On December 9th I attended "a something in a winter's night" -- okay, in a late autumn's night -- a celebration of Emily Dickinson's 189th birthday at the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, D.C. Billed as an "Emily Dickinson Birthday Tribute," the program included the presentation of the Emily Dickinson Museum's "Tell it Slant" award to one of the evening's speakers, artist Lesley Dill. Tom Sleigh also read some of his and Emily Dickinson's poetry.
Below left and right: Prior to the event, I celebrated with the traditional drink to celebrate Dickinson's birthday, a Margarita on the rocks with salt, and with Emily Dickinson's favorite meal -- chicken enchiladas.
Dill opened the program by showing some highlights from her opera "Divide Light" (shown below), an operatic choral reading with shape note singing of selected poems by Dickinson. The title is taken from the second line of Dickinson's poem "Banish Air from Air" (at the right).
Banish Air from Air -
Divide Light if you dare -
While Cubes in a Drop
Or Pellets of Shape
Films cannot annul
Odors return whole
And with a Blonde push
Over your impotence
How ruthless are the gentle –
How cruel are the kind –
God broke his contract to his Lamb
To qualify the Wind –
"Meaning was already in me -- and then my mother gave me an unwieldy (I think that was the word Dill used) book of poetry."
She confessed that she wasn't much into poetry, but she did glance at the book -- and then she began reading it. Then she began devouring it.
"Prior to Dickinson, I already had a rebellious mind, but I wasn't aware of the impact these poems would have on me. These words had wings, and I felt the words like...like a blue light."
She then recited "How ruthless are the gentle (at the left).
"The words (of Dickinson) went in and came out willy-nilly for me. It was magical."
One example she gave, "White had always been cold for me -- but now -- heat?" She quoted from "Dare you see a Soul at the White Heat?" (at the right).
"I held an ocean of images in response to the words," said Dill.
"We hold so many words -- inside us -- the words that actually reach the air are few compared to those inside."
She then confessed, "I am a word thief. Words don't come to me like images do -- but the words make want to move ideas out of my mind."
Dare you see a Soul at the White Heat?
Then crouch within the door –
Red – is the Fire's common tint –
But when the vivid Ore
Has vanquished Flame's conditions,
It quivers from the Forge
Without a color, but the light
Of unanointed Blaze.
Least Village has its Blacksmith
Whose Anvil's even ring
Stands symbol for the finer Forge
That soundless tugs – within –
Refining these impatient Ores
With Hammer, and with Blaze
Until the Designated Light
Repudiate the Forge –
Your thoughts don’t have words every day
They come a single time
Like signal esoteric sips
Of the communion Wine
Which while you taste so native seems
So easy so to be
You cannot comprehend its price
Nor its infrequency
Dill compared her exploration and discovery of words to the wilderness:
"Wilderness: Words are Where What I catch is me -- what makes me a poet. The wilderness out there -- and inside."
Click the image below for information on this past show at the Nohra Haime Gallery.
Poet Tom Sleigh followed Dill, and he alternated readings of his own poetry with poems by Emily Dickinson. He began with Dickinson's "I cannot live with you" (at the right) -- "my favorite," said Sleigh.
Following the poem, he paused -- and then whispered, "Not too shabby."
Other Dickinson poems he read included, "These Strangers, in a foreign World," "My Triumph lasted till the Drums," and "There is no Frigate like a book."
In between the readings of Dickinson, Sleigh read some of his own poems, each with simple stories -- but deep encounters -- with particular and precise words. One was about the life of a refugee (right after Dickinson's "These Strangers, in a foreign World), and one -- "a personal poem," he said -- on how soldiers deal with war.
Sleigh also told stories form is youth to explain the source of his love of language. For a time, his parents ran a drive-in movie theater, and he'd be there on nights when no babysitter was available.
"I'd listen to the opening strains of the movie music," he said, "and then the voices -- interwoven with dreams -- because I'd fall asleep to this -- and I believe it gave me a heightened sense of language."
Dill responded, "How interesting -- words floating on the air and into you."
I cannot live with You –
It would be Life –
And Life is over there –
Behind the Shelf
The Sexton keeps the Key to –
Our Life – His Porcelain –
Like a Cup –
Discarded of the Housewife –
Quaint – or Broke –
A newer Sevres pleases –
Old Ones crack –
I could not die – with You –
For One must wait
To shut the Other's Gaze down –
You – could not –
And I – Could I stand by
And see You – freeze –
Without my Right of Frost –
Nor could I rise – with You –
Because Your Face
Would put out Jesus' –
That New Grace
Glow plain – and foreign
On my homesick Eye –
Except that You than He
Shone closer by –
They'd judge Us – How –
For You – served Heaven – You know,
Or sought to –
I could not –
Because You saturated Sight –
And I had no more Eyes
For sordid excellence
And were You lost, I would be –
Though My Name
On the Heavenly fame –
And were You – saved –
And I – condemned to be
Where You were not –
That self – were Hell to Me –
So We must meet apart –
You there – I – here –
With just the Door ajar
That Oceans are – and Prayer –
And that White Sustenance –
Below right: Following the program, I snapped a selfie with the Dickinson Museum's Director Jane Wald!