Sometimes, at night, I get these aches to know the lives I haven’t lived, lives I wanted to know better. Your life is one of them. I think of all the family letters you wrote, so many that Grandpa began to store them behind the smoke house, in the old fridge with the rounded shoulders and the pull latch door. Then one summer all the letters were gone. In their place was a 50 pound bag of dog food. (Which reminds me that I want to remind you that there will be dogs in heaven)
It would’ve been so much easier to get a chronicle of your life through your letters. Instead, I’ve turned to Emily Dickinson. For days I’ve been carrying around The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson, all 770 pages of it. It isn’t a heavy book. The pages are thin, wispy even. I know how you love her and I know how, after you retired, you set out to analyze all 1775 of her poems. Sometimes I even open the book and read pieces of poems like this one:
Tell all the Truth but tell it slant—
The truth is I do not enjoy reading Emily Dickinson.
When I first went to college my mom bought me an antique charcoal sketch of Emily Dickinson’s home. The sketch is torn now, missing a large corner. Maybe this was due to mice. Maybe dogs. Maybe it just aged and disintegrated. This sketch wasn’t enough to engage my fascination.
Emily’s poems are controlled, tight as a stiff back, with a precision of word choices that, although astounding, leave me stranded.
I’m having some trouble finding a segue here, which tells me my heart isn’t in it, this off the top of my head critique. I will try again. This time I will tell All the Truth.
You, I see as a meanderer, moving through the world like water or wind. I see you as Rilke’s falcon circling the primordial tower. Emily, I see as a great song circling that same tower. She, who spent so much time in her garden, became the rhythm of bird song, became the hovering silence of bees, became, even, the crash of waves in the horizon of her imagination.
It is from this imagination that she sees tiger lilies as “Blazing in gold and quenching in Purple/Leaping like Leopards to the sky”
When I see tiger lilies I do not see leopards leaping across the sky. I see their tall, thin bodies moving with that McGraw grace that is at once flowing, at once hesitant. I see their elegance, growing alongside the shadow weeds on the banks of the Mississippi. There, they go about their unassuming business of blooming and stretching toward the sun.
Last summer I’d drive to a dairy farm every week to get milk. The milk was sweet and fresh, in glass bottles, with a cream line I’d scoop off for my coffee. It was a way of scrambling backwards, an imagined recapturing of a life I didn’t lead, a life that wasn’t meant for me.
That is what I did but that is not what happened. What happened was I saw clusters of tiger lilies by the roadside and my breath caught. I saw the branch of a long needled pine reaching for me and I reached back. This beauty was not mine to have. I have no doubt that it yearned for me as I did it, the same way that the purple-headed Alfalfites in the field called out as I dusted up, down the rutted dirt road. And there, like the falcon and the tower, I circled between memory and grief and grateful awe.
So my dear Rene, I will continue to circle that primordial tower where you leave off and I will keep Emily with me. And, maybe, I will come to love her as I love you.