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."