When Emily Dickinson died in her 50s her family used for her epitaph a phrase from one of her letters. “Called Back” it still reads today on her Amherst headstone, a phrase which suggests belief in a God who set her down here, monitored her as she went about the full human tour through pain and gladness and loss and merriment, and decided when He decided that He then needed her back again.
In fact there isn’t much proof that Emily believed in an afterlife and a good bit of sly evidence that she didn’t. (I think of what she wrote to a friend about shunning men and women: “They talk of hallowed things, aloud, and embarrass my dog,” adding, of this canine, “I think Carl would please you. He is dumb and brave.”
There, is, however, plenty of evidence that she believed in this life, for who has celebrated its minute music-box-gear turnings with such care and precision?
I was ‘called back’ to remembering all this yesterday when my cousin Rebecca sent me a quick flash on Facebook from her home in California. It said only “Emily’s birthday!”
I knew right away who she meant and looked Emily up and sure enough it was her birthday, not the day she was called back but the day she was called here.
It was snowing as I read these things, some 90 miles from her grave. Big fat flakes were falling at that hour, each one as round and soft as a coconut Christmas ball. Then I Googled Emily’s name and the word ‘snow’ and sure enough here is what she left for us, one of thousands of such pearls to help us remember what she said to her another friend in a letter once. “To have been made alive is so chief a thing.” And so it is. And so it surely is.
Now Emily, on the snow:
It sifts from leaden sieves,
It powders all the wood,
It fills with alabaster wool
The wrinkles of the road.
It makes an even face
Of mountain and of plain, —
Unbroken forehead from the east
Unto the east again.
It reaches to the fence,
It wraps it, rail by rail,
Till it is lost in fleeces;
It flings a crystal veil
On stump and stack and stem, —
The summer’s empty room,
Acres of seams where harvests were,
Recordless, but for them.
It ruffles wrists of posts,
As ankles of a queen, —
Then stills its artisans like ghosts,
Denying they have been.