Wendy Barker

Forests, Trees and Purple Cows: An Emily Dickinson Conversion of the Mind

Until 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.

During those years in Tucson I used to try to convince my mother and father to move us all Back East, where we had come from in the late '40s. You couldn't fool me--I knew that no real writers lived in suburban tract houses built since WWII, in neighborhoods of uncracked sidewalks and six-foot mulberry trees struggling to take root under patchy bermuda lawns. No real writers lived in Arizona, I was sure of it; they all lived east of the Hudson River, probably in glamorous places like Brooklyn, or Harlem, with fascinating real people growing as thick as the berries that brightened our pyracantha bushes in drab winter. The worst of it was, that even if my parents ever agreed to move Back East, I probably could never qualify as a writer because I seemed to lack key ingredients: I'd never be able to grow a beard, my tendency to asthma precluded my ever becoming a chain-smoker, and I couldn't imagine ever drinking large quantities of scotch and writing at the same time. Everything was all wrong. Because I did write, obsessively.

I was almost 30--in my sixth year of high school teaching and by that time living in Berkeley--when the volcano began rumbling uncontrollably, refused to lie "still" under the grass. I actually loved the teaching, the energy and spontaneity of the kids. But during passing period, I'd jot down lines for a poem on those little green pads for listing absences. While we showed the film of Julius Caesar, I'd jot down lines for a poem on one of the little pink pads for hall passes. While the kids were writing in class I'd write poems on the blue pads for library passes. And I had begun to collect them, to pile them in the two drawers of the table in the bedroom. It had gotten so I couldn't close the drawers.

So I finally resigned, even though friends thought I was crazy to give up a tenured teaching job in the Berkeley Public Schools, a district that had more bright kids littering cafeteria tables at lunch than most school districts in the country had chairs. Pay was good, medical and dental coverage were 100 percent, I was out of my mind to resign. Just take a leave, I was told. I didn't know then that I could have retorted, "Much madness is divinest sense" (P 435). But I did know what I was doing. It was time to admit who I was, to let this bomb out in the open, to dance abroad.

That was the first time in my life that I had uttered, loudly and openly, what Dickinson calls the "wildest word in the English language" (L 562). I said "No." "No" to kids whose energy was sapping mine, "No" to administrators who talked about community needs, "No" to worries about supporting myself without a regular teaching salary. I said "No" to everything that had been keeping me from the "Society" of my own "Soul" (P 303). At the time, no one understood. But for the first time in my life I knew what I was doing. And by saying "No," by closing that door, a great space opened. I began to remember where I had forgotten I was going. I began to reclaim myself.

I didn't discover Dickinson right away. It was after a couple of years in graduate school that I read Richard Sewall's biography on Dickinson. Those two corn-colored volumes led me to the letters, which I read straight through, and finally, all the poems in Johnson's one-volume edition. Quite simply, I haven't been the same since. It was, to quote the Amherst genius herself, a "Conversion of the Mind" (P 593). Shortly afterward, I met Sandra Gilbert, in the first "Madwoman in the Attic" course she taught at U.C. Davis, showed her some of my poems, and decided on the dissertation. It would be, of course, on Dickinson.

What I had begun to see was that this poet was writing very clearly about what I now realized had been the central conflict of my own life, a conflict so overwhelming that I had almostgotten lost, become invisible, gone under. What had happened, ever so subtly, was that from childhood the world had pushed the round pegs of my intellect, originality, creativity, and energy into the square holes of societal expectations for women. Had manipulated me into saying Yes to what Dickinson called "Life's little duties," like the "smaller bundles" in "Perhaps I asked too large - " (P 352) that the speaker complains "cram" her basket, the basket that she knows can hold "Firmaments."

As I began to work in earnest with Dickinson's poems, I began to realize how divinely sane, how blindingly courageous she must have been. I was convinced that she knew her genius, as Adrienne Rich has argued she did, and constructed her life so that she could say yes to her Art ("Vesuvius at Home: The Power of Emily Dickinson," Shakespeare's Sisters: Feminist Essay on Women Poets, eds. Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar. Bloomington and London: Indiana University Press, 1979). That's why she said "No" to everything else, to dressmakers, to church socials, Wordsworth's world of "getting and spending." Rather than "lay waste" her "means," she could concentrate her energies, choose her own "society," structure her life so that every detail, every gesture, every act, fed the Art. Much of the power of Dickinson's poetry stems from the brilliant manner by which the poet finds way (often metaphoric, as I argue in Lunacy of Light) to subvert the cultural roadblocks that would have kept her from poetry, from intellectual and creative "Possibility" (P 657). As her speaker says, "They" may have "shut [her] up in Prose" (P 613), but they couldn't stop her mind, her ability to "Abolish Captivity" as "easy as a Star."

But I knew from reading the poems and letters that it wasn't always easy. Just as I had grown up worrying about trying to be pretty, I had also grown up knowing it was essential (especially if one wasn't pretty) to be nice. I excelled at niceness. That I learned to do. In fact, in our family of three girls, of which one of my sisters was the smart one, and another the pretty one, I was the nice one. A good girl, helpful, nice to have around. But when I began to let the volcano pour forth its lava, began openly to write, all that niceness got in the way. I had to strip away layers of niceness in order to write, and in the stripping down, found that much of what lay underneath all that pleasantness and cooperativeness and sunshiny-ness was scary as a real volcano. And what I found in Dickinson's poems were many of the same fears I had. If you uttered, regularly and firmly, the "wildest word in the English language," said "No" in blood- colored lava to half the world who would have you serving them dessert and nodding in approval at the boring, tedious observations, then did that mean you were a bad girl? Dickinson's goblins and haunted chambers, her rats and snakes, all testify to her own fear that she might be a devil girl, an evil one to pursue so relentlessly her own ideas, her own voice, rather than simply enabling others to sound their words, their dreams.

But 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.



My mother never
understood how, after the first time
(when the earth cracked and the blackness,
like a magnet,

dragged my feet down to the ore)
how after that, I went by myself, how
every October the pears rotting on the ground
blocked the way down, how

I burrowed under the brown fruit,
found my way, tunnelling through loam
past bedrock, drawing nearer and nearer
to the fire. In the light of flame

veins of silver, clots of gold
fed my eyes,
my hands glowed scarlet
as I held them toward the hearth.

I never could explain him to my mother,
how I set up my own forge,
had my own hammer, tongs, built
circlets of rubies, diamonds, topaz.

He didn't nag like Apollo,
always saying "Look at me, look
up, look into my eyes when you
speak." I could carve all day.

Neither my mother nor her
brother ever understood
I went because I wanted to,
year after year. They never knew

that was how I was able
to return each April
to find Narcissus, and to feed
my brilliance to the breeze.



She did not want to burn
down the house because
she was in love with fire.

It was never that.
It was because of the closed
doors, the straight walls

that stopped any long breathing,
that told her, when she tried
to laugh, to stop.

And the chairs, the chairs
slim and delicate,
lined against the edge

of a room, lap sideways
to lap, no one facing.
Even the windows looking out

felt too slick and hard
to her fingers, nothing open
about them. How did she know

that what she saw
outside was really there?
That the hedges were any more

yielding than a locked door?
And the stones rose in walls so high
so thick, she had never found

the way out.
                   In the first delicate
lickings of flame, the lovely

leafings of orange, yellow,
the prickings and twinings
of the snapping noises,

she could hear voices,
the click of new tongues,
the lap of loud breathing,

and she knew
that as the roar began,
with its great wind, blackness,

red over brightest red, flames
that took over the sky,
she knew she did love it

now, it was all
she had ever loved,
this sweet terror

that raced its own body
together with hers
over the terraces, the gardens,

out to the orchards, the hills,
its blazing voice
finally loud enough,

that the only way it would ever stop
would be when it had spoken
to everything it could find,

and there would be,
for the first time,
nothing left, nothing

left to say.



                         Is never easy.
Lines of folks there were, not only
moms and dads with young ones,
waiting to get in
to breathe for ten minutes
in a world so long defunct
we can't even imagine
the spaces between us.

The dinosaurs, titans before us,
lizardly mysteries, why did their time
come so suddenly, how did they go?

Their great necks
circle over our heads.
There was a time we had to crane
our necks just to look
into our fathers' faces.
We climbed the mountains of their knees,
sat quiet in their laps.

These are the largest creatures
we can imagine, old gods, great
grandfathers and grandmothers nobody
knows what happened to.

And yet when we touch their skin,
we find it soft as an old sofa,
soft as reading Babar in bed
before the light is turned out.

The ice yesterday glazed the fields,
white glass heightening oak leaves,
thickened petals, a solid world.

Today the dogs tear
the bare dirt with their nails,
the leaves quiver after yesterday's
unanimous white, broad stretch of ice.

The trees are smaller without
all that whiteness, there is nothing
to look up at.

How the world shifts when the old
fathers are gone. We had always been
the small ones, living under the shadows
of the huge trees, the giants
among us.

Some say
dinosaurs had warm blood, were not
reptilian at all, these ancestors
of birds.

                   Outside my window the tiny
chipping sparrows gather. Dozens,
sweeping the ground. Barely
visible against the cold dirt,
the dried grasses, the colors
of winter. Sometimes I forget
to look, make sure
they are still there.



A woman bends
over a blanket she opens
to offer a gift: Peruvian

dolls for the dead.
Formed from shreds, figures shaped
like family, friends, made

to keep the dead from loneliness.
Their yarn mouths grin
wide ovals, loose braids drift

down long skirts, the weave
ravelling, thread dropped
from the warp.

Some of the dolls hold
little ones, babies, faces
pale as the shells of eggs.

One lies on her back, swollen belly
covered with a tapestry of gold, red.
Three figure lean over her

as the baby emerges.
I gather the dolls in a row
in my room. Silent

color of berries,
doves, of rings
inside trees.

Six years old, Phoenix
subdivision too new for trees,
too hot for flowers, I craved

the Story Book Dolls at the dime store,
full skirts that rustled
like petals pressed

into cardboard and cellophane boxes.
Dolls named after stories I read
in my room with the blinds

drawn from the sun, from the square yard
outside, bare except for the oleander,
castor beans we were told

never to touch with our mouths.
I saved my nickels
for months, but all I could buy

was a plain doll, short skirt,
not someone from a book,
Snow White, Sleeping

Beauty cost too much, their velvet
and lace, coiled hair, shining
crowns. I wanted them

to bloom in a row over my bed,
their wide skirts, petticoats
ruffling the bare wall.

I remember in France, driving to Chartres,
how the cathedral
lifts the valley around it. I remember

our eyes rising to portals
where saints are gathered
in rows, where stone

has been carved into lace, stories
for people who couldn't read.
And I remember how we entered

in silence the vault of light
and faced the rose
window, its great round

ringing circles within
   where doves wing

down to the mother
offering her child,
pale, oval faces blooming.



   Why--do they shut me out of Heaven?
   Did I sing--too loud?
      - Emily Dickinson

   Her voice was ever soft, gentle, and low,
   an excellent thing in woman.
      - King Lear

October, grasses beyond the house
so heavy in their seeding
a voice rises from far
under my breasts. Voices that
congregate, push their heat through
the open door of my throat.

I listen to Verdi, Donizetti.
The notes follow one another, eager,
lush, clusters opening like umbrels of
small flowers, asters, flames that build
into a bonfire, like running
steps through a field

after a light rain, the way
the man I married and I have
followed each other beyond
what we could see, into
the great trees of the old
woods, shadowy variation of

shape, sounds in the wind.
The grasses are more alive now
than any other time of year, massed
fronds, clusters of angel
hair, restless seed, wings
calling, constant rustle.

I read in the papers that a woman named
Elojia Macias has been arrested because
she sang again at mass, the voice
she says of an angle who sings to her,
who tells her she must offer her voice,
sing out in the voice of an angel.

I remember in the fourth grade the school bus
patrol told me to hush, no singing
allowed on the way to school. October
nights cooling, pyrancantha berries
reddening, clean morning
air. I had been happy. After that

I would sing only the family car.
But then years later, just before
we married, in the sudden summer rain,
he had to put the top us on his Healey,
for the time heard
the sound of my singing. Said to stop.

He taught people how not to sing
like that, did it for a living,
didn't want to be reminded of
the way most women sound when they sing,
too much breath. The smoldering
inside a throat, of notes wanting.

The voice that woke me
in Berkeley, the sixties,
my twenties. Someone playing
a flute in the night, playing
all night long, piercing the night
till I could not sleep.

Long afternoons on a blanket in the hills
far off the road, eucalyptus rustling
above us, dropping the brown bells of
their seeds falling around us on the damp
earth, as our voices reached beyond
themselves, breath merging into breath,

breeze from across the bay, white fog
entering the Golden Gate, misting
his black hair glistening a halo
rising as he asked if I wanted to
sing again, sign again. Once one has begun
to sing like that--impossible not to.

In the Vienna Volksoper, Mozart's Queen
of the Night floats to the stage like an angel,
her train a cluster of stars radiant
in the dark, her notes so high they lift us
beyond the carved ceiling, beyond Schonbrunn, wide
ranges of the Danube, the Alps.

How long has it taken this soprano to learn
these trills, these amazing reaches
of lung, of open throat? In the opera's
last act we see her flattened
on the stage floor, a trap door lowering,
removing her from the climactic

final arias, the reunions of all
the others. We have lost her
high notes rising, pushing the limits.
     What is it that prefers still
the quiet, lower tone, the unlit match, well-mown
lawn, small murmur of a low, shy hum?


   Batter my heart, three-personed God...
      - John Donne

1. The Doves
The day the doves began to roost on her roof.
Their curdled calls, a sound of something boiling.
Odd, the fog that morning crept so cool around the windows,
that by noon cleared for only a couple of hours, returning
mid-afternoon to blanket the house
so the murmuring of the doves seem louder, louder.

She refilled the feeder that hung
outside the kitchen window. The rush
of the tiny kernels of millet into the long tube.
The rush of the small wings as finches, chickadees
landed on the small metal rods, curled their claws
around the perches, and dipped, dipped.
When the doves flew down, the smaller birds, frightened,
flew away.

Neighbors fussed about the doves, too many,
they tore the roofs. The couple next door trapped them.
Evenings she would creep outside, let the birds loose.
Would come back into the lighted house, finish
the dishes, place them, dripping, into the white drainer
as night came on, as the doves fluttered into place
under her eaves, settled on her roof, quiet
now, so all she could hear as she slept were the fog horns
calling from the wet black bay, the fog horns,
their low, incessant calling.

2. The Owl
In Max Ernst's painting, she is struggling to get out from
under the feathery heaviness of a red cape, thousands of
red feathers gathered, drifting down from her frail shoulder
like ripples of wind on a dark lake, like the waves
that gripped her loins in the seizures of desire.

Why do her pale breasts push away from such splendour?
Her nipples are tiny points of hardening flesh, refusing
to be flattened under the yoke of this mantle.
Her face cannot get free. It has been taken
over by the head of the strange bird. She cannot
get away from the close-set yellow eyes, the way
they stare into the tunnels of her pale body,
her emptiness, all that she does not know.

3. The Swan
It wasn't sudden. She'd been going
down to the pond most evenings, when
the pink flush rose over the water.
The pond had been spilling over its edges, grasses so wet
she was muddy to the thigh now when she walked here.
She didn't know why she kept coming, evenings, as
the light changed.

The night he glided to her she wasn't frightened.
Even with the fierce black marks over his eyes.
He was magnificent. Huge. Whiteness
at first barely brushing her legs, and then
every one of his long feathers touched her. Her breasts rose,
her nipples. She could not help herself
from opening to him, from easing his length into her
moistness, opening, opening, as he filled her, as he went on
and on filling her, his neck uncurling
its length across her belly, her back arced to its peak.

Waking, she found herself
slipping silently under the floating
velvet pads of lilies, found she was
skimming ripples, waves. When
the pond opened its center, she dove down,
down, and lifted then, lifted dripping wet a thousand
white feathers spraying against the night sky, cascading
white stars that pierced the fog, clearing, clear
notes drumming the moon, calling,
calling what she knew now, what she knew.

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