Prior to a recent restoration, the Emily Dickinson Homestead in Amherst, Massachusetts had an “unfortunate 1970s vibe.”
The Boston Globe
I was in the lounge at the Emily Dickinson Homestead, waiting for the Belle of Amherst to come downstairs, and frankly I was getting bored. I’d been playing Pong for three days straight, and while I was getting good at it, my wrists were sore.
A docent passed by and, despite her seventies-style clothes–miniskirt and platform heels–she looked quite decent for a docent. I turned and called out to her. “Excuse me?”
“Yes?” she answered as she flipped her Farrah Fawcett feathered bangs to the side.
“Any idea when Emily will be coming downstairs?”
“And who may I say is here to see her?”
I riffled through the cards in my literary hand and played the only one that could possibly cut any ice with the reclusive poetessa. “Well, I’m a published poet.”
I thought I heard a sniff coming from the woman’s nostrils. It could have been because she was a cocaine fiend, as were so many artsy types in the seventies, but I sensed it wasn’t the glamour drug of the decade but her contempt for my meager–some would say non-existent–literary reputation that was the source of the sound.
“What publications have seen fit to print your work?”
“I got a poem published in The Christian Science Monitor.“
“Never heard of it.”
“You wouldn’t have. It wasn’t founded until two decades after Emily died.”
“Well, The Atlantic Monthly published a little humor piece of mine. Once.”
“That . . . might be of interest to her. Let me inquire.”
I had, like a clumsy dentist performing a root canal, struck a nerve. While Dickinson carried on a correspondence with Thomas Wentworth Higginson that lasted almost a quarter of a century, and at one point the two met, he contributed a number of articles, essays and poems–even a serialized novel–to The Atlantic. She, on the other hand, never got beyond The Springfield Republican, Drum Beat, and The Brooklyn Daily Union in her lifetime.
While the docent brought news of a visitor from the 20th and 21st centuries to the eccentric recluse who rarely came downstairs, I sauntered over to the jukebox. All the big hits from the Saturday Night Fever soundtrack were available. I put in a quarter, which in seventies pricing got you three songs, and punched the buttons for Stayin’ Alive, Disco Inferno, and Jive Talkin’. I was boogeying discreetly around the room when her penetrating gaze penetrated through my polyester disco shirt, causing me to turn and look to the top of the stairs.
There she stood, as she must have appeared to Higginson in 1870: I had anticipated that she’d wear a mini-shift or jumper dress, or perhaps a drop waist or tunic dress, but instead she wore a turquoise jumpsuit that made her look like the love child of Elvis Presley in his Vegas years and a Smurf. It was . . . exquisite.
“This one’s for you, Emily baby!”
“These are my introduction,” she said, handing me a brand-new Sony Walkman.
“What’s on it?”
“I made you a mixtape. It includes a few poems . . . and some bitchin’ cool songs I think you’ll like.”
“Oh wow,” I said as I scanned the handwritten playlist on the cassette. “I’ll Take You There by The Staple Singers . . . Let’s Stay Together by Al Green . . . and Best of My Love by The Emotions! Did you know I like that song so much . . . I downloaded it twice on iTunes?”
“What’s iTunes?” she asked.
“Sorry, I forgot that we’re stuck in the 70s.”
We sat and chatted easily in the front parlor of the homestead, then our talk turned–inevitably–to our shared interest.
“So . . . you’re a poet, too?” she asked timidly.
“Well, most editors and publishers don’t think so, but I’ve had a little success.”
“Are you going to make that stupid joke from Cracked magazine that you seem to like so much?”
“If you’re looking for someone who’s had a little success as a poet, I’ve had as little as anyone?”
“I could never pass up the opportunity. I wanted to ask you . . .”
“About your philosophy of poetry. You seem to want it 100 proof.”
“What does that mean?”
“Hard liquor–like whiskey.”
“Liquor has never touched my lips.”
“That’s a metaphor.“
“You’re on record as saying ‘If I read a book and it makes my body so cold no fire can ever warm me I know that is poetry.”
Thomas Wentworth Higginson
“Yes, I said that to dear Mr. Higginson.”
“And ‘If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry.'”
“I recall saying something to that effect, yes. Why do you ask?”
“Well, I wanted to try out some of my poetry on you, see if it meets your high standards.”
“Okay, hit me with your best shot,” she said, anticipating Pat Benatar.
“This is a little something I call poetry is kind of important.“
“Why didn’t you capitalize any of the letters?”
“That’s an innovation in poetry that will be introduced after you die. Anyway, here goes.” I cleared my throat and launched the ship of my most famous poem onto the stormy seas of her intellect:
poetry is kind of important,
a poem can be a big deal.
you can write one about your girlfriend,
and how she makes you feel.
The August air hung heavy in the room as the breeze through the window onto the porch died.
“That’s it?” she asked.
“That . . . in all its glory . . . is it.”
She closed her eyes for a second, then rose. “Miriam!” she called out to the docent.
“Yes?” replied the woman who had tried to keep our two poetic souls apart.
“Please show Mr. Chapman to the gift shop–I think we have a ‘Hope is the Thing With Feathers’ t-shirt in men’s double-extra large.”