Wednesday, September 1, 2010

This morning as I lay in bed and slowly opened my eyes, my gaze fell on long pale curtains that billowed in and out in a soft dawn breeze. In between groggy thoughts of you, wishing to fall asleep again, absently regarding the stirring folds, and recollecting what I could of dream fragments to note for later, my mind seized as ever on a conundrum, and I found myself thinking about my shifting and varying perceptions of the Dickinsonian dramatis personae.

I thought, how strange, so very many years since E.D. lived, and here I am thinking, with a sense of immediacy, of her and of Mabel. E.D. herself once perhaps lay in a bed as I do now and regarded lengths of curtains move. So many years ago, over 125 since her death in 1886. (2010 now - I pick up an unrelated piece from the vast jigsaw puzzle: the house in which I live, in whose bedroom I now lie, was built 1885. Happy Anniversary, House.) I think: will someone, 125 years from now, when I am long dead, lie under soft covers in a dim room, absently regarding the stir of curtains, ghostly as a long white dress, and wonder about E.D. and Mabel, or - who knows - perhaps about me and you?

My understanding of the characters is sketchy and incomplete, even after all my reading. This morning I woke wondering anew at how it was that Emily and Mabel never laid eyes on each other in the nearly four years of close orbit if not consummated acquaintance. I try to nail dates. On September 10, 1882 - a "Rubicon" of sorts, Austin brought Mabel to the Homestead for the first time to introduce her to his sisters. Emily's younger sister Vinnie shook Mabel's hand, and while Mabel played piano and sang, Emily stayed upstairs in her room, overhearing, certainly, strains of melody. (Listening perhaps? How thick are the walls? How deep was her concentration? Yes - she did listen, sending a glass of rich sherry and a poem in to Mabel when the music stopped.) The following day, September 11, Mabel and Austin each noted the word Rubicon in their respective journals, having on that date declared their love. They consummated their relationship, it seems, over a year later, on December 13, 1883, in the dining room of Emily's home. (Given such ardor - what restraint - imagine! Why the long delay - were they physically separated, was someone traveling? Must read more, fix the timeline, get the story down.)

For a while, in imagining them, I had tentatively surmised that E.D. avoided Mabel, deigned never to meet her perhaps out of some vague, possibly class-tinged antipathy (reserved E.D. versus a more modern, effusive Mabel), or because she wished simply to steer clear of the all kinds of built-in awkwardness of players in the midst of an adulterous relationship, a volatile mix of independent minds that E.D. might well have exhibited "emotional intelligence" to sidestep.

(Higginson, writing to his wife twenty years earlier, after having met E.D. for the first time, began his account with, "I shan't sit up tonight to write you all about E.D. dearest but if you had read Mrs. Stoddard's novels [I haven't, and don't have a handle on them] you could understand a house where each member runs his or her own selves. Yet I only saw her." So I imagine that the Dickinson siblings were accustomed to giving one another very wide berth - discreet, loving distance - when it came to tacitly according privacy and room to each for the most intimate, important relationships. (Something Susan Dickinson, Austin's wife, on the other hand, seems to have had no compunction betraying, as when she gossiped alludingly to Mabel about having glimpsed E.D. in Judge Lord's arms. On receiving that spiteful (or so it seems to me, because I don't have a handle on Susan) piece of information Mabel might well have sensed a not-unkindred spirit in E.D.)

(Also when I've thought of Emily and Mabel never meeting, I can't help but project my own ongoing circumstance of a next-door neighbor who for some reason that is lost on me, gives me the silent treatment - for years now. It's really very strange. True - she and I didn't have chemistry - I didn't get her forever-"on" antic humor, and she, I think, thought me dour. Once she was breastfeeding in our solarium and I inadvertently gasped when her baby (now a little girl selling us - no, D - eggs from their freeranging chickens) whipped her head away, suddenly exposing an entire breast and nipple - an incident dubbed by D as "the boob pop." Okay, so this rocker doesn't have a lot of experience in such matters. I'm sure that's not what caused the Silent Treatment - but a couple of years ago I enrolled in a memoir-writing course at the local community college, and because I didn't wish to write about (let alone "share") what was really on my mind, that is, my illicit, wanton, hapless, hopeless, adulterous love for you - I wrote a lengthy dourly humorous examination of the relations with Next Door. On this Earth one is required to protect the guilty, but I'll see if I can't find or work up sufficiently anonymous snippets to post.)

Anyway, a couple of days ago, reading Benfey's A Summer of Hummingbirds, I suddenly gained a different impression, that the two women were engaged in a sort of dance around each other, albeit at a remove, and in fact exchanged artistic offerings. Mabel (on at least one occasion) presented E.D. with a painting of flowers, to which she responded with a warm, even effusive note, along with a brilliant verse. Later,
When Mabel traveled to Europe during the summer of 1885, her paintings were stored on the walls and in the closets of the Homestead, where Emily Dickinson admired them. "I see Vin and Em more than I did," Austin wrote to Mabel in mid-June, "and you are the constant theme. Emily has had great pleasure in looking over your pictures." Emily herself wrote to Mabel in July, telling her, apropos of one of Mabel's paintings, that "Your Hollyhocks endow the House, making Art's inner Summer."
My impression of their relationship suddenly lurched, undergoing a tectonic shift. If the two, as it seems, danced around each other, why didn't they ever meet? I think of Proust, and how he adored flowers but was so severely allergic that he could allow himself to admire them only from behind glass. I wonder if, issues of her general reclusiveness aside, E.D. (who had after all, years earlier, fallen in love with Austin's wife, Susan) had the keen self-knowledge of her own fatal susceptibility to magnificent cattleyas and sumptuous magnolias, and perhaps sensed that man-magnet Mabel's intoxicating perfume might prove too intense for E.D. as well and so she removed herself as a prudent precaution against falling in love?

Will today embark on Polly Longsworth's 1983 study, Austin and Mabel: The Amherst Affair of and Love Letters of Austin Dickinson and Mabel Loomis Todd, in the hope that More Will Be Illuminated.

Here's a quote I read yesterday (via Bookslut) that resonates with me in this context - E.D. willing herself, in her lifetime, into an O-shaped loop, with (being human) mixed results, but a configuration which, posthumously, she certainly now has.
If you read up on strings, you will learn that there are two different types, closed and open-ended. The closed strings are O-shaped loops that float about like angels, insouciant of spacetime's demands and playing no part in our reality. It is the open-ended strings, the forlorn, incomplete U-shaped strings, whose desperate ends cling to the sticky stuff of the universe; it is they that become reality's building blocks, its particles, its exchangers of energy, the teeming producers of all that complication. Our universe, one could almost say, is actually built out of loneliness; and that foundational loneliness persists upwards to haunt every one of its residents.
-Paul Murray, Skippy Dies

Darling - I'm losing it, for the moment (dailiness, corporaliness & all that). Must run. So much love and very many kisses. Love you.

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