I've been reading more of the E.D. biography and came upon a tidbit from Mabel Loomis Todd's voluminous writings, that offers a glimpse of the sound of Emily's voice that I found at once vivid and mystifying. Mabel and Austin Dickinson (Emily's older brother, a kindred spirit to her, with whom she was very close) had a thirteen-year affair, lasting until the end of Austin's life. Austin was married to Susan Gilbert ("Sue"), and it seems that the marriage was unhappy, disastrous even, from the outset. But this is all backstory to get at the little 'sideways' detail that captured my imagination. Mabel writes,
The story of [Austin's] disenchantment with Sue was told me, first by indifferent persons in town, and then more in detail by Lavinia [Emily & Austin's sister] with a few comments by Emily in her curiously interrogative voice from the next room.I have long been fascinated by the fact that Mabel and Emily, extraordinarily, never met in person, although Mabel was a frequent visitor to "The Homestead." Emily was very much aware of Mabel - on Mabel's first visit to the house, during which Mabel sat at the piano and played, E.D. listened from her upstairs room, and caused to be sent down a glass of sherry. (Who delivered the libation, I wonder? Was it Maggie the housekeeper? And in what manner did E.D. order up the drink - did she pull a cord that caused a little bell to jingle in a kitchen? As you can see, of this 5,000-piece puzzle, I am still missing many pieces!)
Mabel and Emily on occasion exchanged little gifts - Mabel gave her a painting she had done of 'Indian pipes,' a native perennial, to which E.D. responded with a poem. Always this little dance around each other -- but from the details I had managed to absorb, I had imagined the dance, while eloquent, to be mute, silent. I knew that E.D. had heard Mabel's voice - as I recall, Mabel had been singing that first afternoon at the piano - but it never occurred to me that Mabel might ever have heard E.D.'s voice. In fact, I had assumed that she never had. And so now this doubly interesting turn of events - Mabel not only heard E.D. speak, on at least one occasion - and of such a critical, sensitive matter as Austin's marriage - but that E.D. (from behind a door) had a "curiously interrogative voice." I've been trying to imagine that voice, lightly, haphazardly, over the last hour, and couldn't quite grasp it. At first, vacuous 'Valley-Girl Speak' came to mind, where a succession of generally banal, uncontroversial utterances are each capped with a pointless rhetorical question mark - no, surely not that. Then I thought of Ophelia, in Hamlet, with her halfmad cryptic utterances - E.D. could be Ophelia-esque (or delphic at any rate), but not I think, on this occasion when Mabel heard her speak. Mabel wasn't listening to a tragically deranged victim that was Ophelia.
Curiously interrogative voice. The closest credible semblance I can think of now is Meryl Streep's speaking voice when I've heard her interviewed, say on Charlie Rose. I have been riveted whenever I've heard her in a sufficiently expansive setting that gives her the space to express her thoughts. Aside from her vast catalogue of wonderful performances, as a person when I've heard her she has struck me as a seer - she seems keenly, astutely, lightly, quixotically attuned to higher resonances that she hears well and that many of the rest of us can't fathom. I think of her voice now, so mellifluous, and yet - yes, with an at times 'curiously interrogative' quality, as if she's translating what she senses into words, with a trace of uncertainty as to, not so much - is she putting it right (yes she is) as - will we get it? Will what she's trying to say come across? And yet she speaks clearly, articulately, fully - her thoughts rounded & complete, not uncertain at all - it's only in - but how will they be received? So much room for misinterpretation with the spoken word, some of it accidental and innocent enough, but how tedious to have to try to further explain one's self, if need be. I can relate to E.D.'s giving up ever trying to, when miscommunication - especially when words are willfully misinterpreted - or maybe worse - when there's no hope whatsoever of ever crossing the divide and being able to make a person understand - is all too easy.
My darling, that is why, as I struggle with words, I would much rather say it with kisses, elaborated like music, gentle thought floated here, continued by inspired improvisation there, lingered at, furthered, returning to the source for guidance, clarification, venturing out again, responding, quickening, amplified, revisited, sweet returns, cherishing, revealing
many kisses my love