I don’t know why the world falls for the recluse writer, but it’s so often I find myself turning to those that stuck their heads in ovens at the face of immense grief, or wrote in the library basements lacking even windows due to distractions. For someone who can’t seem to write a book, or even a poem, honestly, I think the fact that I become obsessed with the journals of those that do is a quiet jealousy. They do it in the dusty silence of a tiny corner of their world and the chords I need to drag my own pinky knuckle across a page, hum.
From Virginia Woolf walking into a cold river (which I always imagined was a sea until I Googled it), to Dickinson with her corner windows and desk just tight enough to fit a pen nib, I love the underdog. These women who, for reasons we may never know, had gaps in their relationship with society. Gaps that kept them behind walls or within overcoats.
I think I’ve defined the term madness and almost wanted it at times in my life because of these women.
So when I read the story in this issue of The New Yorker about Dickinson’s line scraps of poetry, I couldn’t help but want to piece them together to build the string pieces of the woman behind the curve of each letter. It may be a memory that I actually own, or a memory that was put in my head by repeated family stories, passed down memories, that my family member’s mother had scraps of the Bible taped to the walls all over her house. They weren’t cited, and they were on everything from tissues, to post-its, to patterned holiday napkins. Her mother passed away from a brain tumor and so I can’t be sure if her need to have the Bible so close that it looked at her daily was due to this or other reasons. I used to tell people this story when I wanted to define “crazy,” (as a teenager) but as I came of age I realized the authenticity of holding words in your hand, surrounding yourself with their tight verses, and carrying them literally.
How often is it really that a girl in a bar, smacks a kiss on a napkin with her phone number and hands it to a boy across the room?
What have we lost by sending emails instead of envelopes?
Where is the receipt where my mother wrote me directions to the house on 5 Marlow.
How can I read my dad’s handwriting except from his yellow pad of finance keepings.
And the note folded in my wallet, every wallet from the cusp of adulthood forward, my Mom’s list of what she needed to discuss with me before going to college in a McDonald’s glittery booth. And my Dad’s note on the counter the morning that I left with my Australian visa.
These scraps, pieced together, are a life. The calling card at the top of sent flowers. I have the last one from Beej taped into my planner. I can’t let go of even one single word. The more my mother’s eighteenth birthday list gets folded, it gets creased, and becomes like an over-washed jean. I hope that the pen never fades and I can always read my mother’s beautiful cursive and imagine her hand in the air working shorthand words in her head. One day I will literally need this note and I keep it for two reasons: the memory and the real product of my mother’s love.
This blog kind of got away from me, but I wanted to share this tiny reading obsession. My favorite moment of the linked article above is this quote about Dickinson from a family member, “A younger cousin recalled her reciting the “most emphatic things in the pantry” while skimming the milk.” Also the fact that Dickinson, like most female writers, didn’t really become known until after death and only published a scant number of poems anonymously in her lifetime. She did, however, write letters with lines of poems.
I wonder if she planned to test them out on her friends, see their response.
I wonder if she just had to get them out like a visceral response, an allergy.
I wonder if she just wrote like this, across all spaces and genres. I wouldn’t be surprised.
Lines like “the thief, compassion for integrity” reside in Amherst College Digital Archives. They’re beautiful standing alone or folded into an apron. I’m sure in some sense Emily Dickinson knew this, unless she was just humbled by the need to put nib to paper. Just another scribble like forced labor. Folded half into a paper airplane and left for a letter later.