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

The New York Botanical Garden's newest exhibit, "Emily Dickinson's Garden: The Poetry of Flowers," opened with actress Sigourney Weaver and New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg in attendance on April 29. The show runs until June 13.
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, May 27, 2010

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.

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