Emily Dickinson in her own words: ‘Because I Could Not Stop For Death’ (479)

Emily Dickinson in her own words

Colin Gee

I had had a bad day and it was not because of the catcalls or mud and imbecile wheel of the cabbie or the fact that Susan had not written a letter in two calendar days, or telegraphed, or sent flowers, or just gone off and offed herself for all I cared. I lay all the blame on the tailors and cheesemakers of this world, of old Amherst in the summer, of the butcher’s boy and newspaper stand boy and recently married women that flounce their behinds around the park. I despise that people go wild in summer, but not in winter. In June they bang out of their front gates and barge down Main Street with their sunbrellas in front, stretching their frumpy faces like fleshy sunflowers to the Sky, galloping in and out of Shops, snatching at the last truly good-looking Eggplants, and when they say Tomatoes they say Tomahtoes.

They shout indecent remarks, read no novels, and their progeny know no poetry by heart. The smell of vile drink that pours like smoke from the throats of stubborn men overwhelms me. I gasp and fall against a church — its pediment scalds my hand.

I stagger on.

Emily is my name, and I am a hard lady. Take me or leave me, I walk to town and back on my own at my own pace, and it is brisk. Try to detain me, preacher man, taxi driver, hard mason, greengrocer, desk clerk, stubborn postman, I defy you.

Out on the country road, needlework in hand, carrying my own groceries, I was making great strides along the macadam, brushing past many wild carrots — white lace, legs in a long black dress, when a carriage rattled up behind me and a voice called whoa.

‘Whoa there, Nelly,’ it literally cried.

Looking up with fire in nostrils smithied by gods of war in a book of verse time apparently had all but forgotten, I whispered, my glancing eyes fell upon the figure of Death: tall, stooped, bony, he wore a garment I knew only too well.

Before I could say, ‘You got that smock at Athelwaite’s,’ he spoke.

‘Get in,’ Death told me. ‘You were hurrying along so fast, so busy, I almost missed you.’

You did not miss me, you big fat liar, I didn’t tell Death.

I said, ‘Don’t call me miss.’

I said, ‘Look here, fella, I am not accustomed to accepting rides from tall, dark strangers,’ I blushed.

‘Oh, you and I are no strangers,’ Death chuckled — a slow, deliberate rattle inside a bag of sticks.

But who puts sticks inside a bag?

I got in, and flung my earthly effects upon the carriage floor.

‘Out shopping,’ mused the spectre of my own end — and he wasn’t asking. He said, ‘Giddyup,’ and the carriage lurched forward at a death-defying canter.

I lie. We went forward slowly, at a lazy walk.

‘Where did you get such fine horses,’ I didn’t have to ask my stale, dry, tinderlike companion. It was only us in there, under the black cab, behind the black curtains, rocking along like a dark lullabye beneath a sky that refused to part in an epiphany of light and reincarnation of Christ and all apostles.

I said, ‘Who is this other fellow,’ motioning to a form that shivered under a blanket in the corner for all the world and stars with a body as frail, peaked, and infuriating as my own. ‘He is wearing my shoes.’

‘It is just an old woman,’ smirked Death from deep inside his cowl — gleaming from his icicle teeth and glacier-smoothed cheekbones, from hundreds of centuries of slowly dripping water or lack thereof.

‘Tis I myself,’ I accused him, not about to take cheek from an entity with no cheeks — from a creep with no business really straggling among the living. He looked at me — looked away. He did not reply — did not negotiate. Why had I gotten into a carriage with Death? I asked myself, but already knew the answer.

We drove slowly — slowly we drove.

‘You know no haste,’ I remarked, noticing that Death was taking his good sweet time. ‘How about you light a fire under your steeds, stranger. I’ve got work to do — sewing to do — poetry to compose while languishing upon my dour, black couch.’

‘No you don’t,’ said Death.

God damn it, I cursed under my breath and swaddled bosom — couched as I was in eight distinct layers of cloth, skin, and sobbing flesh. For I, too, was human. With a deep breath I decided to stop worrying about my plans for the moment — my work, yea my leisure too could wait.

‘Where are we going, I might as well know,’ I demanded, in that case, as we passed a schoolhouse I did not recognize. The bell tower rose into a sky grey with want and fallen grammars. Peering in, we observed upturned chairs and dusty desks. Fallen smocks we saw, and nubs of pencils and first lines of stanzas that would never write themselves.

Death smiled — he frowned. He looked past the schoolyard into the stalks of wheat straining in adjacent fields against a hurricano that was trying to kill them. We looked at the fields — the fields gazed back. We looked deep into the heads of grain and they shuddered to see us pass.

We passed the sun, and the sun had set.

I repeated my question — all my questions.

I said, ‘Why this vale of tears and suffering, why are apricots twelve cents a pound in this year of 1860 or 61, why did my dog Carlo die?’

I said, ‘Why do your horses’ heads point in the direction of eternity — into the Wild West?’

Death did not reply. He was concentrating, directing his plodding steeds with his inevitable, written will, the size and shape of the stalagmite that shuddered, tipped, and crushed your girlhood home in the grotto where it was constructed.

Finally we stopped before a house. I looked deep into the house. It seemed to be nothing but a God-damned pile of dirt. No one told me it was a house, but I have been living there ever since. Centuries go by. They are a lot shorter than a lot of moments I experienced when I was alive — of terror, panic, searing shame, numb extremities, in that order.

‘Gosh,’ I exclaimed, sitting up in a pile of clothes, and undergarments, and still-throbbing living flesh. ‘These horses are taking us into the night of bodiless wandering, and watching. They are riding us into our own sunset,’ I said, nodded Death with a cheerful motion, and I was right.

Because I Could Not Stop For Death (479)

Emily Dickinson

Because I could not stop for Death,

He kindly stopped for me;

The carriage held but just ourselves

And Immortality.

We slowly drove, he knew no haste,

And I had put away

My labor, and my leisure too,

For his civility.

We passed the school where children played,

Their lessons scarcely done;

We passed the fields of grazing grain,

We passed the setting sun.

We paused before a house that seemed

A swelling of the ground;

The roof was scarcely visible.

The cornice but a mound.

Since then ‘tis centuries but each

Feels shorter than the day

I first surmised the horses’ heads

Were toward eternity.

Photo by Urosh Nou on Unsplash