So, I have these basement bookshelves. They’re filled with half-read books that made their way down there through many a move, or a shift of bedrooms, or any of the other sundry upheavals that travel through a house over time. I’ve taken to digging through these stacks while I am waiting for my laundry to be done in the dryer. I chanced upon this biography of Emily Dickinson one early September morning – The Life of Emily Dickinson. It is written by a rather fantastic writer named Richard B. Sewall. His name alone seems worthy of a man writing about Emily Dickinson and the ivied walls of her Amherst.
I began this book somewhere in the far distant past. I remember liking it but perhaps having to put it down half finished to pick up babies, toddlers, and children’s books for several years. As I leafed through the pages again, I remembered why I liked it. Sewell loves Emily Dickinson, a love that seeps from every page. He is fascinated by her and you find yourself becoming part of his fascination as you read deeper and deeper into her life. There is a wonderful photo of her in the book, the famous one of her in a black dress with severely pulled back hair. There she is, looking like a slight, nervous, little blackbird with a knowing look in her eye. In no way would you immediately think – Oh, poetic genius. You might think – Oh, plain, simple spinster. Then you read some of her poetry and that little spinster disappears and you enter a vast inner life hiding underneath that plain, outer shell. She was witty, pithy, and loved metaphors. She had dizzying flights of language and dark descents into sadness and gloom. She was fascinated by immortality like a moth to a flame. Yet, she was extremely guarded with her thoughts and shared them rarely with anyone. Her letters to loved ones whom she trusted, however, are delightful and filled with puns, and puzzles, and light, tripping wordplay. She was a mystery to the town of Amherst in her later years, having become a recluse for many and perfectly good reasons. The small town people would get very, “creative,” in answering their own curious questions about her since she felt no compulsion to do so herself. I must admit, I love that about her.
One of the more striking creations is a doctored version of her plain and honest photo where her dress is painted white and has a ruff of lace added to it at the collar. Her hair is curled sweetly around her face, which has been softened and touched up. Looking at that doctored photo, I could not help but think of the nature of genius. This well meaning artist just could not fathom, I suppose, that a gifted poet would look so plain. Thus, Emily was dressed up to look more like what a genius should look like. But that’s just it. Genius and mystery are ALWAYS walking around us incognito in simplicity, in all its undoctored glory. We find that truth everywhere.
Gerard Manley Hopkins was a small, slight, nervous little man who felt as awkward and out of place as Emily did in the outer world. He also shares with her a vast, beautiful world of poetry and thought stretching for miles within. Once, after dutifully attending the Ladies Quilting Society Benefit at one of his parishes, he wrote a poem on the back of the program they gave him for the event. There it was lying on a table in his room…genius on the back of a quilting bee flyer. Emily herself wrote her poems on, “odds and ends of paper, on the back of recipes, invitations, shopping lists, and clippings.” If her sister Lavinia or her brother Austin came up to her room, they might find her genius strewn everywhere on her desk.
The poet Wallace Stevens composed all his poetry while walking to work at his Insurance Company in suit, tie and, sensible shoes. No one suspected that this rather dull looking insurance salesman was composing incredible poetry to the beat of his feet walking along.
Genius is like a vein of gold lacing the ordinary of life. It’s there to find, like a surprise on the back of an old receipt. I’ve known these surprises. One of my sons, from early on, drew constantly. I would find his creations all over his bedroom floor and, since I have no talent for drawing, I would pick them up and marvel. Sometimes a priest I know as a friend in the ordinary world suddenly one evening seems lit up from within when he is consecrating the Body and Blood of Jesus. And I realize with an inner gasp that YES, he IS an Alter Christus at that moment. I have also found that genius shining out when a little fourth grader in the class I teach suddenly asks a question that is utterly profound.
Composers, philosophers, poets, saints, children – the humble guardians of beauty. They live among us sometimes very much incognito. How beautifully they imitate Christ in this. All that shining Divinity clothed in our simple flesh. All that wisdom in a Carpenter’s mouth, all that healing power coming forth from the touch of his calloused, Carpenter hands. He, too, guarded His grandeur with humility and simplicity. But sometimes it would inevitably, “flame out, like shining from shook foil,” and those who had, “eyes to see and ears to hear,” marveled.
It’s all such a mystery. It is God with us, all these surprises of genius. Emily Dickinson, Gerard Manley Hopkins, so many other poets, little fourth graders, priests, and insurance salesmen. It’s what keeps us in wonder at the mystery we actually dwell in, and what keeps us alert and searching for the vein of gold just underneath it all.
Denise Trull lives in St. Louis, MO with her husband Tony. She is the artistic director of a small but mighty theater company and loves the written word in all its forms.