This morning I have good news to report. Not only did Mary Magdalene secure a victory for the Bless You Boys against the Falcons a week ago. But yesterday afternoon She again worked her benevolent guidance at the Dome (I was there. I saw it happen.) to bring our boys, who were lagging behind, up to a 10 point lead against the Panthers. Crucial win, people. They are now 8 and 0 for the first time in 43 years.
Okay, now back to Emily.
Each Life Converges to some Center —
Expressed — or still —
The following is a report I filed weeks ago. Somehow it did not make the journey from my notebook into the blog. Here it is, a little late. I’ll be playing catch-up for a couple days. My blog, my rules.
October 1, 2009
I have just gotten home from a visit to Northampton, where I went to hear Mary Oliver read at Smith, my alma mater. John M. Greene Hall was packed with about two thousand people. I got to sit near the front in a special section reserved for alums. MO is a merry, spindly woman with a dazzling smile, unkempt hair, the loose-limbed walk of a young girl. She is about 75 years old—graduate of Vassar. (Okay, I can live with that.) She has none of the matron about her. Her words are as innocent as a child’s. I do not mean unwise. But lacking that cynicism and exhaustion that 75 years of life can put on a woman’s voice. No, MO speaks with the fresh vigor of a 16-year-old girl.
I sat with my teacher and mentor, Patricia. She is also a poet, also in her early 70s. Also as slim and light as a girl. Also a woman who moves across the earth’s surface with new joy in each step. Patricia too has saved the only life she could. I wonder if devoting one’s life to writing poems is the secret to eternal youth? Or something else. Devoting one’s life to one’s self. These two women poets are not disconnected from love. Mary’s partner Molly Malone Cooke died in 2005. Mary called her life with Molly, “a forty-year long conversation.” Patricia has children and grandchildren and also recently married her love, a man she has known since they were both in the 4th grade. (!!) Yet these women both clearly are married to their poems—first, last, always. The only thing that never dies and never leaves.
Something Mary gave us that evening:
And did you feel it, in your heart, how it pertained to everything?
And have you too finally figured out what beauty is for?
And have you changed your life?
Some fancy pants editor tried to get Mary to remove the word “beauty” before agreeing to publish the poem. She refused.
Just before I left western Mass, I winged over to Amherst to visit Emily’s house, which is now a museum. The tour guide had gossip about Emily’s boyfriends. One fellow demanded that she receive his company by standing at the foot of the stairs and shouting, “Come down here, you damn rascal!” Charming.
The moment of the tour that went like a dart to the center of my chest occurred when the guide led us to the upper room where Emily slept, dreamed and wrote. I crossed the threshold into this place—sanctum sanctorum. Cool fall sunlight filled the low-ceilinged New England room. The floor creaked. The guide stood at the window and told us that Emily was in the habit of lowering a basket of gingerbread—from this very window—to the neighborhood boys waiting below. She had become famous among the children of Amherst as the lady who dropped sweet gifts from the sky.
Then the guide handed me a little packet of papers sewn along the edge as a makeshift book. This was a facsimile of Emily’s poems. A sample of her handwriting. I held a page close to my eyes and tried to read the words. Her hand is so light and ornate, it’s almost impossible to read. Her dashes are not the bold strokes we see in the published versions, but brief flicks on the page. You could mistake them for an accidental brush of her pen’s tip on the paper, as it scooted to the next word. There is a sense that her hand almost couldn’t move fast enough to keep up with her mind.
Someone decided these black dots between the words were highly intentional dashes. Honestly it’s not clear on her original page. A fair amount of what we know as Emily is invented by the people who came after her. My sense is that she took the lion’s share into the grave with her. What’s left for us are these birdy scratchings. Beautiful and inscrutable. We create her in partnership. She left us her enigmatic legacy. It’s all there and all true. But what did she intend? We’ve had to craft that on our own.
The poem I held in her hand in my hand was this one:
#632, c. 1862
The Brain — is wider than the Sky —
For — put them side by side —
The one the other will contain
With ease — and You — beside —
The Brain is deeper than the sea —
For — hold them — Blue to Blue —
The one the other will absorb —
As Sponges — Buckets — do —
The Brain is just the weight of God —
For — Heft them — Pound for Pound —
And they will differ — if they do —
As Syllable from Sound —
I breathed in the words. In that still, quiet room. She didn’t have to go downstairs. Nor go into the world. Or bother with anyone out there. Emily contained a realm more vast than any out there. And she knew it. Named it. Claimed it.
I got home that night, fell into bed, got up this morning, returned to my perch on the porch. Finally it is cool enough to sit outside without melting. I open my notebook to re-read what I had written just before I left New Orleans two days ago. There is the most recent entry—the poem I had selected at random—the same poem I have just read in Emily’s hand in Emily’s bedroom. “The Brain is wider than the Sky.” Indeed, it is wider than time and space, as well.
The dart to the center of my chest is melting there. My own thoughts move with alarming breadth into the past, 150 years, across 1200 miles, from the swamp to the crisp New England. My body is appallingly slow and crude compared to the swift movement of my brain. Emily’s too. She’s still thinking. Her mind is still so alive that her hand jumps off the page into mine.