When my parents announced in the early 1990s that they were retiring to the Amherst, Massachusetts area, I was thrilled. My favorite poet, Emily Dickinson, had grown up there in a residence aptly known as The Homestead, which had been built by her paternal grandfather in 1813. I eagerly anticipated the weekends when I would drive from Boston to visit my folks and attend the poetry readings-marathons, art exhibitions, and concerts at Emily’s former home, now a museum. During June’s Garden Days, I would lend my green thumb to the lush landscape, where my parents had once hidden pastel-colored eggs on Easter Sunday. Among the daffodils, hyacinth, and sweetpeas in the garden that Emily had once cared for so lovingly, it was easy to visualize “The simple news that Nature told – With tender majesty.”
At Christmastime, the brick Federal style building was decked out in candlelight and festive finery. Seasonal music serenaded us as we gathered in the parlor to decorate ornaments for The Homestead’s holiday tree.
Emily’s bedroom on the second floor, where she wrote her verse on a small table overlooking Main Street, was always the main attraction. Although a prolific writer, Emily published only ten poems in her lifetime, but after her death—134 years ago today—her sister Lavinia discovered a treasure trove of about 1800 poems in her cherry wood bureau. Fortunately, she did not burn them, as she had the poet’s personal correspondence, per Emily’s request.
Toward the end of her life, Dickinson rarely left her bedroom and even refused to descend the staircase to attend her father’s funeral in The Homestead hallway. She wore only a lily-white cotton dress and had grown increasingly cloistered throughout adulthood, perhaps due to increased domestic demands during her mother’s long chronic illness or as a consequence of romantic heartbreak. Her reclusive behavior might also have been the result of painful symptoms associated with Bright’s disease, which hastened her demise, or a suspicion of epilepsy. Whatever the reason, Dickinson was so productive in isolation that she might now be considered a role model in how to thrive creatively during these days of social-distancing and quarantining due to the pandemic.
Although I was no longer able to regularly visit The Homestead after moving abroad, I was delighted to discover a handful of Dickinson fans among my American expat friends in Helsinki. One year, we celebrated Emily’s December 10th birthday by reading our favorite Dickinson verses while pretending to enjoy my inedible attempt at her famous brandy-soaked, molasses-rich Black Cake. As a tribute to “Heaven’s Poetess,” I read “Called Back,” a poem I had written (below), which captures an imaginary conversation between God and Emily at the moment of her death. The title is taken from the last note Emily penned before her death to family members Frances and Louise Norcross: “Little cousins, Called Back. Emily.” These words were also chosen by her niece to be engraved on her headstone in West Cemetery, Amherst.
She gazed upon the carriage,
Knew it was time to pack,
For she heard her Maker whisper:
“I am here to call you back.”
She knew that He was coming,
Oft heard the ethereal tread,
Creep o’er the Homestead rafters,
‘Round the foot of her sleigh bed.
“But who will feed the robins,
Count bees in the clover,
Flirt with the buttercups?
My cup runneth over.”
“Who will notice, Father,
The bustling of the brook,
Dewy pearls upon the grass,
The cricket, overlooked?”
Daffodils untied their bonnets,
The shadows held their breath,
A small dusk crawled o’er the village,
As news spread of her death.
“I know there is a Sequel, Lord,
But still I need more time,
If I am e’er to publish,
One verse of my rhyme.”
She shared her Letter To The World,
God knew it line-for-line,
And ordained her upper room,
A historic national shrine.
Her lily-white dress billowed,
God felt her heartstrings swell,
“Then is it never meant for me,
The chiming of church bells?”
“I’m your Master now,” God said.
It wasn’t in His Plan,
For the immortal Emily,
To marry a mere man.
How will I manage, Father,
Among the heavens wide,
When all the angels know that I,
Prefer to stay inside?”
“Kiss the hills just once,” said He,
And placed a diadem bright.
Her eyes, once sherry-colored,
Now shimmered in starlight.
“I crown you Heaven’s Poetess,
There’s no one better versed,
To capture all My glories,
Than you—the Belle of Amherst.”