody’s business but my own. I will not share her with anyone. I would no more tell you about my relationship with her poems than I would tell you about a love affair. If she is yours, I hope you feel the same way.

This comes at the end of an essay whose title is a tongue-in-cheek copping of Susan Howe’s book My Emily Dickinson (I love Howe’s dearly, too). Ruefle writes about her title conundrum:

As soon as I decided I wanted to write a lecture called “My Emily Dickinson” I discovered that the poet Susan Howe has a book called My Emily Dickinson. I thought about it for three hours, and decided to put the “My” in italics. My Emily Dickinson.

So begins a mirrored room of My. After Howe, after Ruefle, I could only title this little piece “My My Emily Dickinson.” You can write your “My My My Emily Dickinson,” too, and help urge My My My My My My My, etc. into song, even if, as Ruefle suggests, we will all always believe that only our own My wears the one true italics.

But why do we all feel so possessive of Emily? We love our private visions that flood the air around her form we know so fiercely through letters and poems, but otherwise, we don’t at all know. Aside from her life in language, a chocolate wrapper may get us closest. A pocket demanded for a dress. I possess a fiercely childish feeling that I am nearest her this side of life. I harbor an unabashed obsession. The slightest pinholes through an envelope are overwhelming, so much so that, in some other realm, I’d be telling Emily secrets to get her to sit beside me at lunch. Why? That’s the part of my My I won’t reveal, but it has to do with Some manner of the Hair, and everything that ticked.

Then, there’s this: after visiting Emily’s house, my friends and I made a small parade to visit her grave, and the objects I knew would be there, were there. Best of all, a white plastic pen with white cap from a hotel. Or best of all, a blue pencil cracked and dried, that had weathered so much snow. We all want her to say more, write more, about who she was; or, we want to say, I get it, I’m a writer too, and we also know it’s impossible, so we leave an object from the world, from a day long beyond her breathing, to get as close to touching as stone.

A stone I yet refused. Insistent, I picked a few tiny blades above her body and tucked them in a matchbox. My friend said, “She made that, too.” The grass is drying now on my desk. A near-far feeling can only suffice.