My Emily Dickinson Pilgrimage

IMG_4457Amherst June 2017

Gentle Reader: I’ve been asked to tell about my pilgrimage to Amherst but I had to put that aside until I got a good start on the poems which immediately percolated from that seminal experience. Frankly, I also had to let the emotions subside so I wouldn’t blather on about it here. But I willingly admit that adrenalin was my frequent companion during that visit.

I call it a  pilgrimage because that is the best description in every sense of the word and my activities leading up to it–from planning the extra days tacked onto a business trip, picking up the rental car in downtown Boston amidst hundreds of pre-marathoners doing the same thing, trusting google maps to get me onto the turnpike under construction and enjoying winding roads in western Massachusetts where fast-driving locals did not share my interest in the countryside and historic homes along the way.

From a short 2-day perspective, Amherst is everything you might imagine nestled in the New England setting I’ve described. It’s a quaint small-college town with picturesque shops, and bookstores built around the campus which is seamlessly integrated into the neighboring area.

The Dickinson Homestead and Evergreens next door are not set off or protected in a way that many homes-turned-museums are. The grounds look largely the way they did when Emily lived there. Of course, some small modifications have been made to accommodate people moving about inside and for the museum shop—now in the kitchen.

While the house and grounds have a certain commanding presence due in part to the stately architecture and increased elevation above the street, one could unknowingly drive past because it also blends into the area. Although typical of the era, all the rooms in the house are slightly smaller than I imagined from seeing pictures—including Emily’s room. They’ve done remarkable work restoring and recreating it in her time—especially given the acrimonious split among those carrying on her legacy and the items now in Harvard’s possession.

Her bedroom is—again—smaller than I imagined but the aura there is palpable. Her writing desk is no bigger than 20 x 20 inches square with one tiny drawer underneath. That surface had to accommodate a lamp and an ink well plus pen/pencil and paper. She was known to carry that desk downstairs to the library and sometimes out into the yard to write. During the height of her most prolific writing, one must envision scraps of poems and pieces of paper strewn all around her room.

The cemetery where she and her family are buried (about half a mile cross-country to the north of the house) is also barely protected. There is a small fence around her immediate family’s graves but that is mostly decorative although it does deter people from trampling the area. She was quite clear in writing instructions about her wishes for final disposition: no funeral carriage and she wanted family servants as pallbearers. Her casket was to be carried out the back kitchen door and over land to the cemetery. She was also specific that her brother Austin’s directives were not to supersede her own.

In addition to 1,789 poems, she was a prolific letter writer and deeply expressive in them—hardly characteristic of reclusive behavior although in later life she avoided people and seldom left the house. Still she wrote letters right up until her death. In today’s high tech and truncated technology she still serves as a model for epistolary communication.

I was attracted first to her poetry but her world, her life and her letters are bottomless layers of complexity worthy of study to understand and learn from one of the world’s greatest poets.

Poetry: The Time has Come

Gentle Reader: Yesterday, I spent a fair amount of time re-centering myself after several weeks of work-related busyness which left me out of sorts and, frankly, cranky.

That kind of hubbub was my norm for so many years that I’ve needed time to shift my focus and reprioritize my time. The first step came about 3 years ago during a seminar on work-life balance. As a result, I chose to set aside the early morning hours each day for poetry: writing, revising, study and reading. This has worked well since I’m usually awake around 4-4:30am. A second goal was to take 1-2 poetry workshops or classes each year. bookcase

While I am accomplishing both goals, my morning study has been random and I recently realized it lacked order.

Another breakthrough came couple weeks ago when I moved a bunch of books around and now all my poetry books are in a more accessible place. Looking at them staring back at me, I realize the wealth of poems/poets at my fingertips. I decided to study one poet a week. Yes, there will always be diversions and distractions, but the overall strategy sets me on a path of achievement.

I begin with the list of poets recommended to me for further study and to hone my craft by Ilya Kaminsky, faculty poet I studied with at a Iowa Summer Writers Festival. Some examples he suggested are: Kay Ryan, Frank Bidart, Derek Walcott, Paul Celan, and Yehuda Amichai.

But my plan already starts with the first diversion. The recently released translation by Emily Wilson of Homer’s The Odyssey has caught my attention along with many favorable reviewers. Confession: not sure how I avoided it in school but I’ve never read it. Based on the press buzz, it seems like the time to start both the epic poem and my new goal.

On “A Quiet Passion” Emily Dickinson

Random thoughts after seeing the movie, A Quiet Passion, about the life of Emily Dickinson.

Gentle Reader: Here are some random thoughts after seeing A Quiet Passion, a movie about the life of Emily Dickinson.
-The set, scenery, costumes, and casting are extraordinary.
-Cynthia Nixon’s portrayal of Emily is world class. It helped me create my own image of her. Nixon’s voice-over of poems throughout the film adds that cerebral dimension and fits both Emily and each scene.
-The special effect of advancing time via aging characters during a photo sitting is mesmerizing.
-For those who know Dickinson history, some factual inaccuracies in the script and character portrayals are bothersome and perhaps misleading for anyone wishing to study more.
-The only explanation for the  movie character of Vryling Buffam is to represent many women because she was insignificant in Emily Dickinson’s life.
-For how important Carlo (her Newfoundland) was over 15 years of Emily’s life, he should be visible–somehow.
-Also missing is the important subtext of bisexual relationships widely accepted as true.
-Regardless my impressions, the film does much to advance Emily Dickinson and all poets. I hope it is nominated and wins an academy award.
-Finally, the reviews are, for the most part, fair but rarely written by women. What’s up with that?
-The set, scenery, costumes, and casting are extraordinary.
-Cynthia Nixon’s portrayal of Emily is world-class. It helped me create my own image of her. Nixon’s voice-over of poems throughout the film adds that cerebral dimension and fits both Emily and each scene.
-The special effect of advancing time via aging characters during a photo sitting is mesmerizing.
-For those who know Dickinson history, some factual inaccuracies in the script and character portrayals are bothersome and perhaps misleading for anyone wishing to study more.
-The movie character of Vryling Buffam had to represent many women because she was insignificant in Emily Dickinson’s life.
-For how important Carlo (her Newfoundland) was over 15 years of Emily’s life, he should be visible–somehow.
-Also missing is the important subtext of bisexual relationships widely accepted as true.
-Regardless my impressions, the film does much to advance Emily Dickinson and all poets. I hope it is nominated and wins an academy award.
-Finally, the reviews are fair, for the most part, but rarely written by women. What’s up with that?

Who is Responsible for this Mess? We the People!

Gentle Reader: We, the people of the United States of America, have an ancestral longing for selfless and competent leadership. Those who carved this country out of the failures they left elsewhere intended that it be so. Here we are today with what has evolved from the freedoms they designed and some that would make them cringe. We have, instead, spawned a culture rampant with selfishness, both entitlement and victim mentalities, hyper-individualism, and hyper-partisanship abounds.

As a result, we have anything but selfless and competent leadership in our nation’s capital and capitol. The near future harkens little improvement in the 2016 election. We asked for and received a wider field of candidates. We asked for and received representation from outside the beltway and those who bring fresh perspectives. Yet, a sweeping, 180-degree view of all the candidates is revealing. Some might be selfless but are clearly incompetent. Others are considered by observers as competent but are anything but selfless. Many in the pool are intent to manipulate whatever they are able to achieve their goals. The end justifies the means.

History going back to ancient Roman emperors is littered with leaders such as these. Many came to power without benefit of free and open elections but many of  those who were elected had serious faults. Today’s dilemma is nothing new as history repeats itself. Through the grooming process of state and local elections, we have encouraged and condoned those who represent less than the most honorable traits.

Political parties have moved their philosophy and platforms to the extreme edges of reason and created litmus tests meant to exclude all candidates except those willing to sign their pledge of fanaticism.  We, the electorate combined with the failures and blatant bias of the media, bear much of the blame. Now, the wished for and wider field representing broader perspectives is scorned by pundits, cynics, and the media. Surely, we deserve this scenario, this pool of candidates and, ultimately, who we elect.

Politics and Religion Today

Gentle Reader: Fair warning: this subject has been brewing for a long time. It is short but not so sweet.

To the acquaintance at a small gathering of friends: How dare you preach at me about one political  party’s lack of respect and mean-spirited attacks against yours. Does your moral superiority permit you to pour vitriol on me? Does it occur to you that you have just demonstrated what you rail against?

Respect? Apparently you have no respect for me and now I’ve lost what I might have had for you.

The old rule “Never discuss religion and politics in polite conversation” is not practiced by many who claim to be –but are neither polite nor enlightened. What a price to pay for being entitled to vent their spleen at the expense of others.

Now what was I doing again?

To Write, or Not to Write: That is the Question — Subtitle: Confessions of an Occasional Poet

Gentle Reader: A recent conversation with a fellow writer has prompted me to give thought to what I might do with my time if I were to retire –and that won’t be any time soon! First, I still love what I do professionally and I now have a refreshed mortgage which is part of my Someday Retirement Plan.

What occurs to me, in the context of an alternate use of time and inclination is that I would like to write as an avocation –and more than just dabbling. I use the word alternate because the personal well from which I dip for creative writing also seems to be drawn upon for any creativity needed for professional demands. Often that well is depleted without a single poem –or blog post– to show for it.

However, I am prodded and perhaps a bit haunted by Shakespeare’s admonition about the responsibility of poets to both portray and confront the world. I know in my core that is what I am compelled to do. In the meantime, I scratch seeds of poems and poem parts on napkins and business cards—saved for another day. All too often, I turn my back on emergent poems leaving them to die of neglect.

While entertaining the thought of writing as it could naturally flow, I am quickly confronted with my own demons. Alas, I confess the well is not dry but capped—at my own hands. You see, there have been times when the muse has been more of a relentless curse than a companion.

I suspect—and must admit–I fear becoming lost in that realm. “Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer” . . . I think not.

U.S. Highway 83: A Plumb Line of Pavement

Gentle Reader: My recent participation in the Facebook Page for Fans of U.S. Route 83 has caused me to reflect on the important touchstone that stretch of road has been for me and its vital role as corridor from North Dakota to Texas.

For virtually all of my life U.S. Highway 83 has been my pathway into respite and recreation then back to civilization. I’ve watched it grow from a rolling 2-lane, barely paved road to a straightened and widened 4-lane with turn lanes at congested junctions and even bypasses around city centers. It is the place where I get a pulse on north south commerce and fresh shrimp trucked to my city from near its southern terminus. I’ve watched the growth of energy development with electrical transmission lines crossing the highway and now wind farms and countless turbines are within easy view. Coal plants, oil wells and water diversion. From my house, I can hear the high-pitched hum of tires on its pavement.

More importantly, Highway 83 is the place where I connect to my roots. Family homesteads and family graves are within a few miles in North Dakota, South Dakota and Nebraska. From it, I keep watch over fields and flocks and migratory birds in the Central Flyway, planting and harvest. I watch the sloughs for how much rain we’ve had or haven’t. I see the seasons and the years come and go and I simply watch life. Grandpa Scott never called it Highway 83. It was just the Main Artery. Indeed.

Over this past summer, I’ve composed several haiku on and about Highway 83. Come take a ride with me:

Churning charcoal clouds
Spill red rain on dusty buttes
Tail lights ribbon ahead

The long shadows stretch
From fields and trees and fence posts
Sun pools in the West

Nature’s metronome
Kept by mile markers for each
Seasons’ symphony

Asphalt artery
Life’s blood through the corridor
Spans the continent