A few weeks ago I went to the AWP Conference in Chicago. One of the panel discussions I attended concerned Emily Dickinson’s poems. The panelists focused on certain themes. One scholar discussed bird imagery. Another examined how Emily treats the marking of time, hours, seasons, on the calendar. David Baker said that Emily is “the most terrifying poet in the English language for sheer proximity to chaos.”
The scholars read from prepared remarks, eloquent and formal. Then one of the readers looked up from his pages and interrupted his own erudite exegesis to blurt out: “She’s so weird.” The words seemed to jump from his mouth of their own will. His tone was part admiring and part exasperated. I appreciated his honest emotional and subjective eruption. Time and again, after all the academic wrestling with Emily’s poems, she leads us back to the beginning . . . where she is just so weird.
I notice this the most when I read a poem that I had already wrestled with sufficiently. I thought I had gotten my arms around it and understood it, or at least some small part of it. Then after some time passes, I read the same poem again and it appears as an entirely new animal to me. My second reading is nothing like the first. Somehow that “understanding” slipped through my grasp. Hers are less like poems than smoke.
Emily the shape-shifter, she is her poems, stripped bare of any of the easy handles. Yet in that nakedness she remains utterly cloaked. We just have to start over again, new to the poem each time.
Here is one that I have not wrestled with yet. At least I don’t I think I have. Or not lately.
The Body grows without —
The more convenient way —
That if the Spirit — like to hide
Its Temple stands, alway,
Ajar — secure — inviting —
It never did betray
The Soul that asked its shelter
In solemn honesty
The Soul and the Spirit are not interchangeable terms. These are identified separately, although both reside in the same holy place, the Body. The Spirit may hide, while the Soul asks for shelter.
My first reaction here is to recall the Mother Superior character in The Sound of Music when she counsels the troubled Maria that the convent is not a place to hide from the world. Women choose the cloistered life to pursue something within themselves that they can only find in solitude and isolation from the world. A woman who is afraid of the world or needs a hiding place would do better to face the thing that frightens her. The contemplative life is not for cowards. Although one could be tempted to treat it as a refuge from a cracked and chaotic world.
If Mother Superior could have this conversation with Emily, the poet would have responded that her Temple, her body, is both ajar and secure. The Body invites. But who gets this invitation? It’s very exclusive. Other people? I doubt it. The Body invites the Soul inside to join the Spirit (present at birth, maybe) residing or hiding depending on how you look at it. Soul comes to the Body from the rich, complicated world out there. Soul is some non-embodied source that may join that indwelling Spirit. The Body protects this union, offers a safe place for this marriage to take place.
I am not sure who would win the rhetorical contest between Emily and Mother Superior. It would be an interesting debate. I don’t think the answer to Emily’s prayers lies “out there.” Something else in Emily’s Temple keeps her “in here.” She isn’t saying . . . Weirdo.