Me and Emily Dickinson

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.

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