Emily Dickinson in Paris

Emily Dickinson Portrait Cropped

Our Most American Poetess Sojourns Among the French

The Vision – pondered long –
So plausible become
That I esteem the fiction – real –
The Real – fictitious seems –

I knew I had made a mistake when I told my best friend that I was in love with Emily Dickinson. He stared at me, walleyed, then asked if I’d met her on eHarmony. This strained our friendship a little. I mean, how could I rely on someone so poetically clueless? I explained that I had fallen for her when I saw her eyes in the one photo we have of her. Those eyes . . . When I showed him the photo, he told me I needed to get out more. Regrettably, I knew this to be true, but it was too late. Those eyes had already sucked me into her undertow and were dragging me along in her wake.

My Dickinson fixation was deepening my reputation for eccentricity with my other friends as well. They usually slack-jawed when I shared my obsession. This was disappointing but not unexpected. Emily was America’s finest poet, but she wasn’t exactly trending on Twitter. I had, it seemed, abandoned cyber-romance. Why did this happen? How could a relatively normal guy forego online dating to seek love in the arms of a deceased poetess? 

An hour behind the fleeting breath –
Later by just an hour than Death –

I was later by way more than just an hour, but while I didn’t have much of a future with a woman who’d been dead for a hundred and thirty years, I still needed to ask her, “Where was this relationship going?”

Emily was notoriously difficult to deal with even when she was alive. Her friends were said to flee her house with migraines. I knew I wouldn’t have it any easier. My new girlfriend was leading me on. I was aware of this, but her eyes had burned into my heart. Despite her reputation and against all reason, I had taken the Dickinsonian bait. No longer content to simply read her indelicate proposals, I now needed to touch the woman herself.

But how?

Emily was never a cheap date. After all, it would have been hard to put the moves on a babe who hadn’t left her house in twenty years. I specialize in difficult relationships, however, so when I heard––or is it made up?––the rumor that she would be attending the Emily Dickinson International Society’s Triennial Conference in Paris this June, I jumped at the chance to pitch woo to the bardette of my dreams. I bought a plane ticket to France.

Rowing in Eden –
Ah, the Sea!
Might I but moor – Tonight –
In Thee!

I was also curious to see how this most American of visionaries would get along among the French. Emily’s poetical confections had been baked long ago in New England’s hinterland, yet her voice is still so vibrant as to be, dare I say it?––avant-garde––surprisingly, not a phrase that comes to mind when thinking of the French. I believed their poets to be icing, not cake. It would be easy to distinguish her spongy substance from their sugary coating, or so I thought. True, her verses resonated with the King James Bible, Shakespeare, the Brontës, the Brownings, and George Eliot, but her melodies were purely American––she harmonized more with Emerson and Thoreau than with Voltaire or Hugo. 

Then why would she go? Had I missed something? Perhaps she would show me the error of my franco-defiling ways, but only if I could find her. This was, if nothing else, the excuse I needed to pursue the Poetess of My Dreamworld into the real one.

I also worried about her. As I boarded the flight I wondered how this particular recluse could risk such a trip. It would be a nerve-wracking journey for one so shy. How would she get there? It was hard to imagine her in a 747. I searched the plane––up one aisle and down the other. Nothing. I would ask her later, if I could find her among the parnassian elite. I sat down, deflated and not for the last time.

I loved her so much. Her poems came from someplace bigger. She was always a shock. Reading Dickinson was like being hit in the head by a stone. Books are “these Kinsmen of the Shelf –.” Her family “shut me up in Prose –.” The future is beyond “The Forest of the Dead –.” Whether she was looking down from a tree in her garden, up from inside her own coffin, or back from the eternity to come, she sculpted electrified shapes of unknowable places. 

Emily’s eyes saw so much farther than mine did. What drove her to pen the ghosts of her visions onto paper? The mind that produced these tangles was ferrous yet feminine, and her phantoms still sang as they did in the days when she scribbled them on the backs of old envelopes. Yet the woman herself had vanished, leaving only metaphorical breadcrumbs to mark her escape. I would have to approach her carefully if I found her, for she seemed skittish and likely to flee if startled.

As I watched the ocean pass below my window, I also wondered about the other Dickinson hunters now converging on Paris. I thought that anyone who claimed to understand her poems was kidding themselves. Scholars read her through the rearview mirror. She was beyond the -ists. You could cubbyhole her as feminist, atheist, or humanist, but when anyone tried to squeeze her resistance to domination, her distrust of religion, or her friendship with death into their little boxes, they were simply defining their own limits, not hers. The -ists were the blindfolded not-so-wisemen feeling a transcendental elephant. None of them touched the whole animal.

Emily Analysis was always more about the analyzer than the analyzed. She made a lousy poster child for pet causes. To claim any aspect as the aspect was to miss the point. She was just too peculiar for anyone to repurpose for their own ends. Yet academics were still trying to hitch their lesser wagons to her greater horses. That’s what I thought. I was mistaken, but I’m getting ahead of myself. In fact, studying her minions had led me farther down the trail than I’d realized. 

Fans spend their lives decoding Dickinson’s riddles, yet the woman still hides in the puzzle. We all read her differently. I not only disagreed with others’ assessments, but I began to disagree with my own. The best Zen koans had nothing on Emily. Her one hand reached from the grave to slap me upside the head.

That master of overstatement, Harold Bloom, wrote, 

There are great poets one can read when one is exhausted or even distraught. Wordsworth and Whitman are certainly among them. Dickinson demands so active a participation on the reader’s part that one’s mind had better be at its rare best. The various times I have taught her poems have left me with fierce headaches, since the difficulties force me past my limits.

I suspected this was because Bloom brought something different to the poems than was actually there. His need to find specific meanings in unspecific words led him, like so many others, to overreach. But then, he sees more in everything than I do. At first, I had been content to marvel at Dickinson’s verbal mirages, leaving them as I thought she intended––unanchored––but I soon realized, reluctantly, that Bloom had a point. I needed to peer beneath Emily’s poetical skirt if I was to decode her ciphers and answer my question.

I began to parse her verses for specific intent. It was frustrating. My goal-oriented reading proved to be spectacularly unproductive. I was forced to assign symbols where none were apparent. It didn’t seem too risky, for few people were knowledgeable enough to point out my errors, but I soon realized that my hard-earned interpretations reflected only my own biases. They contained no insights into Emily’s genius. I had stubbed my toe on the same rock so many had tripped on before me. Or so I thought. I came to believe that creatively interpreting Dickinson was a fool’s conceit simply because my attempts had fallen short. I tore up my notes. 

I wished I could just go back to enjoying the visions, but this no longer satisfied me. I felt like I was overlooking some obvious clue. I was in trouble. I needed a different approach. Maybe I could gain some insight by researching her literary roots and forms. Perhaps I would discover how the poetical sausage was made if I studied her in place and time. Others had already tried.

One of her biographers called her “Emily-the-Lark––the ultimate female.”

Split the Lark – and you’ll find the Music –

The thought horrified me. I began to tread more carefully, scared of clod-footedly stomping her magic into mud. This was the reason I was going to Paris. I was too far gone to quit now, yet I needed help, and Emily herself was an untrustworthy guide. She was perversely covering her tracks while leaving enigmas for me to stumble over. My question was becoming an obsession: Where-the-hell was she leading me? After all my study, I had a better sense of what she was, but had no clue as to where she was.

Perhaps the Dickinsonians could help me find her. 

While the plane descended, I nursed my insecurities. The thing is, you don’t read Emily, you converse with her. I scribbled all over her margins, answering her taunts by covering her pages with retorts in different colored inks. Then I read,

I cannot live with You –
It would be Life –
And Life is over there

Over where? Paris? Then . . .

So We must meet apart –
You there – I – here –
With just the Door ajar

What kind of tease was this? Emily was luring me in while shooing me out. Most of her readers think she’s talking to them, but I now knew she was sprinkling her riddles on the page deliberately to coax me to Paris. In retrospect, this was probably not the healthiest way to read her, but I am pretty sure I’m not the first man she’s driven crazy.

I deplaned and took the Métro into the city. Surprisingly, the Parisian commuters were not as excited as I was to be on Emily’s trail. I searched their faces. No clues yet.

“Experimental Dickinson,” was being held at Cité International Universitaire, on a campus bordering the treelined avenues of Porte d’Orléans. The attendees were an egghead grab-bag––musicians and gardeners, painters and actors, academics and other grownups from Albania, Japan, China, Brazil, Canada, France, and the United States. I was surprised at my naïveté. I had never realized that the world would love my poetess as much as I did. I had competition and it made me jealous. Emily was messing with me already.

I soon learned that everyone there was glossing Dickinson’s genius, drawing on her art to spark their own. Of course! Why else show up? And, it turned out, their work was really good––another Emily induced horizon-widener. We were all just scribblers in her margins.

The scholastic heavy-hitters were all there, but also freelancers, composers, grad-students, dilettantes, and a couple of nut jobs were presenting their projects. During the panel discussions I was exposed to aspects of Emily’s life I had never considered before––including one odd-but-unsubstantiated allegation that her poems were the result of cannabis, mushroom, and laudanum use. (What an image! ––Emily Dickinson toking on a joint, then passing it to Peter Fonda!) There were art exhibitions, readings, concerts, and creativity workshops, all conducted by eccentric Lark lovers. (One senior scholar sat in the rear, crocheting while nudging wayward presenters back to the mainstream when they were lost in the eddies.)

I was beginning to realize the reason we differ so widely in our understanding of Dickinson’s work is because she leaves so much out of it. Each of us must bring something of ourselves into her verses in order to make the connections. If we draw on our experiences to bridge her gaps, the fusions produced will take us down our own peculiar rabbit holes, each of us popping back to the surface in a different place. 

Now, having seen artists and scholars use Emily’s breadcrumbs to guide their diggings, I realized not only that their rabbit holes brought new meanings to light, but that their deep tunnels were much richer than my little ditch. I already knew I couldn’t trust my own interpretations, so if I wanted to unravel Emily’s knotted fascicles, I would have to allow others to shine their torches into my rabbit hole as well. It was shocking. My conceits were,

Unnecessary – now to me –
As boots – would be – to Birds –

I was disappointed in myself.

I was disappointed in Paris as well. I had come here to be tested, but the city was clean and beautiful, there were no football riots, general strikes, or overflowing rivers. Plus, the French were really very friendly. Where’s the challenge in that? I would have to revise these presumptions too.

And there was an even bigger disappointment. As I looked around the crowd of Dickinsonians, I realized that their muse would be far too shy to appear before such a boisterous group.

Emily was a no-show. 

Then why had she lured me here? One speaker suggested that her ghost was among us, but I didn’t buy it. I wanted to touch the living woman and I wouldn’t give up until she answered my question. I wandered the quiet halls, away from the horde, searching for the Emily who might be just beyond sight, laughing at the chatter and humming to the songs. She would secret herself behind the Door, as when Emerson came to visit in Amherst. I looked everywhere, but without a glimpse. She retreated before me, up the stairs and out of sight.

I was heartbroken. I had learned so much. I had been forced to overcome several of my most-cherished prejudices. The Dickinsonians had kicked me out of my provincial nest––Thump!––but unlike Emily, I could not love in isolation. Now I had no choice but to approach the Lark Lovers, hat-in-hand, to ask for help––or quit. I had no clue what to do, but I knew I’d blown my chance to caress the woman I loved. I had come this far, only to lose my way.

The Poet – it is He –
Entitles Us – by Contrast –
To ceaseless Poverty –

I escaped from the building, wandering the university lawns through randomly scattered flocks of guitar-playing adolescents, too young to understand the middle-aged melancholy of a fool at the end of a fool’s venture. Their contented innocence just made me feel worse, so in the end I retreated back to the conference, exhausted.

I had hit the poetical bottom. There was no point in staying now, but I discovered I had one last humiliation to endure before being banished. I was heading for the Door when suddenly, across the room I saw a small woman dressed in white, unseen behind the crowd. Her brown hair was in a bun and she carried a hand fan. My heart leapt. She looked directly at me, so I ran to her, shouting, “Emily, you came!” She only smiled, replying in a British accent that she was a soprano––very much alive and about to perform a Dickinson song setting. The people around us laughed.

I staggered from a mortal blow. I’d been stabbed in the heart by a dead chick. I had crossed the Atlantic to ask a question, only to wind up humiliating myself before the very people who could have answered it. I fled the conference. 

What lesson was I supposed to learn from this?

I strode the Paris streets for an unsettled hour, then came to rest in a sidewalk café. I needed to guzzle French coffee and inhale French cigarette smoke. 

My Totally-Cute-and-Way-Too-Young waitress saw my expression and asked if I was okay.

“I’ve been stood up by a lady,” I replied, admiring her adorable accent.

“Maybe she was here,” Totally-Cute-and-Way-Too-Young said, smiling. “Maybe you just didn’t see her.”

Then suddenly I did. 

Emily Dickinson was standing before my table on a Parisian sidewalk while the world strolled obliviously by. She was short. Her eyes shined with amusement and her smile hinted of a secret.

“Emily,” I asked, “why did you call me here?”

She did not speak, yet she stared at me with the eyes in the photo. She was so much more than I. Yet while I was still inadequate, I was no longer without hope, for I finally understood why she had lured me here. Emily-the-Lark had not called me to Paris to find her. The Bird had brought me here to find myself. She was not leading me in her direction. She was pointing me in my own.  

“Hope” is the thing with feathers –
That perches in the soul –

She leaned over and kissed me on the lips. (Don’t believe me? Well, you weren’t there!) Then she vanished, taking my question with her but leaving me a gift. I no longer needed to pursue, for I now realized––her words had led me to my words––her visions had guided me through the Forest of the Dead, not to the end, but to a beginning. She was still throwing stones, her one hand bitch-slapping me to wake up and look around. She was showing me that my whole universe was smaller than a single thimble in hers. I needed to get over myself. I needed to get out into the world, for it was here, on a Paris street corner, for instance, where I might learn to leave my longings behind.

Totally-Cute-and-Way-Too-Young brought my café creme. I happily breathed in side-stream smoke while admiring her receding derrière. In this last contented moment, I unfolded Emily’s gift, for just before she disappeared, she had winked one of those eyes at me, then had slipped her address, scribbled on the back of an old envelope, into my shirt pocket.

And so – upon this wise – I prayed –
Great Spirit – Give to me
A Heaven not so large as Yours,
But large enough – for me –