Monday, January 14, 2013

"I Told My Soul to Sing": Hope beyond "the thing with feathers"

I once heard a famous poet describe the difference between a song and a poem as this: a poem is writing that would not sound better sung. In other words, the poem itself makes its own music, beauty, and mystery -- enough to literally stand on its own “feet.” As a poet and choral composer, I (mostly) agree with this definition and dread hearing favorite poems set to music.

Though composers have tried, none (in my opinion) have succeeded in adding new “music” -- new and necessary layers -- to the work of America’s most popular female poet: Emily Dickinson (ED, as I'll soon call her here). Even though ED’s poems echo the lines and rhythms of classic Protestant hymns, they buck off any expectation that they will sound or be “better” with harmony or operatic vibrato. The only voice readers/listeners need is Emily’s.

However, like many student readers, I‘ve also needed some mentoring guidance when looking at an ED poem. I’ve let myself be daunted by the prolific ocean of her writing life, mostly without sitting down to test the genius, mystery, or humor(!)of an individual poem.

Yet the more I read about Emily’s life, especially as I try to carve out a writing life of my own, the more I want to re-encounter her poetry.  This is also true when I think about my wobbly walk towards wanting to know--and live out--the teachings of Jesus. And I disagree with those who claim that when reading Dickinson, we have no need to study her person or to remind ourselves of the world she was living in. To me, this seems akin to some Christians I know who’d rather read and believe the Bible without wanting to know, too, the complicated and miraculous web of its political and cultural history, so varying and rich among its authors.

So I am grateful that this past Advent season I started reading a book that adds a taut and seeking voice alongside Emily Dickinson’s, a narrator, teacher, and mystic voice that braids its own biography into a fresh understanding of the poet who described herself as simultaneously “grasped by God” (p. 233) and unable to pray.

In I Told My Soul to Sing: Finding God with Emily Dickinson (Paraclete Press 2012), author Kristin LeMay offers 25 of ED’s lesser-known poems as a set of what I’ll describe as unique liturgical readings infused with years of research and her own stumbling faith walk. 

LeMay’s liturgy is not for any one holy season, however; its sections rise with the hope we reserve for Advent then dip honestly towards the dread, gravity, and stubborn hope of Lent. The book's section titles reveal an author who’s willing to show her brightest vulnerability and baptized joy on the page, moving from “Belief” to “Mortality” to “Beauty.” In turn, LeMay refuses to put Dickinson into a box labeled “Christian” or “Pagan,” as so many writers have before her. Her book, instead, dances on the edges of naming things --accepting that, like Emily, her faith will move from protecting its distance to the “white heat” of a soul in love with the love of God. Emily Dickinson’s life and work help LeMay with this ongoing reconciliation. In LeMay’s own words: “Doubt and belief, Emily would be the first to say, are not necessarily in opposition” (p. 46).

LeMay attempts to find her own versions of both Christ and Emily Dickinson in places as varied as a convent, a seminary, or the graveyard where ED’s now buried. While reading, I thought of my own trek towards the version of Jesus that would “stick,” the one that would finally fill my life with so much love and understanding that I'd always believe. But that’s easier said than done, and LeMay’s book knows that. These days, there are so many versions of Jesus in America that he might as well run for President against himself.

As LeMay explores Dickinson’s poems, she also searches for a personal faith that “sticks” and for reassurance that literary art can be (to some)inspired gospels. Unfolded like an Easter story, LeMay writes at ED’s graveside, “Emily wasn’t there. She’s too alive on the page for me to believe a grave can hold her. Her writings breathe and pulse, holding out the impression that she lives, whatever the dates prove or the gravestone confirms” (p. 148-49).

I Told My Soul to Sing... ultimately asks its readers to consider their own poet-saints, and to revisit art that un-numbs us. LeMay  inspires us to memorize and even research these creative works  (without wanting to control them) -- and to see them as a sacred feast we can eat from as often as we like, as often as we need.  

There is mystery that will always stay mystery. How wonderful to be asked to sit with this koan, even in a world where, when we want to know something we look to Google before God.

If I were to be honest with myself, I’d also admit that when I’ve imagined the Holy Spirit during these last few years, I’ve pictured Emily Dickinson -- or, at least, a being of both fire and softness, dressed in white, the power of language always on her tongue. 

I’ve thought of myself standing for a photograph in front of the Dickinson’s homestead in Amherst, posing just below what was once Emily’s bedroom window. How often I’ve looked at that photo since, have tried to see the outline of a poet-ghost or poet-spirit in the window’s reflection. I don’t necessarily see it, but I believe—want to believe— that it’s there. 

Yes, my version of the Holy Spirit is always something/someone that can’t be fully explained tugging my life forward (if I slow down long enough to listen to where it’s telling me to turn). Today, any invitation to practice quieting our lives in mindfulness is a bird-sized triumph, winging us to something unexpected. I think both Emily and Kristin LeMay would approve.

And this is another reason I Told My Soul to Sing: Finding God with Emily Dickinson stays with me. It’s written to be digested -- really digested -- in pieces (In fact, in its intro, LeMay specifically asks her readers not to attempt to read the book in one go.) I listened to this advice and found that sometimes a whole week would pass before I picked up where I’d left off. But the re-entry with intention was usually rewarding instead of jarring. I was welcomed again by a voice I now trusted. I was introduced to another ED poem unfamiliar to me (despite two master’s degrees in creative writing). And I was asked to encounter a poem more than once per chapter, like the bell that reminds us it’s time for matins, vespers, a mindful reading of a many-layered poem.Slow down, take your time, be called back,” the chapters and poems chant.

But I’m not reading alone: LeMay is there with her held-breath astonishment. Her prose holds a unique music of its own, a long arcing Psalm in the form of hybrid essays that also reveal copies of ED’s letters, notes, and other visual examples as part of masterful close readings. 

From the get-go, LeMay’s love of language rubs off on her reader. Whenever she begins “but at the root of this word...”, my ears perk up. I want to know more, cock my head to look at a poem or statement from a slightly different angle. Just as Emily wrote to make sense of her world and to keep her finger on the great pulse of mystery, so Kristin LeMay does the same today (And is our world that different from Emily D's?)

So instead of going to church this morning, I propped up my slipper-clad feet and spent more time with Kristin LeMay’s I Told My Soul to Sing.  My urge to  “confess” such an alternative form of Sunday morning community to someone, anyone, is proof of my thirty-something years of firm Christian upbringing. While I revel in belonging to a community, face-to-face, after years on my own faith-led road, I know that there's more than one way to be a seeker. This 2013 Lenten season, I recommend letting Kristin LeMay and Emily Dickinson show you one path, well worn between them.  

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