Posts Tagged ‘Emily Dickinson’

Two Butterflies went out at Noon to CCA

Posted in book news on April 3rd, 2017 by admin – Comments Off on 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

Taste Ours-

Posted in cooking on August 22nd, 2015 by admin – Comments Off on Taste Ours-

Coconuts to crack and grate, lemons and limes to zest, we worked at big round tables mixing everything by hand a la Emily Dickinson and her maid Margaret Maher. The two often worked together and so we baked in small groups too.

We made fresh coconut cake and gingerbread formed into light and soft cookies — all from Emily Dickinson’s own recipes.

At left is one of our work tables and the right the coconut cakes about to go into the oven.

Here are the post-oven results cooling on racks and ready to be consumed at our afternoon tea.

A satisfying day in Amherst, MA where workshop participants sought summer and tasted Emily’s.

All part of my new project #OldSkills4NewMinds

Emily A La Carte!

Posted in cooking on July 11th, 2015 by admin – Comments Off on Emily A La Carte!

Roll up sleeves, tie apron, take hammer to coconut “testa” and “mesocarp” and grate the “nut” –

That’s some of what we’ll be doing in my Emily Dickinson baking workshop when preparing to make these light-as-air and delicious coconut cakes.

It’s this Saturday, July 17, in Amherst, MA

You may sign up for that workshop or for Marta McDowell’s herbarium-making intensive or any piece of the Emily-themed weekend!

Call: 413-259-1584  or write:  jsgray [at sign]

Would have Summer? Taste of ours

Would you like Summer? Taste of Ours –

Posted in cooking on January 27th, 2015 by admin – Comments Off on Would you like Summer? Taste of Ours –

Baking Gangnam Style Amherst Style!

Join me next July 17-19 in Emily Dickinson‘s lovely town of Amherst, Massachusetts

We’ll explore the life of the poet through her passions of gardening, baking, writing

Garden digger Marta McDowell leads a flower project

I’ll teach you how to bake Emily Style

Jane Wald will get readerly

Sign up early to ensure your space at the greenhouse, kitchen & library tables!

How public – like a frog

Posted in poetry on October 31st, 2013 by admin – Comments Off on How public – like a frog

Almost everything is right there at the brand new Emily Dickinson Archive.

Touch a button –

The poems that were piling on table top, folded to pocket size, enclosed in letters, bound into sets of pages folded to make small books, hand-sewn with the same stitch that fixes – – – – –

Or the poems written on the wing of an envelope, the back of an accounting sheet, a chocolate wrapper, and pharmacy flyer. You can see them just like that

Admiring Bog: go here for a look at each poem by E. Dickinson as if holding the original. Read about the behind-the-scenes thinking & more great examples here.

Tie the Strings

Posted in poetry on December 10th, 2011 by admin – Comments Off on Tie the Strings

Blair puts Emily Dickinson to music at Detroit’s Institute of Arts for The Big Read

Tie the Strings to my Life,

My Lord,

Then, I am ready to go!

Just a look at the Horses –

Rapid! That will do!

Put me in on the firmest

side –

So I shall never fall –

For we must ride to the

Judgment –

And it’s partly, down Hill –

But never I mind the steepest –

And never I mind the Sea –

Held fast in Everlasting Race –

By my own Choice, and Thee –

Goodbye to the Life I used to live –

And the World I used to know –

And kiss the Hills, for me,

just once –

Now – I am ready to go!

-Emily Dickinson, written about summer 1862

poem appears with ED’s original line breaks

Printed here on the poet’s 181st birthday

Art of Service – part 1

Posted in poetry on November 12th, 2011 by admin – Comments Off on Art of Service – part 1

I set out many years ago to find Margaret Maher

to have this housekeeper’s life and longings come into focus.

– to see Margaret Maher in as sharp a focus as that of her employer Emily Dickinson.

Using mixed media installation I sought

to create a social moment

a place and time for two women – maid and mistress – to inhabit.

At first I couldn’t “see” Margaret.

What came first was the work environment

the tasks of everyday life

that Margaret and Emily were engaged in

– together and side by side .

It turns out I needed Emily

– to help jiggle the developer tray:

– run fingers over the imaging paper

until out of that murky fluid emerged the persons I was seeking.

When Margaret’s co-workers as well as Emily and her peers came forward:

Margaret, Betty, Dennis, Amos, Stephen, Henry, Tom, Charles, Delia . . .

I was able to pick them out as individuals – and find the story

And of course in doing so I found a part of myself.

How did I do this?

Through book-making and inviting into the investigation the men and women who today clean the Emily Dickinson Museum, tend its gardens, and do the minor repairs.

In the 1990s they included Judith Sherman Atwood, John R. Bator, Richard Beauregard, Robin Dagenais, and Henry Paul Hebert.

I conducted a long distance “interview” from California to their Massachusetts workplace with questions such as:

“what is the nature of your work?”

“how long have you done it?”

“what is the poetry or art of your work?”

Their responses became the hand-sewn books Art of Service (covers pictured).

These books resembled Emily’s own hand-stitched poem books.

After Emily Dickinson’s household came under the capable hands of their first long term maid, Emily began grouping her poems and copying them into small booklets.

Emily bound these with thread that was hand-tied.

Or as maid Margaret Maher remembered years later:

They were done up in small booklets,

probably 12 or 14 tied up with a string

On a March afternoon in 1997 Art of Service came off the Vandercook press at  Dale Going‘s Em Press in Mill Valley, California.

I took needle and thread to bind the pages of the first copy.

I cried when I held the first sewn book.

Margaret Maher and the many “unseen” Dickinson workers

came closer when Judy, John, Robin, Richard and Herbert signed my copy of Art of Service.

Come soon: Art of Service – part II

I set out many years ago to “find Margaret Maher,” to have her life and longings come into as sharp a focus as that of her famous employer. I used mixed media installation to create a social moment for those two women to inhabit. Even then, I couldn’t quite see Margaret, although I learned more about her and about Emily’s work environment. As it turns out, I needed Emily — to have her help me jiggle the developer tray and run fingers over the paper until out of that murky fluid emerged the person I was seeking. The whole community, in fact, was what made that happen. It was when all of Margaret’s colleagues and employers came forward that I was able to pick them out as individuals. I found Margaret and of course in doing so I found a part of myself.

At the end of this long journey I sit in a cabin with the door swung wide above the Pacific. It’s nearly June. Insects wing in and out of the doorway, birds trill in untended plum trees. Hummingbirds, in a “rush of cochineal,” revolve by the spears of [purple stalks; get name of plant#] This story came to me in the California Margaret yearned for but seems never to have reached, a promise that hovered like the “evanescence” of a hummingbird. California animated her just as she animated me and so I headed back to Sunderland and sat at a dining room table with two of Margaret’s great grand nieces. Their grandfather was the “Willie” Emily patted on the head when he returned from one of her errands, calling him a “good boy.” Mrs. Evans asked if I wanted to go out to the cemetery and, though we had no inkling where Margaret’s grave was located, we drove via the back road to “Hamp” (Northampton). It narrows through corn and tobacco fields and a crop of new houses in Hadley, making two unnerving ninety degree turns around cultivated fields and an old farmhouse — much the way this tale was uncovering itself.

I was overwhelmed with the size of St. Mary’s cemetery, the task before us and the oppressive glare. I headed off down half of one row, striking out for another in my own haphazard way, until I heard Mrs. Evans call out “I found it.” She, in the meantime, had walked methodically until she came to a deep red, four sided obelisk. It felt like a miracle to have Margaret become this tangible. Then a month or two later I discovered, neatly tucked below my California doorsill, a pale blue mailing tube with Mrs. Evans’ rubbings from the intricate patterns of the grave stone. Gifts like this, of one sort or another, kept arriving.

I interviewed the men and women who clean the Dickinson museum and tend its gardens now: Judith Sherman Atwood, John R. Bator, Richard Beauregard, Robin Dagenais, and Henry Paul Hebert. I asked them how their work was like art and put those responses into small hand-sewn books; not unlike the fascicles Emily created of her poems. When the first copy of Art of Service came off the letterpress, I took needle and thread to bind the pages and cried when I first held this materialization of my vision. A few months later Judy, John, Richard and Robin along with Mrs. Evans helped me narrate a public tour of “Margaret Maher’s Amherst.” There were nearly 170 people stopping traffic on North Pleasant Street as we scooted across to the cemetery. At Emily Dickinson’s grave I spoke of her pallbearer choice and asked how many were descended from those men. It was another moment of grace to look around the crowd and see over forty hands in the April air.

Cemetery Stalker

Posted in service, Uncategorized on October 10th, 2011 by admin – Comments Off on Cemetery Stalker

We paused before a

House that seemed

A Swelling of the Ground –

The Roof was scarcely

visible –

The Cornice – in the Ground –

Since then – ’tis Centuries –

and yet

Feels shorter than the Day

I first surmised the

Horses’ Heads

Were toward Eternity –

-Emily Dickinson, about late 1862 (with her original line breaks); last stanzas of “Because I could not / stop for death”

When I couldn’t find photographs or letters of the Dickinson servants – or other evidences of their having lived or breathed in the high ceiling interior of the Dickinson Homestead – I headed to the cemetery.

No more than fifty feet from the fenced plot, pictured below, where Emily is buried with her parents and sister in West Cemetery, I found the graves of housekeepers, stablemen, gardeners, and others who in some way worked for Emily’s family.

It was a February evening in 2008 and the sun was setting in Amherst when I found the grave of Betty Ann Brown Scott, an African American woman who had cooked for Emily’s famly in the early 1850s.

Not far away were the graves of the Jackson family. Patriarch Henry Jackson, a teamster by trade, made himself indispensable to three generations of Dickinson men.

And Charles Thompson who worked for the Dickinson men, college treasurers, keeping Amherst College boilers stoked and in any number of ways at the Homestead. His wife, also African American, served at Homestead parties.

Others, like laborer Tom Kelley, are buried not far away in a Catholic cemetery in Plainville (Hadley, Massachusetts) established by St. Brigid’s Church of Amherst.

Others still are buried in the Catholic cemetery in Northampton (St. Mary’s Cemetery) like gardener Horace Church’s family and maid-of-all-work Margaret Maher.

Somewhere on the grounds of St. Mary’s are the remains of Irish immigrant Margaret O Brien Lawler, the first long term Dickinson housekeeper.

Margaret O Brien arrived by 1856 when the newly renovated and expanded Homestead – or the Dickinson family’s rise in the world – necessitated help.

She stayed until she married her way out of service, to Stephen Lawler, in October 1865 – to the dismay of one extremely active poet:

Besides wiping the dishes for Margaret, I wash them now, while she becomes Mrs. Lawler, vicarious papa to four previous babes. Must she not be an adequate bride? I winced at her loss, because I was in the habit of her, and even a new rolling pin has an embarrassing element, but to all except anguish, the mind soon adjusts

It took three years but the motivated – and frustrated – writer found a replacement for Margaret O Brien.

Her name was Margaret Maher but Emily Dickinson called her “Maggie.

In fact once Margaret Maher was a fixture of the poet’s household, Emily professed wanting to change her own name, taking her maid’s:

“‘Maggie’ is a warm name. I shall like to take it.”

Book – Burns sure – within

Posted in poetry on September 23rd, 2011 by admin – Comments Off on Book – Burns sure – within

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.

-Emily Dickinson, written in about the latter half of 1861

The 2010 book about Emily Dickinson’s housekeepers, stablemen, gardeners, and laborers – Maid as Muse –  is part of my larger mixed form project – Kitchen Table Poetics – realized as installation, performance, maps, poetry, essay, artists’ books & book.

My silkscreened Japanese baseball shirt, shown here, with text and clothespin is one piece from Kitchen Table Poetics.

In this “book” the segments of a baseball shirt become pages.

(Nomura, see below, is the name of one of the world’s largest stock brokerages – appropriate for a family, the Dickinsons, who made money through shrewd investments and whose house smelled of rice straw. Tatami, used to wrap their imported goods, became Homestead floor coverings.)

Silkscreened on one page is of the Dickinson poem – above – “The Lamp burns sure – within -”

On the other side of the silkscreened shirt – or book cover – is an 1891 letter written by Dickinson maid-of-all-work Margaret Maher to Emily Dickinson’s cousin, Clara Newman Turner.

I once gave all my talks wearing this text-clothespin-baseball shirt – especially to talk about how the words “slave” and “serf” are elided in the above Dickinson poem.

Servant and serf had a sting in the 19th century for those who were domestic  or household workers.

It was akin to being a slave.

The poem’s narrator-writer, dependent on the invisible slave and serf, depicts the lamp as representing the creative force, that inner-driven spark which burns no matter what.

It’s not affected by ministrations of serf, the fuel itself, or the wick.

It is unaffected by a forgetful slave who in the end turns out to be not forgetful but escaped.

Toward the end of her life Margaret Maher, after over 40 years as a maid, no longer signed letters with her family name.

She identified herself by her employment and possession by her employer.

In the upper corner of the shirt you may be able to make out the words Margaret Maher used to close her 1891 letter:

Miss. Emily.s and



A Word is Scrubbed

Posted in poetry on September 4th, 2011 by admin – Comments Off on A Word is Scrubbed

Embedded in the sidewalk of New York City –

A plaque of this 1862 Emily Dickinson poem:

A word is dead, when it is said
Some say –
I say it just begins to live
That day

Where the word is scrubbed

by Maid as Muse author Aífe Murray

It just begins to live that way –

(Happy Labor Day)