pursuit of ambiguity


No, no, not that kind of ED, which always seems to feature one of those slightly discomforting situations where you see the happy afterglow of couples strolling hand in hand and smiling lovingly, presumably after the little blue pill has worked its magic. The kind of ED I’m talking about is entirely different. This ED is the nineteenth-century Belle of Amherst, the reclusive poet in white named Emily, and her ties with a fellow writer named Henry.

I’ve just finished two classes featuring a rather eccentric novelist, playwright, and essayist and an equally eccentric poet. I am a tad saddened to see that they’ve both moved on now to resume their own delights while I am diverted by my own distractions. The writer is Henry James, slightly younger than Ms. Dickinson, and more than a challenge to read. Known for his never ending sentences that stretch into paragraphs with detail piled high upon detail, I labored to finish the three novellas assigned to the class. I had struggled with this author nearly half a century earlier as an undergraduate who barely needed to shave, and I struggled again this time as an old white beard who never shaves.

My friend Robin, professor emeritus of English at James Madison University, taught the five-week class and did as well as anyone to bring the pages to life. Robin introduced the class by recounting the advice on teaching James given to him years earlier by a mentor who recommended that one should always have a jar of dill pickles on the bedside table as you slog through James’ prose. As you turn a page, the professor suggested, just reach into the jar and fetch out a pickle. Pretty soon, you’ll be turning the pages regularly as you reach for just one more pickle without even noticing what you’re doing.

Ms. Dickinson is also a challenge in her own right, not so much in reading, since her meter trips along smoothly and doesn’t get tangled up in its feet the way that Mr. James is wont to stumble. I won’t belabor all the facts we know about Emily, since they’re pretty well known. Robin points out, though, that one obscure fact has avoided the attention of most readers—if you adjust your ear slightly, you may well discover that many of her poems can be read to the tune of “The Yellow Rose Of Texas.” If you are careful and deliberate, though, you can avoid falling into reading her in a sing-song pattern. After parsing quite a few of her poems alongside James’ prose, I believe I prefer the rose to the pickle.

Both are worth the effort, though. What I found intriguing about the two writers can be found in James’ The Turn Of The Screw and Dickinson’s poem Presentiment. Both of these writers are gentle and not prone to hammer home their points. They seem to sneak up on you and then startle rather than scold you into paying more attention to what’s around you. If you spend time with either, you’ll learn to keep your eyes and ears open and not neglect any of the details, innocuous as they may seem.

They’re both like accomplished finish carpenters who work quietly and attentively to make the lines run smoothly together, where everything butts up tightly and has no ugly scars, where ends have been joined with the utmost care. Like the mice whose old nests we found yesterday in our potting shed, these writers know how to neatly tuck new ideas into your mind the same way the mice quietly and in stealth stash their sunflower seeds, their balls of yarn, and shreds of old insulation ripped out of elsewhere. When we pulled out the abandoned nests, we knew their contents and the glue that held them together were more than just frayed bits and pieces. They were the stuff that helped bring new life into the world. So I believe it is with James and Dickinson that they can sift through the litter and build a comfort that can find its way into our own hidden crevices.

Dickinson has a series of “dictionary poems” where ideas or moods or just plain words are defined. One of my favorites is Presentiment, a word that conveys a sense of something about to happen. In her quiet yet unsettling way, she catches that moment just at twilight and writes,

Presentiment—is that long Shadow—on the Lawn—
Indicative that Suns go down—
The Notice to the startled Grass
That Darkness—is about to pass—

There’s obviously examples here of Dickinson’s unique use of capitalization and em dashes which allow her to place her special emphasis and make us pause. As a poem, it’s compact and pared down to the peel. Technically, there’s plenty of alliteration in the “s” and “l” sounds, the implied comparison between “long shadow on the Lawn” and “darkness”; the personification that gives human qualities to something that is not human, such as “the startled grass;” and the rhyme pattern, both direct sound in “grass” and “pass” and indirect or slanted, as in “lawn” and “down.” I’ll leave it up to you to figure out any special meaning.

To me, whatever she was thinking as she looked out over the lawn at that instant gave the moment a new lease on life. The slowly falling sunset is more than just another point in time with no more significance than the dawn. But she has breathed a freshness into how she can see something new in this otherwise everyday moment. The poem is a nest of warmth where anyone can go to find possibilities for reflection.

Emily had a naturalist’s eye for detail and was always spotting something the rest of us overlooked. The same can be said for Henry James who once remarked in an essay entitled The Art of Fiction that we should all be that type of person on whom nothing is lost. In today’s lingo, their attention to detail might well be what is meant by mindfulness.

I can imagine he and Emily would have enjoyed one another’s company, although they might have had to agree to disagree about the realism that James thought to be so important. Emily was just too fanciful to have allowed herself to be caged in such a way. Despite this slight difference, however, they had much in common when one thinks about how they saw the world through a variety of points of view. They also were fond of interior monologs and unreliable narrators to surprise us and to wrap us up in ambiguity.

My Emily edX class asked this past week for us to find an existing work of art in any medium and relate it to a Dickinson poem that had caught our fancy. I immediately thought of James’ The Turn of the Screw which was made into a movie in 1961 and renamed The Innocents. James had an interest in ghost stories and wrote this gothic tale as an eerie extension of everyday reality. What captured my interest was the ambiguity that James built into the story—did the governess actually see ghosts or was she losing her mental stability? No matter which possibility is true, both have dreadful implications that loom out at us.

I like to think Emily would have read the novella from start to finish without pause, intent on pulling out the various shades of truth lying hidden in the shadows. It’s the kind of story she would have been drawn to, especially with so much critical fussing over the way in which James always refused to come down on either side of the sanity question. As is the case with so many of Dickinson’s poems, James’ book likewise is a monument to the pursuit of ambiguity. This is the kind of ambiguity that Emily, I suspect, would have reveled in.

As I sat with my fellow Henry James students watching Deborah Kerr playing the disturbed governess in the 1961 film version of the story, one could not miss how the movie slipped seamlessly from the bright and colorful grounds of the manor to the shadowy ill-lit interiors where candles gutter and long drapes seem to move mysteriously. At any seemingly innocent moment, something surprising and sinister is apt to happen.

Suddenly, we are in Emily’s backyard watching what we think is no more than a mere shadow passing over the lawn at twilight. But is there more to the shadow than meets the eye? Events in both the story and the poem can unhinge us and send the plot along a different path, one where it’s not unusual to find that something disquieting has just passed through, a something that perhaps has inadvertently “startled” some perplexed governess or even threatened a few innocent blades of grass.

In James’ own words, his intent was to present “the strange and sinister embroidered on the very type of the normal and easy.” Emily would have applauded.

Image: A composite image by LikeTheDew.com from Henry James by Philip Burne and Emily Dickinson daguerreotype taken at Mount Holyoke - both public domain via the Wikimedia Commons.

David Evans

I'm retired from another life and live in the mountains of eastern West Virginia with my muse Jody along with one remaining dog.  We've decided no more dogs and cats.  Losing them is just too painful. Being independent and no longer in the reins of someone else's driver, I now have the chance to revisit the many people and places that have enriched my life. The good folks at Wesleyan College in central West Virginia guided me to a graduate degree in fine arts in early 2018.  My plan is to use some of the skills I learned from two years in this creative writing program to tell my story.

One Comment
  1. You’re an apt student. Thanks for sharing. Varying perspectives are what people dependent on superficial optics seem to abhor. Another point of view makes them recoil. Wonder if it’s a “vision thing.”

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