FORESTS, TREES AND PURPLE COWS:
AN EMILY DICKINSON CONVERSION OF THE MIND
by Wendy Barker
Page 4But whether devil girl or dutiful, good girl, just the fact that she had done it was enabling, and that she had done it brilliantly, with over 1,700 poems as rich and various and memorable as any in the English language. "I'm Nobody! Who are You? / Are you - Nobody - Too? / Then there's a pair of us?" (P 288), Dickinson wrote. So if I was a nobody, then it didn't matter, in fact, it was all the better. In closing that door when I resigned from the public schools, I had opened one that led to my own soul's society, and found for the first time that there was nothing wrong with me, that there in fact existed an entire "Nation" of women writers like us, like Dickinson's crickets celebrating their "Unobtrusive Mass" that "Enhances nature" with its own rich and various "Difference" (P 1068). And as I began to read further, I found that those of us who had decided that prettiness and niceness had nothing to do with "Possibility," with poetry, with Art on our terms, included not only Dickinson, but also Jane Austen, Charlotte and Emily Bronte, George Eliot, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Christina Rossetti, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Virginia Woolf, Hilda Doolittle, and dozens, hundreds, of others, many of whom were contemporary writers, and some of whom I was beginning to meet and know. All of these were women-- writers, artists--who, as Vinnie said of her brilliant sister, "had to think," who "had that to do" (Millicent Todd Bingham, Emily Dickinson's Home: letters of Edward Dickinson and His Family. New York: Harper, 1955, p. 414). And who did it. Who said "No," in blood-colored, fiery lava, so that--paradoxically--they could say "Yes" to essential things. The greatest paradox of all, I found, was that saying "No" opened up worlds of "Yes's," opened paths into the woods of books and poetry and Art--and, oddly, to community needs--in ways I had never imagined.
The forest of literature has been a completely different place, in fact, since I found Dickinson. It's more lush, colorful, complex, inviting, and it's become more vital, more significant. Emerson and Hawthorne seem even more alive, actually--the leaves of their thick old trees crisp amid Dickinson's vines that leap and twirl throughout. I guess my eye was tuned only to look for straight-up-and-down-trees, trees of a certain breadth and height, and anything else either I didn't see at all or thought of as unessential, weedy, something to be pruned out. My ideas of what is beautiful--and what is good--have changed, have been, as Yeats said, "transformed utterly."
I even think differently about purple cows. I'm trying to become one. You don't find them in barns, standing still to be milked. They're the ones running beyond the pasture, through the woods, trampling dead twigs that have fallen from the trees, and then leaping high into the night, flying over the moon, and with sharp heels sending new suns into orbit whose light will cause the forests of this old earth to look radically different, and the barns, and the milking stools, as well as vines and trees. They're the ones causing conversions of the mind throughout the old forests, illuminating mushroom and shrews, owls and lichen, roots and rock--there are so many creatures besides the oaks. They're the ones who have learned how to do what Dickinson did so brilliantly before us, find the way to "Immortality," to utmost "Possibility," for any of us, whatever place we might initially occupy in the woods of this world.
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