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The Emily Dickinson Museum

During my trip to Massachusetts over fall break, I spent one afternoon in Amherst, where I visited Amherst Books. But the main reason for my outing was to visit the Emily Dickinson Museum, which consists of the house Emily Dickinson lived in, her brother’s home next door, and the grounds between them.

I don’t remember when I first learned about Emily Dickinson, but I do remember pretty clearly an assignment (possibly an exam) in 11th grade AP American Literature for which we had to compare two poems about spiders, one by Emily Dickinson and one by Walt Whitman. The Dickinson poem was very compact and spare, like most of her poems, but what I remember so clearly is how, by reading the poem over and over and pondering the words, I found that its meaning unfolded, for me. That is, I discovered so many more possibilities for interpretation than I could see before. Now, maybe you’re thinking that’s just how textual analysis works; you have to go over the words again and again. And I would say that Dickinson’s poems, because of their compactness, require this kind of tenacity more than some other texts. But I remember genuinely enjoying this process of cracking the nut, if you will, and feeling like, because English class had made me, I’d gotten to experience this pleasure that I otherwise wouldn’t have because I wasn’t a huge poetry fan and didn’t read poetry for fun. It was like the difference between briefly looking at an old village church on the side of the road and walking on and spending a long time forcing the door and getting in and seeing the stained glass windows from the inside as a reward for your persistence. (I have no idea where that analogy came from.)

Despite that experience, I did not go on to become a diehard Emily Dickinson fan. Over the years, I have been mildly interested in Emily Dickinson the writer, this reclusive New England woman poet who never married. And not long before my trip, I heard about a new film, Wild Nights with Emily, which portrays Dickinson’s romantic relationship with her friend and sister-in-law, Susan. So, finding myself in Western Massachusetts and not knowing when I might ever return, I decided a trip to the museum would be worth it.

The Evergreens

I arrived on a sunny afternoon, walking down Main Street past a park and an old stone Congregational church that I later learned all of Emily’s family except her attended. I first passed the Evergreens, the house her father built for her brother Austin so that he wouldn’t head west. That was where Austin, Susan, and their children lived. A little farther on was the Homestead, the house where Emily Dickinson was born and lived for most of her life. (During her late childhood, adolescence, and young adulthood, her family lived in a different house in Amherst because her grandfather lost the Homestead. The family later bought it back.) I walked up the drive, feeling a bit like I was intruding on someone’s home. There were workmen engaged in repairs of some type on the yellow house. I followed the signs around back and entered through the screened porch, and soon I had secured my spot on the 3:30 tour. (Twice while in Western Mass., once at this museum and once at Guild Art Supply in Northampton, I got discounts for being a teacher! I was always asked if I was eligible, and I didn’t have to furnish any proof.)

In the garden, with the Homestead in the background

I had about forty-five minutes before my tour, so I looked at the books in the gift shop, went out into the garden, and came back inside to explore the exhibit on the posthumous publication of Emily Dickinson’s poems. It was a complicated affair involving, at different times, her sister Lavinia (a cat lady!), her friend and sister-in-law Susan, her niece Martha, her brother’s mistress Mabel Loomis Todd, and others.

Typesetting Emily Dickinson’s poems for publication

Our tour guide (whose last name was Shumway, like the composer Nehemiah Shumway in The Sacred Harp) found us in the exhibit; there were only two of us on this tour! One of the first things she asked us was whether we’d read any Emily Dickinson; she was to read us several poems during the tour.

She first led us into the parlors, where there was a piano like the one the Dickinsons had. Our guide told us Emily stopped playing the piano after hearing someone who played better than her! There was also a copy of the famous photo of Dickinson at age 16, looking extremey severe. But on the wall was a reproduction of a portrait of the three Dickinson children, in which Emily has very short (apparently red?) hair. Our guide told us she’d once briefly described her appearance to a correspondent and we can guess her height from the length of her coffin.

We crossed the hall to the library, where our guide told us about Emily’s happy childhood, going to parties and whatnot, and her schooling, including her one year at Mount Holyoke. We saw reproduced pages of an herbarium she’d helped make; the plant names were in her handwriting. Our guide also told us about her many correspondents, when she was an adult. It sounded like she just wrote to people who interested her, and if at first they didn’t reply, she persisted until they did.

We ascended the staircase to the second floor, where we visited Emily Dickinson’s bedroom, restored to look as it might have when she lived (and died!) there. It was cozy and sunshine-filled. There was a very small table set under one of the windows, where she presumably wrote her poems. Apparently the neighbors remarked to her father that there was often a light in her window very late into the night, and his response was, So, what? Though Emily’s life seemed reclusive, the museum and our guide emphasized that she still had lively relationships with her family, neighborhood children, the household servants, and her correspondents.

The Homestead, home of Emily Dickinson

The house Emily Dickinson lived in hasn’t been a museum for that long. At a certain time, it was faculty housing for Amherst College, so young professors could’ve lived there! I’d love to be able to say I lived in a house that had once been home to a great American poet.

We left the Homestead and crunched across the leaf-strewn lawn to the Evergreens. Our guide had told us how Emily had written poems to Susan and how they were childhood friends. You know how sometimes you meet someone and you just click? That was how it was for them. On the way to the Evergreens, she said Emily might have been a little jealous to have to share her best friend with her brother after they married. I’d been wondering whether the exhibit or the tour would touch on a possible romantic relationship between Emily and Susan, but neither did. Back in Emily’s bedroom, our guide had told us about her later-in-life romance with a friend of her parents, who was a judge from Salem. The judge wanted to marry her, and Emily apparently loved him, but she didn’t marry him.

The Evergreens is interesting because it’s still in a state very close to what it was when Austin Dickinson and his family lived there. His daughter Martha hired an assistant who came to live in the house with his wife, and his wife only moved out in the very late 20th century, and she hadn’t changed anything. The décor, furniture, and artwork were all original (and showed their age), and the kitchen hadn’t been modernized, so it looked very old-fashioned.

Our guide closed the tour with a last poem and an entreaty to check out more of Dickinson’s poetry. I’m very glad I visited the museum; it was a kind of literary pilgrimage, like visiting la Maison de Balzac. Shortly after I returned from Massachusetts, I read about this new TV show about Emily Dickinson (but set in the present?), which seems to depict her as a much more interesting and complex figure than the conventional view of her. She was probably much cooler than I am!

 

 

Bookstores of the Pioneer Valley

Last week was fall break, and I spent most of it visiting my friend Leland in Western Massachusetts. The weather was mostly splendid, the fall color was glorious, and the bookstores were abundant. (In general, Northampton, where I was staying, affords many more delights than Grinnell. It probably helps that it has more than three times the population.) Here’s a little travelogue in bookstores:

On Tuesday, on my afternoon wanderings, I came upon a sandwich board for Raven Used Books. The shop was partway down a curved, sloping street and set partly below street level, so entering it was a bit like climbing down into a book cave. Inside, it was crammed with books, exactly as you’d wish. I first lingered in the Medieval section, where I discovered the Proceedings of the Pseudo Society (sample papers included “The Badman of Bossy-sur-Inept: Memoirs of a Medieval Peasant” and “The Lost Letters of Charlemagne’s First Wife, Autostrada, Also Called Desiderata or Desideria”). Then I went to Science Fiction & Fantasy, thinking there was a good chance I could find the next book for the Grinnell Pioneer Bookshop’s Speculative Fiction Reading Group. (The Drake Community Library’s sole copy was currently checked out.) Indeed, there were three copies of Arthur C. Clarke’s Childhood’s End, of which I bought one. (There was also a sex manual misshelved in SFF; I left it there.)

Raven Used Books

On Wednesday, Leland and I drove to the Montague Book Mill (“books you don’t need in a place you can’t find”), tucked away in a rural, woodsy region and perched over a stream. There’s no longer a mill, but in addition to the bookstore there’s a restaurant, a café, a music store, and an art gallery selling local artists’ work. The ground floor of the bookstore had a sort of cabin feel. Sunlight poured in the windows overlooking the water. I found a shelf full of copies of A. S. Byatt’s Possession, and upstairs in the linguistics section there was Kenstowicz & Kisseberth’s Generative Phonology. There was also a shelf for Books of No Obvious Category. The rooms of the upper level reminded me a little of Shakespeare & Co. in Paris in that there were little tables tucked under windows where people were sitting and working. Later, I found the paths down to the stream and its rapids. There were some old stone walls and a little brick building with green window frames. I dipped my hands in the water; it was cold.

The Book Mill

On Thursday, back in Northampton, I stepped briefly into Tim’s Used Books to look around. This store was just one room, but despite being small it had a nice children’s section. Then I went up the street to Broadside Bookshop, the first new bookstore (as opposed to used bookstore) of my trip. I spent a lot of time in SFF, which was on the right as soon as you entered, and then a little time in Fiction, where I spotted the anthology The Best American Nonrequired Reading. I know someone who has a story in there: Maddy Raskulinecz! Next I ambled over to the children’s and YA section. There are so. many. books. in the world. Also, The Secret Commonwealth, the second volume in Philip Pullman’s new Book of Dust trilogy, is hefty. Despite having read some worrisome things about it, I still want to read it, even if 20-year-old Lyra is going to depress me. (Side note: In that interview with Pullman I mentioned in my last post, I learned that the U.S. edition of The Amber Spyglass cut some material that was deemed overly sensual or somesuch, and I was betrayed. I looked it up too, and it was utterly harmless. I mean, compared to the big thoughts His Dark Materials might make you think…)

The lower level of Amherst Books

Later that day, I was in Amherst, and after visiting the Emily Dickinson museum (more on that another time!), I hung out at Amherst Books until Leland came to join me. Used books were in the basement, and I heeded the many dire warnings to leave bags upstairs. There were some excellent bookshelf ladders downstairs. Back on the main floor, I parked myself in the SFF section, where Leland found me. We exchanged recommendations for a bit. I could point to at least three books shelved face-out that I had heard good things about and wanted to read (I’m so behind on my to-read list). Then we walked down the street to have ramen.

Cedar Breaks and Bryce Canyon

Late in August, my mother helped me move from Los Angeles to Grinnell. Our road trip took us from California through Nevada, Arizona (just a tiny corner!), Utah, Colorado, and Nebraska to Iowa. On our first day of driving, we took nearly the exact same route I’d taken almost exactly two years earlier when Isabelle, Olivier, Adam, and I took our trip to Utah. Instead of going to Cedar City, we spent the night in Hurricane, UT, where the high temperature was predicted to be over 100°F every day that week. The next day, to beat the heat, we drove up to Cedar Breaks National Monument, where at an elevation of about 10,000 feet it was much cooler. Cedar Breaks is a gorgeuos amphitheater where the layers of the earth are exposed in shades of ocher and erosion has sculpted rock into formations similar to those at Bryce Canyon. There was also an abundance of wildflowers–columbine, elkweed, lupines, and more–and an adorable Uinta chipmunk!

Cedar Breaks National Monument

The same day, we drove to Bryce Canyon National Park. We visited the park that evening, driving in past crepuscular mule deer attracting admirers by the side of the road. We walked along the rim between Sunset and Sunrise Points. The sun was setting behind us as we looked out upon the canyon, but for a while it illuminated some of the red cliff faces in the distance. My first glimpse of Bryce Canyon was kind of like my first glimpse of the Grand Canyon on the road trip that brought me to UCLA. You approach the rim, and suddenly there’s a breathtaking view laid out before and below you. The Grand Canyon was more staggering in scale, but they’re equally wondrous.

First view of Bryce Canyon

As dusk fell, the air seemed to grow increasingly clouded, and I also smelled smoke a few times while we were at Bryce Canyon. We were pretty sure there were fires somewhere in the area.

Illuminated cliffs and smoke

The next morning, we hiked the Queen’s Garden Trail, following switchbacks from the rim down into the canyon among the hoodoos. The trail is named for a hoodoo that resembles Queen Victoria, and we arrived at that landmark before making our way back up.

Setting out from Sunrise Point

View from the trail

There’s Queen Victoria in the upper right

In my many flights between Los Angeles and the Twin Cities, I’ve had a lot of chances to admire the natural beauty of Utah from above. It was equally if not more beautiful to drive through (and the empty country highways were rather nice!).

Next was Colorado, where we went peach hunting near Grand Junction and spent the night in the quaint (always decorated for Christmas?) ski town of Frisco. The next day, we stopped at the Denver Botanic Gardens before continuing on through eastern Colorado and Nebraska, which are a bit less picturesque. We ate dinner at the same Japanese restaurant in Kearney, NE where we’d eaten on our road trip to Los Angeles six years before. I mean no disrespect, and maybe this goes without saying, but Kearney is not Sawtelle or Little Tokyo.

After a night in Lincoln, our last day brought us to Grinnell. And so I’ve left the West for now!

Borrego Palm Canyon and the Rest of Spring Break

On our second day in Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, we hiked the Borrego Palm Canyon Trail. There were plenty of people, and the trail was awash in desert flowers. The clouds of blooms were mainly shades of yellow and purple (desert dandelion, Parrish’s poppies, phacelia), with greenery and smatterings of other colors thrown in. The trail was pretty easy for a long stretch. Mountainsides jutted up sharply on either side of us, but far away on one side. There were streams (or maybe just one stream) flowing with cold water, and we had to cross all of these, usually on stepping stones or a log bridge. Closer to the palm oasis that was the endpoint of the trail, the path grew steeper and rockier in places.

Two kinds of phacelia?

A pretty blue flower

The oasis itself was a circle of California fan palms, the only native California palm tree. It was deliciously cool in the shade. Nearby, a shallow stream was flowing, and it seemed you could wade up it to find a waterfall. This sounded lovely, but a bunch of people had just arrived, so we opted to start the hike back. We stumbled upon some more ghost flowers along the trail, but alas, we didn’t meet any bighorn sheep.

Apricot mallow, I think

Stream from the trail, with ocotillos on the far hillside

On the drive back from the state park, we saw along the freeway near Lake Elsinore (lately overwhelmed by superbloom seekers) the hillsides coated in orange California poppies that are the signature of this year’s superbloom. The flowers do make impressive patches of color.

Back in Los Angeles, we visited the Getty Museum, where the illuminated manuscripts exhibit was Artful Words: Calligraphy in Illuminated Manuscripts. As usual, I tried to read the French texts. There was an amusing legend to an illustration in The Visions of the Knight Tondal: “The Good But Not Very Good Are Nourished by a Fountain”. Sounds like Not Very Good is good enough, then? This particular exhibit featured a lot of pages from books of music, which I’m a big fan of.

We also made our usual pilgrimage to The Huntington. In the Chinese garden, there was a performance underway in my eponymous pavilion: Gao Hejia was playing the guzheng.

The Chinese garden (notice the egret among the water lilies behind the rock)

Bird!

On the final day of our vacation, we visited the Getty Villa.

The Getty Villa, modeled on the Villa dei Papiri in Herculaneum

Inscription in what the exhibit called Palmyran Aramaic and what I think might be the Palmyrene alphabet–in any case, it’s beautiful!

A Mission and the Anza-Borrego Badlands

My parents recently visited me for spring break, and we started off by heading down the coast. We ate burritos and caught the sunset in Laguna Beach. The next morning, we arrived at Mission San Juan Capistrano soon after opening. The mission is very pretty, and the well-tended gardens were gorgeous. We apparently missed St. Joseph’s Day and the Return of the Swallows by a few days, but I saw nary a swallow (it seems like the mission is going to great lengths to attract them back–there were artificial nests and recordings of mating calls).

Mission San Juan Capistrano (there is a raven on the belltower)

The ruins of the Great Stone Church, destroyed by an earthquake, reminded me a bit of the Ruínas do Carmo in Lisbon. I liked the painted beams, painted motifs, and organ in Serra Chapel (which has the distinction of being the only church still standing in which Father Junipero Serra celebrated mass). The ornate alterpiece was less to my taste. I liked the bells too, including the bell-gable (maybe it wasn’t one, but it reminded me of what I saw in southern France last summer), and the cloisters. There were exhibits displaying both treasure and objects from daily life, including a bookcase of old volumes, a gloria bell wheel (like a spinning wheel with bells attached around it), and Acjachemen baskets. The gardens boasted many plump cacti, manzanita trees, California poppies, succulents, and a huge jasmine vine in full fragrant bloom.

I liked this musical display

From San Juan Capistrano, we drove inland to Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, which we had first visited two years ago for the 2017 superbloom. After picnicking in Christmas Circle, we arrived at the headquarters of California Overland Desert Excursions for our afternoon tour of the badlands. (I didn’t know there were badlands other than the ones in South Dakota; the formations do look alike.) The advantage of the tour was that we’d ride in a 10-wheel military truck on unpaved roads and desert washes to parts of the park that would be inaccessible to us in our rental car.

The military truck

Our guide, Joe, first oriented us to the region and showed us paintings of what it looked like in earlier prehistoric ages, when the climate was (sub)tropical and megafauna roamed. Then we all climbed a ladder into the back of the military truck, where there were green-upholstered benches, and off we went. Our first off-road detour was to the Truckhaven Trail to see some blooming desert sunflowers, with a little sand verbena thrown in. Then we started down a path on the other side of the highway. Joe stopped so we could get out and see some ghost flowers blooming along the trail. This is a rarer desert flower, I believe, and it has pretty speckles inside the cup of its pale petals.

The badlands

In the wash, with smoke trees in the middle ground

Further on, we reached the badlands and got out again to explore the landscape. The sandy ground glittered with pyrite. There were flowers here and there, and caterpillars, and a large round spotted beetle. The truck was parked in the wash near a palo verde and a smoke tree. I particularly liked the smoke trees; they looked like they were made of silver and gold. Joe also showed us a big creosote. We took a break for some snacks and lemon water and then drove a little farther on to see a mud cave (perhaps a century or two old) carved into the rock formations by water.

The badlands from Vista del Malpaís

The view in the other direction

Next we drove on and upward to Vista del Malpaís, which afforded views of the folds and ridges of the badlands, the wider valley, and the mountains ringing it in all directions. There were a lot of lupines blooming up here. After taking it all in, we returned to headquarters via a trail Joe called the rollercoaster for its ups and downs. I don’t usually go in for tours, but this one was well worth it.

Desert lily and lupines at Vista del Malpaís

2018 in Review

2018 has been quite a year. Do I say that every year? (I actually don’t, but I probably could.) Between the am-I-finishing-grad-school-this-year-or-not uncertainty (answer: no), the politics, the traveling, and the wonderful times with friends, it’s been a full year. Here are some highlights, not in chronological order:

In 2019, I will be dissertating and, I hope, writing and perhaps beginning a brand new adventure!

San Francisco II

Earlier in October, I went up to San Francisco for the weekend. The reason for the trip was to give a talk in the Berkeley Linguistics Department, but it was an excellent excuse to spend time in a city I like more and more. I arrived on Friday evening and met my friend Dustin for dinner. The place where we met was a stone’s throw from the Chinese restaurant where the banquet I went to before the premiere of Dream of the Red Chamber was held, but we ate at a different Chinese restaurant, which specialized in Sichuanese cuisine. We had mapo tofu and steamed fish over tofu with chopped chilies.

I made my way by BART and bus to the Marina District, where I was staying with my mother’s cousin and his wife, whose wedding in Maui I attended last year. They very kindly introduced me to some of their favorite places to eat. On Saturday, we went to the farmers market around the Ferry Building for chilaquiles (which I had never tried) and porchetta sandwiches. Then they took me to Lands End. Beyond the ruins of the Sutro Baths, the tide was very low, and gulls and cormorants crowded on the rocky outcroppings just off shore. Here by the ocean it was cloudy, and the wind-sculpted conifers stood tall and eerie on the hillside.

I spent part of the afternoon in Golden Gate Park catching up with my friend Katherine (alas, I did not get to see the bison paddock). Then in the evening my cousins and I went out for seven-course beef (bò 7 món), which I had also never tried (or even heard of). NO PHO, a sticker on the door of the restaurant proclaimed, and inside every table had ordered the specialty. The meal consisted of seven courses of beef in different forms, including a salad at the beginning and congee at the end, passing through various iterations of thinly sliced beef and ground beef sausages. Most of the meat was meant to be rolled in lettuce and/or rice paper wrappers with vegetables and herbs. It was fun and very tasty.

On Sunday morning, I went to church with Katherine. It was the Indigenous People’s Day Service, and the sermon was partly about the Nez Perce translation of the Gospel of John and the Nez Perce story of Coyote and his daughter. After church, my cousins and I drove to Berkeley, where we ate an Indian restaurant/market specializing in chaat. I had a mango lassi, and we shared a bunch of dishes served on metal trays. These included lamb biryani, masala dosa, puri, a puffed rice dish, fried fish, and bhature (a.k.a the big puffy thing), with a variety of sauces and accompaniments.

My cousins dropped me off at my friend Jesse’s place, and the next day Jesse and I went into the Berkeley department. I spent the morning at the Free Speech Movement Café and then returned to give my talk, which was on a couple of my dissertation experiments. Afterwards, I went out to lunch with some of the Berkeley folks, including my friend Andrew. Then I made my way back to the airport to fly back to Los Angeles.