Selected Poems, Unabridged (Dover Thrift Editions) by Emily Dickinson. Emily Dickinson is the mother of American verse, but when I bought this book, I didn’t know that; I was a fourteen-year-old kid (see next question). Why do I love this book? I don’t know how you can be a poet and NOT love Emily Dickinson. I think if you don’t there might be something wrong with the language/music receptors in your ears and you may want to consider a career as a meter maid (side note: in the small town of Marshall, Michigan, the parking meters accept pennies; they make a delicious sound as they fall into the meter’s metal bank). Susan Howe, in her book My Emily Dickinson, says that not only is Dickinson the mother of American verse, but that she’s also the mother of experimental verse, because of her use the dash, her fragmented grammar, her capitalizations, her wild use of symbol. How can you argue with that? But, like I said, when I bought this book I was fourteen, so I also wasn’t thinking about the origins of experimental verse.
2. Where were you when you first read, or saw, or heard of this book?
I got this book at a really crappy bookstore in Green Bay, Wisconsin in 1995 when I was fourteen. I think the bookstore was called something like The Little Professor. It carried mostly romance novels, thrillers, and books about fairies or babies dressed as fairies. The whole store was the size of a small kitchen, or a large closet. In the front of the store, by the register, there was a wire rack with a number of Dover Thrift Editions. The book cost $1.00, brand new. This was the first book of poetry I owned, or, for that matter, read.
When I bought this book, my family had recently moved to an extremely rural part of the state, and I felt lonely and isolated. At night, I would lie in my bed listening to the never-ending chirps of crickets, and the loud, long moos of cows in heat. The air smelled like manure and decomposing hay. It drove me crazy. I was struggling with depression and an eating disorder, and not getting good care or treatment for either problem. Reading Dickinson’s poems made me feel like somebody was reaching out through time and space, speaking directly to me, in a special language that only I could understand.
3. Did this book influence your own writing, thinking, sense of the world, or work?
Absolutely. I started writing poetry after (and probably because of) reading this book. Whenever I am feeling stuck or lost in my own poetics, there are a couple of books I return to to help un-stick myself. This is one of them (others include Sylvia Plath’s Ariel, Ted Berrigan’s The Sonnets, and Joshua Clover’s Madonna anno domini). My own writing can at times be rather baroque and raucous. Reading Dickinson reminds me of the minimalist possibilities of language.
4. Give us a line or excerpt from the text that intrigues, engages, mystifies, inspires, disgusts, or transforms you. Discuss…
Of Dickinson’s poems represented in this collection, I’m drawn to the morbid. The poem that begins “I died for beauty, but was scarce / Adjusted in the tomb, / When one who died for truth was lain / In an adjoining room” (the Dover Thrift Edition does not include numbers for any of Dickinson’s poems) ends with a stanza that really disturbs me: “And so, as kinsmen met a night, / We talked between the rooms, / Until the moss had reached our lips, / And covered up our names.” I love how creepy this final image is! The moss not only covers up the two corpses’ mouths (a chilling reminder of mortality, the silence of death, and decay), but it also obliterates the names on their grave markers (representing a final annihilation). Furthermore, as the two people, representing Truth and Beauty (PAGING JOHN KEATS), decompose and are consumed by nature (the moss) and ultimately forgotten, so are the lofty ideals of Truth and Beauty. To me, this is a much truer representation of aesthetics than “Beauty is truth, truth beauty,--that is all / Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know,” which I doubt even Keats believed.
Another favorite is this poem:
I felt a funeral in my brain, And mourners, to and fro, Kept treading, treading, till it seemed, That sense was breaking through.
And when they all were seated, A service like a drum Kept beating, beating, till I thought My mind was going numb.
And then I heard them lift a box, And creak across my soul With those same boots of lead, again. Then space began to toll
As all the heavens were a bell, And Being but an ear, And I and silence some strange race, Wrecked, solitary, here.
This poem expresses a lot of the same existential angst that much of Dickinson’s work does. To me, the most haunting lines are the last five. When I teach this poem, I spend a good amount of time unpacking that final image/metaphor, and exploring the representation of final nothingness. It’s lonely, and beautiful, and weird, and supernatural. Space is tolling like a bell! A bell!
I don’t know why I am now or was at fourteen drawn to these poems. At fourteen, I should have been wearing too much flannel, smoking pot, and planning my wedding to Eddie Vedder (all of which I did at a later date), not pouring over depressing poetry alone in my bedroom.
5. Who did you send this book to, why?
I haven’t sent this book to anyone. It’s one of my most prized possessions, and I’m not sharing it. Of course, all of the poets I know have read Dickinson’s poems. If you’re not a poet, or if you haven’t read Dickinson’s poems, go get your own copy. For Christ’s sake, it only costs a dollar!
Bio: Rebecca Lehmann is the author of Between the Crackups (Salt Modern Poets 2011), which won the Crashaw Prize. Her poems have been published in Tin House, The Iowa Review, The Gettysburg Review, and other journals. She lives with her husband in La Crosse, Wisconsin, where she teaches creative writing and literature.