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League of Inveterate Poets

The out-of-context contextuality of a foolish sage

The Secret Life of the Secret Life of Emily Dickinson: Sister Sue and the Lost Souls

By on September 23, 2010

The Secret Life of Emily Dickinson

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This essay is part of a series on the dreamscape aspects of Jerome Charyn’s novel, The Secret Life of Emily Dickinson. To see other entries in the series, click the link at the top of this post. This series was originally published on The Secret Life of Emily Dickinson Facebook Page.

Read the introduction to this series.

* * * * * * *

To shut our eyes is Travel.” – Emily Dickinson, 1870.

“…if memory serves, & if it does not, then I will let Imagination run to folly.” The Secret Life of Emily Dickinson (17).

(numbers in parentheses refer to pages in the novel)

* * * * * * *

Sister Sue and the Lost Souls

In this section Emily Dickinson experiences several major upheavals in her life. She comes to realize that home will never be the same again, and more importantly, that most of her dreams will not come true. Yet she persists in dreaming. If dreams cannot come true, then one either abandons dreaming, or embraces it as a new and better reality. Emily chose the latter.

As the section opens, Emily’s beloved brother Austin falls hopelessly in love with the “volcanic” Susie Gilbert. Eventually, in order to win her, he agrees to a “chaste” (and largely loveless) marriage. Emily feels like she loses Austin to some extent, but she gains a kindred spirit in “Sister Sue,” who is able to attract the luminaries of their day to her parlor soirées. But this kinship comes at a further cost: Pa-pa seems to have a closeness to Sue that he never displayed to Emily. In a jealous attempt to win back Pa-pa’s attentions, she sews up her “phantom flowers” (her poems) in little handmade booklets she plans to leave where he might find them. “I am a creature of feathers,” she writes (148); she puts on various plumage as it suits her to pursue her fancies.

Feathers are mentioned numerous times in Emily’s poems, and “feathers” and “plumage” come up time and again throughout Secret Life. The best-known of Emily’s poetic references to feathers is, of course, “hope is the thing with feathers.” In the novel, Emily seals up her hopes behind her plumage, perhaps both as protection from those who might rob them, and as a disguise to enable her dream walks into the things she hopes for.

Austin & Susan Dickinson's "Evergreens"

When the famous newspaper editor Samuel Bowles shows up one day at Sue’s house, Emily is at first afraid to meet him. “I’m just a girl who gathers feathers around me,” she says to Susan. “It’s pure camouflage.” Her feathers give her courage to be in his presence, but once she becomes infatuated with Mr. Bowles, she is “putting on my feathers again, but false ones, since I couldn’t let him know how attached to him I was” (157). Her feathers let her get near her fantasies, but also protect her from intimacy when she wants them to. But later that night, Emily’s father shows up, infuriated that she has stayed out so late. “Not even feathers can help me now,” she laments. “I cannot plume myself against his fury” (157). Some times her protective schemes fail her, and the hard realities of life pierce her avian armor. She walks behind Pa-pa, not at his side as Sue has done of late. At the end of this section, we will find her again walking in Pa-pa’s shadow, as another nemesis takes Sue’s place at his side.

Old reliable things are passing away for Emily, and her Amherst is under attack as well. Someone is setting fire to the town’s barns, and her father, the “earl of Amherst” fearlessly leads the fire brigades to save what can be saved. When Emily goes along to observe the fire fighting efforts, she is mesmerized by the firemen’s yellow gloves, which immediately bring to mind “the ones Missy had worn and lent to Zilpah Marsh, and now lie hidden in Father’s attic, like some cruel reminder of Missy’s own relentless magic” (150). As we saw in the previous section, in her poetry Emily can craft her dreams as she wants them to be, but real life often brings nightmares not so easily controlled.

At the height of the fire-frenzy who shows up but her long lost “Domingo,” now on the run from her father’s railroad police because he has become a notorious card sharp on the trains. He arranges a secret meeting with Emily at the graveyard, where they both “luxuriate…with words that have a lover’s lightning–lightning that can shake the world, invert what is for what ought to be” (161). Could there be a better description of what Emily seeks to do in her poetry?

For a brief time Emily pursues a fantasy that she will run away with her would-be lover to the West, but she realizes all along that this is another fantasy not to be realized. Like Cleopatra’s asp, she longs “to poison my Domingo, not to destroy him, mind, but make him my prisoner, hold him in my box of Phantoms.” Once again, reality intrudes: “…but then I remember that Phantoms can’t play” (162). A little later: “Suddenly my Domingo stops leaning on his stone. I’ve aroused him from that little game in the graveyard–and it’s no more Antony and Cleopatra, but a misbegotten Tutor and an old maid” (163). At the end of the chapter, Emily daydreams of riding west on the train with her Phantom (and of a strange childhood vision of “the Lord” as a red-bearded man in her front yard), but it is now nothing more than a daydream. Domingo slips away forever.

Northampton Lunatic Asylum

The section climaxes with a dramatic and disturbing reunion with Zilpah Marsh. In the previous section, Emily had harshly (and perhaps unjustly) banished Zilpah from her Father’s service. Now she hears that Pa-pa has discovered Zilpah in chains in an insane asylum over which he is a trustee. Emily responds by putting on her “Plumage, with its attendant Tomahawk tongue” (173). She is determined that Pa-pa know nothing of her intense interest in Zilpah.

Despite her several attempts to force Zilpah out of her life, Emily retains an indelible connection. “We were sisters of a sort, obsessed with the same burglar [Tom the Handyman]” (174). Though of very different social backgrounds, they were also sisters of the craft of words. Zilpah also had a Holyoke education and was as well-read as Emily. But their destinies were down very different paths. Whereas Emily, through the “flowers” in her little books, was able to retain a voice in a world determined to silence women, Zilpah ends up in endless silence and insanity.

In fact, Emily’s dedication to her world of words forced a severe separation between her and Zilpah long before the latter went insane. At the asylum, Zilpah tells Mr. Dickinson that once while she was surreptitiously living in the Dickinson’s cellar she was almost discovered by Emily, who “walked right up to me, looked me in the eye. But she must have been versifying, because I was no more visible to her than a tree” (175).

But Zilpah has her revenge, though she does not at all appear to be seeking that goal. She seems genuinely happy to see Emily when the Dickinson’s visit the asylum. Emily uses her father’s influence to buy Zilpah a temporary reprieve from her chains so they can stroll the grounds together. But it is her father who ultimately ends up as Zilpah’s escort. She “unshackles” Pa-pa, as Emily puts it, and Emily is left as the “redheaded daughter [who] fell far behind” (188).

In a coda to the section, we learn of Emily’s secret correspondence with another of her “Phantoms,” the Reverend Wadsworth in Philadelphia. She had fallen in love with him after hearing just one of his sermons. A long time later, he suddenly shows up one day at the Dickinson’s doorstep. Now that he is in the flesh before her, the fantasy starts to fade, as it had with Domingo in the graveyard. “She had been mistaken about the color of his hands. They were not the color of cream. His hands were red and rough as claws” (192). She tries to describe to him what his words had done for her. “But I cannot help you,” he protests. “You already have,” she replies. “You exist, my dear sweet minister. That is enough” (191). Emily will have to be content that at least there are such men in the world, even if she can never possess them. “And he was gone before she could whisper his name” (192).

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