Author: Dennis Vannatta
Dennis Vannatta is a Pushcart and Porter Prize winner, with essays and stories published in many magazines and anthologies, including River Styx, Chariton Review, Boulevard, and Antioch Review. His sixth collection of stories, The Only World You Get¸ was published by Et Alia Press.
I come up out of the meadow and angle across Main Street toward “the homestead,” larger in reality than I would have thought it. In “reality”? Another dream, of course. Ah, this exhausting night of dreams in which I set myself the task of being a better man than I ever was, a generous man, bringing solace and comfort to the despairing—shouldn’t it have begun here? She was the first, I think, of whom it occurred to me to play delightfully with the notion: if only I could see her, if only I could tell her . . . little Emily.
A lovely May day, 1886, birds flitting here and there across the blue sky, the stench of . . .
aStench? There should be no stench in this Currier and Ives Amherst. I follow my nose and see, hardly two blocks away, the tall brick stack of the hat factory, smoke smudge sidling above it like scum on a pond. Yuck.
I turn back and find myself almost up against the low fence bordering her house. The front door, the banks of windows tier on tier, pagodaish cupola high atop—where is she?
I’m startled to find her not in, where—sick, these her last days—I thought she’d be but out, not twenty feet from me, sitting in a lawn chair, a lace cap pulled down over her ears, long navy-blue dress enveloping her legs, hiding her feet, heliotrope shawl wrapped here, tucked there, tiny hands like doll’s hands lying lifeless in her lap.
I think of Emily in the Mount Holyoke daguerreotype, cute as a homely puppy. But she’s not cute now. She looks older than her fifty-six years, face pinched, pained. Dying will do that to you, of course, and for an instant—God forgive me—all I can think of is “Mother” in the basement in Psycho, fade to black, then the psychiatrist blathering on as Norman Bates peers at the fly alighting on his hand and says to himself, “I heard a fly buzz when I died.” And I almost laugh at the absurdity of it.
Why won’t my noble dreams come to me unalloyed with absurdity, factory smoke, and horseshit in muddy streets? The hell with it.
I’m about to cross back over Main to the meadow and dreamless sleep, but then I say to myself: this is her world, too. She lives in it, too, horseshit and spinsterhood, will for a few more days, at least. Isn’t this why I’ve come, to redeem her from despair? Go to Emily.
I’m standing on the soft green lawn only a few feet before her. It takes her a moment to realize I’m there, but when she does, she pulls her shawl even more tightly about her, appears almost frightened as if I’ve not so much intruded upon as invaded her legendary privacy.
“Sorry. I didn’t mean to startle you.”
Squinting up at me, she raises a wrinkled doll-hand to shade her eyes as if I’m crowned by the sun.
“I don’t see so well anymore,” she says. “You seem tall.”
Nonplussed by the apparent non sequitor, I babel: “Five-foot-nine. I used to be five-eleven, but the scoliosis has really done a number on me, almost seventy-five now. I used to be younger.”
She smiles. “I’m told I used to be younger, too.”
Her voice is as weak as her body, and I have to strain to hear. With no logic whatsoever, I’m surprised by the brassy Massachusetts accent. I supposed I’d expected dashes and slant rhyme.
This is the awkward moment. How to broach the object of my visit?
As I’m trying to think what to say, Emily closes her eyes, grimaces. Then she coughs. Her wasted body quakes. When she opens her eyes, she once again seems startled to find me standing here. She turns in her chair enough to look back into the house. Is she about to call for help?
Instead of calling out, though, she asks, “You were a friend of my father’s?” which I take to be an odd question until I consider that I must be close to her father’s years, if he were still alive.
“No, I never had the pleasure. I’m just a lover of poetry.”
She perks up a bit.
“You write verse?”
“As a matter of fact, I am a poet, heh heh,” I chuckle. A private joke between me and a couple of my friends who are indeed genuine poets with books published and awards. A number of years ago the New York Times Book Review noted that they would consider anyone a poet who’d published at least ten poems in at least three different journals. I dug up a bunch of old poems from my younger days, sent them out shotgun fashion (under the theory that, try long enough, some clueless editor will bite on virtually anything), and eventually got ten published. Voila. I’m a poet. “Ten poems. Hit it right on the nose,” I tell her.
She frowns at this nonsense but is too polite to ask for clarification. Instead, she smiles sweetly and says, “Recite one of your poems.”
“Oh, I couldn’t.”
“Oh, please do.”
“Really, I couldn’t.”
“Don’t be miserly, dear sir. You must share your gift.”
“No, really, when I say that I couldn’t, I mean just that. I cannot recite any.” I duck my head in embarrassment. “The fact is, I don’t remember any.”
“You don’t remember any of your poems?”
“Not a one.”
“At least a verse . . .”
“Not even a line.”
She looks at me amazed, aghast. And why not? What am I, with my playing at writing, hardly serious enough to qualify as a dilletante? A trivial life, a life without consequence. And she sees it, little Emily, moribund and nearly blind—sees me, a tiresome subject of contemplation. Let’s move it on.
“You want to hear a poem, Miss Dickinson? Let me recite one far greater than any I could dream of writing.
Because I could not stop for Death--
He kindly stopped for me--
The carriage held but just Ourselves--
Hell! I break off the recitation. What was I thinking? To divert the dying with death?
And in fact, with more strength than I thought she had, she lurches back in her chair in consternation, but not, as it turns out, at my temerity in broaching so inappropriate a theme.
“That is mine!” she declares.
At first I think she’s accusing me of plagiarism, but then I realize what I’ve done. “Because I could not stop for Death” was not one of the handful of poems—less than my ten!—that Emily published in her lifetime, a fact of which she would of course be very well aware. But maybe it’s for the best. Let this be my cue to begin my mission of mercy.
“To be sure, it’s your poem, Miss Dickinson. One of my favorites. That and ‘There’s a certain Slant of light’ and . . . . Well, if I start listing them, we’ll be here all day.”
“But how . . . ?” she begins, then stops. She scowls, mutters more to herself than to me, “Higginson! I told him I would not publish. I told him.” Then to me: “Was it Higginson who betrayed me?”
“I confess that I’m not that familiar with the publishing history of you oeuvre, Miss Dickinson. My specialty is the short story—or was before I retired. In Dickinson studies I’m only a passionate amateur. I do know that eventually hundreds and hundreds of your poems will be published.”
“Will be . . . ?”
She raises a trembling hand toward her temple, lets it drop. She seems all at sea—and whyever not?
A veteran of these silly dream things now, I resort to an old stratagem: “It might be easier for you if you tell yourself you’re dreaming and I’m a messenger come from the future to—”
“No,” she says emphatically. “I am not dreaming.”
Why did I imagine such a rationalization would work? This frail little lady with an intellect of steel. She may have told it slant, but she looked at it, all of it, direct.
“You’re right, of course,” I admit, but can’t help another gambit: “I’ve come to you from your dear master.”
Blundering oaf! I’ve done it again! She seems overcome—horrified? excited?—looks this way and that like little Miles looking for Peter Quint at the end of The Turn of the Screw.
“Dear master”—what a gaff. Emily’s famous “dear master letters” to her secret lover. Secret and almost certainly only wished for, by Emily, passion unrealized in any palpable sense. Who was he? The Reverend Charles Wadsworth? Samuel Bowles? Otis Lord? All of them? None? None with her now, certainly, in her dying. Only this clumsy fool who brings confusion and consternation to those whom he would bring comfort.
I try to repair the damage: “I meant to say, our Dear Master. That is, our Lord and Savior. Capitalized, as it were.”
This seems to have done the trick. At least she calms down, settles back into her enveloping shawl, only her eyes moving now, searching my face, her expression at once hopeful and skeptical.
. . . a faith that doubts as fervently as it believes . . .
What does Emily believe? That life is a “magic prison,” yes. But is there a merciful Jailor? May we be freed into something other than death?
I wait for her to speak, to ask, to scoff—anything. But she remains silent. Only those eyes, those eyes, searching, probing.
I plunge ahead: “I have been sent by the Master of Us All to bring you the good news. Your poems shall be published—over a thousand! They will be studied in universities. You will be lauded by many as the greatest American poet. Well, you and Walt Whitman.”
She frowns. “Whitman?”
Then it occurs to me that Whitman might not have been well known in the Dickinson homestead.
“Yes, Walt Whitman. Are you familiar with his work?”
It’s not the poet but the prim New England lady who says, “I never read his Book—but was told that he was disgraceful.”
“Well, not to everyone’s taste, I suppose. You have very different audiences, you and Mr. Whitman.”
“I never asked for an audience. Just an intelligent reader or two for my poor efforts.”
“Over a thousand published! And intelligent readers—why, university professors, I tell you, will praise you to the heavens. Pilgrimages will be made to here—this very spot—to make obeisance to your genius. Your poetry will be your immortality.”
I have her now—I can see it in her eyes—skepticism retreating before her will to believe.
“They will speak of me?” she asks almost shyly.
“As I said, professors, students, they’ll write books about your poetry.”
“They’ll speak of me?”
“Of you personally? To be sure, biographies by the—”
“Will they say I had wild nights?”
Then they come back to me, a few lines:
Wild Nights—Wild Nights!
Were I with thee
Wild Nights should be
Written when she was thirty years old, a still hopeful spinster.
It would be so easy to say it, just that one word, and what a gift it might be for her. But another line occurs to me—“There is an awful yes in every constitution”—and I cannot bring myself to utter that compassionate “yes.”
She turns her face away from me. I have been dismissed.
The sun is setting. I’m back in the meadow. I meant to bring her joy, but brought her only sorrow. I lie down in the shadow cast by the factory’s smoke stack, and within my dream I dream that I kneel before her and offer her this gift of words:
meadow sorrow shadow
She smiles and takes from within her shawl a black book and a pen of gold, and in the book she writes. Then, very carefully, she tears out the page and hands it to me. Four lines adorn the margin. I scan them quickly--
—rhymed a b c b (and not even slant). When I try to read the words, though, the sense alludes me, and I realize the quatrain was hers, the page itself her gift to me. I hold it with the trembling hands of the old man that I am and read
Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death . . .
From the Psalms, I think. Or is it one of the Gospels? Once, I could have told you because I did read the Bible, but that was long ago, when I still imagined I could be a poet.