Saturday, February 4, 2012

TO BE NOBODY TOO -- Like Emily Dickinson

    “This world is the movie of what everything is, it is one movie, made of the same stuff throughout, belonging to nobody”
    Jack Kerouac, Sutra 10, Scripture of the Golden Eternity

    I caught a look at something rare, beautiful and hardly to be believed this week at Poets House on the Hudson River -- the handwriting of Emily Dickinson, the strange, reclusive 19th century genius/poet of Amherst Massachusetts.

    Emily’s distinctive voice has always been difficult for me to hear in the percolating fizz and bustle of Whitman’s Manhattan. Despite reading her work aloud in a crowded all-night marathon at the Bowery Club. Despite contemplating it alone in the flickering light of an all-night underground subway train.

    Til now that is.

    In fact I hadn't gone to the Poets House with any intent on learning anything much about old Emily. I was just killing an hour or so, waiting for an appearance by Andy Clausen at Kat George’s “Son Of A Pony” reading series at the Cornelia Street Café.

    There’s no killing time however. Just failed opportunities to recognize what is contained in every moment.

    So here’s a little sharing of a moment of recognition. Without hyperbole. Somehow, looking directly at the oddly striding handwriting of the Maid Of Amherst at the Poets House on Friday, I picked up its cadence, a palpable awareness of the silence of eternity that surrounded her as she wrote.

    To see her handwriting is to sense the breath of the woman. The long, open wonder of Dickinson’s hand. The emptiness surrounding each letter and vowel. How the tension between quietude and urgency reveals itself. Confronted with all that, for the first time I was ‘hooked and hypnotized’ -- like Dickinson biographer Jerome Charyn who claims to have been hooked ‘from the start’ and states that it was “the old maid of Amherst who lent me a little of her own courage to risk becoming a writer.”

    “I’m nobody --  Who are you ---
    Are you nobody -- too --
    Then there’s a pair of us

    So writes Emily in her own sprawling hand -- a palpable inspiration and drawing in of eternity and air, as broad as the widest possible human breath.

    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!

    Never got it before. I get it now.

    In a couple of dozen words, Dickinson solves the conundrum of being a poet in America -- to be ‘nobody, too.’ Part of a the communal 'thing,' which is temporal but vital and the 'eternal thing.' To eschew the egoism of fame or status, which we all know reduces many an aspiring ‘career’ poet to being little more than a croaking frog; and those who would try to fathom their work as a mere audience in a bog.

    I'm a firm believer in reading things said by people who are smarter than me. Like Greek philosopher Empedocles, who said “God is a circle whose center is everywhere and circumference nowhere.” Like Jack Kerouac, whose ‘Scripture of the Golden Eternity,’ is rightly called a beautiful meditation on the nature of impermanence & consciousness.

    I was smelling flowers in the yard, and when I stood up I took a deep breath and the blood all rushed to my brain …writes Jack. I had apparently fainted, or died, for about sixty seconds. During that timeless moment of unconsciousness I saw the golden eternity. I saw heaven. In it nothing had ever happened, the events of a million years ago were just as phantom and ungraspable as the events of now, or the events of the next ten minutes. It was perfect, the golden solitude, the golden emptiness.

    Now there's an explanation that's ‘subtle as the dharma it invokes,’ as the Beat Museum‘s Jerry Cimino puts it. "Being nobody, the whole world belongs to us. Being nobody, we're here to disappear, therefore let's be as vivid & generous as we can."

    Or as Matthew Arnold asks rhetorically,  in his Hymn Of Empedocles, "Is it so small a thing /to have enjoy'd the sun?"

  Dickinson’s is no less a beautiful meditation. Read correctly, she urges us to be nobody too. Urges us to give up the terrible grasp of trying to be somebody, a vanity thrust on us by the ‘wheel of the quivering meat conception.’

     She urges us to embrace the beautiful nobody-hood of being an ordinary poet in America, and share it with the other ‘nobodies.’ To stop worrying so much about being 'circumference builders,' and pay attention to being the center of what we are.

    I left Poets House in a beautiful Dickensonian quietude, and looked out over the river, singing now along the edge of Manhattan with the same music and meaning of old Emily herself.

    Intimate as a shared horizon. Broad as the North American continent and what lies beyond. Rich as the pregnant silence of the Hudson’s lapping waters on busy Manhattan’s shore.

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