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From ‘Emily Dickinson’s Lexicon’.


Emily Dickinson’s Lexicon

The Way I read a Letter’s—this—
’Tis first—I lock the Door—
And push it with my fingers—next—
For transport it be sure—

—Emily Dickinson

Her Collected has the weight of a Bible,
although more kind, but just as
scrupulous, its binding now unthread. Not so
clear as to exclude; anyone can find

oneself within, its compassion all-encompassing.
            Hedge, heed, heel. Her cautionary poem
of what suffering can incur, or Joy reflect. Stone, bee,
            riding the rails, hurl, hurrah, through Eternity—`

but also here with me—at eighteen—as I knock and
from a window a caretaker (though grimly)
perceives, opens at bent arm’s length, and (from
the tilt of my head)—at a Slant

the Amherst Homestead’s back door. (The museum
is closed, she asserts, dissuading me.) Though
sighing, seeing from the stoop, my drawndown face,
my silent plea—she succumbs, then reluctantly

lets me in. We climb the narrow wooden stair as
it cracks like a misaligned spine beneath us
to the white dress, white counterpane on bed. How many
letters did Emily unseal (or poems on

envelopes press) in this room, having locked the Door
their transport sure. I am voyeur (she did not
use “voyeur”)—she did not use “permeate” or
“imbue.” But I take my Book and take—

along with the Bird that did not know, the Wind
that did not require the Grass to answer, as
well as the Brave Bobolinkall the clovers—and
one following Daisy folded inside its pages.

Her Daguerreotype

Just prior to her portrait sitting she stood next to the damask
drapery, hem to hem, with its back layers of muslin and dimity

to let in the sun, while the eager Mount Holyoke daguerreotypist
immersed himself in the theatrics of setting up his camera obscura

in all its myriad parts: leveling stand, copper plates coated on
the face with silver nitrate, iodine and bromide boxes, cabinet

and clamps. Until his two arms with one gesture signal Emily
to the unseen chair. Her bold chestnut burr hair is pinned back,

her subtly plump hands with long narrowing fingers that crossed
the laced ribbon around her neck just an hour before now clasp

the flowers she had turned quickly back to pick; her light-glancing
eye had caught sight of them on her way there. Shoulders angling

down: her right arm, with inch-wide cuffs, baroque tablecloth,
a book, a Bible? form a still life with disembodied hand—Is that

her finest brocade? Did she speak, smile? Her lips do not say
in the absence of not just hers but all 19th-century teeth. How

long did her erudite gaze linger in ambient light before her
image over blue mercury flame materialized on a plate

that would otherwise be a mirror? before her likeness—her
sherry-colored eyes, her wren-sized frame—as she wrote to

Higginson, imprinted on history? But this is 1847, before she
lost a world, or felt a funeral in her brain. Though a fixed

melancholy has set in. At home on North Pleasant her bureau
is yet devoid of poetry, the forty fascicles bound with string—

but holds one green-bound herbarium, in which she has
already decided to press the pansies with loosestrife stem.

And Her Herbarium
’most all girls are making one.
—Emily Dickinson, age 14

And in her herbarium, she displayed five types of Ranunculus:
Creeping Buttercup, Early Buttercup, Hispid Buttercup,
Bulbous Buttercup, Tall Buttercup. In a separate, smaller

collection were twenty-two specimens mounted within
a sewn squire of twelve leaves, another nineteen sheets
with specimens from the Middle East. As for the sixty-six

sheets of the main album, its preservation proved difficult,
the curator notes. One by one the insect-damaged fragments
had to be kept in envelopes affixed with wheat-starch paste

(Paste—surely E. would approve). She collected Geranium after
Geranium, Violets, and Narcissus, labeling each with meticulously
small cursive below upright stems, or stems folded under stems

with veiny grasshopper angles. The large muted-yellow
Cactus flower takes half a page. She’d confuse modern-day
botanists by attaching to a specimen name its color in Latin:

Verbascum alba (i.e., Verbascum blattaria). She misidentified Poison Ivy
as Bittersweet (but so too Thoreau, notes the astute curator, mistook
the viny foliage for Silver Maple); and the Closed Gentian—the one

with a parched Corolla, that Purple Creature who tried to be
a Rose—as Thistle. But who could fault young Emily—who, after
all, was like ’most all girls—for misspelling “Petunia” as “Patunia”?

Arranged sheet after sheet in “silent rank,” pressed petal to
emerald curve of leaf, with a “Despatch of pink”—in good will
seem to say though they cannot speak—“Mistress is ‘not at home’”—

Called Back
Emily Dickinson, December 10, 1830–May 15, 1886
Sweet hours have perished here.
—Emily Dickinson

The white coffin, the white ribbon—
carried out the Homestead’s back door
around her flowering garden, along
a spring grass footpath through the damp barn
through a field of yellow buttercups.

After the afternoon fell and an evening beam
trod across her rose papered wall, her
blush plum paisley stole. After a world
dropped down and down and an air above her
bed stood still. And Austin and Lavinia

and Susan there—and the late daffodils and
the punctual may-flowers, silent. Just how then
did her shape rise? In the dimming bustle
by an oil-lit lamp, wet cloth on her brow,
a light-bristled brush, a metal comb—

her unchanged chestnut hair. Sue washing
her body robed in white—blue violets and one
pink cypripedium on her neck
where breath had been. Vinnie placing two
heliotropes near her hand. Sparrows

next will follow, a scattering of pine—an
anemone, and robins, bold and fluttering, will
with her go—on an almost-summer day—
a wild violet lens, a vital stir between her and her
bough-lined grave—an old bravery then—


“Emily Dickinson’s Lexicon”: Italicized words reflect entries found in the Emily Dickinson Lexicon, a database established by Brigham Young University. I have excluded some common words and parts of speech used often by Dickinson.

“And Her Herbarium”: References to the herbarium’s compilation are from Leslie A. Morris, foreword to Emily Dickinson’s Herbarium: A Facsimile Edition, by Emily Dickinson (Cambridge: Belknap Press, 2006); and Ray Angelo, “Catalog of Plant Specimens,” in Emily Dickinson’s Herbarium. Poems referenced are 1424, 442, and 1520, respectively, from Dickinson, Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson, ed. Thomas H. Johnson (Boston: Little, Brown and Co., 1960).

“Called Back”: The title refers to a letter Dickinson wrote to Louise and Fanny Norcross shortly before her death in May 1886: “Little Cousins, Called Back” (Dickinson, Letters, letter 1046). The epigraph is from poem 1767 (Collected Poems, Johnson, ed.) Poems alluded to are “I felt a Funeral, in my Brain,” “I think just how my shape will rise—,” “Where every bird is bold to go,” “The Poet’s light but Lamps,” among others.

KATIE LEHMAN received an MFA from the University of Notre Dame in 1999, where she was awarded the 1998 Billy Maich Academy of American Poets Prize. From 2004 to 2010 she was assistant editor at the University of Notre Dame Press, for whom she continues to work as an independent copy editor. For many years Lehman has also served as a personal editor for her former teacher, the poet John Matthias and is the volume editor of Matthias’s Regrounding a Pilgrimage, a collaboration with John Peck and Robert Archambeau (Dos Madres, 2018). Her poems have appeared in Great River Review, JAMA, Journal of the Center for Mennonite Writing, and Notre Dame Review. Emily Dickinson’s Lexicon is forthcoming from Dos Madres Press.

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