Emily Dickinson’s White Dress & A Hunter of Lost Souls

Photograph — Alex Waterhouse-Hayward

During these last few months my late evenings in our Kitsilano (Vancouver) home have been spent either reading Jorge Luís Borges in Spanish or Emily Dickinson in English.

For reasons that I cannot fathom by the time I had amassed a collection of 400 hostas in our old Athlone home I only had one of the literary hostas. In our new home I have a slow growing Hosta ‘Robert Frost’ but no Hosta ‘Emily Dickinson’. My guess is that when I first stumbled upon this narrow leaved hosta I was not all that interested in Dickinson.

That has all changed and I am having lots of fun illustrating Dickinson poems with photographs from my collection. See below for the links.

My interest in Dickinson ballooned when my friend writer Jerome Charyn published his Secret Life of Emily Dickinson in 2010.This fine book is what I call a first person autobiographic novel as Charyn writes it in the first person.

After A Secret Life I became a daily Dickinson reader. This has become even more intense since I purchased Charyn’s most recent A Loaded Gun which is a biography (with lots of subjective interpretation) on Dickinson .

Charyn paints Dickinson as a smoldering un-spinster whose poems reveal to him (and many other biographers) a strong overt sexuality on the woman who dressed in black, but did not.

That one famous photograph of a young Dickinson taken in 1847 has her in that black dress. But it seems that later in life she strictly wore white. One of the dresses still exists and you can read about it here.

Last Thursday when my friend baroque upright string bassist Curtis Daily and I were taking photographs of the blue-haired Olena (wonderful she is) she put on a chemise like dress that was not quite white. Olena looked exotically erotic in it and the first thought in my head was that somehow Dickinson had traveled to our day in my house to pose! 
 That is far-fetched and certainly not true. But in the scan of that Fuji b+w Instant 3200 film print I see a luminosity that shines in the same way as my mind does when I read her poems.

If I am allowed to admit my obsession for Dickinson, it is a tame one in contrast to Charyn’s. In his Author’s Note he begins:

I couldn’t let go. I’d spent two years writing a novel about her, vampirizing her letters and poems, sucking the blood out of her bones, like some hunter of lost souls. I’d rifled through every book about her I could find — biographies, psychoanlytic studies of her crippled, wounded self, tales of her martyrdom in the nineteenth century, studies of her iconic white dress, accounts of her agorophobia, etc. I shut my eyes, blinked, and wrote The Secret Life of Emily Dickinson (2010) like a boy galloping on a blind horse. I never believed much in her spinsterhood and shriveled sexuality. Yet she was a spinster in a way, a spinner of words. Spiders were also known as spinsters, a like a spider, she spun her meticulous webs, trapping words until she gathered them in a a Lexicon that had no equal.

Jerome Charyn — the blood sucker — Photograph — Alex Waterhouse-Hayward

Water makes many beds
 The viola da gamba
 But sequence ravelled out of reach
 A parasol is the umbrella’s daughter
 Without the power to die
 Lessons on the piny
 Ample make this bed
 How happy is the little stone

Sleep is supposed to be
 The shutting of the eye
 I dwell in possibility
when Sappho was a living girl
 In a library
 A light exists in spring
 The lady dare not lift her veil
 I took my power in my hand
 I find my feet have further goals
 I cannot dance upon my toes
 The Music of the Violin does not emerge alone
 Red Blaze
 He touched me, so I live to know
 Rear Window- The Entering Takes Away
 Said Death to Passion
 We Wear the Mask That Grins And Lies
 It was not death for I stood alone
The Music in the Violin Does Not Emerge Alone
I tend my flowers for thee
Lavinia Norcross Dickinson
Pray gather me anemone! 
Ample make her bed 
His caravan of red 
Me-come! My dazzled face 
Develops pearl and weed
But peers beyond her mesh
Surgeons must be very careful
Water is taught by thirst
I could not prove that years had feet
April played her fiddle
A violin in Baize replaced
I think the longest hour
The spirit lasts











Link to: Emily Dickinson’s White Dress & A Hunter of Lost Souls

Originally published at blog.alexwaterhousehayward.com.