Friday, December 10, 2010

Bleak, cold and gray this morning, one hundred miles west of Amherst, but on the The Secret Life of Emily Dickinson facebook page - radiant emanations - in honor of Emily Dickinson, born 180 years ago today. The wonderful creator, Lenore, has asked the 3,000 strong members of her page to change their avatars to an image of Emily for the occasion - just imagine!, she wrote, invoking John Lennon, if everyone's Emily for a day - and when I mentioned this to D yesterday, he made a quip about an "army of Emilies," or "Emily's Army." But a pacific army - and a talented one. One member created a ravishing vintage Victorian birthday card replete with Emily's daguerrotype image surrounded by roses, doves, and hands offering posies; members have been posting their favorite Dickinson poems; and several have posted original verses of their own for the occasion, I've read at least two wonderful ones so far, one by Yuriy, another by Roelof. Best birthday bash ever - and everyone's invited - imagine!
There is a legend (as Sewall observes, "it is probably little more than that but may contain a grain of truth") ... A painter and paper hanger in Amherst [named Lafayette Stebbings] says that at the time [her second baby was expected, Mrs. Edward Dickinson] wanted to have her bedroom painted but the Hon. Edward Dickinson would not allow her to have it done -- nevertheless she went secretly to the paper hanger and asked him to come and paper her bedroom. This he did, while [the baby] was being born." In truth, almost nobody cares whether a bedroom was being redecorated during Emily Dickinson's birth... Under these circumstances a baby entered the world on December 10, 1830, the second child of the Edward Dickinsons. A girl -- Emily Elizabeth Dickinson.
Cynthia Griffin Wolff, Emily Dickinson
The above paragraph is ambiguous, it seems to me. Whose bedroom did baby Emily's mother wish painted or papered? Surely not the mother's, while she was giving birth. So perhaps it was the baby's room. I can only take off imaginally from this scant fragment...

Online, I check the Mid-Hudson Valley library system's catalog. Jay Leyda's two-volume work, The Years and Hours of Emily Dickinson, from which (according to a footnote) Wolff takes this anecdote, is "checked in" at the Woodstock branch, miles away across the river. I call the library, explain my question, mention that today's Emily's birthday ("Oh!" I hear on the other end), and the librarian kindly & gamely goes to the stacks, retrieves the book, and looks up the passage on Leyda's page 16. But the passage doesn't clear up the ambiguity.

It was my precarious luck that the paper hanger arrived with his ladder and materials a few hours before Mother was delivered of me. And I woke with a shout to the bright yellow weave of tulips on Mother's wall. - Jerome Charyn, The Secret Life of Emily Dickinson, p. 49
Message, late this afternoon, from Belle to Lenore
Dear Lenore, I have been thinking of you all day long, and checking your page frequently - so, so wonderful! I have been trying to work up a post on the subject - "words come halting forth," as yet. I am intrigued by the notion of Emily's mother having her room wallpapered, as it happened, on the very day of Emily's birth. Biographer Cynthia Griffin Wolff writes, "In truth, almost nobody cares whether a bedroom was being redecorated during Emily Dickinson's birth." Oh, I don't know - I'm pretty intrigued! And I see that Jerome picked up on that detail too, in Secret Life - writing, "And I woke with a shout to the bright yellow weave of tulips on Mother's wall." (Beautiful line - is there one in Secret Life that isn't - no, of course not, just as in, say, Chopin, there isn't a single imperfect phrase to be found.) I am wondering about the yellow tulips though - because in my mind's eye I'm picturing roses, since Emily Norcross Dickinson loved them so... anyway. Let me get going on it again, and see if I can get someplace with it...
By this hour I realize that wondering whose bedroom it was - mama's, or baby's - has been a red herring all along. Reading a few more pages of Wolff I realize that Emily Norcross Dickinson shared a room with her infant daughter. Mrs. Dickinson wrote to her husband, Edward, who was visiting Boston when the baby was about six months old:
I have retired to my chamber for a little space to converse with you, with my little companion [the baby Emily] on the bed asleep...
My dearest, I have retired to my aerie for a little space to converse with you. I don't have a big finish to this post. I wish I did. I feel fair to bursting with a radiant poetic emanation, if I had one in me. I think of my friend in Minnesota, Amelia, when I think of a spirited woman with a much-desired and cherished baby by her side. I think of Mrs. Dickinson well aware, whatever her age, of cold, bleak, gray New England winters, and how starved for travel - physical, or in her own mind - she was. And she wanted something more for baby Emily, born on a cold winter day - who knows if it was sunny, or gray, or with peeks of sun? Mrs. Dickinson arranged for floral wallpaper - a garden in the room - that would sustain her, and that baby Emily when she opened her eyes and looked, no matter the time of year, no matter what prone helpless solitary position in a cradle, might open her eyes and glimpse - Paradise on the wall, glimpses of meadow, scenes that might stereoscopically merge even, clambering roses and trellises, vines and butterflies, gently repeating (not crazy making, as in Gilman) glimpses of a summer garden to come, or if high summer, an Eden within one's walls. Mrs. Dickinson gave baby Emily the gift of art, with fierce strength and urgency - it simply must be now, it is what I wish above all else for my infant daughter, named after myself, whom I don't even know, but, oh stranger, here is my wish for you, what I didn't have, but for you, always, ever, a garden --

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