Monday, May 2, 2016

The Maze of Longing: Response to an Emily Dickinson Symposium


We entered a house, portal ornate and measured with simple lines, filled with corridors strange, yet somehow comforting, and rooms that turned upside down as we walked into them, while doors appeared without warning and opened as if to invite us further inward. What would we find, ever deeper, ever further inwards? The mathematical precision of the floorplans belied a feeling of artless improvisation, chaos twined around and about the wallpapers and the wainscoting, highlighted the trim and sank deep into the foundations. Yet this wildness was not rot, nor corruption--no more than that of any life lived in a morass of a world perhaps denied.

Stairs upward instead led us inward, strophes between floors, between layers, kindness of the hostess melded with the casual dismissal of the hermetic, the withdrawn, the soul become it’s own shell, gritty sense of self an irritant to form the lustrous pearl. A moment’s pause to cast eyes about, our breath fog, wondering what had led to this, lead to the warm gold of human love and aspiration, dross of fear beneath the mother of pearl flaking away from the chasing of the words uttered, the whispers that fade in the gallery nearby. The rooms on this floor turned inside out, what was inside was more important than the walls, yet the inside out hid the outer walls, concealed the doorways leading into other rooms only guessed at, intimated by doorhandles of cool iron, warm to the touch with revealed save they were connected to doors we couldn’t find, let alone open.

Beneath our feet a tremble of the floorboards was like a heart beating, keeping a time we could repeat to ourselves but not follow. The wind outside seemed like breathing, a broken window exhaled into the room, and we inhaled the scent of bayberry and lilacs, lavender mixed with patchouli, flower combined with mould. Once more in the hallways some planking seemed firmer than others, as if dashes between rooms, to be tread narrowly and closely, with no safety promised. How could we reach the other rooms, find our missed hostess, if we did not balance beam the walkway, the path from question to surety, one foot placed letter in front of letter, a skip to a word, walk over the phrase leading to a desired safety. This house was no danger, but was a threat to what we held dear, perhaps even our lives.

Where was the touch missing, in the midst of smells and sounds, birdsong and running water? What was the texture undescribed, the surface—the matter—always assumed when named, the feel under the skin labeled as the felt object itself? We were in the midst of a presence immense, solid, like a butterfly carrying the weight of a star, light flickered perhaps as the wings beat out alive, alive, alive. The cobweb of affection and love vacant in the words tied all here together, a web without a spider, for the strands conveyed no hunger; here the missing feelings were deposited, safe and comforting as the silk brushed our hands and faces.

We came to the center of the maze, our names almost beyond recall, our desires reeled out behind us for a thread to bring us back, our last link to a world outside. Such a puzzle composed the hallways and doors around us, mosaics of floor, walls and ceilings, all possibilities, but no promises did they give. The pillar of something woman, the world tree of this private realm we had wandered into, connected floor to ceiling, branching arms held out walls and kept doors closed, a totem bedecked with poetic worship, the many faces of Emily calm, serene, snarling, weeping, emotionless, rapturous. In some the eyes were open, on others the eyes were closed or squinted, and the smiles on these faces were not inviting, but personal, as if carved deeply into the wood of the lodgepole. The bright songbirds cut into shape from the branches looked down upon us, their small eyes gleamed with we know, but you don’t, and they were frozen in the relief of kissing Emily’s fingers and greedily ate the berries sprouting from her lips, her eyes, that seemed almost like birds drinking her tears, red and blue.

We followed the threads back out, only to discover the floss now hopelessly entangled, twined into the webbing. Braided strands of thread and web led out, out, over narrow boards, over radiant patches of sunlight at each end of the boards, out through a broken window, and then rappelled down, down, past now-shuttered windows to an overgrown and neglected garden—our footsteps sank into the rich soil. We secured our instruments of investigation, switched off our headlamps, logged our journals in the angled light of the sun descent: looked at each other without speaking in the shared communion of not learning very much after all, and the silent vow to return again to look about once more.

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