Sunday, December 15, 2013

emily and the sea.

I was in 8th grade the Christmas my parents gave me a collection of Emily Dickinson's poems. Whoever wrapped the book taped the paper to the jacket, so I accidentally ripped the dust cover to shreds. For as long as I've had it, the book has only ever been a soft, gray spine on my shelf.

I don't think Emily would mind.

The rhyming-pattern of her poetry was probably the first thing about Emily's writing that appealed to me. I was in college when someone told me you could sing any of her poems to the tune of "The Yellow Rose of Texas." I think I've always been smitten with that sing-song rhythm, the way her stanzas see-saw back and forth. I like the compact elegance of her work. I like the mystery. And, of course, there's a sadness in the way she writes. I like that, a lot. I think you can feel the longing in her words, long before you ever picture her as The Belle of Amherst.

Pale in the moonlight creeping through her window,
ghostly in the flutter of a white dress.

The Christmas I received the gray book, I read Emily's poems all together, all at once, as if I was reading a novel. I pressed lots of lines against my heart. "Hope is a thing with feathers..." is a line I still quote a bunch. "I dwell in possibility..." is another.

"This is my letter to the world
That never wrote to me."

And I quickly memorized what's still my favorite of all her works. If you were here, I'd recite it with a flourish (like Anne Shirley reciting "The Highwayman" ;). But that's probably not the best way to share it.

It's the kind of poem that should read as more of a whisper, I think. This is how it begins:

Glee the great storm is over! 

Four have recovered the land;

...Do you know that one?

It still makes my heart flutter. I like it because it's a full story in barely a page.
I like it because you can hear the ocean between every line.

Forty gone down together,
Into the boiling sand.

I've always imagined the scene Emily describes taking place in a seaside village. Care to indulge me for a moment? (The words in italics belong to Emily, of course.)


It's a dark and moonless winter night. A man pulls his jacket tighter across his chest. A woman tucks her hand into the crook of his arm as they trudge down the hill together. New fallen snow crackles under their boots; her long skirt goes damp at the hem. Soon neighbors walk alongside them, and the path is full of muffled conversation and flickering lantern-light. Children scamper on ahead, kicking paths through the darkness. Puffs of breath rise into the air. Snowflakes tumble to the ground.

They're all making their way toward the old house on the cliffs. It's strange how the orange light glowing from the windows calls to them on nights like this. How can light - pure, warm light - be louder than the restless sea crashing against the shore? The house is their refuge from the dark months, the place they go to dance away winter. To be close to one another. To remember.

When they walk through the door, the room is already filled with music, with laughter, with swirling skirts and the smells of the fruit pies baking in the kitchen. Boots scuff a familiar rhythm across the old, beamed floors. A fire snaps happily in the hearth.

From the corner of the room, an elderly lady in a long black dress sits, and watches, with barely a smile gracing her face.

"It's her eyes," whispers a curious little girl to her friend. "They're so ... strange, aren't they? Her eyes are as dark as the sea when its angry."

The old woman's hair is still thick, a long shimmer of silver and white. Her skin is pale and creased, brittle as a faded flower petal. But her wrinkles can't hide what a beauty she once was.

Eventually, the music dies away. Folks settle in, and the stories begin.

The last story of the night belongs to her, always. 

She spins a tale that's ... how old, now? Fifty years? Sixty, even?

Grief is a dark magic, she realizes. Grief never ages.

"Glee the great storm is over," she rasps. Her eyes are distant, fixed on a point no one else could possibly understand, much less remember.

"They say she's a witch," the little girl whispers to her friend. "She has to be. Look at them all! Look at the way they all lean in to the sound of her voice..."

The girl is too young to know, of course: some people cast spells with their stories. The old woman has always been this way, even before sorrow stole her smile away. She believed in fairy tales once-upon-a-time. The only stories she tells now are dark and sad, but bewitching just the same.

Tonight, she spins the tale of the great shipwreck, and the few who survived it.

"Four have recovered the land. 
Forty gone down together into the boiling sand ..."

And we stood helpless on the shore, she tells them. We could only watch as the ship was tossed on the waves. We saw it plainly; when their screams were swallowed up in the jaws of the wind. They called them miracles ... the four who survived.

"But what about the forty?" asks the little girl. "Did they come back no more?"

The old woman shakes her head, but says nothing else. Her red lips tremble as she closes her mouth. Her gnarled hands flex into fists, gripping hopelessly at old memories.

She remembers -

The face of a man she loved?
The laugh of the friend she lost?
Dresses floating on the surface of the water?
Broken bodies washed up like shells on the sand?

Some people dream of riches hidden deep in the ocean - mermaids and sunken treasures and golden, glimmering worlds.

She has only ever dreamed of bones at the bottom of the sea.

Then a sadness suffuses the story. 
And a softness the teller's eye
And the children no further question.
And only the waves reply. 

Happy (late) Birthday, Emily Dickinson. Thank you for teaching me to love the rhythm of language.

Thank you for teaching me to listen to the sea.

Do you have a favorite poem? Or a favorite poet? I'd love to hear about yours in the comments. I'll leave mine there, too. 

* If you're up for a fun read, look up the poem Billy Collins wrote about Emily Dickinson (title redacted so I don't get heaps of spam). It's gorgeous. My favorite line is the last: "life is a loaded gun/that looks right at you with a yellow eye."


  1. This was *gorgeous.* I've never been a big poetry fan, but you make me wish that I were. :) I loved Shel Silverstein when I was a kid...I guess I still do because a few years ago in college when we had to read poems in different classes, I always picked one of his. {I think I read the one called Sick, about a little girl with lots of ailments until she discovers it's Saturday and she doesn't have to go to school, in public speaking class. Probably because the title described how public speaking makes me feel. :) }

    I used to know a few of e.e. cumming's poems, and last year I checked out a book of Emily Dickinson's poetry from the library and read most of it. I don't think it included the poem you talked about here, which is lovely.

    I love the musical sound of poetry. I love rhyming words...I love reading Dr. Seuss aloud to my little cousins. :) {It seems that my taste in poetry isn't very mature.} It's just that most poetry seems so vague to me. I guess I have a hard time connecting with things I don't understand! Maybe one day I'll find a favorite poet.

    1. Your taste in poetry is very mature! Shel Silverstein is brilliant. And I think Dr. Seuss is responsible for helping most people experience the magic of words for the very first time; he had a playful, whimsical, wonderful command of the English language. The Lorax is one of my favorite books. It's seriously brilliant.

      I love the poem you remember about public speaking. It's pretty fabulous when certain experiences connect that way. I haven't heard that one, but I'm positive I would have remembered it for exactly the same reason :)

  2. Some of my favorite poets are:
    Emily D. (of course)
    Pablo Neruda
    Sandra Cisneros
    Wendell Berry
    Mary Oliver ("I don't want to end up simply having visited the world...")
    Madeleine L'Engle
    Langston Hughes
    Ruth Bell Graham
    Bob Dylan

    And some of my favorite poems are:
    - Annabel Lee
    - Monet Refuses the Operation (by Liesl Mueller)
    - September 9th (Pablo Neruda)
    - Birches (Robert Frost)
    - Introduction to Poetry (Billy Collins)
    - Madeleine L'Engle wrote lots of poems I adore, but I have two favorites: one about David, and the other about a mermaid.
    - I don't know the name of the poem, but it's by Mary Oliver and it's the one where she writes that when it's all said and done, she wants to be remembered as "the bride married to amazement ... the bridegroom taking the world into his arms". Guh.
    - Psalm 139. And, there are several passages in Job that I think are gorgeous. Job's not the sort of Biblical example I first think of when I think poetry. But my word, there are so many passages in that particular book that are stunning.

  3. "Daffodils" by William Wordsworth is hands down my favorite poem, which says a lot because I am a poetry nut! I did Beth Moore's study on the Psalms of Ascent and in it she had us rewrite those Psalms ourselves, and wow, talk about unleashing some good stuff when you break those psalms down and mull over them. Love, love love. And yes, Psalm 139 and Job--slay me. Love that God is a poet!

  4. This was absolutely beautiful!
    I've really gotten into poetry this last year and i'm currently loving Emily Dickinson, Mary Oliver, Sylvia Plath, Clementine Von Radics, Kristina Hayes and Alex Sparks.
    I've also tried my hand at writing poetry and I find it really cathartic and its fun to get out of my writers box and try something new.

  5. Natalie -
    I just wanted to thank you for this lovely post. It was so pleasant to take a break from grading a mountain of final exams and be swept away to the sea - even if it was only in my mind! I have never read much of Emily Dickinson's work, outside of what was required reading in high school and college. Thanks to your post, I will be heading to the library and checking out their collection of her works very soon.

    Your description of the storm and the tempest made me think of words from Psalm 55, verses 5 through 8. I know it isn't exactly poetry in the way that Dickinson's work was, but it is poetry to me. I love to read it in the King James Version Bible - probably because that is the way I always heard my grandmother read and say it. My grandmother is in Heaven now, but I can still hear her voice in the Scriptures she taught me when I was a child.

    Thank you again for the lovely post! I look forward to reading your book!

    - Marie