In a bit of state of poetry: searching for tranquility within the poet’s homestead – Leisure & Life – providencejournal.com
I need a break today. I go to the Emily Dickinson Museum in Amherst, Massachusetts to stand in her bedroom, step back in time a little, and try to connect when I feel so disjointed.
I met Sarah Satterlee last spring when she attended my Poets Witness History workshop with the Frequency Providence writing community. Sarah excelled during these weeks for producing poetry that revealed a nervous wisdom contained in the free lines that reminded me of the work of Emily Dickinson. It seems fitting that Sarah should revisit Dickinson’s house in this play, as Emily visited her too.
Poet Prize Winner from Rhode Island
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I wake up and take a few breaths before checking the news. It has become a ritual. And there it is; Hurricanes, forest fires, mass shootings, the threat of nuclear war, #metoo stories of women being attacked by sexual predators, and it’s almost the anniversary of an election that plunged many of us into a void of anger and despair. It’s too much, my head can’t contain it, it doesn’t make any sense. I remember this poem by Emily Dickinson:
“I felt a split in my head –
As if my brain was split –
I tried to bring it together – Seam by Seam –
But couldn’t make her fit.
With the thought behind it, I tried to go along with it
To the thought before –
But Sequence was torn from the sound
Like balls – on a floor.
It hits me somewhere, like a good poem should, that furious attempt to piece thoughts together, the symbolism of the mind is sewn, though the thoughts fall like balls of yarn on a floor. Just trying to grapple with the recent national catastrophe reminds me of the image of a head that just dissolves. Whether the brain split in this poem is caused by internal or external forces is controversial. For me, however, it’s Scott Pruitt who runs the EPA and the way Trump talks about women, the heated arguments over Thanksgiving, and my 8-year-old daughter who asks me what a “Russian dossier” is. Brain. Splits.
So I need a break today. I go to the Emily Dickinson Museum in Amherst, Massachusetts to stand in her bedroom, step back in time a little, and try to connect when I feel so disjointed. I take my daughter to school and kiss her, apologizing to my dog for leaving her behind, and before I know it I’m flying west on the Mass Pike at 10am on a Wednesday morning. It is a perfect autumn day, the leaves swirl past in a blur of orange and red, the sky blue and cloudless, the air unusually warm. I’m in a hurry. I have to make it back by the pick up time, I have to make dinner, take the dog for a walk. Life will be waiting for me
On the way I think of Adrienne Rich. In her 1978 essay “Vesuvius at Home” a visit to the house of Emily Dickinson was described. In a way, I visit them too. I am thinking of a pilgrimage; why we long to touch the places of tragedy, birthplaces, what this can do for our soul.
It’s kind of a hobby of mine. For me they are places where writers and poets have lived and worked. I stood at Thoreau’s cabin location, walked around Walden Pond, spent a day on the beach with my daughter, slowly dipping my head under the water as if I was being baptized. Spent an afternoon at the Alcott house near Christmas time. Staring at Frost’s writing chair in the New Hampshire White Mountains. Roamed Smith College, where Sylvia Plath studied and wrote. Touched the flowers in Edith Wharton’s garden in Lenox, Massachusetts. Emily’s house has always been my favorite.
I pay for my ticket and wait in the gift shop, listening to the guide, talking about Emily’s poetry and her family and upbringing before being shown upstairs. Once there, my eyes crawl up the walls, patterned in red flowers. A replica of her white dress stands filled and poses on a headless mannequin as if Emily were invisible underneath. Your desk is incredibly small; How could such a small piece of furniture support the weight of all of your work? How could it be that I felt burial in my brain without collapsing? There are more questions than answers here. I breathe in and try to feel something. I listen to Emily. I listen to Adrienne Rich. I listen for poems, for solutions, maybe if I am still enough I feel a ghost in a gust of wind. I try to imagine her writing here, her thousands of letters and her brilliant poems when the civil war raged only a few hundred miles away. Whatever mental illness she had that caused her to withdraw, so shrouded in mythology that it is difficult to separate truth and fiction, she has broken through enough to write some of the best poetry the world has ever seen has known.
I’m starting to think that withdrawn behavior sounds like a fabulous idea. However, before I can search for “desks, small” and “white nightgowns” in my Amazon app, I have a message alert on my phone and a voicemail from the orthodontist. I think of my dog asking for me at the window. The world goes on.
Before I return to Rhode Island, I stop at the cemetery where she is buried, not far from her homestead. Her tombstone is covered with stones and small gifts from readers of her work, from her admirers. I thank her and then go back home.
– Sarah Satterlee is a poet, writer and nurse. She received a Merit Award from the Rhode Island State Council on the Arts and is a student of the Masters of Fine Arts program at Warren Wilson College.