A Song of Songs for These American Days

highway 61 by H. Michael Karshis on flickrWith thanks and apologies to the Beatles, Leonard Cohen, Emily Dickinson, Neil Young, Wallace Stevens, Bruce Springsteen, the Wailin’ Jennys, Randy Newman, Bob Dylan, God, Joni Mitchell, Bob Marley, Paul Simon, Tom Waits, Sam Baker, The Band, Bruce Cockburn, The Grateful Dead, Richie Havens, and all the musicians and poets who have sustained and nourished me to this day.

I read the news today. Oh boy.

They’re sealing the cracks in the ceiling. Now how’s the light going to get in?

A friend on the left says these days her husband stands guard at the door to their home, his life a loaded gun.

Another friend on the left says, if it comes to it, she’ll seek happiness in a warm gun.

Me? I am lying in a burned out basement, calling all angels, but the angels have lost their desire for us. [Read more…]

These Frigates, These Chariots

Guest post by Kathleen Housley

It is a sunny morning in early June. A sabbath calm suffuses the empty Mt. Holyoke campus, the students having left for the summer. Other than a jogger, I seem to be the only one around, sitting on the stone steps of Pratt Music Hall listening to the sound of a small waterfall flowing into a nearby brook.

I am waiting for an old blue van, edged with rust, to arrive from Wichita, Kansas, over 1,500 miles away. Belonging to Warren Farha, owner of Eighth Day Books, any minute now it will chug up to the curb loaded down with the contents of an entire bookstore for Image’s Glen East Workshop.

Unfortunately, Warren will not be at the wheel this year due to another obligation; instead Joshua Sturgill, his able associate, is making the grueling twenty-four hour odyssey to South Hadley, Massachusetts. Because I live only an hour south in Connecticut, I have volunteered to help him set up the store in one day—a job so large it is on par with Hercules cleaning out the Augean stables. [Read more…]

Emily Dickinson Erased

Don’t go to Emily Dickinson’s house in Amherst, Massachusetts. There isn’t anything there. Not her writing desk, not her books. Not her treasured items. Not her.

Emily Dickinson used the house in Amherst to hide from life. As she got older, Dickinson left the place less and less. Often, she refused even to greet visitors. She’d lock herself inside her room. There, she wrote letters and she wrote her poems.

And then, in 1886, Dickinson died. She left behind thousands of unpublished poems. They are strange poems for all their accessibility, and beloved by people everywhere. Her poems went out into the world in a way Emily Dickinson never could.

After her poems made her posthumously famous, Dickinson’s readers began to long for the presence of Emily Dickinson herself. People go to Dickinson’s house in Amherst to make some connection between the poems and the person. The house seems to be the key. The place where she dwelt in silence and solitary confinement would seem to hold secret clues. [Read more…]

Books for Holiday Giving

Kudos to the university presses that are publishing books of the soundest scholarship for the general reader: books with the highest production values and astoundingly reasonable prices. Here are two that I recommend for readers on your gift list.

A Spicing of Birds: Poems by Emily Dickinson, selected by Jo Miles Schuman and Joanna Bailey Hodgman (Wesleyan University Press, $22.95).

Did you know that Dickinson wrote 222 poems with references to birds? As the compilers write in their introduction, “Birds are woven through her poems like the string she mentions that ‘Robins steal… for Nests—.’” Dickinson was a sharp observer of birds, and in her poems she often made images for particular species:

“Some keep the Sabbath going to Church— / I keep it, staying at Home— / With a Bobolink for a Chorister—.” Or the phoebe, image of Dickinson’s own timidity: “I dwelt too low that any seek— / Too shy, that any blame— / A Phoebe makes a little print / Upon the floors of Fame—.”

The poems collected here are themselves a treasure. But the bonus is the book’s visual dimension. Illustrations of birds by eighteenth- and nineteenth-century artists comprise the facing page of nearly every poem. These full-color prints make the book luscious to look at. And with every page printed on cardstock (imagine—cardstock!), the book is also luscious to hold. It gives a tactile pleasure that can never be replicated by e-books. Oh, and the book is hardcover, too—giving that wonderful sense of permanence and solidity that paperbacks and e-books can never have. [Read more…]