Looking for a holiday read that nestles perfectly within those expansive bursts of 4-5 minutes of freedom?

I got you.

(Grammarian Disclaimer: “I’ve got you” didn’t have the oomph)

My without-reservations-recommendation for the top of your holiday reading list is

(drum roll, Griswold-style)

Emily Dickinson’s Poems: As She Preserved Them, edited by Cristanne Miller!

I’m sure you’re surprised.

Sincerely though:

  1. Reading a Dickinson poem only takes about 2-3 minutes, even if you’re thoughtful about letting the words soak.
  2. Working that poem over in your mind afterward—while engaging with the world around you—is an incredible way to draw even more meaning and more relevance from the lines.

So, why this book of Dickinson poems?

For a poet whose innovative style was ‘normalized’ by editors both before and after her death, Miller’s book provides a refreshing glimpse into Dickinson’s extraordinary body of work, without the filter.

While you’re discovering some of her best poems are ones you’ve maybe never heard (or just honestly never understood—am I right?), or seeing old favorites afresh, you’ll find the poet just as she left much of her work: in process.

That “in process” portion is what makes this particular edition of Dickinson’s work so vital. It makes both the poetry and the poet accessible.

For those of you who write but have yet to reach Dickinson status, flipping the pages and observing as a literary giant moves between mediocre word choice, revisions of phrasing for clarity, and the like, not only humanizes Dickinson—but it reminds us that even for the legends, the writing craft still has an element of work, of edit, and of revision.  

Each page captures methodical tinkering with ever-evolving art. Substitutions and variants are placed outside each “completed” poem, and perusing her alternate approaches is an insightful tool for deciphering poetic intent.

The meticulous annotations provided by Miller are easy to follow and gift the poems with extraordinary context. The notes include everything from connections to popular literature of the day to the poem recipients during Dickinson’s lifetime.

As for topics to stoke your interest, Dickinson’s scope is infinite. She targets an astounding array of subjects with a surprisingly modern eye, complete with candor and wit. Be prepared to see yourself reflected as you read, to snicker at the precise characterization of even the most complex elements of life, and to feel tugged in by her frequent use of first-person form.

Pair this book with a well-researched biography, such as Sewall’s, The Life of Emily Dickinson, or Emily’s own letters (careful, many were ‘edited’ meticulously by ‘someone’), and you’ll be further caught in the intrigue of the Dickinson family’s curious narrative. 

Wishing you and your family (curious/intrigue/and all) a lovely Thanksgiving.

189 years?!

Emily Dickinson.   

*cue wisps of white curtains spilling from a midnight window*

*cue a shadowy figure diving out of sight of passersby*

*cue flowers and birds and a post-death cleanup likely including the phrase: “Hey, who the heck shoved so much paper in this drawer?!”*

*Etc*

The name conjures various images for plenty of readers—thanks in most part to some various forms of “publicity” (term used loosely here) in the wake of her death. I read once that her niece, Martha, said Emily’s last words were,

“I must go in; the fog is rising.”

If so, the statement is strikingly prophetic.

Whether Emily fed the rumor mill intentionally or not (across years of study, I admit there are few times I’ve seen Dickinson do anything without clearly definable intent or purpose, so I mention it as a sincere possibility), to distill to the bare basics:

—quirks fed stereotypes fed rumors fed myths fed fame fed legends fed losing a positively brilliant, perceptive woman within an absolute maelstrom of mist—

Thank goodness we didn’t lose the poems. Well, the majority of them. At least we think.

If indeed the mystery is what initially led to sales, the poems themselves—creations of a petite woman’s mind (“I took my power in my hand” indeed—take that, patriarchy!)—are the reason she has triumphed over mortality itself.

The festivity of the poet’s 189th birthday is around the corner. Consider the scarcity of individuals celebrated by perfect strangers after death—then consider the scarcity of individuals celebrated 189 years after birth and 133ish years after death.

Somewhere, Dickinson and Shakespeare are high-fiving and doing pencil drops.

Which is, admittedly, a pretty incredible visualization—that ultimately leads us to an even more essential point:

Consider the scarcity of women celebrated for their genius and subsequent creative masterpieces 189 years after birth and 133ish years after death.

Fog or not, we see you, Em, through each of your creations. And yes, I believe you wanted it that way.

PS: Thank you for the drawerful.

*Scene*

Excerpt from The Other Dickinson

The chill and ease of the bent wood soothed my palms. The paint on the oval top—lit with color across a polished brown, before—had faded considerably, leaving the single five-petaled flower in its center muted and worn. Its two rows of encircling vines appeared more as bared shadows than the lush greenery they once were. I found a new seam—and ran my finger down it—a single crack between the slats. I caught and pulled at a splinter on the wood—delaying—until the silence waded heavy enough to drown the noise of memory, or until enough of the daylight receded from the busy damask walls surrounding me—so their patterns may no longer intrude.

Fingering the metal latches on the edges, I lifted the top of the hatbox—then stopped, leaving the lid suspended—imagining the contents as her—as the inside of a body, filling and plumping with a gasp of air.