Falling in Love with Dickinson's i'm nobody
by Woody Woodger | March 2018
First loves are only there to teach you how to lose all the rest of them.
It was a tenth grade English class and Dr. Weaver clapped between the rows of desks in Birkenstocks and white athletic socks, passing out a packet of poems for the coming unit. I know what you're thinking, but don’t blame him. He knew his audience.
Poetry was a point of literal infuriation for my classmates—“why do we even have to learn about poetry, or English even?!? No one cares! Metaphors are literally not real! Why are you taking time away from STEM classes?”
Like a mythological character they wouldn’t understand if I referenced, their hatred fueled my consumption, production, and all ’round assumption of “the poetry guy” moniker. It was something they couldn’t have. NO! Poetry was something those mouth breathing, No Child Left Behind shills didn’t deserve.
They could shove a pipet in a place where light can’t reach for all I cared. This was my domain. I understood so deeply what poetry meant and what English was about: “fuck you if you don’t get it”.
And it was a poem buried in this anorexic little packet that, at the time, embodied my angst, my well deserved credulity at all these starchy future actuaries. We glossed over it as a class—two measly quatrains nestled shyly between one of Billy Collins’ greatest hits and my flush ego—“I'm Nobody! Who are you?” (206), by Emily Dickinson.
For those of you who have tried your damnedest to avoid staring into the dashing (see what I did there?) face of god, I give you 206:
I’m Nobody! Who are you?
Are you – Nobody – too?
Then there’s a pair of us!
Don’t tell! they’d advertise – you know!
How dreary – to be – Somebody!
How public – like a Frog –
To tell one’s name – the livelong June –
To an admiring Bog!
We read that out and had a pitiful discussion about how “the stops…like…make you stop” and moved on to some Vincent Millay, but I dogeared the SHIT out of that wry sucker!
I fell in love because 206 is so immediately the credo of the introvert—an exultation of the mumble, praise to a life lurking behind the book with a canvas jacket. So seldom does an outcast, self-made or made in earnest, get to talk back to all those who feel confident their ligaments are on their side, whose jawlines have already come in.
The red bandana hung out the ass of my jeans ‘cause I saw Green Day do it, the guy-liner I could feel making little wings on my huffy heart. Dickinson, 200 some odd years ago, had so tersely, so wickedly knocked her muddy boot on the hollow iron hull of my tummy. She settled all the jangling furniture inside the bunker of me into a nice fuck-off-feng shui.
You can’t help but read this poem without tusks cropping up out of your bottom teeth. I loved how she spoke for me. As a poet, I loved how little work it seemed to take. I wouldn’t realize until later that I liked how Dickinson could write about being a hapless loser, and get everyone to kind of like it.
But at the time, it came as a shock and horror that I wasn’t the only person who could love a poem. As the class started to dissolve into chatter, I turned to the friend next to me and raved about 206. Then, from across the room, a 6’7” lump of shoulders and goof named Marin turned and said “RIGHT?!? I love this poem!” and without missing a beat, said, “Hey, Woody, let's quit school right now and train for years to be assassins and we can go around the world to the Congo and Burma and Putin and wherever and kill corrupt leaders? I’m talking the worst of the worst—slave traders, dictators, all the people we deem to be corrupt and deserving of justice, right? And, we leave a copy of this poem wherever we go. Our calling card. What do you say?”
I was flabbergasted. My poem…but I had just fallen in love with it, I gave it everything…and it went off and immediately touched another behind my back. That SLUT!
The entire class was now staring at me, waiting to see how I would handle how Marin had inexplicably blew our cover before I even had a say. “Yes! Absolutely,” I said, but my heart wasn’t in it. Inside I felt betrayed. I knew I shouldn’t. Even then I knew 206 wasn’t mine. It never was.
I must have misread the situation, or I wanted it to be what it wasn’t. This relationship dyslexia has stalked me through all my relationships. It’s let me be taken advantage of monetarily, emotionally, sexually. Perpetual love blinders: it’s how people can pick me up, shake me like a snow globe, rescramble all the furniture inside me.
The most emasculating part of this whole ordeal is how Marin had such better plans for this poem than I did. I was going to Golem it away, hunch over it in a dank cave somewhere, play Mario Kart or something for a while.
But Marin, he was gonna take 206 galavanting off to god-knows-where, and he was so unthreatened by me that he was going to take me on the trip with him and the poem, leaving me to be the poem’s side chick.
Honestly, 206 deserved better than me. It deserved adventure, and heroism, and never having to wake up to an alarm clock, and pancakes in bed, and not having to be romanticized as something it's not. I was just a dimple-cheeked delinquent then, a dorky nihilist with an awkward rosacea bloom.
206 was my first love because I did everything wrong. I assumed love was something you got, not something you worked for. It was also the first time I convinced myself that it was my lack of effort, my fault that something left.
But like my alcoholic uncle, like every lover that treated me like something to be owned, like all my cells every seven years, I lost 206. When will my mouth-breathing ass ever learn the lesson?
Woody Woodger’s first chapbook postcards from glasshouse drive is currently forthcoming from Finishing Line Press and his poetry has received publication in Barely South, Exposition Review, 2 Bridges Review, Soundings East, and (b)OINK, among others. He will attend Western Washington University’s MFA program in Fall 2017 and was a graduate of the Salem State Poetry Seminar. He currently resides in New England.