FORESTS, TREES AND PURPLE COWS:
AN EMILY DICKINSON CONVERSION OF THE MIND
by Wendy Barker
Page 1Until I was thirty-three I thought she was only a minor parasite on the vigorous growth of American literature, the fine old oak forest of such thick-trunked trees as Ralph Waldo, Henry David, Herman, and Nathaniel. Those guys. And this curling twisting thing with no trunk of her own, gasping out silly lines like "I never saw a moor." Hah. Not much better, really, than the parody "I never saw a purple cow." This sing-song lady who frittered after butterflies. Horrors. I spent my time with the Big Boys. Didn't want even to look at somebody who might be associated with purple cows. And of course, my fear may have had something to do with any underlying sense that I might actually "be one," be too much like this breathy lady who dressed in white. I wore brown cords, heavy shoes, planned a Ph.D. thesis on Mark Twain.
But like this nineteenth-century American woman poet who dressed all in white and who punctuated lines with dashes like signs, or gasps, or reminders of other, inexpressible, thoughts, I too had a "Secret" so "Big" it had to be "bandaged" (P 1737). For years, I had been filling the drawers of my bedside table with poems; for years I had been trying to manage "A quiet-- Earthquake Style," allowing my "still--Volcano" to flicker only "in the night" (P 601) when I was sure my "Racket" couldn't shame me. It was a life in which I felt I had to "cover" who I was. "To simulate--is stinging work," Dickinson observes, particularly, as she adds, "since we got a Bomb--And held it in our Bosom" (P 443). The bomb in my bosom, as well as the volcano underfoot, threatened to explode regularly. It took every ounce of energy I had to keep them quiet, "still," invisible, secret. Simulating was precisely what I had been doing for years.
Somewhere far under, way back, I had lost who I was, where I was going. I had always been, from earliest girlhood, one of the dreamers, someone who liked--in fact, had--to think, and from age nine I knew I had to write. But ever so subtly, and ever so powerfully, I had been led-- and allowed myself to be led--away from what Dickinson called "fine philosophy" (L 45).
What I was led to--in the 1950s--involved learning how to be pretty, which for me was no easy task. In my family women and girls were classified according to their physical attributes; one of my best and kindest friends, I was told by my parents, was certainly a very nice girl, but it was such a shame nothing could ever be done about her piano legs. Although I wasn't cursed with piano legs, I was hopelessly stoop-shouldered, legally blind without thick-lensed glasses, and my thin wispy hair wouldn't hold curls even if I used a can of Spray Net. Worst of all, what I wanted to do was spend all my time reading, often under the blankets at night with a flashlight.
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