Emily Dickinson has had a death grip on my imagination since I first encountered her by way of a lisping, born-again, junior-high English teacher in Easley, South Carolina. Miss Crosswell was a proselytizing stickler, a Quasimodette. She had a zeal for pointless authoritative rubric, stuck sermons into her literature lessons, and was empathetically trollish. A proud graduate of Oral Roberts University, Miss Crosswell heard in Dickinson’s poetry what Miss Crosswell purported to hear in everything: the music of unshakeable faith.
My own household was under the spell of Oral Roberts and his ilk. In the anxious womb of my bun-haired, makeup-free mother, I attended revivals of every televangelist who came near town, from Ernest Angley to Jimmy Swaggart. As I was growing up I noted a pendulous quality in my zealous father: every fit of fanaticism complemented one of deviance. This dynamic prompted my early suspicions that religious faith was infinitely more complicated than the airtight version the adults around me were so desperately marketing. To her credit, Miss Crosswell felt a need to allude to a ribald past she was not proud of, but these obstacles didn’t stop her from seeing Dickinson as her kindred. They both lived alone, in houses with enviable views, saving themselves for some Great Approaching Thing. My inner reactionary accused Miss Crosswell of selective perception, of preferential listening; she seemed to overlook Dickinson’s doubt and wildness and was using her, like Noah used pitch on the ark, to make things stick together, to fill holes.
On the other hand, I’ve done my share of selective perception and preferential listening, too. For the longest time I assumed Dickinson was from the South. (Coming of age in upstate South Carolina can be like growing up in a cauldron that you can’t see out of: Oral Roberts was an authority figure everywhere, right? They watched The Dukes of Hazzard in Denmark, didn’t they? I mean, President Jimmy Carter—pre-empting The Waltons or Hee-Haw—didn’t sound that different from our mayor.) Maybe the Southern associations were forever sealed by my first hearing Dickinson’s poems in Miss Crosswell’s falsetto drawl (was “I never saw a Moor” not about cows?). The poems’ lilting trees, garden snakes, tight-knit communities, horses, farmers, noisy birds, barns, cemeteries, and expanses of darkness sounded just a few power lines, Fords, and crawdads short of an exact description of where I lived. And Dickinson talked like everyone around me who was either doomsaying about death or throwing around crucial conceits from the King James Bible. And that white dress she wore seemed straight out of Gone with the Wind, which my sister and mother watched on holidays. Surely, Emily Dickinson was from some haunted Southern city where they’d witnessed Civil War battles from their rooftops; surely, her tone of bereavement was rooted in commiseration with a town of War widows. She was gothic, right? And didn’t the South have dibs on that?
Despite her rarely leaving her (okay, New England) house, there is a spiritual homelessness in Dickinson that I loved even as a youth. She writes of an imaginary spider that is “so much more at Home than I / …I felt myself a visitor.” She refers to countless things, inanimate and animate, as “Souvenirs,” as if she were just passing through this world on her way to somewhere else, which is ironic when one considers how much of her life she spent at home. Much is made of her sense of place, which seems like a no-brainer for such a stationary individual, but I don’t think she’d disagree with Samuel Beckett’s idea that the true artist comes from nowhere.
I had coped with many of the events in my childhood by pretending that my home wasn’t my home and that its people weren’t my people. One practices this for a while, and before one knows it, one suffers from a perpetual disassociation, or Chronic Tourism. One becomes an unscientific anthropologist, absent-mindedly cataloging the ways of the natives. An unfortunate side effect of this syndrome is that one occasionally fails to consider the feelings of one’s subjects. Once, I used the answer blanks of a test—for which I was unprepared—to write a malicious analysis of Miss Crosswell (her fears, her righteousness, her lonely motivation). The assistant principal threatened me with expulsion, saying that my attack had made Miss Crosswell cry, that it had hurt her more than any other blustery teen cruelty she’d weathered. She informed me that Miss Crosswell was one of the few teachers who honestly loved her job, who wasn’t here by some career default. It was decided that I would have to “attend” Miss Crosswell’s class sitting out in the hall until she could accept my apology and allow me to return. Which she never did. Suited me fine; I could be even more of an impartial observer from my desk in the hall. But there was a long-term punishment brewing, one as ironic and tragicomic as that of Tantalus or Sisyphus. I would grow up to be an English teacher freighted with spiritual complications and personal investment in my work, standing in front of an adolescent powder keg, teaching, among other things, the work of Emily frigging Dickinson.
Dickinson’s poems accompanied me to school in Charleston and Florida—two ideal places for sufferers of Chronic Tourism. I dragged her Complete Poems to jobs and beaches and hammocks and restaurants; I inflicted her on girlfriends, roommates, fishermen, and, once, a meter maid (“Floss won’t save you from an Abyss,” was my early-morning response to her parking ticket.) I got to study Dickinson with two wise old profs nearly blacklisted for their insistence on offering legit, old-school literature courses in a climate of pop and gender and post-colonial fervor. One of them read her aloud with a swashbuckling, proclamatory heft, like a Sermon on the Mount delivered by Teddy Roosevelt. This fanfare approach was shocking, because by then I had a theory that the reason many readers feel so strangely close to Dickinson is that, like an intimate, she whispers to us. For one thing, she uses those hushing—pausing—disarming—dashes. Then, in her drafts, she underlines all those words, which, in their current italics format, only adds to the Sshh! Someone’s coming! mood. And these in poems that are mostly about adumbrated desire.