Emily Dickinson in her own words: ‘As if I asked a common Alms’ (Collected Letters)

Emily Dickinson in her own words

by Colin Gee

So this man wrote an article in his magazine about the writing life saying such things as ‘superscribe their manuscripts with very masculine names in very feminine handwriting’ and I was sure he was talking about my brother Austin, who has always had a mincing little script, though he purports to a playboy, and I wrote the man a letter to find out what he had in mind exactly, if he knew my brother or what was going on.

This is what I wrote, doing my best to imitate Austin’s loopy handwriting:

‘Dear Sir, Are you too busy to check if my verse be Alive – I need to get some Distance from my own writing to tell and I am a homebound houseboy – Small, like the wren, with bold hair colour of chestnut – And my body lanky and firm – Eyes like sherry in the glass the guest leaves – And for company naught but the Hills and my sister’s dog Carlo, whom I feed with faulty Bone – Sir. Ever yours, my name I attach in a pansy envelope along with four of my badly written pomes,’ and the name in the pansy envelope was William Austin Dickinson.

Austin didn’t even know how to spell poems!

I just died laughing.

Sat back and looked over what I had written with a smirk, then put that baby right into the mail along with four shit poems I had discovered in Austin’s bureau, one about love, another about finches, and two that seemed to reminisce upon Childhood.

The letter was promptly published by the fella in his fancy magazine, anonymously, and as promptly Replied Upon. He was a creepy man with bad intentions, but I played along, like a Cherub.

I wrote, ‘Your letter gave no Drunkenness, because my daddy’s breath is always ripe with Rum – My pleasures I feel deeply, babe, but not as deeply as your Shaft of Quill – If I tried to say thanks, Tommy, tears would run right into my mouth and drown me at my writing desk. Sometimes I wear women’s clothes — Sir — Dear friend.’

This letter was also put directly into the mailbox, and postal carrier hustled it with a good Gait straight to Massachussettes.

The man WOULD write back with advisory content, thinking me an Adonis of tender age, yet said that I should not yet think to ‘publish’, or ‘dress unlike my peers’, and called me a spaz and said my pomes were straight out of control, I laughed and laughed.

Poor Austin, rejected again!

I wrote back and begged him to be my Preceptor, whatever the hell that meant.

I said, ‘I will take up so little space on your Desk as a mouse in the pantry – For shall not perch my lovely Legs there themselves, but represented be in Word and Breath. You think my Gait spasmodic as a boy’s – I have no Tribunal, which is to say, you hangman and jury are of me, Dear Man.’

The Man really liked this letter, I imagine because of all the dirty sex talk in it, so next time I wrote all about the Seaman’s Needle, how it behaves when it points true North, and after that I talked on and on about Heavy Bells that hang and swing, and clang Together.

Our letters came and went with increasing frequency, until one day my Boat had beached the Strand.

‘Emily, God damn it,’ shouted Austin from the bottom of the stairs, ‘Have you been signing my name to a bunch of letters again? Why would you do such a thing?’

Peeping out from behind the rail I saw he was there with Susan and Angie. Those three went everywhere together, often holding hands and whispering and poking needles into dolls, like child witches.

Austin told me he had planned to ‘publish’ his shit poems after one final revision, I giggled.

‘You stole my work and now that man Tommy is going to publish my pomes in his wretched magazine,’ he cried, I think. ‘I was going to be famous if not for you.’

None of this was true, I told him flatly.

‘You have been advised,’ I retorted, ‘under no circumstances to Publish, til ye have matured.’

I threw him several letters from the top of the stair, and they fluttered down to his feet. He and Angie and Susan picked them up, like hungry dogs, and their eyes devoured the Truth.

Tommy had written, ‘Your style is spasmodic and out of control, the themes on which you choose to compose childish and lacking that Form and Poise to which we grown Men attribute beauty in art, and your spelling is the most Horrid of this wide World. Never, ever ‘Publish’ such shitty poems.’

These letters, too, I had written in case of such a situation.

Susan and peachfuzz Angiebottom ran out of the house behind Austin.

‘Austin, wait!’ their piteous Cries.

I returned to my writing desk and licked the tip of a shivering pencil, gladness sweeping my Veins like ripe cherry juice, from the Jar at which I Guzzle.

Letter to Thomas Wentworth Higginson, 7 June 1862

Dear friend.

Your letter gave no Drunkenness, because I tasted Rum before- Domingo comes but once-yet I have had few pleasures so deep as your opinion, and if I tried to thank you, my tears would block my tongue –

My dying Tutor told me that he would like to live till I had been a poet, but Death was much of Mob as I could master-then-And when far afterward-a sudden light on Orchards, or a new fashion in the wind troubled my attention – I felt a palsy, here- the Verses just relieve –

Your second letter surprised me, and for a moment, swung – I had not supposed it. Your first-gave no dishonor, because the True-are not ashamed – I thanked you for your justice -but could not drop the Bells whose jingling cooled my Tramp-Perhaps the Balm, seemed better, because you bled me, first.

I smile when you suggest that I delay “to publish”-that being foreign to my thought, as Firmament to Fin- If fame belonged to me, I could not escape her- if she did not, the longest day would pass me on the chase-and the approbation of my Dog, would forsake me-then-My Barefoot-Rank is better-

You think my gait “spasmodic” -I am in danger-Sir-

You think me “uncontrolled” – I have no Tribunal.

Would you have time to be the “friend” you should think I need? I have a little shape – it would not crowd your Desk-nor make much Racket as the Mouse, that dents your Galleries-

If I might bring you what I do-not so frequent to trouble you- and ask you if I told it clear-‘twould be control, to me-

The Sailor cannot see the North-but knows the Needle can-

The “hand you stretch me in the Dark,” I put mine in, and turn away-I have no Saxon, now-

As if I asked a common Alms,
And in my wondering hand
A Stranger pressed a Kingdom,
And I, bewildered, stand-
As if I asked the Orient
Had it for me a Morn-
And it should lift it’s purple Dikes,
And shatter me with Dawn!

But, will you be my Preceptor, Mr Higginson?

Your friend
E Dickinson-