Aberration of Starlight: The Emily Dickinson Monologue

Aberration of Starlight: The Emily Dickinson Monologue

THE PROGRAM

Photo of Emily Dickinson's bedroom window

Above: The lamp in Emily Dickinson's bedroom window in Amherst, MA, as it is kept every night
and as it was every night when alone in that room she wrote her poems.

ABERRATION OF STARLIGHT
The Emily Dickinson Monologue
Walter A. Davis

[LEFT PAGE INSIDE PROGRAM]

Dare you see a soul at the White Heat?
Then crouch within the door
Red—is the Fire's common tint—
But when the vivid Ore
Has vanquished Flame's conditions,
It quivers from the Forge
Without a color, but the light
Of unanointed Blaze.
Least village has its Blacksmith
Whose Anvil's even ring
Stands symbol for the finer Forge
That soundless tugs—within—
Refining those impatient Ores
With Hammer, and with Blaze
Until the Designated Light
Repudiate the Forge—

 

 

Time of Play—Nights, 1857-1886

Place—A Bedroom in Amherst

Music: From the Chaconne in Bach's Partita #2 in D minor for solo violin—to play in short wisps during pauses throughout the play.

[RIGHT PAGE INSIDE PROGRAM]

Photo reputedly of Emily Dickinson in 1860

Photo reputedly of Emily Dickinson in 1860 reproduced from
volume 2 of Richard B. Sewall's The Life of Emily Dickinson (NY, 1974)


Director's Note:

Our play attempts to take up residence within the solitude of our greatest poet. This time the 4th wall is absolute. You can see her, but for her you are never here. (And at no time can the actress playing Emily show any awareness of an audience.) This is a play about what happens inside a mind when no We is any longer present. As such it is, of course, opposed to the contemporary dogma that all is public—even our deepest inwardness. Such is the primary contemporary dogma whereby the tragic is denied, avoided, exorcised. For Emily Dickinson the opposite was the only worthy pursuit. Thus, here solitude remains inviolate, unbroken, sovereign—in keen and quivering ratio of ecstasy-anguish— and sumptuous despair. The entire play takes place inside her head—voicing that a concession to theatrical representation. Many stories are told of the life Emily Dickinson. But none about what happened in a room alone at night when there were only words—and her intractable will engaged in a drama where psyche, poetry, sexuality are identical.

Lines from Dickinson poems weaved into the text are identified by footnotes. The first number is to the Johnson edition of the Complete Poems, the second boldfaced number to the Franklin edition.

[BACK OF PROGRAM]

I shall not murmur if at last
The ones I loved below
Permission have to understand
For what I shunned them so—
Divulging it would rest my Heart
But it would ravage theirs.
Why, Katie, Treason has a Voice—
But mine—dispels—in Tears.

 

 

Brief Chronology:

"Biography first convinces us of the fleeing of the Biographied—" Emily Dickinson[1]

In keeping with this insight we offer the basic facts. As she will show, poetry begins on the other side of all that. The real life, not the mundane one.

 

1830—Born, Amherst, Massachusetts. Calvinist. Financially well off.

1840—Conspicuous early talent at piano, especially at improvisation.

1847—Spends 1 year at Mount Holyoke College. Remains among the few who refuses to proclaim religious belief.

1850—Great Christian Revival sweeps East cost. Emily alone among her family refuses conversion. Stops attending church.

1850—Father gives Emily a Newfoundland puppy, Carlo.

1856—Brother Austin marries Emily's best friend, Susan Gilbert

1858—Unhappy love affair with a married man whose identity remains a mystery.

1859-1863—Period of greatest poetic activity, almost a poem a day.

1866—Death of Carlo

1874—Death of father

1875—Paralysis of mother. Emily and her sister, Lavinia, care for mother until her death in 1882.

1880-1884—Affair with Judge Lord, a distinguished jurist and a widower 18 years her senior.

1882—Lord proposes marriage. Offer declined.

1884—Lord dies

1886—Emily dies. (With the exception of a few brief periods, her entire life is spent in Amherst.)


"The Chaconne is for me the most wonderful, unfathomable piece of music. On one stave, for a small instrument, a whole world of deepest thoughts and most powerful feelings. If I imagine that I could have created, even conceived the piece, I am quite certain that the excess of excitement and earth-shattering experience would have driven me out of my mind."
Johannes Brahms

 

SETTING

A woman’s bedroom.

Stage Right: A door on 45% angle to house. A short cross upstage from it, a chair and a very small writing desk, with drawer partly ajar. Atop desk an unlit lamp, pen and inkwell. Other objects on this side of the room: a small stove and a small baby’s rocking crib.

Stage Left: beside the window a circular nightstand, atop which an unlit lamp, alongside which pencil and paper. Next to nightstand a bed and on other side of it a dresser, atop which a mirror and several combs. A single pink China Rose in a thin vase.

Night. Curtains at back wall drawn over two windows, one near bed, the other directly behind small writing desk. On this simple set the actress must weave complex variations on a single theme—Solitude—moving freely and find ways to invest each “prop” with personal emotional resonance.

Above top of back wall, visible to the audience, a large white blank screen. As her mind moves toward each stanza its words will emerge, become sharp, then dissolve back into blank screen until next stanza begins to come into existence—the deeper processes of the creative mind thus represented in what will be their results.

 

ACT ONE

(A woman wearing a long white dress enters. The dress, cotton, is the kind women then wore for daily life. Loosely fitted at the waist, round collar at top, cuffs, one pocket on left side, mother of pearl buttons running down entire length of the dress. Her hair is pulled back, knotted behind in a bun. She closes the door behind her. Her hands stretched out behind her hold the doorknob. She turns and inserts imaginary key and locks the door. As she turns back: [Breathes deep in relief and expectation.])

This is freedom. (She turns and insets imaginary key and locks the door. As she turns back) As I told Mattie that day I brought her up here. This is Freedom. To be alone at night in a room of one's own with nothing save the scraps of day's revery (removing balled up pieces of paper from her pocket)—time released into the one act: to forge from them a poem with some share of blaze.

(Loosens top buttons of dress. Breathes relief. Crosses to writing desk—cherrywood, 18" in diameter. During cross she pulls pins from behind her hair. The slightly stooped walk of an aging woman becomes the lithe, powerful movements of a dancer, the body of a girl, a panther. Loosened chestnut roan red hair flecked with bursts of sunlight tumbles down across her shoulders and back—her face caressed by moonlight as she stands at desk bent over papers. Wolf-eyes shine avidly.)

(Sits on chair, back one-half to audience. Removes her shoes, then stockings. Musing, then speaks, quoting lines from a poem in progress while performing action.)

So I pull my stockings off.
Wading in the Water
For the Disobedience' Sake.[2]

(Voice-Over after) a child's laughter.

(Stockings puddle to the floor, pushed by her feet toward her shoes.)

(She turns in toward the desk and proceeds to write, revise, searching for the lines to continue the poem. Unable to find them she puts it aside.)

(Wistfully) Another time.

(Rises. Crosses to window. Draws aside curtain. Star and moonlight streams through illumining her face in profile gazing out the window, contours of her body visible as dress is rustled by breeze. Undoes tender top buttons.)

"Oh there is blessing in this gentle breeze"[3]—dissolving day in flush of night's possibility. To simulate is stinging work.[4] Divesting too is stinging but tonight I must be zero at the bone.[5]

(Returns to desk and begins to write a letter. Pauses, troubled. Works on another letter. Pauses again.)

(Voice-over. [All voice-overs come from a voice that speaks, as it were, from the other side of ordinary life; Emily's voice here as tragic chorus.])

Drama's Vitallest Expression is the Common Day
Other Tragedy
Perish in the Recitation—
This—the best enact
When the Audience is scattered
And the Boxes shut—…
It were infinite enacted
In the Human heart—
Only Theatre recorded
Owner cannot shut—[6]

(Muffled laugh at end of this. Rising she crosses to bed, hand slowly drawn across foot of bed—then to dresser. Takes scraps of paper from pocket still crumbled and places them atop dresser.)

(Touches rose, musing. Picks up mirror, turns out toward audience looking at her face in mirror. [Mirror is of course empty and thus the audience sees her face looking at herself.])

My gypsy looks,[7] they say, doe eyes color at the bottom of a glass of sherry,[8] ringed wolf gold, lips superfluous cold[9], the only kangaroo among the beauty[10]—but in the mirror seen once where I too in Daisy mounds possess hid treasure—My Me in folds of mystery petalling open: a lady's slipper orchid blushing in its right of dew—And from within, volcanic — in mist or stain of mirror[11] for joy of it— I touch bud trembling in liquid fire.

(Replaces mirror. Takes up and smells rose, summoning herself to poetry. Rose beginning to wilt, handled accordingly. Her hands close gently over it. Later, rose petals drop toward lower drawer.)

Essential oils—are wrung—
The Attar from the Rose
Be not expressed by Suns-alone-
It is the gift of Screws—
The General Rose—decay—
But this—in Lady's Drawer—

(Wry smile at pun on word Drawer.)

(Kneels and slowly opens bottom drawer.)

(With love) My box of phantoms.

Make Summer—When the lady lie—
In Ceaseless Rosemary.[12]

(Lifts many papers from drawer, some tied tightly into small bundles. Glances through, dropping them back into drawer until only two pages are in her hand. She reads from first, voice anxious, sarcastic, broken, fragmenting from within; at times harsh with self-contempt.)

Oh, did I offend it—Didn't it want me to tell it the truth. Daisy offend it—who bends her smaller life to his meeker every day—who only asks—a task—who something to do for love of it—some little way she cannot guess to make that master glad—…Daisy—who never flinched thro' that awful parting but held her life so tight he should not see the wound. …this Daisy—grieve her Lord—and yet she often blundered—Perhaps she grazed his taste—perhaps her odd Backwoodsman ways troubled teased his finer nature.[13]

(Shifts to second letter in hand. Voice now firm, strong.)

"Redemption." You remember I asked you for it—you gave me something else. I forgot the Redemption in the Redeemed—I didn't tell you for a long time, but I knew you had altered me—I—and was tired—no more…"[14]

(Pause)

(Self-critically, bitter)

—as if all letters aren't moves in that interminable game of chess that has only one end…. Love me. All letters—even the one you can't not write—heart on your sleeve—language the only antidote to madness—and still the mind in its cunning—scheming—This...this is how I can win, find, coerce your love—for me, she, Daisy, I—

(Pause)

(Ironic, in control again)

The dance of pronouns. Male and female He created them. Closeted in prose we call she what I hate in me. He, the sovereign word for all that I never can be: owner, Master—the male prerogative telling me I can never own myself—nor hope to Master what would terrify the hardiest backwoodsman confined for a night here—with Me—

(Nervously grabs up a handful of sheets of poems. Paging through them—calms herself with lines from two of them, read with drama and intense passion; that, not recitation, the model for all voice-overs.)

Renunciation—is a piercing Virtue—
…the Choosing
Against itself—
Itself to justify
Unto itself—[15]

—Yes and with the mind forever doubling back on itself in intenser coiling of the one flame—

My soul—accused me—And I quailed—
…Her Disdain—'twere lighter bear
A finger of Enamelled Fire—[16]

(Places poems back in dresser atop the 2 letters. Digs deep in pile, searching for what she buried there the night before. She draws it out. Rises.)

(Reads lines from first 3 stanzas of "My Life Had stood a Loaded Gun" aloud in a whisper, the editor in her scrutinizing the stanzas. After reading she places the page carefully on top of the dresser.)

That's as far as I got last night. Before my nerve denied me—as the poem came undone in a rush back to where it began: the Dream jolting me wide awake—with fugitive fragments scrawled on a night-pad before the dream can slip away. I see it again—

(Startled look as she re-lives the dream.)

[A broom standing upside down in a corner—an amputated arm reaching out to clutch by the throat a gun pointed back at the one holding it.]

From those fragments Revery—unbroken all day…(drifts into it) Revery which alone will do when bees are few, the buccaneers of buzz…debauchee of dew, reeling through endless days from inns of molten blue (pulls herself back) Mirth the mail of Anguish. Revery ever deepening, with solitude's cloak wound so tight about me mother and Vinnie won't, can't intrude—And so it never stops—the poem alive in me somewhere—while I bake, sweep the rooms, tend my flowers—

for thee—
Bright Absentee!
My Fuchsia's Coral Seams
Rip—
A Hyacinth—I hid—
Puts out a Ruffled Head—

—walk deep woods with Carlo, my mute confederate, wax and wane in revery's spell waiting then stunned by the push of fugitive lines like chariots in the vest[17], skulls of stanzas, beehive of words stinging with bolts of fitful melody[18]…And sometimes volcanic, thunderclap of an image vivid as the dream—rejoinder as powerful—until all time becomes an urgent hush in the anteroom of night's possibility: to be here in labor to deliver the poem.

My Life had stood a Loaded Gun in corners

An image can be rapture—can be death—joy's grape straining to touch of palate fine—mad prologue to another Jacob night wrestling an angel into a poem. (Pause) But this time, something more—and I knew it right away. Coeval with the image—Recognition: This is my life's deadlock come to confront me.

My Life had stood—a Loaded Gun—
In Corners—

Yesterday passed paralyzed in fury of that image. An intolerable unity compressed like some alabaster chamber pressing down on my heart. Not another cleaving of the mind—but the two things together: all the corners where I've hidden—the nervous pale little virgin shrouded in household chores, the belle then recluse of Amherst, meek M ever since a child holding my tongue so long my fingers are parched—while all the time the mind coiling until divinest sense[19] in redoubled frustration becomes a gun lying dormant, loaded to no end but to explode in self-consuming rage.

They shut me up in Prose—
As when a little Girl
They put me in the Closet—
Because they liked me "still"—[20]

Years here have taught me one thing. Poets don't invent images. They're seized and held captive by them…. Some event in the soul haunts us in the shape of an image—some decision being made deep within that I can only make mine by suffering what the image already knows. An image is the soul brought in judgment before itself—everything else blown away…. It's so easy to lose the vital thread in thickets of thought, ravel out of care in labyrinths of mind—Until an image brings back consciousness at white heat—purified in imagination's refining fire: Some Terror of the soul or some convulsive beauty seized in an instant of frozen time—Acutest perception submitted to the gift of screws.

This is where the poem begins. Some rupture in thought—something shattered in the heart—and only one way to wrestle the cauldron into what the poem finds, creates: A New Emotion, something never felt before, in words with power sufficient to plant a bomb within the entire order of what I feel.

(Pause as she strikes match, speaking following lines as she lights the lamp, her face illumined by it.)

Am. A poem is a Lucifer struck in the dark by a hand trembling over a blank page.

(Sits, takes up pen, waiting.)

(Pause) (Voice-Over)

To pile like Thunder to its close
Then crumble grand away
While Everything created hid
This—would be Poetry—
Or Love—the two coeval come—
We both and neither prove—
Experience either and consume—
For None see God and live—[21]

But if you wait—endure the hushed suspense of flame's conditions—change comes—witnessed not explained in the enchantment[22] of a heart suspended before its own beating, held so by the bewitched power of words. (Pause) Not the word owner—I've always known I'm that in suffering stasis. No, it was the magic spell of the other two words to reach back and make that ownership mine. Passed: as when you cross a boundary beyond the previously known. Identified: not just recognition, but through it the central I am claimed. Ownership finally asserted with that unity apprehended in the only appropriate words: carried away—as in an abduction, a rapturing, my life mine in a delirious assumption of freedom—

(Breaks ecstatically into entire first stanza)

My Life had stood—a Loaded Gun—
In corners—till a day
The owner passed—identified—
And carried Me away.

Change complete in grammar transformed. Had stood: Past indefinite—like a statue rooted in quartz discontent. Carried away: Future perfect. With the reward spied at the end of the stanza by something Vesuvian in me smiling at the prospect of a woman with a gun, striding toward the woods, claiming for herself what defines men. (With wry laugh) "All men say what to me." This is my reply.

End of a long struggle—this stanza. Of self divided against itself, cornered claustrophobic in rooms emptied of air, trapped between two emotions: a cloying meekness while within anger pounding away like a fist beating against a casket. That's the power of a true image. A paralyzed force released here gives me back my life in a Break with all limits on what I can feel, know, be. Like a great river in the blood, that's what coursed through me as I wrote the stanza and became whole for the first time in that place where to be alive is power. I yare in the toils of an unexampled freedom.

(Drift of memory in what follows, back to the defining event)

Freedom. That's what I felt last night—feel again now in me—as it is with every true poem—joy's bud ripening—my body flowering again in what I felt the first time you touched me and I grew taut under your hand, breasts swelling like wing of a lark split in flight under your tongue shooting a line like molten ore straight down through me—a buzz of needles prick in pain of longing so sweet—this chasm in me—and from it something released in flush so jubilant that everything ladylike was swept away in the instant—I no longer I, but love swelling to love's pinch that hurts and is desired[23]

And now We roam in Sovereign Woods
And now We hunt the Doe—
And every time I speak for Him
The Mountains straight reply—

It blazed through me in a feast of words, the second stanza writing itself in a single expanse of breath unbroken by doubt. Each pause at the end of each line a gathering before a greater outpouring into the next—My voice cleansed of all dimity hesitations—Primitive, proud, unbidden by anything but its own violence of spirit in a profusion of images beyond the dip of bell. Sovereign the word—and solely sovereign those woods within—in access complete now with right to roam freely, sporting in the one necessity: to hunt down everything weak in myself, gun discharged in action so resounding that all Nature echoes the deed.

And and and in pure succession—simultaneous and cumulative—to roam, to hunt, to kill—each swell of freedom sharper in focus—from dizzying prospect to inevitable end. From wild release to disciplined excess. And—the very word charmed and charged with transport and transformation. Ruthless—like my wolf's eyes this stanza, and like a wolf's plunge in cry of victory over myself one with the bullet. This is Power in its very moment, unbound—expanding out of itself grander with each expression. Freedom raptured in actualizing three desires—each more powerful and intimate—deadly and amoral. The turbulence I crave here issues in speech so absolute the landscape of my body echoes an ever expanding will…. And out of each leap greater longing for greater satisfaction.

That's what Poetry must be. Take the image. Make it raw, unleashing all strife it contains. Then compress that until it's like the inside of a volcano—that hideous force become diamond sharp…. Then released in words that cut to the very quick of what we are: So that you feel the top of your head blown away by incandescent thought, your body so chilled by truth that nothing can ever warm it. A poem must be soul syllables crafted to stun with bolts of melody.

(Pause, again taken back into past)

That's what sounded in me, remember, that terrible almost parting when you turned back and I turned in and all our sinew tore[24]—in a music bewitched by symphony and song[25] the moment you were in me—your need for me hot breath on my throat, hands rough on my breast like you were kneading dough, your beard cutting sandpaper swathes across my face yielded up wanting only to lose myself in you—the long fear conquered in my body's need to give itself over to you crying yes, forever, far beyond that yes to the merciless thrust of you—like an axe splitting firewood—yes to the pounding away—harder harder—like you were trying to smash something inside me—and beyond that Yes in me rising to the beat of some savage drum in my blood straining to go above every nerve—defy every virtue—Knowing far beyond pain of you that This—This is the thing I can never get enough of: emboldened fingers clutching you to me, a hawk in me wanting to claw at you bare my swan's neck to your teeth grind at pleasure from below hot in the wine come once a world—straining for the act beyond possibility—

(Mouth open wide in amazement)

My god—It's like I'm trying to turn my body inside out—

—My Me in sunburstflowering against you, so welded to your embrace that nothing can ever part us—

(Pause as sadness overtakes her)

Terrible to know what I knew then—in the instant—from that look of fear and something worse in your eyes, shrug of body as you pulled away withdrawing into yourself—leaving me pitched beyond pitch of grief, in that loneliness one dare not sound—so deep that all lost love is poor by comparison.

(Pause) (Voice-over)

…like a Face of Steel—
That suddenly looks into ours
With a metallic grin—
The Cordiality of Death—
Who drills his Welcome in—[26]

(Firm again, the poet knowing)

In one night—one act—the change complete—honey of summer oozing forever free in me—but at the cost of you.

Ecstasy—anguish: how could I have known, at 25, when I wrote that little stanza—that I'd found my vocation:

For each ecstatic instant
We must an anguish pay
In keen and quivering ratio
To the ecstasy)[27]

—Mine that vocation in the white election: to see that law through whenever it happens: Whenever bliss sanctified tumbles over into anguish and its abyss calling to the void inside me—an emptied out Volcano—as I am whenever words fail and I fall into some vertigo of soul sucking me down.

(Pause)

No. I'm wrong. The poem refused it. What seemed anguish was only fear's clutch in momentary blockage before a new upsurge of energy Mine in the Vesuvian push that defines me. That's what happened in the third stanza. As it was once with you so it became for me: the power mine to use as and when I choose and so rapt yet calm this assurance that I never felt more at one with myself than when I wrote that stanza, pulling for prime in quest of some vast final expenditure of loveglow so great I'd perish in its Vesuvian wake…with no remnant of consciousness gnawing on remorse, loss, and that insensate hunger after love chill as death begging "touch, hold me please"…. —No more—my body now to me alone sufficient. This is the moment of greatest expanse in my soul—in certainty of creativity Volcanic in expression yet calmly poised in anticipation of ever greater expansion.

(ecstatically)

And do I smile, such cordial light
Upon the Valley glow—
It is as a Vesuvian face
Had let it's pleasure through—

A Mona Lisa smile this stanza, in sublime possession of a force within that illumines a vast field of poetic endeavor in transformative fury. In grammar apt—the speculative as if asserted as an already accomplished act. Freedom—to destroy or not—as and when I wish. Throb and glow of the volcano: As if it has already erupted triumphant—yet remains poised within in infinite supply of vital heat. An inordinate pitch of pleasure released yet retained—a burning chalice poured out yet ever to be poured: the arrested figures of that pleasure never quite reached on Keats' urn[28] transmuted by what my body became that nuptialed night—in Double Estate—entailed at pleasure Upon an unsuspecting Heir—[29]

(Pause—then almost as an aside)

I loved Sue—innocently, desperately in trial of girl's maidenhead awakening to miracle of love, grief of unspeakable loss; loved Kate carnally, madly in what I thought would be some finality of love: her face was in a bed of hair Like flowers in a plot…a meditative spot how red the Fire rocks below how insecure the sod…. But they were as nothing to what I learned loving you—

—So sudden so utter when my desire overtook yours in quivering intensity—the central I am shuddering then shudder again the volcano locked in me spending itself in excess of joy demanding more intense, more violent eruption: Like I was exploding out of myself—and each time something torn loose within me: in hunger's lick of quick fires furious with longing up and down my legs lava surge in ecstasy so extreme that ever afterward I am the hunt of pleasure sated only to be renewed in repeated insistence on an impossible desire: to be body incarnate—born into a realm restrained only by its own too much.

—Mine the election—to that. Mine, the purchase of a woman. Mine alone to claim alone after you withdrew, leaving me to discover the further miracle—Of a vineyard still palpitating long after you'd lapsed into sleep. How a woman is a flower on fire blossoming anew each time fingers of yew just barely graze across my sex and I ripple in renewed anticipation, stoking fires that flare whenever I will it: a perpetual dance of pleasure savored, sustained, renewed—like water lapping against a boat adrift at sea in surge far beyond any hope ever to return to land.

A woman's sex—a burning fountain cascading from softest stroke by fingers of enameled fire[30]—in flickering passage to every cave and cavern of longing to overflow[31] in quenchless pursuit of a power that can never be lost…. But only if I always spend it grandly—in quivering ecstasy whenever I make love alone…or keener still restrained then poured forth in labor of poetry.

(During above crosses to desk, takes up pen, begins jotting during following Voice-Over)

The moderate drinker of Delight
Does not desire the spring

It's so like love—where a poem begins. Something yawns open in the soul that must become a belt wound tight about the heart—stanza by stanza—each opening arms to its own transgression. Each stanza complete in the clutch of an emotion found in the very moment of its becoming—and yet within it the Siren's call of something that the next stanza must uncover. Each stanza, each poem the incorrigible limit that the next poem must get beyond. For Poetry happens only when I go somewhere I've never been before, seeking for something tremulous in the heart or some darker tunneling of the unquiet mind—Words with the power to scalp the naked soul.

Some complete and final action in the soul—that's what a poem must be. Through inner turmoil to a self-reliance not like yours Mr. Emerson, but like love's perpetual peak that sees only Alps beyond.

(Vesuvian smile silently re-reading the stanzas. Crosses to drawer, kneels and places page in then closes drawer. Goes to window opposite bed. Opens wide to breeze ruffling curtains. Goes to bed. Lies atop cover. Light dims until shines only on her face as she lies there, her body visible as shadow on curtain—knees raised, head back, restless, unable to sleep.)

Fool—thinking a stanza could purchase you a way to ravel out into a sleep free from what dreams may come…. If there were just some way I could do it quickly—fingers already sticky sweet with dew of me—bring that unaccustomed wine to lips long parching next to mine[32] and so drift into sleep free of all that wrestles and wrenches open in my soul whenever most pathetic thing I do/ Is play I hear from you—your voice whispering night music again—knowing the hell: That to touch myself is to conjure you where you will never be again. Christ man, getting rid of God was nothing to what I had to tear at here to rid myself of you…. And so live beyond the blasphemy scrawled across the sealed church of Revelation that day at summer full of time scarce profaned by speech and Joy clutched tight, by greedy hands[33] furious to suppress the truth I knew even then I'd have to live into…. The truth about us compressed in a single poem—not the lie you retreated into (with your wife, your responsibilities, and your jealous god)—but in cold poetic anatomy—each reason why I could not, cannot live with you drawn out: like a cleaver slicing away layers of the mind—thin slices of my mind prepared for dissection—only to learn again against each reason the greater Why I'll never be done with the apostasy that saturated sight: your face as you entered me—rendering Paradise superfluous and Hell which way I fly[34] only to meet again the truth about you…. Or if I could do it just to be done with it—released for a time into some place beyond care and what always happens when I lie here like this:…—with that nagging consciousness gnawing its way into the poem, saying pull down thy vanity. Power is only pain stranded through discipline.[35] The poem's not finished—only begun…. And that's why I musn't—not tonight—though it would be so sweet, so good, opening my body to the night air free to move against me—caress from it a kiss long and bold of life to own—from life to draw—but never touch the reservoir—

—Which must be saved for tomorrow when I'll need it for the poem calling to me from this it's crucible: Emptied out with wave after wave of anguish so great all I can do to stem the tide is rock, rock myself to sleep the way a mother does a fevered child…. Even though I know there's no way stop it. It will come, what comes whenever a poem stops short from some failure of nerve—Vesuvian vision consumed in pyre of that thing that comes to get me when my body finally drops into sleep—that thing in me that in sleep attacks the poem. I feel it so strong— already—see already in sleep my hand reaching out for the tablet and pencil on the nightstand, already scribbling the words before the dream snaps open my startled eyes—

—I see myself—

(Tableau seated bolt upright in bed, eyes wide open, mouth wide open, hand reaching toward tablet—to music of Bach Chaconne rising, this music to continue throughout intermission in the theatre and in the lobby.)

 

INTERMISSION

 

ACT TWO

(As lights rise Emily frozen in position as at end of Act One. Eyes snap open as she sees the dream.)

Lear's Pelican,[36] I offer my breast to impatient fingers plucking its feathers. They become claws still plucking after no feathers remain. Flesh peels away, baring my heart, my teeth about to sink into it when I wake—try to wake—and straining to break free trip-tear open my imperial veins—and tumble in the sea[37] beyond recall—Where it begins again—the entire dream—but with the face behind it in chiaroscuro emerging and disappearing—your granite smile like in a daguerreotype with that dead look they give to the eyes.

(Rises from bed during following and crosses to dresser)

The dream held me in drugged half sleep until well past dawn. Waking I shored these fragments as prods to revery (taking up scraps of paper she placed on dresser early in Act One)—first stabs to stab myself toward what I'll need tonight to finish the poem—or to lose it.

(During following she silently reads the scraps of paper. In all soliloquies throughout this act she paces until the point where she grasps from the scraps the stanza that she then writes down either at the dresser or the writing desk.)

It's easy to hunt the doe; yawp in the crow cry of easy victories. The real hunt begins only when hunter and hunted are one—the woods so deep within you can't tell them apart—and perfect murder there an act demanding a transformation greater than what enabled me—finally—to take up the gun. There is in me something stronger in its weakness, its unbearable meekness than all great creative rage I might marshal against it. It waits in corners for the creative force to spend itself then welcomes me back into a self-pity I must cherish more than any freedom.

(Sits at writing desk but without picking up pen.)

(Pause) (Voice-Over)

Rehearsal to Ourselves
Of a Withdrawn Delight—
Affords a Bliss like Murder—
Omnipotent—Acute—
We will not drop the Dirk
Because We love the Wound
The Dirk Commemorate Itself
Remind Us that we died.[38]

Pity. That's what kept me bound to you-bound to Sue before you…. "Where my hands are cut, her fingers will be found inside" (the words jotted on paper at writing desk as she speaks them) Bound to Kate, lust proud long after she retreated into Cordiality. Bound in shame to all the mawkish poems I wrote seeking love—theirs, yours—clutching at it, willing to do anything to myself to sustain the dream of it, abasing myself to it each day. Revery ruptured by regress into habits of being that chill all Vesuvian embers.

(Pause—summoning will)

There must be some way to protect myself at the source? To sleep cat-like, with Vesuvius guarding sleep, steeling me against everything the itch for love opens inside until my mind's pillowed so deep in quim of self-sacrifice that all labors to shape a poem come undone—like a woman's shroud of undergarments, unbuckled not in passion but in a letting go, pillowed in pain stronger than any other desire. Unless—

And when at Night—Our good Day done-
I guard My Master's Head—
'Tis better than the Eider-Duck's
Deep Pillow—to have shared—

(Pause. Drops pen.)

It's a lie—and writing the stanza I know it—a holding action in half hearted hope for plangent victories. How furious the question behind this stanza: Can Vesuvius order the world inside me? How paltry the response. Dishonest in the first word—And—as if this stanza is continuous and not a cleaving. As if all that collapsed last night in the wake of the third stanza can be laid away like lilies pressed between the pages of a Bible or brightly patterned wallpaper covering gashes rent in plaster by fingers curled in madness.

No—when a poem's true all is exploration, discovery, the unanticipated complication—that dread conclusion where in lonely place you confront the awful stranger—consciousness—and thereby perish of knowing or suffer toward some denser coiling of the unanswered question that I am.

(Firm again)

That's what Vesuvius must forge and not this feckless parody of poetry. This stanza isn't circumference in ever ruder expanse, but a vicious circle closing on a point dense with frustrated rage. (sarcastic) Vesuvius, the Guardian of Sleep is nothing but the Eider-Duck without the plucking. The same deep pillow—lotused in loss…. As if Vesuvius could ever be satisfied as humble guardian or a Head so served be anything but a coward shivering in the dark of all I fear to face—

(Pause, then in rising lyricism)

—as Knowledge—and from knowing like spring's awakening in a new office for desire—not spent in vain, still wanting you, nor pursed in lips pinched granite with resentment. No—there must be some way to take desire into sleep—in deepest sleep touch myself at deepest spring of myself, dreaming My Me into a new existence: old furrows of unraveling swamped in swirling whirlpools of desire birthing images of possibility. The Dream no longer where I unknit, unwind, unmake what the poem thought to accomplish, but harbinger of next day's search for some new and turbulent way to Be—some next Word.

Only one thing's true in this stanza. Master. I take it back, making that word mine. Mine to claim—master of myself—through Poetry. (Pause) But there's only one to do it—make mastery mine—mine by the white election—

(Now lets go of all defenses, descends into madness in search of the great creative reason that can only be found there)

—of Madness—this is where the poem is forged at white heat—within the cleaving where time's undone—where I am the doubter and the doubt and no Brahmin sings[39] to a Mind at war with itself—myself my foe to my own self too cruel this chasm, sweet, upon my life[40] all the bandaged moments[41] bleeding out into where myself am hell[42] that tunnels ever deeper down to where the mind weaves spider webs of itself—the brain giggling[43] in its prison house—in delirium of the senses like a cauldron, burning—sucking me down into death so turbulent it grows. I'm tempted half to stitch it up with a remaining Breath. I should not miss in yielding, though to Him it would be Death—the only release from self-torment—and worse than death, despair's quartz contentment[44] in a dying that never ends…. Unless some night yes and by my own hand—in the appalling exhilaration[45] of the quietus—watching one last time unmoved as everything I've built up in myself collapses: And what remains. Creaking like boots of lead across the soul held trembling before that last and hideous question: Which is the greater anguish, to perish or to live? …this funeral in the brain[46] persisting even though existence some way back Stopped struck my ticking through:[47]…and still after you empty the voices still pursuing from some farther room pursuing—mother cackling about her miseries, Father's Jehovah bass railing Truth and NO and worst voice enemy mine whispering in the cage I built out of all those cornered years fashioning poor Emily terrified of brute men and death of childbirth yet desperate for love, in hunger so great I grind to dust each diamond of hard won insight, undone by undoing pursued down endless corridors where some night it'll snap, the very thread and screw of flesh that would lead me back to the world—leaving nothing but this gibbering of a Being impotent to end when once it has begun—

(still mad but with that intense, logic sharp reason-in-madness—eyes aglow with it)

—Unless—Until you Master the art of murder. Murder deep within. That's what's needed, a birthing in death's dream kingdom of murders—most foul, most fit—murder, more audacious and sharp each time. (Pause) Guardians always betray. Killers hunt. In sleep. By day. And in darkest night of the soul. In action definite—and deadly. To track inner foes to the lair where they lie in wait to defeat me. There pluck out each rooted sorrow. There pitch a relentless war within that takes no prisoners. Everything in me that blocks—opposes—retards the sovereign I am is foe to it. Only one thing matters. Mind active—in deepest hidden chambers where thought is blooded…. And where hunting yourself is like a winding stair where you're always looking back to discover ourself behind ourself concealed—and that's how I perish at sight of myself. Or find with consciousness suspended and being under–Vesuvius born, as maker of the soul, its caverns and its corridors illuminate—or seal—[48] through yellow flash of the gun, thumb cocking it again in endless battle to become Master—of myself—and this the only way…even if this hunt never ends…. In lowest deep a lower deep still threatening to devour me opens wide[49]—maw of madness—and yare[50] I in it—Master of Myself—He—the central I am—to foe of his—I a Brand that sears in coldness and cruelty of the unsparing deed—targets lined up like ducks in a row—and each bullet true.

(Crosses to writing table. Sits. Writes, composing the stanza)

To foe of His—I'm deadly foe—
None stir the second time—
On whom I lay a Yellow Eye—
Or an emphatic Thumb—

(Pause in brief sense of triumph)

Slaying inner foes in service to the central I am. That's the only war that's worthy of a woman—in ecstasy's crucible of consciousness swelling toward poems poured forth in gladness from the very source, the burning fountain.

(Long pause as it all crumbles, the screen blank again; deeper inner conflicts unleashed)

—Then why do I feel abandoned, like a child who never had a mother—loneliness sweeping through me like an ice storm—[51] seductive arms reaching out to shelter me into that last goodbye—to gad my little Being out and not begin again—no more let life divide what death can join together.[52] A single bullet in the chamber—one final flare followed by a shriek poor Vinnie poured out across the night—

(Pause, rises and begins cross toward dresser then stops as the desire to die washes across her body)

There's only one way back from that. Polar expiation—probing retrieveless things, and thereby earn release from everything that resists the call of poetry. Poetry—that vexing through which something primary happens in the soul—where the subtle knot[53] that defines us is sanctified or severed…. And thought's office—beyond hope, prayer—to serve the Intransigent Yet at the razor of thought, in deeper cuts each night into thoughts undiscovered countries.[54]

(Long pause—collecting herself)

There's something still awry in the very fabric of the poem. The ending locked in me—and only one way to turn the key of possibility.

(Sits. Undoes tender buttons, down to the waist. Lowers hands between legs. Touches first blush of joy. The only thing visible to the audience is following her elbows in slow, barely perceptible motion. There is no frenzy here, no pressure for hectic relief. Only a deeper pressing into herself, during which [Voice-Over])

What was done so often in desperation—expense of spirit spent in vain wanting you—is pure now…. Christ, how I used to lie there (indicating bed) spread myself wide, writhe upward and moan like it was a bed of shattered glass and I a woman crazed wailing for her demon lover[55]—or worse shame pretending it was you in me again and not despair jabbing away at my soul….

(Pause. Bach Chaconne begins to play, continuing from here beyond end of play.)

—No more. Now there is only a pure communing with the Volcano: my cactus splits her beard to show her throat…in the isles of spice the subtle Cargoes lie…. Globe Roses break their satin flake upon my Garden floor—[56] In ever deeper pressing into myself—unhurried, constant in touch, the way I touched Carlo and found peace buried in his thick fur and love in bottomless pools of my mute confederate's eyes…. Touch the way I wanted you to touch me—no rush, no clawing pursuit of frenzied pleasure—but slow and deep ever deeper toward the heart of silence so that when Joy comes it's like wild bees buzz of butterflies[57] dancing in the brain and hummingbirds route of evanescence, rush of Cochineal[58] in the blood tumbled by joy's thunderclap—legs pulled tight together, holding it inside—this great storm at sea in my soul—until I can't take it anymore—pulse and pang of pleasure grown so volcanic my mouth is torn open in rudest sound seeking to stun me toward some final melody—

(Orgasm)

But then Why—Why does it always happen right after—panic supervening—and maelstrom caught in the torment of some blind overreach of instinct that feeding on its own frustration becomes rage, a ragelust to destroy that would rend all created nature, palpitating vineyard[59] laid waste, poems, my very self consumed not in light of unanointed blaze[60] but in fury to destroy—insatiable lips that never lie, whose hissing corals part—and shut—and cities ooze away—[61]

(In ecstasy-anguish she picks up the pen, the words coming with an impassioned clarity, spoken as she writes)

Though I than He—may longer live
He longer must—than I—
For I have but the power to kill,
Without—the power to die—

Except in words—and why We perish without the poem.

(Looking at the poem, reconsidering each line.)

Reflection's "Though." As always, the mind taking revenge renders its deepest service. Four lines of severest logic torturing out an emotional impossibility. The gun, persisting in sumptuous destitution—eager and famished—beyond its role in self-transformation. Though I than He—may longer live…

Line 2—that anguish exorcised. He longer must—than I—Must a wish disguised as an imperative.

But logic is inexorable—consuming all dreams founded on it. The creative I demands, feeds on destruction. For I have but the power to kill—

Irresistible the foreordained conclusion. There is no way to limit or contain that force. No way to protect He, the central I am, from it. Knowing that condition devours wish and fear. The Self seeking vibrant identity lives doomed to be undone by the very principle that makes it possible. Without—the power to die—

(Long Pause)

This is the answer to the question that only poets can ask: What does this awful power do to one who possesses or is possessed by it? As I wrote Susie, "emerging from the abyss and entering it again—is not that life?"

(Pause, puts down pen, sits back)

Now it's chill—with that fascinating chill that music leaves[62]. Neither ecstasy's Vesuvian bliss nor abandonment's hopeless longing. Only this. The thing I've refused to compromise—Intensity—My definition, compressed in the only pleasure that lasts: Knowledge, tragic as its host, brought to prime in the only way the poem can end. "Die— (Pause) Creation destroying feeds on death. Consciousness subjected to it lives fated to die—over and over—forever and without end.

(Crosses toward dresser—poem in hand. Stops Center stage.)

I see it whole now—structure clear—in creation-destruction unrelenting. It's the same act twice—my poem—suffering the second time in anguish what was ecstatic liberation the first. A poem about two ways to live out the creative lust that defines me. One unbound, finding delight in ever greater flourishing of joy's bud; The other bound to greater battle: rooting out inner foes through terror of the sovereign No.

Yes, now it's chill. I've written so many poems about poetry—none as ripe, as raw as this. There is no way to contain what Vesuvius does to the one who houses her, ravished daily by her demands.

(She now reads the entire poem aloud—feeling each stanza pass through her—as irreversible event—as she reads.)

My Life had stood—a Loaded Gun—
In corners—till a day
The owner passed—identified—
And carried Me away.
And now We roam in Sovereign Woods
And now We hunt the Doe—
And every time I speak for Him
The Mountains straight reply—
And do I smile, such cordial light
Upon the Valley glow—
It is as a Vesuvian face
Had let it's pleasure through—
And when at Night—Our good Day done—
I guard My Master's Head—
'Tis better than the Eider-Duck's
Deep Pillow—to have shared—
To foe of His—I'm deadly foe—
None stir the second time—
On whom I lay a Yellow Eye—
Or an emphatic Thumb—
Though I than He—may longer live
He longer must—than I—
For I have but the power to kill,
Without—the power to die—

(She crosses to dresser, kneels before it, opening bottom drawer.)

My life, my war, laid away in books.[63]

(She deposits the poem in the drawer and closes it. Rises, in a final musing, smelling uplifted rose petals she then drops in drawer, kneeling to push drawer closed. Sighs with brief muffled laugh.)

What lies in lady's drawer (Pause) Vinnie will know what to do with them. When lady lies in ceaseless rosemary. Rescue me from myself—or not. No matter—since it's a journey everyone must make alone.

(Crosses to window beside bed. Opens window wide. Breeze ruffles curtains.)

Give me my robe, put on my crown, I have immortal longings.[64]

(Lies on bed.)

[Voice-over (as she drifts toward sleep)]

We outgrow love, like other things
And put it in the Drawer—
Till it an Antique fashion shows—
Like Costumes Grandsires wore.[65]

(Voice-Over: [male voice] On the 13th of May, 1886, Miss Emily lapsed into a coma, waking only briefly, alone, to compose one final letter. On Saturday, May 15th at 6 in the evening she died.)

(Emily sits up. Sees image from dream—out in the house well above heads of audience. Smiles—composed in contrast to the dreams at beginning of Acts One and Two. Rises and walks to writing desk, an old woman—but proud, unstooped. Sits upright and writes letter to Norcross cousins—a gnomic message of two words said wistfully as she writes them. "Called Back."[66] Signs name. Rises—and with her the Bach Chaconne rising. Goes to window where she stares out. A rosy light of dawn from outside—blushing pink—then from within, on stage, from her, a light that grows brighter and brighter. She disappears into it. It then floods the stage—white light of unanointed blaze. It remains. Bach plays on. House remains dark—)

NO CURTAIN

 

Footnotes

Note:  The first number is to the Johnson edition of the Complete Poems, the second boldfaced number to the Franklin edition.
1.  Letter 972
2.  #1201/1271
3.  Opening lines of Wordsworth's The Prelude
4.  #443/522
5.  #986/1096
6.  #741/776
7.  #506/349
8.  letter 268
9.  #132/126
10.  letter 268
11.  Shakespeare, end of King Lear
12.  #675/772
13.  letter 248
14.  letter 233
15.  #745/782
16.  #753/793
17.  #627/696
18.  #505/348
19.  #435/620
20.  #613/445
21.  #1247/1353
22.  #593/627
23.  Shakespeare, Antony and Cleopatra (her favorite play)
24.  #293/292
25.  Coleridge, Kubla Khan
26.  #286/243
27.  #125/109
28.  Keats, Ode on a Grecian Urn
29.  #1090/1050
30.  #753/793
31.  #339/367
32.  #132/126
33.  #322/325
34.  Milton, Satan
35.  #252/312
36.  Shakespeare, King Lear
37.  #700/730
38.  #379/664
39.  Emerson, The Brahmin
40.  #858/1061
41.  #512/360
42.  Milton, Satan
43.  #410/423
44.  #341/372
45.  #281/341
46.  #280/340
47.  #443/522
48.  #777/877
49.  Milton, hell
50.  Shakespeare, Antony and Cleopatra
51.  #532/570
52.  Shelley, Adonais
53.  John Donne, "The Extasie"
54.  Hamlet
55.  Coleridge, Kubla Khan
56.  #339/367
57.  #593/627
58.  #1463/1489
59.  #175/165
60.  #365/401
61.  #601/517
62.  #1480/1511
63.  #1549/1579
64.  Shakespeare, first lines of Cleopatra's last soliloquy, Antony and Cleopatra
65.  #887/1094
66.  Letter #1646