by Stephen Sachs
It was my mother who introduced me to Emily Dickinson.
“I want to show you something,” Mom whispered one afternoon when I was boy, pulling down the thick volume of Dickinson’s poetry wedged on the family bookshelf in the den of our home. She patted the brown Naugahyde sofa, instructing me to sit beside down her.
“Listen to this,” mom smiled, opening the collection of poems, her finger hunting through its pages then hitting her target with a tap. “Here. This one. I will read this poem to you. Tell me what you think the poet is writing about.”
My mother then read to me the Dickinson poem, “I like to see it lap the Miles” When done, she looked to me. “What is she describing?”
I had no idea. It made no sense to me. I confessed my confusion.
“It’s a train,” my mother smiled. “Emily is picturing how a train glides across the countryside, chugs up a mountain, winds its way downhill, the sound it makes. Now that you know it’s a train, I’ll read it again. You’ll see and hear the train for yourself.”
She read it again. And I saw it. I heard it. And a world opened.
My mother offered more of Emily’s poetry to me. Our routine was the same. Mom would read it aloud, then explain it, then read it again. Each poem was a revelation. My mother unlocking the door to each one. “A narrow Fellow in the Grass” was a snake. “A Route of Evanescence” a hummingbird. Soon, I was yanking the hefty The Complete Poems by Emily Dickinson down from the shelf by myself. Alone in the den. My mother nowhere in sight. Perhaps she washed dishes downstairs in our kitchen or lugged a blue plastic basket of family clothes into the laundry room. I was curled up on the couch in the den clutching Emily, her words launching me like a little boat on journeys inward and outward.
There is no Frigate like a Book
To take us Lands away
Nor any Coursers like a Page
Of prancing Poetry –
This Traverse may the poorest take
Without oppress of Toll –
How frugal is the Chariot
That bears the Human Soul –
My mother shared with me her green 1945 first edition of Ancestors’ Brocades, the memoir by Millicent Todd Bingham telling how her own mother, Mabel Loomis Todd, co-edited the first publishing of Dickinson’s poetry, announcing Emily to the world in 1890, four years after her death. Although Mabel Loomis Todd had visited Emily Dickinson’s home for four years by that time, she had never laid eyes on the reclusive poet in person except in her coffin.
Emily’s solitude, her expansive inner life, her monk-like self-ordination to the service of her soul has enthralled me to this day. I am as much enamored of her life as I am of her poetry. To me, they are one and the same.
My mother’s persona was more Donna Reed than Emily Dickinson. Mom was pretty, vivacious, classy. She wore pearls and black heels and Channel No. 5. She gave me her joy, her sense of style and fun. She gave me her intellect, her delight for the arts. She gave me her love and her friendship. She gave me all of herself.
And she gave me Emily.
Stephen Sachs is the Co-Artistic Director of the Fountain Theatre