The best thing ever happened the other night. My teenager asked me for help. And not just with any old thing. With. Emily. Dickinson. My patron saint. My north star.
I didn’t know it, but I had been waiting for this moment all of my life. My daughter came home frustrated and unpleasant, went upstairs, and closed the door to her room. I followed her in to see what was bothering her.
“She’s impossible to understand! What is she even talking about? And what’s with the dashes? Why does she capitalize some words and not others?” My daughter raged. She threw her pencil.
I laughed. I’ve been down this road before, with students far less willing to engage than my daughter. I knew it was just a question of time before I saw the light of Emily Dickinson spread across her face.
“Read it to me,” I said. “No,” she said. “Ok,” I said, and made a move for her door.
But then she began.
“The Soul selects her own Society then shuts the door. Why? Why does she shut the door?”
This was not going well. “You can’t have any idea why unless you read the whole poem a couple of times,” I reminded her as I walked away to get back to the laundry pile threatening to overtake my bedroom.
“Fine,” she said, and resumed.
The Soul selects her own Society —
Then — shuts the Door —
To her divine Majority —
Present no more —
Unmoved — she notes the Chariots — pausing —
At her low Gate —
Unmoved — an Emperor be kneeling
Upon her Mat —
I’ve known her — from an ample nation —
Choose One —
Then — close the Valves of her attention —
Like Stone —
She finished reading and thought for a few minutes. I waited. I waited in a way that I never wait in my own classroom, but probably should.
“Is she mean?” my daughter asked.
“Who? Emily?” I responded.
“No, the woman in the poem,” she asked.
“What woman?” I responded.
“The woman who is unmoved!” she nearly yelled.
“Oh, no. She’s not mean,” I said. “And she’s not a woman. This is a poem about the Soul, personified as a woman.”
“Oh,” my daughter said, her voice shifting into a different module. I waited a couple of beats.
“Why is the Soul rejecting everyone?” she asked.
“She isn’t,” I said. “She selects the one. After that, no one can get her attention, is all.”
“Right,” she said with some enthusiasm. “Not even the emperor,” she added after rereading the poem to herself quietly.
“Right,” I said.
“So does she just fall in love with the one person, and that’s it? Is this a poem about being in love?”
I thought about it for a few minutes. Then I decided something I had never decided before in the many hundreds of times I had read the poem.
“Sort of,” I said.
“Mom, tell me what you think this poem is about,” she said.
So I did.
“This is a poem about you. And I guess it’s also about me. Your soul is wedded to you, embedded in you, forever and no matter what. She is loyal and fierce. She is adamantine in her devotion to you and to others, that looks like coldness. But it’s not. It’s just that she is completely satisfied by what she has in you.”
“Oh,” my daughter said.
I think she understood what Emily, and I, meant.