I’m diving back through two dozen years of materials about the women and men who worked in Emily Dickinson’s household. I’m revisiting my response to the things I was then unearthing about these workers, about their poet and about myself.
The panel above, titled Lamp burns sure (82″x43″), is one I painted and silkscreened in 1997. On the plain ground of the cloth I printed jumbo clothespins, images created from the clothespins I still use to hang dry clothes and sheets two stories over the garden and garage roof from a line on a pulley fixed beside my back window.
The words I silkscreened in blue on the green painted ground of the panel were made in 1861, late in the year, in Amherst, Massachusetts by Emily Dickinson:
At just the very moment these words were being penciled on scraps of paper, my immigrant great grandmother, several years the poet’s junior, was 150 miles southwest of Amherst rubbing the mound of her belly.
At twenty-six, Ann was newly pregnant (with Henry, the future priest) and keeping house at 141st Street where it meets the Hudson River. This was Ann’s first child and while there was much joy in the Murray household it was another story in lower Manhattan.
War had been declared that spring and civil conflict changed the flow of profits for a Wall Street dependant on the slavocracy. Black New Yorkers uprooted to the surrounding states to find more friendly places to call home.
Up in snowy Massachusetts late that same fall, the poet’s town would seem a world away. Was it? A country lawyer’s stately manse is what she called home. Yellow painted brick in the federal style, it commanded the town’s main street. Who, there in Amherst, was investing “at the South”?
With the fire burning in the Franklin stove, a thirty-year-old Emily penciled this poem above (which I stenciled on the cloth panel 136 years later). The poet bound the poem into a small compilation, the binding sewn by her hand, working in a room papered with wild roses and vines.
Emily pondered lights that shine steady and those who maintain the surety of those burning lamps. She wrote about both those paid a pittance for their efforts to supply the oil and people paid nothing for the same effort as they worked and lived within the prison that slavery is and was.
Of many interesting things about this poem, I’m thinking about how much Emily Dickinson’s mind was on slavery and servitude. She mixes the words serf and slave. She doesn’t use servant, a term despised in her era when Margaret O Brien, an Irish immigrant maid-of-all-work, was cleaning and filling the lamps in the country lawyer’s house when the poem was drafted in pencil, then bound, then stitched.
Unconscious that the oil
is out –
Slavery had been outlawed 123 years earlier in her home state by the time Emily figured the image of a slave liberating herself. Yet, in Ann’s New York and Emily’s Massachusetts, slavery is ever present in a myriad of ways. And still so, this original wound haunts and makes and unmakes us.
The Lamp burns sure – within –
Tho’ Serfs – supply the Oil –
It matters not the busy
At her phosphoric toil!
The Slave – forgets – to fill –
The Lamp – burns golden – on –
Unconscious that the oil
is out –
As that the Slave – is gone.