All I Have

While I was in Amherst, I picked up a monograph that someone has published on Emily’s “Master Letters”.  These are letters she wrote to some unknown person whom she addressed as “Dear Master.”  She refers to herself as “Daisy”.  The letters show that Emily had it bad for this Master fellow.  He was the ruler of her heart.  “A love so big it scares her, rushing among her small heart — pushing aside the blood — and leaving her all faint and white in the gust’s arm —”  Later she wrote: “— but if I had the Beard on my cheek — like you — and you — had Daisy’s petals — and you cared so for me — what would become of you?”

This provokes two lines of thought for me.  The first is that she suggests men and women love differently.  Then she proposes what must have been a shocking idea to him, that the two of them should trade sexes in order to know what the other feels.  The second possibility that comes to mind is that they can have this exchange of textures—beard vs. petals—in a simple embrace.  Emily would have the beard upon her cheek when she holds Dear Master’s face close to hers.  In addition she may want to know what it’s like to be on the driving end of that masculinity, to wield the power of initiation.  Hence these remarkable and bold letters, announcing herself.   And she would also have him know the experience of being on the receiving end with nothing but soft petals to defend himself.  (No wonder this so-called Master was an elusive lover.  No 19th century man could meet Emily on her brave, exotic terms.)

Here was the poem she tossed up to me after my trip to New England:

# 1094, c. 1866

Themself are all I have —
Myself a freckled — be —
I thought you’d choose a Velvet Cheek
Or one of Ivory —
Would you — instead of Me?

It ends with a question.  She leaves herself and us dangling over the abyss of seeking an answer.  Did she get one? We don’t know. Have to remain in the question and imagine the rest. But she telescopes in on the vision, which is to say: “This is all I have.” Palms turned outward at the hip, toes pressed into the carpet, skin alive, awake and simple. Then to hear in return: “Yes, this treasure beyond measure, I am grateful to receive it.”

Another thing I learned on my visit to Emily’s house is that she had red hair. There is a lock of hair in a museum in Harvard somewhere that scholars are certain came from Emily’s head. (Talk about your relics! Here is secular religiosity!) It arrived at the museum among the personal effects left behind by one of Emily’s friends. It was common for girls of Emily’s time to give each other a lock of their own hair as a memento. A token of their loving friendship. (When I was a girl, we shared a piece of chewing gum with a friend we were particularly fond of. My how things change.) So Em was a redhead. That comports with her description of herself as freckled.

The docent took us to her bedroom and pointed out the items that were original to the house when Emily lived there. Like the crowds who gathered for Mary Magdalene, we visitors to Emily’s room crave the presence of the objects sanctified by Her literal touch. The relics. Her teapot. Her writing desk. Her narrow sleigh bed.

In the second floor hallway outside her bedroom there is a mannequin wearing one of Emily’s white dresses. From this example, we see that the adult Emily never grew any taller than I was at age twelve. I peer through the glass at the lacy folds and long row of buttons down the back. The glass shows my reflection against her dress. I am a giraffe next to the little wren.

The docent then pointed to the bed draped in the actual shawl that Emily had folded around her tiny shoulders. This paisley fabric is a riot of umber, plum and forest green in swirling, snaky tear-drop shapes, voluminous enough to cover the entire bed. This pattern is so exotic . . . why it’s downright . . . Eastern. Paisley reminds us of the yin/yang symbol—the balance between masculine and feminine forces that keep the world spinning on its axis.

Our plain wren swathed herself in the folds of this glorious shawl. She did not resist her own sly taste for adornment. The Calvinist New England upbringing could not squelch Emily’s native taste for color, shape, texture and beauty. No church has ever successfully destroyed feminine self-indulgence. Thank God!

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