DWELL IN POSSIBILITY is only one of Emily Dickinson’s hushed, distilled thoughts. As a girl I loved her poetry (drawing in my breath when she talked about death), but at that time her eccentric punctuation had been smoothed out and prettied up. Nowadays we read her work with all the staccato and stammer of her original rhythms: lots of dashes, as if the words are bolting headlong out of her brain. In Emily Dickinson’s Garden: The Poetry of Flowers, the exhibit currently at the New York Botanical Garden in the Bronx (until June 13), she emerges as a passionate, private woman but also as an oddly earthy one.
I say oddly because Dickinson has frequently been viewed as ethereal, asexual, possibly agoraphobic—the quintessential spinster (the ugliest of words; compare the liquidity of madonna). When I first encountered her, around the age of nine or ten, she was always described as a recluse because she (a) never married and (b) didn’t travel far from her home in Amherst, Massachusetts. I suppose she may have been agoraphobic (an illness I have suffered from), but, if so, she made up in depth what her life lacked in breadth; her literary courage far exceeds any terror of wide open spaces. Besides, it seems from the evidence of her letters that she was far from a hermit, with strong family ties, intense friendships, and a lively correspondence (with men as well as with women). Some writers have even speculated about lovers, of both genders.
She was unconventional, to be sure. But in the relatively enlightened intellectual climate of New England of the mid-nineteenth century, an educated woman who went her own way was not as unusual as one might think (Louisa May Alcott, and the early feminist and abolitionist Margaret Fuller come to mind). Still, until the 1880s a wife had no legal identity independent of her husband; one can imagine that life under a father’s benign wing—where Dickinson could at least count on a room of her own—would have seemed preferable.
Even rebels are rooted in their time. So flowers and gardens and growing things, then and now considered suitable feminine avocations, were a passion with Dickinson and indeed with her whole family (“I was reared in the garden,” she once wrote). At age 14 she collected, pressed, and labeled 400 plant specimens with scientific precision; at the Botanical Garden the artifacts in the literary/biographical part of the exhibit (in the Mertz Library) include a facsimile of this herbarium. There is also an actual garden that evokes Dickinson’s own, this housed in the magnificently domed Crystal Palace-like Haupt Conservatory (the nation’s largest Victorian glasshouse, opened in 1902).
It’s interesting how invested the Victorians were in flowers. Women grew, drew, painted, arranged, and preserved them, and it was a romantic assumption of the time that blossoms possessed moral and symbolic significance—a language of their own. Denied self-expression in other fields, women seemed to pour their souls into fertile beds and bouquets.
Dickinson, of course, grew poems—some 1,800 of them—as much as she grew plants, and her work is full of botanical imagery: life, death, beauty, evanescence; it’s all there. Like Emerson and Thoreau, slightly older but roughly her contemporaries, she had an intuitive relationship to the natural world, a sense of awe that was less about worshiping God than cultivating an inner spiritualism and transcendence. Holland Cotter, in a wonderful essay in the New York Times (“My Hero, The Outlaw of Amherst,” May 16, 2010), calls it “a religious poetry without belief.”
That sounds a lot like my grandmother: Jewish but an acolyte of Ethical Culture—a humanistic, socially progressive movement that was about as unorthodox as you could get without giving up on religion altogether. She was a writer, a Barnard College graduate, an urban woman who possessed a black coat with large, furry sleeves (I loved to burrow in them) and engaged in New York’s classical music scene (she had a salon of sorts at her Greenwich Village apartment). My grandfather was a nature lover who fled to the country and stayed there, farming. She, something of a martyr to rural life, spent weekends and summers with him.
I think gardening was my grandmother’s way of marrying the countryside while giving it civilized shape and form. She was particularly fond of growing pansies, zinnias, petunias, sweet William. An enduring memory is the way she sat weeding by the flowerbeds in her housedress, orangey nylons, and perforated shoes, her white hair haloing her head like a dandelion gone to seed.
When she wasn’t outdoors or (rather unwillingly) in the kitchen, she was upstairs at her pale green Smith-Corona—the very machine on which I learned to type—writing young adult biographies of composers and other books about classical music (her poems, however, were more like ditties than Dickinson, as she would have been the first to admit). She wrote for love, but she also made money, and she produced an (unpublished) memoir at age 88. She was lucky to have chances, and she made the most of them.
Reader, at the Garden Shop after the Dickinson exhibit (I am a sucker for museum retail), I bought notecards with pithy quotes and discreet motifs, and a coaster saying Dwell in possibility. I know that this smacks of Van Gogh jigsaws and Monet placemats, but I find it a useful reminder that the what if is as significant as the what is as we walk, crawl, or stumble through life. For what is a seed or bud but possibility made palpable, a transformation-in-waiting?