More than 150 years ago a woman in Amherst, Massachusetts, wrote this poem:
This is my letter to the world, That never wrote to me,— The simple news that Nature told, With tender majesty. Her message is committed To hands I cannot see; For love of her, sweet countrymen, Judge tenderly of me!
So this is my letter, and what I want to talk about first is punctuation. I know, that’s weird. But here’s the thing: I don’t know how to read the ,— with which Emily Dickinson ends her second line. I mean, I do, but I also find it confusing.
“This is my letter to the world,” she starts. So far, so good. This poem is her attempt to say something, just as this letter, America, is my attempt to say something—anything—when all I feel is rage and sorrow.
But then comes her strange comma-dash, that punctuation that flummoxes me. “,—The simple news that Nature told,” she writes. This moment might suggest that she is writing the simple news of nature—the return of Baltimore orioles to her yard in May, or the flowering of the mountain laurel, that tree that hold its white blossoms out like an offering in cupped hands. Or the sunset over the Mount Holyoke range. Or the smell of tall grass under the hot sun of July. Or bees.
But that comma-dash also makes the couplet mean the opposite. The world never wrote to Emily. It never wrote. The simple news of Nature spoken in tender majesty might just be the information she isn’t being told, the language she is missing. Dickinson might be hoping, like I am, to speak from a space of rejuvenation and renewal, only to find herself boxed in by the hard, rough facts of her time.
Her punctuation—that break in the sense of things—becomes a hinge on which the sentence turns. But which way is the hinge going to turn? It might be on the door that opens to a larger and more generous world, one that beckons with birdsong and sunlight and the clatter of a rainshower in the afternoon. Or that comma-dash might be the hinge that closes off the world: that silences.
Sometimes, America, it feels that I am left with this choice. Silence or sound. Rage or despair. Like it is a choice I have to make. Because Emily also asks me to judge her. Tenderly. But why would we want to judge her in the first place? Is it because of her silence in the face of something larger and grotesque? Perhaps. But the poem lives in mystery and does not ever make the nature of that judgment clear.
I understand how she feels. Because this is my letter to America that never wrote to me. Because I live (because we live, my dear countrymen and countrywomen) in a space that demands daily outrage. That demands our attention and our fear. We are daily exposed to a barrage of racism, lies, and toxic gibberish that drives many of us towards an artistic silence only broken by shouts of rage on social media. Our work becomes reduced to reaction instead of action. Our language becomes corrupted by the corruption around us.
You can judge me for this, for I too am guilty. But judge tenderly, please.
Remember, too, that Emily Dickinson likely wrote her poem in 1862: the year of the Emancipation Proclamation. But 1862 was also the year of the Battle of Antietam, one of the deadliest in U.S. history, with its 22,000 casualties, and the explosion at the Allegheny Arsenal, the largest civilian disaster of the Civil War. It was the year of the Dakota War, when the United States sentenced to death 38 Lakota Sioux men in the largest mass hanging in U.S. history.
I say all this because when I think of Emily, and her quiet, ghostly life in Amherst, I do not think she was unaware of the violence of her day. She lived in a time of war. In a country of actual slavery and true genocide. She knew it the way we do, and perhaps more so. For the U.S. was a smaller place back then—with just north of 30 million souls. She would have known boys sent off to war, some who never returned. Some who returned broken, missing limbs and more. She would have read the news. She would have listened in quiet sorrow. Or raged in fire and fervor. I say all this, America, because our history is dark and dangerous and no one—not even a quiet woman in Amherst—has ever lived in time without complications.
So when we are called on to speak, and our only response is rage; when we’re called on to speak, and cannot, or when our speech is flowers and birds and the thin ribbon of a snake in the grass; when we speak around that thing we cannot say, what better language is there for that speech than poetry?
I want both the rage and the silence, for they exist together, witched to each other like the links in a magic chain. The moment that breaks open the comfort of the hour is likewise the call for action that will lead us beyond that moment. It is the comma-dash. The pause and then the break. The hinge around which our thoughts turn and our ideas pivot.
So when the country gasps because our president openly sympathizes with the Klan, I may only be able to puzzle out the mystery of the semi-colon. When science tells us we are boiling the planet a little more every day, I may only be able to talk about the Carolina wren chortling in the fir. And when children march out of school and into the nation’s capital to demand that adults value their lives more than they value guns, I may only be able to say that today the sun broke through the icicles hanging like bars before my office window.
Jeffrey Thomson is a poet, memoirist, translator, and editor, and is the author of multiple books including the memoir fragile, The Belfast Notebooks, The Complete Poems of Catullus, and the edited collection From the Fishouse. Alice James Books will publish Half/Life:PoemsSelected and New in October 2019. He has been an NEA Fellow, the Fulbright Distinguished Scholar in Creative Writing at the Seamus Heaney Poetry Centre at Queen’s University Belfast, and the Hodson Trust-John Carter Brown Fellow at Brown University. He is currently professor of creative writing at the University of Maine Farmington.