I Meet A Nobody
by Glen Draeger
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Fezzik and I arrived in Amherst, Massachusetts in 1885 to visit Emily Dickinson. Considered by some to be America's greatest poet I wanted to talk to her at the end of her career. This is always dangerous, though, because famous people are often difficult to interview and I didn't want another episode like the one I had with Jonathan Swift. Kidnapping was out of the question. The other problem was that I had no way of knowing whether or not she was off on some speaking engagement or entertaining other famous writers, but you can't exactly call ahead when you're time traveling.
We arrived at the two story house at noon. It was built by her grandfather and, fortunately, there she was in the front yard picking some flowers. She wore a white dress.
"Miss Dickinson," I said. "I wonder if I might have a few words with you?"
She looked up for moment. "No," she said quietly, but not without confidence and strength. "I don't know who you are and I'm nobody," she said with a wry smile. I was on the outside of the fence and so was Fezzik, but he clearly wanted to get in to see her. He bounced up and down like he was on a pogo stick. "Good day," she said curtly, then turned and glided off like a ghost toward her house.
"Miss Dickinson, please!" I cried. "I've come a long ways." She spoke not a word, but continued toward the door. I ran up the steps to the gate, but before I could get it open she had disappeared through the front door. As I opened the gate a different woman walked out the front door and met me on the lawn. Fezzik, his tail wagging like a metronome set at its highest speed, had already begun marking his territory on the edges of the yard.
"Hello," I said.
"May I help you?" she asked.
"I'd like to talk with Miss Dickinson."
"I am Miss Dickinson, Lavinia Dickinson."
"I wanted to talk with Emily."
"She doesn't even talk with many of her own friends these days. What makes you think she will talk to you?"
"I know she's famous—"
"Well," I said, "she's a great poet."
"A great poet? Why she's not even had ten poems published. Nobody knows who she is except her family and the people she writes."
"Look, I just want a few minutes with her." After I said this I looked up and Emily was standing at her open window.
She held a key in her fingers, one of those old skeleton keys, and as she turned her wrist to lock an imaginary door she said, "'It's just a turn—and freedom,' Lavinia!" Then she shut the window.
"What did she mean?" I asked.
"She means that in her room, after she locks the door, she is free from the expectations of her family, of society and of culture. She also means that her mind is free to escape to other realms by means of books, thoughts and her own poetry. I think she also means that she in now free from you."
The window opened again and Emily spoke almost as if she were a bird sitting in a tree announcing to the world unabashedly her greedy intentions to sing any song she liked. "'The way I read a letter's this: /'T is first I lock the door,/ and push it with my fingers next,/ For transport it be sure./And then I go the furthest off/To counteract a knock/then draw my little letter forth/And softly pick its lock.' Good day." With that she shut the window again.
Then from behind me there was another voice, a deeper one. "May I help you, sir?"
"Austin," the woman said, "he says he wants to talk with Emily.
"Who are you?" I asked.
"I'm her brother. Emily won't see you. She prefers her privacy. Now, if you don't mind we'd like you to leave."
"Will she write me? Can I leave you my address?"
He glanced at his sister. "What did you want to know?"
"I want to know about her life, the events of her life."
"She was born in 1830," he began, then to my surprise the door opened and out came Emily.
"I'll talk to him," she said.
"Are you sure?" Lavinia inquired.
We sat down in the grass and she stared at me for a moment. "You're not from around here are you?"
"No," I said.
"I mean," she said, "you are not from here—from this time, are you?"
"How did you know?"
"Oh, I know lots of things. You can learn a lot if you sit and think and listen. 'There's no Frigate like a Book/To take us Lands away.'"
"Do you know that you will become famous after your death?"
"I've thought about such things and believed them. I have written poems about fame. I once wrote to a man, Higginson was his name, about my poetry: 'If fame belonged to me, I could not escape her—if she did not, the longest day would pass me on the chase—and the approbation of my Dog, would forsake me—then. My Barefoot-Rank is better.' He was a man who did not recognize, nor could he recognize, the quality of my poetry."
"You never married. Why?" I asked.
"I had loves. I had one great love: Judge Otis Phillips Lord. But it seems to me that great love remains if it is never allowed to be consummated. I once wrote to him: 'Dont[sic] you know you are happiest while I withhold and not confer—dont[sic] you know that No is the wildest word we consign to Language?' Later in the same letter I wrote, 'but you ask the Divine crust and that would doom the Bread.' I never married him though he wanted me to. I loved him—I think, at times, I wanted to marry him, but it was better this way. He died in 1884."
"I'm sorry," I said.
"No need to be. Passion in a relationship demands separation—it is a necessity. 'The daily own of Love/Depreciates the vision.'"
"Do you have many friends?"
"My best friends, besides my family—my sister lives with me and my brother lives over there—" She pointed to a house not far away, "are the people I've written to through the years. I think I almost like a written friendship better than a face-to-face one. One could also say that those frigates I talked about earlier are my friends."
"Who are your favorites?"
"I once wrote in a letter to Joseph Lyman about returning to my books, 'Going home I flew to the shelves and devoured the luscious passages. I thought I should tear the leaves out as I turned them. Then I settled down to a willingness for all the rest to go but William Shakespear[sic]. Why need we Joseph read anything else but him.[sic]'"
"What about religion and God?"
"Sometimes I feel as if I believe and sometimes I don't. I refuse to attend church or worship in any of the traditional ways, but I do have my own ways. 'Some keep the Sabbath going to Church—/I keep it, staying at Home—/With a Bobolink for Chorister—/And an Orchard, for a Dome—'"
"You're quoting your own poem. So is that the best way to get to know you? There is a lot of mystery about what kind of person you were."
"'When I state myself, as the Representative of the Verse—it does not mean—me—but a supposed person.' I write as many people—who's to say which one is truly me?"
"You?" I ventured as if guessing.
She laughed. "That wouldn't give your critics anything to do, now would it?"
"So what is poetry? How do you know something is poetry?"
"'If I read book and it makes my whole body so cold no fire can ever warm me, I know that is poetry. If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry. These are the only ways I know it. Is there any other?'"
I didn't know what to say. "I—guess not," I said.
She looked at me for a moment. "Do you know," she asked, "what Nature is?"
"I think so," I said.
"And what about art?"
"Yes, I think so," I said, feeling somewhat intimidated by this point and not willing to venture an answer for fear that I would be wrong.
"'Nature is a Haunted House—but Art— a House that tries to be Haunted.'"
"I don't understand," I said hesitantly.
"You will—you will."
"Thank you," I said. "Thank you for talking to me. You are . . ."
"'I'm Nobody! Who are You?/Are you—Nobody— Too?'"
I nodded in agreement.
"'Then there's a pair of us?'" She said this playfully.
I nodded again.
"'Don't tell! they'd advertise—you know!'" She laughed heartily.
"Yes, I know," I said. "I know."
With that she smiled demurely, raised herself from the lawn and curtsied almost as if she were a little girl.
"You will be famous one day," I blurted out.
"'My holiday shall be/That they remember me;/My paradise, the fame/That they pronounce my name.'"
With those words she left.
Soon after Dickinson's death her sister found a box which contained her poems in 60 packets neatly tied together with twine. The first book of her poetry appeared in 1890 and the total number of poems now published is 1,775. Emily Dickinson lived in the same house her entire life. She died in 1886. She was 55.
note: Quotes within quotes are the actual words of Emily Dickinson.
Bartlett's Familiar Quotations, 16th Edition, John Bartlett, Justin Kaplan, General Editor, Little, Brown and Company, New York, 1992.
Dickinson, Emily, The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson, Edited by Thomas H. Johnson, Little Brown and Company, Boston, 1960.
The New Encyclopaedia Britannica, Encyclopaedia Britannica, Inc., Chicago, Ill., 1988, 15th edition, Vol. 4, pp. 75-76.
Selected Poems of Emily Dickinson, with preface and afterword by Debra Fried, A Tor Book, published by Tom Doherty Associates, Inc., 1993.
Wolff, Cynthia Griffin, Emily Dickinson, Alfred Knopf, New York, 1987.
©2005-2013 Glen Draeger (all rights reserved)
Millstone Education: World Literature / http://www.millstoneeducation.com/worldLit