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An Issue of Blood

This Thursday is Emily Dickinson’s 185th birthday; she was born on December 10, 1830 in Amherst, Massachusetts, where she died in 1886.

In 1885, she wrote to Mabel Loomis Todd, who was visiting Europe, with an imperative: “Touch Shakespeare for me.” She signed the letter “America.”

While Dickinson’s sign-off is fascinating for its own reasons (the bold implication that Dickinson speaks on behalf of a young nation and its new literature, sending Todd as an emissary to the great European literary tradition), I’m always particularly captivated by that letter’s verb: touch. When compared with other possibilities of connection (“send my regards to,” “pay my respects to”), its intimacy shines forth, and when one compares it with other haptic possibilities (“embrace,” “hold,” “grasp”), its gentleness and awe shine forth as well. It relieves me that Dickinson felt about Shakespeare as I feel about her — the urge to reach out and touch a greatness and a human being, and the hope to touch by proxy when actual contact is an impossibility. I, like so many others, have sought to touch her handwriting, her house, her grave, and the scholarship surrounding her life and work, not to mention the work itself — both poems and letters — which inspires this urge for closeness in the first place.

I think of another “touch” with which Dickinson would certainly have been familiar — the woman who touched the hem of Jesus’ garment to end the affliction of her bleeding. Was Dickinson’s request, a year before the end of her life, an allusion to the Biblical story of healing by touch? Dickinson’s bible, the King James Version, would have called the woman’s condition an “issue of blood.” In the Biblical context, a bleeding woman (she was said to have been bleeding for 12 years) would have been considered perpetually unclean — someone to be isolated and untouchable.

By 1885, Dickinson had isolated herself from society for about two decades (though her intense correspondences continued throughout her life, and her beautiful correspondence with Otis Lord, which began in the 1870s, speaks to passionate attachment and romantic courtship, whatever that might have meant on Dickinson’s terms). But Lord died in 1884, and Dickinson’s mother had died in 1882, and Dickinson’s eight-year-old nephew Gib had died in 1883, which was a particularly hard blow. She was not in good health herself, and the stress of so much death and illness around her had taken its toll.

Touch Shakespeare for me.
The Savior’s only signature to the Letter he wrote to all mankind, was, A Stranger and ye took me in.


Reading this reference to Matthew 25 in Dickinson’s letter signed on behalf of America, my December 2015 mind moves away from Dickinson and toward refugees, and those who would turn them away:

And before him shall be gathered all nations: and he shall separate them one from another, as a shepherd divideth his sheep from the goats:
And he shall set the sheep on his right hand, but the goats on the left.
Then shall the King say unto them on his right hand, Come, ye blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world:
For I was an hungred, and ye gave me meat: I was thirsty, and ye gave me drink: I was a stranger, and ye took me in:
Naked, and ye clothed me: I was sick, and ye visited me: I was in prison, and ye came unto me.
Then shall the righteous answer him, saying, Lord, when saw we thee an hungred, and fed thee? or thirsty, and gave thee drink?
When saw we thee a stranger, and took thee in? or naked, and clothed thee?
Or when saw we thee sick, or in prison, and came unto thee?
And the King shall answer and say unto them, Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me.
Then shall he say also unto them on the left hand, Depart from me, ye cursed, into everlasting fire, prepared for the devil and his angels:
For I was an hungred, and ye gave me no meat: I was thirsty, and ye gave me no drink:
I was a stranger, and ye took me not in: naked, and ye clothed me not: sick, and in prison, and ye visited me not.
Then shall they also answer him, saying, Lord, when saw we thee an hungred, or athirst, or a stranger, or naked, or sick, or in prison, and did not minister unto thee?
Then shall he answer them, saying, Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye did it not to one of the least of these, ye did it not to me.

I just read attorney and human rights advocate (and my sister-in-law) Bonita Gutierrez’s piece on Latin American refugees fleeing extreme violence, “The Forgotten Refugee Crisis at Our Doorstep.” Perhaps my mind doesn’t wander so far after all, or if it does, I’m not alone in it; on a Sunday morning a month ago, I watched the actor Benedict Cumberbatch connect Shakespeare, poetry, and who we “take in” at the curtain call of the National Theatre Live broadcast of Hamlet. Advocating for Syrian refugees, he quoted British-Somali poet Warsan Shire’s poem “Home”:

no one leaves home unless
home is the mouth of a shark
you only run for the border
when you see the whole city running as well

your neighbors running faster than you
breath bloody in their throats
the boy you went to school with
who kissed you dizzy behind the old tin factory
is holding a gun bigger than his body
you only leave home
when home won’t let you stay.

no one leaves home unless home chases you
fire under feet
hot blood in your belly
it’s not something you ever thought of doing
until the blade burnt threats into
your neck
and even then you carried the anthem under
your breath
only tearing up your passport in an airport toilets
sobbing as each mouthful of paper
made it clear that you wouldn’t be going back.

you have to understand,
that no one puts their children in a boat
unless the water is safer than the land
no one burns their palms
under trains
beneath carriages
no one spends days and nights in the stomach of a truck
feeding on newspaper unless the miles travelled
means something more than journey.
no one crawls under fences
no one wants to be beaten

no one chooses refugee camps
or strip searches where your
body is left aching
or prison,
because prison is safer
than a city of fire
and one prison guard
in the night
is better than a truckload
of men who look like your father
no one could take it
no one could stomach it
no one skin would be tough enough

go home blacks
dirty immigrants
asylum seekers
sucking our country dry
niggers with their hands out
they smell strange
messed up their country and now they want
to mess ours up
how do the words
the dirty looks
roll off your backs
maybe because the blow is softer
than a limb torn off

or the words are more tender
than fourteen men between
your legs
or the insults are easier
to swallow
than rubble
than bone
than your child body
in pieces.
i want to go home,
but home is the mouth of a shark
home is the barrel of the gun
and no one would leave home
unless home chased you to the shore
unless home told you
to quicken your legs
leave your clothes behind
crawl through the desert
wade through the oceans
be hunger
forget pride
your survival is more important

no one leaves home until home is a sweaty voice in your ear
run away from me now
i dont know what i’ve become
but i know that anywhere
is safer than here

Somehow, I’ve gone from thinking about a poet who lived and died at home — the “Homestead,” in Amherst, Massachusetts — writing in the same letter referenced above, “I trust you are homesick. That is the sweetest courtesy we pay an absent friend,” and “I am glad you cherish the Sea. We correspond, though I never met him,” to thinking about a poet who writes “i want to go home, / but home is the mouth of a shark / home is the barrel of the gun / and no one would leave home / unless home chased you to the shore.”

In my Father’s house are many mansions: if it were not so, I would have told you. I go to prepare a place for you.
–John 14:2

One need not be a chamber to be haunted,
One need not be a house;
The brain has corridors surpassing
Material place.

Far safer, of a midnight meeting
External ghost,
Than an interior confronting
That whiter host.

Far safer through an Abbey gallop,
The stones achase,
Than, moonless, one’s own self encounter
In lonesome place.

Ourself, behind ourself concealed,
Should startle most;
Assassin, hid in our apartment,
Be horror’s least.

The prudent carries a revolver,
He bolts the door,
O’erlooking a superior spectre
More near.

–Emily Dickinson

they set my aunts house on fire
i cried the way women on tv do
folding at the middle
like a five pound note.
i called the boy who use to love me
tried to ‘okay’ my voice
i said hello
he said warsan, what’s wrong, what’s happened?

i’ve been praying,
and these are what my prayers look like;
dear god
i come from two countries
one is thirsty
the other is on fire
both need water.

later that night
i held an atlas in my lap
ran my fingers across the whole world
and whispered
where does it hurt?

it answered

–Warsan Shire

Shire touches borders, the Biblical woman touches Jesus’ hem, Dickinson reaches out through Todd to touch Shakespeare. What the rest of us might touch or let touch us or “do unto” to heal is up to us, of course, especially if we want to sign our letters with the name America.