Sunday, August 7, 2011

Vesuvius at Home

This, faithful reader, is the narrative of how it came to be that I—a humble, dormant poet from Ithaca, NY—crossed the threshold of the Homestead and entered the society of Emily Dickinson.

Even now, there is a sort of awe still stirring in me—a latent thrill—of having strolled through her yard, having brushed past what once were her flower breads, and having climbed the same narrow curve of the staircase up to her bed chamber.

To tell this tale properly, I must take you back nearly a decade to when I first read Emily Dickinson’s poetry.  My older sister Genny had read “I heard a Fly buzz” in school, thought it was odd and recommended it to her little sister who delighted in peculiar things.  So I saved up my babysitting money and bought a volume of E.D.’s collected poems from a used bookstore.  I read “I heard a Fly buzz” and a handful of other poems, found her stanzas sparse and unspectacular, and promptly abandoned her for more impressive poets (like ee cummings).

I warmed to her slightly over the next several years, but it wasn’t until my graduate career that my frigid poetic heart truly melted for her.  And once it did, it became unabashedly devoted.  The more I read her and about her, the more my affinity for her and her work grew.  I even sometimes secretly fancy that she and I are kindred spirits (and then scold myself for being a shameless groupie).

So naturally, when I found myself Massachusetts bound this summer, I knew that I would have to make a visit to the Homestead—the house in Amherst that E.D. had spent so many prolific and reticent years.

I had groggily arrived in Massachusetts on a Sunday morning after a restless night of air travel.  I was far too tired to be touristy, so I curled up on my friend Gwendolyn’s couch and watched trashy movies with her until I fell asleep at 9PM.  The next day, a dreary Monday, we made a rather unpleasant discovery: Emily Dickinson’s house was only open to the public Wednesday-Sunday.  Seeing as we were set to leave for Ithaca on Wednesday, this news was indeed unfortunate.  But, we decided that we would try to squeeze in a tour before we left and to stave off my disappointment, Gwendolyn took me to wander around downtown Amherst—where I could at least look at the Homestead.

After a pleasant jaunt through the quaint brick buildings of downtown Amherst, we made our way to Main Street.  I recognized the fence right away and we followed it past Evergreen to the Homestead where I gawked and fussed for several minutes.

Case in point:

There was no gate, so Gwendolyn attempted to persuade me to move closer.  I felt uneasy about this as I did not want to get trouble for trespassing and/or somehow desecrate E.D.’s memory (which is not entirely unreasonable especially when one considers how she felt about her home and her privacy).  Gwendolyn found this hilarious and precious and teased me about it for the rest of the afternoon.  Soon we were forced to leave when it began to hail.  Yes, hail.  The pieces of ice were the size of large pearls.  It would have been lovely if not for how much it stung when one struck you.

A view of the storm from the inside of a coffee shop
We returned to E.D.’s home at 280 Main Street that Wednesday.  We had spent the morning chasing our departure.  They hold 90 minute tours of the Homestead and Evergreen (E.D.’s brother Austin’s home next door) every hour on the hour and, for some reason, we kept aiming for and then missing the tour time frames.  Finally, we arrived just barely in time for the 1PM tour.

The house was beautiful.  Much more spacious than I had imagined it.  And E.D.’s room was large and full of sunlight.  I saw her white dress, her bed, and her shawl.  It was so extraordinary to tread the same pathways as her, to maneuver through these spaces that I have read so much about, where so many of my most favorite poems were composed.  My words are grasping to capture exactly how it felt.  The only thing that (slightly) detracted from the experience was the tour itself.  The tour guide, who seemed perfectly affable and knowledgeable, was omnipresent, and talked constantly. Also, on several occasions I had to restrain myself from adding to and/or correcting certain things that she said (because I didn’t want to be that person).  Oh the perils of being a fanatic…

And now for a cornucopia of photos.  Unfortunately, we couldn’t take pictures inside, so shots of the outside will have to suffice.

In honor of "the myth of Amherst," I wore a white dress (thanks Melanie, for the idea!)
Gwendolyn, holding my souvenir: a book that E.D's father gave to her mother when they were first married: The Frugal Housewife
As you can tell, I felt quite at home...
The pathway between The Homestead and Evergreen

1 comment:

  1. Ah!! I love it! From babysitting to coffee shops and trashy movies to ogling ED's house and buying the frugal wife book. This is some absolutely wonderful wendyness.