Perhaps you ran across a story in today’s New York Times about re-creating Emily Dickinson’s Amherst garden. Historians are discovering the layout of the family’s conservatory and planting heirloom varieties of fruit trees that would’ve grown in the orchard. Dickinson was apparently a prolific gardener—a talented amateur naturalist who attended carefully to her studies of the natural world. The article explains that her expertise “profoundly shaped her poetry”: Read More
I’ve always loved this line of Emily Dickinson’s: “November always seemed to me the Norway of the year.” Where did I first encounter it? Who knows—maybe a kid’s book of quotations or a calendar or something else. I know the context was cheerful rather than melancholy, although on a day like this one—gray, rainy, fall shading into winter—it felt apt, in its gnomic way.
What did Norway convey to Dickinson, who had never left New England? A bleaker, more romantic version of the same? A place of Norse legends and epics? Perhaps she’d met Scandinavian immigrants and this informed her remark. But however she intended it, it’s so evocative. It was not until very recently that I read the fuller context, from an 1864 letter to her frequent correspondent Elizabeth Holland:
It is also November. The noons are more laconic and the sunsets sterner, and Gibraltar lights make the village foreign. November always seemed to me the Norway of the year. —— is still with the sister who put her child in an ice nest last Monday forenoon. The redoubtable God! I notice where Death has been introduced, he frequently calls, making it desirable to forestall his advances.
In the same letter, she mentions the recent death of the family’s maid, Margaret O’Brien—“I winced at her loss, because I was in the habit of her, and even a new rolling-pin has an embarrassing element, but to all except anguish, the mind soon adjusts.” Another friend is ill. And, of course, there would have been the background of the Civil War, felt even from within her home. The letter ends, “Sharper than dying is the death for the dying’s sake.”
The first English translation of Asbjørnsen and Moe’s landmark Popular Tales from the Norse appeared in 1859. It’s filled with trolls, enchanted animals, captive princesses held under spells. One of the best known is “East of the Sun, West of the Moon,” a Cupid-Psyche story in which a maiden is only allowed to interact with her husband by darkness. Others feature mountain people, envious of those who get to live by daylight. Did it make its way to Amherst? I have never read of it in Dickinson’s letters, but perhaps a scholar can tell me otherwise.
The second in a week-long series of illustrations by Jason Novak, captioned by Eric Jarosinski.
The opening to Betsy Karel’s new book of photography, Conjuring Paradise, is a poem by Kay Ryan titled “Slant.” It wonders at the randomness of loss, suspecting that its arbitrariness may be otherwise:
Does a skew
insinuate into the visual plane; do
the avenues begin to
strain for the diagonal?
Maybe there is always
this lean, this slight
Her imagining of a plan behind loss has a theatrical cant—the man behind the curtain—but the poet’s conclusion that it’s perhaps wiser to let this observation go unnamed is a subtle riff on Emily Dickinson’s “tell all the truth but tell it slant.” Both poems imply that the truth of the matter is always set obliquely, and thus never fully seen. What, then, do we really understand of it?
Karel’s images follow the same principle, looking at paradise through the lens of loss. She visited Waikiki, on the island of Oʻahu, in 2004 with her husband, who was dying of cancer; he found solace and pleasure in the tropical resorts, his symptoms temporarily alleviated. After his death, Karel returned to the area to make the photographs in this book, and the images she captured reflect this uneasy enterprise. Torpid and tanned beachgoers, ocean-themed decor, gifts shops and bars, the aqua splendor of swimming pools—each scene feels caught between a facile, picturesque serenity and a jarring sense of unreality. Ryan’s impression of a “skew” in the “visual plane” is rendered literal in Karel’s photographs: the strange angle of a balcony set against the sea, of painted waves rolling over a hallway, of a flashy sports car parked, as though forgotten, in the blank corner of an entryway.
Tropical splendor is just out of reach, as when plumes of sea spray block access to the ocean or the rich Hawaiian landscape is supplanted by a painted backdrop (can those smiling tourists discern the difference?). In one image, a giant screen, partially unfurled, hangs between Karel’s camera and the promise of palm trees and blue sky. If you can only see paradise out of the corner of your eye or through a squint, Karel seems to ask, is it real?
No, a mystical experience would be wasted on me. Ordinary things have always seemed numinous to me. One Calvinist notion deeply implanted in me is that there are two sides to your encounter with the world. You don’t simply perceive something that is statically present, but in fact there is a visionary quality to all experience. It means something because it is addressed to you. This is the individualism that you find in Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson. You can draw from perception the same way a mystic would draw from a vision.
How would one learn to see ordinary things this way?
It’s not an acquired skill. It’s a skill that we’re born with that we lose. We learn not to do it.
—Marilynne Robinson, the Art of Fiction No. 198
Tim Taranto hails from Upstate New York and attended Cornell. In addition to The Paris Review Daily, his work has appeared on the Rumpus and McSweeney’s Internet Tendency. Tim lives in Iowa City, where he is studying fiction at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop.