Diving Back

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

Wick –

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.

ED Servant Papers’ New Home

I could no longer be called a toddler when I became a New Englander. My older brother and I were both quite young when we moved with our parents to the Elm City – the place we would come to affectionately call N’Haven.

This small city was central to my father’s territory as the union’s PAC or political action committee director for New England and, in those first years, New York west of the Hudson. We always called it The Union but what we meant was the AFL-CIO which our father wished had the militancy of his beloved CIO.

Connecticut was a hive of industry. Stout chimneys filled the Bridgeport skyline and up the Naugatuck River brass factories lined its banks. But our town, when you walked to Union Station from The Green, smelled of rubber from the Seamless plant on Daggett Street. When our father drove us north into the countryside I pressed my nose against the window studying the barns with vertical slats. Dark inside, the barns held no animals but bundles of drying tobacco hanging from its rafters. Stark contrast to yards of white fabric billowing like waves across the surrounding fields where that tobacco had grown.

My father grew up in a country town about eighty miles west of New Haven where berries of all kinds were grown. Trains were outfitted with special “strawberry cars” to bring the fruit gently to market. The first transformative event of his childhood was being taken by his father to hear the great socialist orator Eugene Victor Debs who had, not long before this, run for president from a jail cell.

Teaching us how to connect all those those dots, as Debs had done for his followers, became my father’s earnest project. Thinking bigger. It was as if my brother and I had to carry that torch on Debs’ behalf, or that of our socialist grandfather’s, into 21st century Connecticut.

Susan Howe wrote that you turn with a sort of ferocity to your native place. Or maybe she said it of Emily Dickinson who had lived eighty miles north of both Susan and I in the Connecticut River Valley of western Massachusetts.

I did not recognize this as my native place until I moved three thousand miles away and began deeply reading the writings of this 19th century New England poet and researching the details of Emily Dickinson’s work life.

What came next for me – in the fertile artistic incubator that was San Francisco’s Mission District of the 70s, 80s & 90s that I also call home – were poems, artists’ books, performances, art installations and a published book.

I was examining the relationship between silence & voice and the numerous ways Emily Dickinson’s life was entwined with poor women and men of different races and ethnic backgrounds from her own – but who shared the private spaces of her home workshop.

Now in boxes in my cellar there are materials documenting the writing of those books and performance and installations s as well as the lives of the women and men who worked in the Dickinson household.  There too are the papers of my father who spent four or five decades as a civil rights activist and labor agitator.

These papers I reasoned needed a home so they could be of use to someone putting together more and different stories of New England and of social change.

Happily I’ve found that place in Amherst, Massachusetts.

This year my materials and those of my father will move from my San Francisco cellar archive to the W.E.B. Du Bois Library at the University of Massachusetts Special Collections. They’ll be housed with other materials about social change and New England that form two parts of the collecting strategy of the UMass archive which holds the papers of Great Barrington’s Du Bois at its heart.

Emily’s Carib Cake?

Black Cake comes readily to mind when thinking of Emily Dickinson with her hands on a mixing bowl, pencil and paper ready at the side of her pastry board.

Her recipe for Black Cake uses an enormous number of eggs, pounds of sugar and flour, dried fruits, brandy and molasses.

It’s extremely rich, nay intoxicating, and with Emily Dickinson’s baking skill, her version was no doubt superb.

Black Cake is sometimes called fruit cake or, in the England of her Dickinson ancestors, this cake would be a holiday pudding.

In fact, this holiday pudding associated with England seems to have arrived in the Caribbean by way of the English lured to those islands to turn a profit from the triangular slave trade: human beings for sugar for rum.

Emily Dickinson was baking her Black Cake in mid-19th century New England. She was several generations removed from her English ancestors and their holiday fruit pudding.

And it appears to not be the version of fruit cake she made famous and for which her family clamored.

Her Black Cake resembles the version that emerged out of triangle trade; a cake perfected before her by bakers who were enslaved in the Caribbean.

As I learned from the Canadian poet, NourbeSe Philip, what makes the Black Cake of Trinidad and Tobago (where she was born) so distinctive in color and in flavor — and so prized — is the process of burning the sugar and the use of rum.

Emily Dickinson’s recipe, above, doesn’t call for the triangle trade’s rum but it does use copious amounts of the traded-for molasses — a substance that seems to have kept industrial Boston humming in profits in that same era (and beyond until the molasses flood anyway).

Slavery and its spectre were everywhere around this poet.

These thoughts about Emily Dickinson and her possible Caribbean-originated Black Cake were inspired by the evocative essay by NourbeSe Philip titled “Making Black Cake in Combustible Spaces” (in 21 – 19 from Milkweed). Highly recommended!

NEH Awards ED Museum

One of the benefits of the second wave women’s movement was a reassessment, by poets and critics, of the work and life of Emily Dickinson.

That watershed can be marked in 1976 when Adrienne Rich published “Vesuvius at Home: The Power of Emily Dickinson” in Parnassus: poetry in review which, three years later, appeared  in her book On Lies, Secrets, and Silence.

Now the National Endowment for the Humanities is making it possible for the Emily Dickinson Museum to bring the fruits of more than 40 years of those re-imaginings — of the poet’s work and life — into a year-long interpretive planning process.

The aim of this NEH-funded iterative process is to unite the Museum’s historic spaces and collections in an effort to better serve its growing contemporary audience.

As one of 7 Scholar-Advisors to this planning process, I’ll be looking with keen attention at the family’s private areas of this, pictured, historic home and the kitchen wing that juts out to the left. These are some of the spaces the poet often occupied with, near to hand, gardeners, maids, stable hands, laundry workers, and general laborers.

Emily Dickinson could often be found writing in these private realms alongside those working in the kitchen. Or could overhear laborers in the garden as she composed in the pantry or consulted with these men in her garden.

In her word-shop, the poet wrote in a domestic sphere inhabited by African Americans, English and Irish immigrants, Yankees, and Native people.

Emily Dickinson was hardly alone and theirs were some of the voices that inflected her omnivorous ear and whose labor freed her from kitchen duties so she had the energy and time to write.

Emily Gets Up All In That

Emily Dickinson has a body!

Sex with her sister-in-law in the first five minutes of the irreverent comedy Wild Nights with Emily — plus a steamy jealousy between the two of them over a childhood friend  — is just part of the fun in what will be a completely new take for legions of Emily Dickinson’s worldwide fans.

Thanks to the irrepressible Molly Shannon, the smart-mouthed and brilliant poet Emily Dickinson finally gets her due.

And that’s not all the kink.

While poet and sister-in-law slyly pursue their passions, Emily’s brother flagrantly conducts an affair with his sister’s future posthumous editor.

As a narrative through-line we observe the future editor getting so much wrong as she takes her own ambition-enhancing show on the road interpreting Emily Dickinson to the public.

(Easier to spin new tales once the dead woman poet, & her G-spot, are safely in her grave.)

Expect rom-com rather than strict biopic.

For those of us who know too much about Emily, writer-director Madeleine Olnek takes loads of liberties with the life story of this globally known poet.

It’s a movie, after all, about a rule-breaker — of linguistic and social norms.

Olnek’s tweeks — such as the bumbling suitor who mixes up Brontë plot lines — are refreshing and easy laughs yet still manage to carry the sensibility of Emily’s time and life.

Disappointment in love is the yawn for why Emily D. didn’t publish in her lifetime. This movie leaves audiences with new reasons that make more sense.

The well-cast ensemble manages to delight while still conveying a writer’s ambition thwarted by dull-witted male editors, mired by sexism, who couldn’t grasp or support her literary brilliance.

Funny, I don’t remember that happening to innovators in her rank such as Shakespeare and Cervantes.

The crumbs to multiculturalism — a dreamy sequence narrated by a poem that includes an African-American woman with parasol or the tomb scene where an African-American man alternates with Emily reciting one of her poems on death — came across to me as glaringly odd in a film that does so much right.

Factoid: The film’s left-footed multiculturalism may be a nod to the poet’s home-centered world peopled by maids, gardeners, laborers, and stable hands of African slave-descent, and Yankees, Native Americans, and immigrants from Ireland and England.

Yes, do see the hilarious Wild Nights with Emily and give up any notions that Emily Dickinson was alone — or without love interests or without the daily presence of laboring folks from many backgrounds.

Getting a body — and using it — turns out to be an essential ingredient if you want to write. Perhaps even more so to write with genius.

Published 11 June 2019 in Medium

Talking History with Patrick Geoghegan

Emily Dickinson: A Life

On Sunday, 7 April, Patrick Geohegan invites Emily Dickinson scholars Renee Berglund, Cristanne Miller, Aífe Murray, Martha Nell Smith & Marta Werner to discuss the work and life of Emily Dickinson.

The one hour show airs 7 pm in Dublin on Patrick’s Newstalk 106-108 FM show. In Emily’s Amherst that would be 3 pm and high noon Pacific time.

Listen button on upper right of Talking History

Show :   Podcast :   @newstalkfm

Home Site Develops

A broad website initiative is now in-process to deepen resources for teachers, students, and interested readers on some of the projects in which I am engaged:

  • Emily Dickinson & her multicultural world at home with servants – Maid as Muse
  • The Garden State’s KKK The Ku Klux Klan at Home in Hillsdale
  • After Brown: school desegregation in New England – We Bused in New Haven
  • Come back for a visit in Summer 2019

New Distributor!

The University of Massachusetts Press is poised to become sole distributor for Maid as Muse. The news has just been released by the provost of the University of New Hampshire, publisher of Maid as Muse.

UMass Press selected Maid as Muse upon the closure of the University Press of New England which had been sole distributor.

Books will ship to UMass Press by the end of 2018 and will be available once inventory is complete.

In the meantime Indiebound will fulfill orders until UMass is ready to ship Maid as Muse to your door!

Two Butterflies went out at Noon to CCA

Bound Friday noon to the industrial-scape between the Mission and Potrero Hill and somewhere else less defined –perhaps the millworks on the far side of the Dickinson meadow?– to visit the California College of Arts writers studying Emily Dickinson with Gloria Frym.

We’ll be thinking about maids and laborers, often unseen in the poet’s story, and what to make of these women and men in terms of their own lives — and Emily Dickinson’s life and craft and works of art.

… related to my book Maid as Muse.

Not sure yet where else we’ll go but if any seminar participants want to pose a question in advance, happy to ponder.

Wish I could bring Emily’s mute confederate to class. But with luck: butterflies