My parents were readers. From second grade on, no book in our house was made off-limits to me–not one. My mother’s collection of Readers’ Digest Condensed Books–excerpts of current novels collected five or six to a volume and wrapped in wallpaper-patterned covers–grew like stinkweed on the shelf. She procured for my sister and me an ambitious set of World Book Encyclopedias as well (no doubt for our future report-writing reference).
My father contributed to the family library a small collection of leather-bound volumes from his family of origin: The Life of Lincoln, Plato’s The Republic, Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, a tome titled simply Psychology, and the slimmest book of all, one whose spine read Poems – Emily Dickinson.
I could have carried any of these treasures off to my room, but I chose to befriend Emily. Hers was my first too-big-for-me book, and I’ve never looked back.
The book had a few small pen and ink sketches at the start of each section and a brief biography at the beginning, which I’m sure I never read. I felt almost no curiosity about Emily herself. I only wanted her for her words, and she was generous with them. With this book a door opened to me and pressed hard against it from the outside, I fell in.
Dickinson wrote (as Carl Van Doren’s Introduction, also unread by me, opined) of life, love, time, nature and eternity. “In the world of her poems,” he declared, “everything is achingly alive. Nothing stands still. Rocks breathe, and stars play.” He was right. Of the beginning of a day–presumably an ordinary one–she reported:
I’ll tell you how the sun rose, —
A ribbon at a time.
The steeples swam in amethyst,
The news like squirrels ran.
A handful of these poems I read, again and again, repeating their lines aloud like rote prayers. I felt the odd haunting in her words, but I was not frightened by it. For all her descriptions of common things–of boats and bumblebees, of feathers and flakes of snow–there was an otherness about her work; a steady murmur of something that could not be smelled or seen or touched. Without being able to name it, I was swallowing–along with my poet-companion and her beloved, nectar-gathering bees–the strongest draught I’d tasted yet of pure transcendence:
I taste a liquor never brewed,
From Tankards scooped in pearl;
Not all the vats upon the Rhine
Yield such an alcohol!
Inebriate of air am I,
And debauchee of dew,
Reeling, through endless summer days,
From inns of molten blue
I knew nothing of distilled spirits. “Vats upon the Rhine” registered only as a well-timed, rhythmic percussion of meter. “Inebriate” was a complete unknown too, as well as “debauchee.” But down to my eight-year-old bones, the poet’s verse registered.
Emily’s arrow had hit its mark. If I could apprehend (and love!) a poem without defining each of its words, then surely, I could know and love other unfathomable things, too.
Later I would be taught that “Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the evidence of things, not seen….” I had already begun hoping for another world, as much as I loved the one I knew. One day soon, faith would help me make the infinite leap to belief. But I might not have arrived at that place of departure, hope intact, without Emily. Though I could not clearly shape the notes of eternity’s music, I could feel its unmistakable thrumming. There must be something more than I could see. There had to be!
The first full poem of Emily’s I learned by heart was one that evoked this same timeless transcendence. I did not set out to memorize it; I only read it so often that its words took root and residence in my impressionable mind and heart:
I died for beauty, but was scarce
Adjusted in the tomb,
When one who died for truth was lain
In an adjoining room.
He questioned softly why I failed?
“For beauty,” I replied.
“And I for truth–the two are one;
We brethren are,” he said.
And so, as kinsmen met a night,
We talked between the rooms,
Until the moss had reached our lips,
And covered up our names.
Why a child would be drawn to this particular poem makes no sense; I only know it spoke to me. Its rhythm was clean and fluid, with each short stanza sliding easily into the next. It painted a deep friendship between truth and beauty; one that extended beyond death. And I was very interested in forever. Finally, it contained an image so vivid and powerful that I simply couldn’t forget it: of moss growing over and between two graves, until it “reached the lips” of its co-whisperers, connecting them forever, even as their conversation ceased.
Truth and beauty, it seemed, had much to say to one another–and required untold ages of time in which to do so. And Emily, with little effort at all, would make a poet, a reader, and a believer out of me.
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.
Leigh McLeroy is an author, speaker, and teacher who published her first poem at age 8. (Thank you, Highlights magazine!) Her books include A Minute of Presence, The Beautiful Ache, and The Sacred Ordinary. She holds a Journalism degree from Texas A&M University, and a Master’s in Apologetics from Houston Baptist University.