So many writers have responded to the poems and person of Emily Dickinson that it seems extravagant, even self-indulgent, to add a word. And yet her poems have touched me as a reader, writer, and thinker, enhancing my understanding of the world in ways permanent and profound. One thing she made clear to me is the transparent dialectic that imagines life after death.
My favorite afterlife poem is #479, an eternal carriage ride around the earth with a civil coachman driving the horses (there are worst versions of what happens when we die). One joy for me is the poetic turn between the 3rd and 4th stanzas. The speaker has observed from the carriage window the stages of life: childhood and its rules of play, an adulthood like attentive grain, and old age like the setting sun.
But the relationship between the sun and the carriage is revised immediately in the first line of the 4th stanza: “Or rather—He passed Us—.” The carriage moves slower than earth’s rotation that hides and reveals the sun. Perhaps the carriage barely moves at all, an inch, a centimeter, a day. What does time matter in eternity anyway? Nature continues its cycles relentlessly, while time is set free.
A similar understanding of eternity is essential in the opening chapter of Love Lets Us Down. When newlyweds Dorissa and Don Millard die tragically on their honeymoon night, their remains take forty years to travel three-quarters of a mile to the Meridian Inn, where they had a reservation. The speed they establish, twenty-three-thousandths of an inch per minute, approximately three-and-a-quarter inches a day, is the same length as the average flaccid penis. At least that’s what a friend told me.
Other Dickinson poems that are part of the afterlife dialectic include #445, #519, and #591, and are worth taking a look at.
In March of 2002, nine writers and poets traveled to New Orleans. We rented a house just off Rampart. My husband and I took the smallest suite, while the men took the other suite downstairs, and the women had the entire upper floor. The house had a second-floor balcony just wide enough to sit down with your legs crossed. We walked everywhere we went, all the way to St. Charles Avenue and back to the Quarter, up and down Canal Street, and to Saint Louis Cemetery #1 to see the grave of Marie Laveau.
New Orleans felt magic to me. Its sensory landscape powered my walking: an umami scent from an alley, glittering beads in spring trees, the twang of a washboard street band. I felt overwhelmingly charmed and greedy, like I was taking pleasure from the city without returning the favor. I began to drop dollar bills near street corners where I was sure someone would find them.
The mausoleum of Madame Laveau had been turned into a hands-on shrine, crude Xs canceling each other out on its walls, and its small plot covered with offerings, faded plastic flowers, beads, cups of water, a brand new cigar. Near the edge, I saw a small shard of pottery, what had once been part of a decorative clay pot. The shard had an intricate beaded design, as if some ancient Etruscan had rolled small pieces of wet clay between her fingers and then pressed them into a line.
I lusted after the pottery shard because it had been given to honor Marie Laveau. I felt compelled to take it. But I knew I had to leave something in return or my desire might get me cursed. I found a brand new tube of lipstick that I had bought for the trip and placed it on the ground with the other offerings. I picked up the shard and imagined its energy, ceremony twined with decay.
The small piece of pottery lives on my kitchen window sill where the morning sun touches it even in winter. I don’t worry that a thief will break in and steal it. Its looks do not reveal its value.
Chekhov’s short story, “The Lady with the Dog,” is described as a work of realism because it depicts life as it is without making moral judgements. Dmitri Gurov, a middle-aged banker who is bored with his marriage, begins an affair with a young woman, Anna, while each is vacationing sans spouse at Yalta, the equivalent of Vegas (what happens in Yalta, stays in Yalta). Gurov returns home but cannot forget Anna. The more he thinks of her, the more he desires to be in her presence. He is driven by passion to the provincial town where she lives, though he has no real plan for communicating with her.* The two meet and continue their affair, until at the end of the story when they both commit to making their relationship public and legitimate.
Gurov and Anna are cheaters in love. In a moralistic tale, their affair would demand punishment. Maybe that’s why the story ends when it does. Their commitment to turn the affair into a legitimate relationship will no doubt inspire gossip, civil and social conflict, and other difficulties for both of them. Realistically, society will takes sides.
While the story is realistic, it’s safe to say that Gurov is a romantic. He has always been popular with women and imagines himself a great lover, until the moment he catches sight of himself in a mirror in the hotel room he shares with Anna. His assessment: “His hair was already beginning to turn gray. It struck him as strange that he should have aged so much in the last few years, have lost so much of his looks.” Realizing his own mortality, he also realizes that for the first time in his life, he is in love. But in love with what? Anna’s beauty, her emotional fragility, her innocence and naivety. His commitment turns on a desire to reclaim his youth.
What a romantic!
*Symbolism: When Gurov arrives in Anna’s town, he stays in a small hotel. Chekhov writes, “He arrived at S. in the morning and engaged the best suite in the hotel, which had a carpet of gray military frieze, and a dusty ink-pot on the table, surmounted by a headless rider, holding his hat in his raised hand.” Sometimes a dusty ink-pot is more than a dusty ink-pot; our man on a white horse has lost his head!!
Love Lets Us Down is a humorous novel about broken hearts and doomed love. For a single day, newlywed ghosts haunt a room in an aging hotel, the Meridian Inn. On the day that the ghosts arrive, a variety of other characters, employees and guests, inhabit the hotel, whose public spaces–the lobby, the pool area, the parking lot–provide the context for a wide range of characters to interact. The characters’ individual stories include: an unfaithful wife, an unfaithful husband, a runaway girl, a broken engagement, divorce, and unrequited love. If there is a hero in the novel, it might be the night supervisor, Duncan, whose bitterness and sarcasm veil a subjectivity compelled to assess and reflect, and to become involved in the concerns of other people.
Still, in the end, Duncan doesn’t get his dream girl. He’s no longer certain that he wants her. The unfaithful wife leaves to drive home. The broken engagement remains at an impasse. The missing girl is returned to her family. Other characters settle down for the night. The newlywed ghosts have outstayed their welcome; their escorting “angels” arrive. The novel ends with a movement toward an elastic afterlife that is led by eternal, if unconsummated, “marriage.”
Love Lets Us Down is available on Amazon and Kindle.