The exhibition I’m Nobody! Who are you? about the poet Emily Dickinson in the New York Morgan Library is deceptively simple. In just a few steps you can cross the small room that contains it. But this is an exhibition that slows down space and time. Just like her poems.
In one glass display case are the hand-sewn books in which Dickinson kept her poems. On the walls are posters filled with her words. But her handwriting varies —sometimes it’s tiny and precise, other times loopy and large. As she got older, and her vision failed, the letters appear to be made of elastic, running out of control off the pages. In the exhibit are samples of her herbarium with its carefully dried and pressed flowers. When I see a lock of her auburn hair displayed among the poems, she feels tangibly close.
Once when I was bicycling to a job in Amsterdam where I was unhappy, I passed every day by a black-and-white house on the corner of the Marnixstraat. Chiseled on its walls was this poem:
To make a prairie it takes a clover and one bee,
One clover, and a bee.
The revery alone will do,
If bees are few.
I think it’s one of the most beautifully concise poems ever written. You do not need anything to make a paradise except your own imagination. Her words are, to quote Shakespeare, “a simple truth miscalled simplicity.”
I’m not the only one who admires this poet. The exhibition seems like a pilgrimage. The room is filled with people who are reverently silent, or whispering to each other. Two girls are peering at a recently found daguerreotype of two seated women. The woman on the left, probably Dickinson, puts her hand gently on the back of the other woman, who looks at the camera with a penetrating stare. On one of the walls hangs a replica of the floral wallpaper that hung in the room where she spent so many years alone.
The poem I am Nobody! Who are you? refers to the isolation Dickinson chose. She said no to what was expected of a woman in her time and place: marriage, maternity, and the social duties she was expected to perform. Instead, she chose to go independently down her own path.
Dickinson wrote 1,789 poems. Only 10 of them appeared in print during her lifetime. And yet, over time, her words have found their way to the general public. She is one of the most beloved poets of all time.
Outside, I bump into two girls on a bench. One of them gently puts her hand on the back of the other. A little farther I walk over a brass plaque on the sidewalk. On it is a poem by Dickinson:
A word is dead
When it is said,
I say it just
Begins to live
It is deceptively simple, just like Emily Dickinson’s complex life.
The exhibit, “I’m Nobody! Who are you? The Life and Poetry of Emily Dickinson,” will be open at the Morgan Library in New York City until Sunday, May 28 (www.themorgan.org).
Pia de Jong is a Dutch writer who lives in Princeton. Her memoir, “Saving Charlotte: A Mother and the Power of Intuition,” will be published in July by W.W. Norton. She is filling in for Richard K. Rein, who is on assignment this week.