When I was a child, I’d often read poems I didn’t understand. I’d throw my thoughts against the poem like a locked box, trying to parse the words together, so that the lock would slip open.
There were poets whom I knew were mostly beyond me, but my mind rubbed against them systematically, like my cat rubs her face against a hairbrush, and there were others whose work was made mostly of sound rather than idea, and those I could drink up like a glass of water. Emily Dickinson was in the first category, and Theodore Roethke in the latter.
I wasn’t a fan of Dickinson. Why should I be? A West Coast child who had no use for a version of nature that focused on the fly, the snake, and a bunch of east coast birds. Dickinson’s world was lacy, with holes. Her snakes all seemed to be wearing little Preacher’s suits. Not enough sex in it, I might have said, had I been anything but a child.
But then I stumbled on two short Dickinson poems of nonconformity.
This is my letter to the World
That never wrote to Me—
The simple News that Nature told—
With tender Majesty
Her Message is committed
To Hands I cannot see—
For love of Her—Sweet—countrymen—
Judge tenderly—of Me
I was an oddball kind of child. Not fitting in was kind of my philosophy.
I'm Nobody! Who are you?
Are you – Nobody – too?
Then there's a pair of us!
Don't tell! they'd advertise – you know!
How dreary – to be – Somebody!
How public – like a Frog –
To tell one's name – the livelong June –
To an admiring Bog!
At last, a code I could use, a message I needed!
Later, I returned to Dickinson, and we sat together in the window where she whispered to me. I was grown by then. She’s not in my body as a form of sound. She’s in my mind, deep down there, like a series of locks. I open one, and she opens another. And in this infinitely regressive chain, she and I travel through a lonely place together.