Events

Saturday, May 16, 2009

May 15: The Cemetery is Alive on the Anniversary of Emily Dickinson's Death

The spirit of Emily Dickinson seemed tangible in West Cemetery as night waned on the anniversary of her death. Following the very successful premiere of "Emily of Amherst" by Amherst Ballet, members of the company spontaneously decided to pay a nocturnal visit to the poet's grave.

Most had never been to the plot or even the Cemetery before, although a few had begun to acquaint themselves with the site in preparation for the production. Scene 1 of Act Two, "Becoming a Poet," is set there, where her "departed friends" emerge from behind their tombstones. One can easily visit, or just locate virtually, the monuments of Sophia Holland (1828-44) Jennie Grout ?-1851), Abby Haskell (?-1851), and Martha and Ellen Kingman (both ?-1851). The grave of tutor and friend Leonard Humphrey (1824-50) is elsewhere.


A passage recited at the opening of the act suggests how the experience of loss brought Dickinson early on to ponder the fact and symbolism of death and prospects for an afterlife:
I write to Abiah tonight, . . . because I am feeling lonely; some of my friends are gone, and some of my friends are sleeping the churchyard sleep—the hour of evening is sad—it was once my study hour—my master has gone to rest, and the open leaf of the book, and the scholar at school alone, make the tears come, and I cannot brush them away; I would not if I could, for they are the only tribute I can pay the departed [Leonard Humphrey].) You have stood by the grave before; I have walked there sweet summer evenings and read the names on the stones, and wondered who would come and give me the same memorial; but I have never laid my friends there, and forgot that they too must die; . . . To those bereaved so often that home is no more here, and whose communion with friends is only in prayers, there must be much to hope for, but when the unreconciled spirit has nothing left but God, that spirit is lone indeed. I don't think there will be any sunshine, or any singing-birds in the spring that's coming. I shall look for an early grave then, when the grass is growing green.
——to Abiah Root, 1850
For good reason, then, did the "Reader's Guide" to Dickinson's poetry, produced by the NEA and Poetry Foundation for this year's "Big Read" and distributed free to the audience at the ballet, cite the place of immortality as Dickinson's "flood subject."


As the group moved through the cemetery, a simple stroll took on mysterious qualities when the orange haze from the lamps near the Gaylord Gate gave way to increasing darkness and a more restrained, though not somber mood. Near the grave itself, the glow from cell phone screens had to provide most of the light. The dancers investigated the iron fence and monuments and gave Emily the memorial that she craved and doubted. The dancers paid tribute by leaving gifts of flowers—the very bouquets that they had received from friends and family but a short time ago—or striking ballet postures before the family plot.


They also recited Dickinson's letters and poems, chiefly from those used in the ballet, though someone, a parent perhaps, had thought to bring the collected verse, and so the tribute grew. There was a momentary shiver when a fiddler struck up a tune from the opacity somewhere between the 1730 Knoll and the newer section of the cemetery where we stood. In an instant, we relaxed, and he soon came over to join us. A short time later, a group of college women—clearly on their way from a party, but one that had somehow prompted them to want to render their homage to Emily—wandered our way in need of directions, which we gladly supplied.

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As the gathering closed, someone instinctively reached for the poem that introduced Act Four, "Legacy," on Emily Dickinson's posthumous fate:


The Poets light but Lamps ~
Themselves — go out —

The Wicks they stimulate

If vital Light


Inhere as do the Suns ~

Each Age a Lens

Disseminating their

Circumference —


The reader cried, and she was not alone in doing so.


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