Literary Legacies: The Livelong June
by Will Dowd | December 2017
I was the kind of sensitive child who could get motion sickness just by thinking about the rotation of the Earth. So last Saturday, I half-expected to feel a perceptible tilt toward the sun. It was the summer solstice—the longest day of the year (by one second)—and I spent the entire morning attempting to balance an egg on my kitchen floor. Only later did I realize I had been thinking of the equinox.
I resolved not to tell anyone.
Later, I was drinking on a back porch, watching planes practically skirt the pines on their descent into Logan Airport, when one of my friends stubbed out his cigarette and said, “Hey, check out the sky over there. It’s so...”
For a second I thought he was going to say something poetic, but he trailed off like plane exhaust.
In the silence that followed, I recalled those lines by Emily Dickinson: “To see the Summer Sky / Is Poetry, though never in a Book it lie— / True Poems flee.”
I resolved not to tell anyone.
Dickinson, who was also a sensitive child, once wrote a poem about the summer solstice, a fleeting day in which the hours slide by as fast as faces on two ship decks “[b]ound to opposing lands.”
Dickinson had a preternatural gift for describing the movement of time, perhaps because she couldn’t read a clock until she was fifteen. “My father thought he had taught me,” she confided to a friend, “but I did not understand & I was afraid to say I did not.” So she invented other o’clocks: certain-slant-of-light o’clock, startled-grass o’clock, evening-shadow-holding-its-breath o’clock.
Of course, because the poem is by Dickinson, the summer solstice symbolizes that other lever moment—death. Everything that happens before death is a rehearsal for the afterlife, she writes, a chance to perfect our repartee. That way, the heavenly banquet won’t be spoiled by social awkwardness.
I recently tracked mud into Emily Dickinson’s parlor. I was distracted by the size and beauty of the house—a spacious Federalist mansion on a hill. I had always imagined Dickinson scribbling quatrains on scraps of paper while scrubbing a fireplace. But now I know the servants would have done that.
While I stood at her bedroom window, watching rain plash off the sill, I wondered why she sent over three hundred letters to her sister-in-law, whose Italian villa-style house stands in full view less than 100 yards away.
Everyone has a theory about why Emily Dickinson withdrew from society. Was it agoraphobia? Anxiety? Epilepsy?
When one of her correspondents asked for a photograph, she demurred, sending instead a written self-portrait: “I... am small, like the wren; and my hair is bold, like the chestnut bur; and my eyes, like the sherry in the glass, that the guest leaves.”
I think Dickinson needed, above all else, to control how people saw her. She even stage-managed her funeral in advance, insisting she be carried out the back door (usually reserved for murderers) in a little white casket (usually reserved for children) and buried beneath a tombstone that read CALLED BACK.
But you cannot stage-manage conversations. And that’s why she feared them more than death. I think she was afraid of trailing off in mid-sentence. I think she was afraid of an awkward silence—the kind a writer can fill with a dash.
So here’s to my friend who trailed off on that back porch, the one who lives without dashes or domestics, who doesn’t know that Hope is a thing with feathers, who would never leave sherry in the glass—if he ever drank sherry.
From Areas of Fog. Used with permission of Etruscan Press. Copyright 2017 by Will Dowd.
Will Dowd is a writer and artist based outside Boston. Areas of Fog, published by Etruscan Press, is his debut collection of essays. Born and raised in Braintree, Massachusetts, Will earned a B.A. from Boston College, as a Presidential Scholar; an M.S. from MIT, as a John Lyons Fellow; and an M.F.A. in Creative Writing from New York University, where he was a Jacob K. Javits Fellow in Poetry. His writing and art have appeared in LitHub, Tin House online, Post Road Magazine, NPR.org, and elsewhere.