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Emily Dickinson's poetry blooms at New York Botanical Garden exhibit

By Adrian Higgins
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, May 27, 2010; C01

BRONX, N.Y. -- As the sun strengthens in spring, gardeners spray the glass conservatory at the New York Botanical Garden with a milky, white wash to protect the floral jewels within. For another few weeks, this monumental alabaster urn holds something particularly vital but fragile: the garden -- and the story -- of Emily Dickinson.

In long, glazed galleries, Fran Coelho and her colleagues have planted fruit trees, day lilies and hundreds of other plants tricked into flowering at once in a fanciful re-creation of Emily's contained world in the village of Amherst, Mass.

The crowds are pouring in. There is something about this virginal, plaintive and mysterious poet that touches the American heart. In the eyes of the literary scholar Harold Bloom, Dickinson, apart from Shakespeare, "manifests more cognitive originality than any other Western poet since Dante."

But if her genius is well known, it is often not well defined. Like the glasshouse here, it is luminescent but murky. To some, she is the creator of sweet nature poems taught in grade school. To others, poems obsessed with death. Then there's the notion of Emily herself, shut in her room, dressed in white, imprisoned by a broken heart.

In a period of intense examination of Dickinson, we find Emily in the garden, which, as it turns out, was where she was all along. "When she was alive, people knew her as a gardener first and a poet second, if they knew her as a poet at all," says the Washington-based Dickinson scholar Judith Farr.

Six years ago, Farr wrote "The Gardens of Emily Dickinson" after she realized that "experts" were failing to comprehend that the unnamed subjects of Dickinson's poems were not dead women or regiments of Russian soldiers, but tulips and other flora dear to her heart.

The book, in turn, inspired the show at the botanical garden here. It includes a museum exhibit of the poet's artifacts and letters and a "poetry walk" in which 35 of her 1,789 poems are placed in outdoor gardens surrounding the Haupt Conservatory. There are marathon readings of her work. The show runs until June 13.

The conservatory display loosely replicates the orchard, flower and vegetable garden and woodland of the Homestead, the Dickinson home, and the neighboring house where her brother Austin lived. After the age of 30 until her death in 1886 at the age of 55, this was the poet's cloistered world. Increasingly during that period, she remained in her upstairs bedroom.

Coelho, the associate vice president of glasshouses, and Todd Forrest, vice president of horticulture, take a visitor along a double border of tulips, delphiniums, lilacs, roses, peonies and other rich treasures. The walk is scented with sweet peas and flowering tobacco. Black grapes hang in clusters from young, tethered vines. Here, all the seasons, all the years, are compressed into a single display.

A labor of love

Before an age of garden centers and big-box retailers, any floral garden was a labor of love that required horticultural skills lost to most folk today. Gardening then meant raising flowers from seed, cuttings and divisions shared with friends and neighbors. Wildflowers and shrubs were blithely dug from the countryside and even weeds were embraced.

In the now-reviled dandelion, Dickinson saw a plant representing immortality: "The Tube uplifts a signal Bud/And then a shouting Flower -- The Proclamation of the Suns/That sepulture [burial] is o'er -- ."

The show also seeks to convey another aspect of gardening now lost: Flowers were symbols of sentiment, a language that Dickinson not only knew but exploited in her art. The fragrant daphne conveyed glory, the fleeting day lily a sigh, the intoxicating poppy doom. In her poems, she is "Daisy," symbolic of innocence.

Even in its jazzed-up form, the conservatory display conjures the idea that flower gardens existed not for their structure but for the simple joy of raising and admiring herbaceous bulbs, annuals and perennials. No image of her garden has survived, though her favorite plants are well documented.

"No one knows what her garden looked like," said Marta McDowell, author of "Emily Dickinson's Gardens." The book, published in 2004, explores the poet's conservatory, gardens, woods and fields in a joyful trek through her gardening year. The flower garden around the Homestead "did have that old-fashioned cottage feeling about it, and they have successfully captured that essence here."

Outside the conservatory, the placement of poem-bearing placards brings a cogent pairing of verse and plant. Next to a pink, perfumed rugosa rose, one finds: "She sped as Petals from a Rose --/Offended by the Wind -- ?" It's about a child's death, but no matter. Next to four honeylocust trees and a lawn, "Four Trees, opon a Solitary Acre."

McDowell says her discovery of Dickinson as gardener drew her into the poet's life and work, and she hopes the show will work the same magic on others. "I think it would be a wonderful thing if people had their own hook into Dickinson," she said. "If a child remembers that one day they were at this exhibit, that brings another person to poetry. Poetry is always kind of outside the popular fray."

Dickinson created outside the fray. Her reclusiveness, particularly strange for a woman of her elevated class and socially ritualistic time, has played into the myth.

Farr, a retired professor of English and American literature at Georgetown University, has heard them all. "She's been accused of everything from bulimia to being pregnant with an illegitimate baby to being secretly married." Oh, and she was cruel and plagiarized Tennyson and Shakespeare.

"The latest thing," Farr said, "is that she was a narcissist who kept a garden to show how rich she was. Everyone in Amherst had a garden. They had an agricultural college where you could buy your cuttings."

A shrouded life

The show touches on the people who shaped both her life and her myth. She was mentored by a socially progressive figure named Thomas Wentworth Higginson who found her verse too "wayward" for publication. She responded in a characteristically complicated fashion, not compromising her work but not aggressively pushing its publication. She did share dozens of poems with her family and friends, often sending the verse with a flower or two. To newspaper editor Samuel Bowles, whom Farr believes to be the object of Dickinson's unconsummated love, the poet wrote a stanza that seeks forgiveness: "I stole them from a Bee --/Because -- Thee --/Sweet plea --/He pardoned me!"

In "Lives Like Loaded Guns," her new book about the family feud that began before Dickinson's death and lingered for decades after, biographer Lyndall Gordon argues that the poet may have been an epileptic, which would account for her reclusiveness. Burdened by such an unpredictable and stigmatizing disease, Dickinson would have found her room a sanctuary, not a cell. The feud stemmed from Austin's affair with the young Mabel Todd, setting into play a fight over the control of Dickinson's work and legend after her death between Todd and Austin's wife, Susan Dickinson.

"I don't see her as a victim. I see her as feisty, ambitious, playful, humorous," Gordon said. "It would be absurd to shut herself away for a lifetime from disappointed love."

Farr is skeptical of that hypothesis, saying there is no mention of the disease in the archives of those in Dickinson's life.

What the visitor to the New York Botanical Garden's show will find remarkable, perhaps, is the degree to which Dickinson's handwriting changed as she developed as a poet. The neat running cursive of an educated young lady became a detached ethereal print, both in her late correspondence and verse. The characters are bold, isolated, freed.

"Perhaps it's a metaphor for her own separateness for things," said Jane Dorfman, the garden's exhibitions coordinator.

Certainly, Gordon said, there is an openness in the verse that allows readers to connect through their own experiences. The poems "have to terminate in the reader, and we are invited to enter the spaces between the words," she said, referring to the idiosyncratic dashes that Dickinson used. "That's one source of their brilliance."

In the conservatory, the exhibit designers have placed a replica of the poet's writing table and chair, and invited visitors to write entries. Some, inevitably, try their hand at verse. Forrest pores over it and makes his own profound discovery: "Not all poetry is created equal."

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