Polar Expiation

I’ve been to the Emily Dickinson Museum in Amherst a couple of times, and I admit I am intrigued by the reclusive Belle of Amherst, though I have never been able to make heads or tails of her enigmatic poetry.

I know, I know, “A poem should not mean, but be.” What I mean is, I don’t get why Emily Dickinson was almost universally acknowledged as a great poet once her poems received wide exposure. What were other people getting out of these poems that I wasn’t?

I read some literary critics and some Cliff Notes about her, and I found a lot of writers who were obsessively attached to the idea that Ms. Dickinson was a recluse, and had turned her back on romance, because of her devotion to her art. Which turns out, of course, to be a lot of hooey, according to some very convincing evidence adduced by Lyndall Gordon in “Lives Like Loaded Guns,” which I bought at the Museum.

Ms. Dickinson was a recluse because she was an epileptic, and as for turning her back on romance, in fact she didn’t, as my grandmother would say, “die wondering.” So the critics and the venerators are largely deluded by what they want to believe.

So I’ve been reading the letters of this extraordinarily erudite and articulate woman, and I’ve been immersing myself in her poetry, without understanding much of anything, but once in a while I get a breakthrough. I realized that, to Emily, life was one big joke.

Her motto was “Tell it slant.” She had a profound detailed knowledge of religions and literature. She could quote Shakespeare or George Sand by heart at age 14. Every word she uttered was a sly allusion to a hymn or a novel or a bit of scripture. And the allusions are just too deep for the modern reader to fathom —  ever.

Take her allusion, in one poem, to “polar expiation.” That would have amused her no end.  Ill-equipped imbeciles tramping around the North Pole to atone for the sins of mankind.

So in honor of Emily Dickinson, I offer these two poems. The first is a synthesis of her and Robert Frost:


Two snarls bemuse Calypso Whey
And sorry I cannot say “Aye”
And be a sailor long forsook
I turn on my heel and walk into
The Dimly-Lit Bazaar


I dined with Tom Cruise, in a way.
It was a POSH cafe

I told him that my true love had
A habit of ditching me
At social functions and said I supposed he
Had never known the hurtful pangs
Of unrequited love.

I guess I though he might reply
As Hollywoood stars often do
With a story of lovely
Paula Ann Pelagi
Who broke his heart in seventh grade.

Instead he said, “Are you trying
To make me angry?”

The menu was a pop-up book
With Care Bears and Hello Kitties
Of which I could make nothing

I told the surly waiter
Who took great umbrage
And walked away.
To his retreating form, I said,
“Just bring me black coffee.”