Dream of: 02 October 1997 "Emily Dickinson"

Ten or fifteen men, and myself, were sitting in chairs along the sides of a long room, a room which turned like an "L" at the foot, so I couldn't see all the way around to the end. All the men were in their 20s and 30s. One man, sitting directly across from me, mentioned that he had some Italian money which he would exchange if anyone wanted any. I took note, thinking that I might later need some Italian money. But while I dallied, another man stood up, walked over, and received the Italian money from the man.

Although the room was in a prison, and we were all prisoners, we had all come together to take part in a class. The man in charge of the class was probably in his early 30s. He had a slight build, but he seemed strong and commanding. His first action was to appoint me to be in charge of this particular class, the subject of which was to be the poetess Emily Dickinson.

We were planning to study a number of Emily's poems. But before beginning with the poems, I read out to the class some introductory material concerning Emily's life. One subject in the material concerned a male friend of Emily's. The friend had been engaged in building either a house or a boat. It seemed that Emily had had feelings for the young man, although that fact wasn't completely clear. Emily's feelings, however, had to be postponed until the friend's project was completed.

Having finished the introductory material, I decided to read two of Emily's poems to the group. As I read the poems, I felt thoroughly moved and transported by them, as if in flight. Her poetry spoke directly to me. I also began formulating in my mind the question which I would ask the group about the poems. My question would focus on what I actually felt for Emily Dickinson. I knew when I read her poems, it seemed as if I were in love with her, as if she would be the perfect woman for me. But the question I would ask would be, what would I think of Emily if I were to actually meet her in person? Even though I felt as if I loved her when I read her poetry, would I feel the same way if I actually met her? In person, I might find that I didn't care for her at all. After all, it was my understanding that she had been somewhat of a recluse, and not particularly much to look at. So my question was, even though I felt intense feelings when I read her poetry, would I still feel the same way in person?

When I finished reading, I was just about to ask my question, when McGee, who was sitting just to my left, began asking a question of his own. I hadn't seen McGee for almost 20 years. I had first met him in Portsmouth around 1977. He looked the same as always – scraggly hair and beard, slovenly dressed. I had only known McGee for a short time, a few months. It hadn't taken long to realize that he had severe mental problems and had extreme difficulty interacting with people. Indeed he had spent some time in a mental hospital. In the short time I had known him, I had rarely been able to communicate with him.

True to character, McGee was now ignoring the fact that I was in charge of the class, and that I, not he, was asking the questions. I finally had to stop asking my question, and instead, concentrate on speaking to him. He was sitting so close to me, I was able to reach out and put my hand on his knee, finally getting his attention. He stopped speaking, but he was obviously angry because he had been interrupted and not allowed to finish his question. Clearly he felt that he should have been allowed to continue, and he resented my having any control over the situation. I pointed to the man in charge (who was sitting at a table not far from us) and I told McGee that that man had appointed me to run the group, and as such, I would decide who would ask the question. I however promised McGee that I would get back to him as quickly as I could and let him ask his question.

I stood up in front of everyone, and again began trying to ask my question. I was afraid that now everyone would think I was a bully, and no one would want to answer the question. But even before I could finish the question, one of the other fellows began answering that when he read Emily's poems, he also felt as if he were in love with her. I immediately felt a rapport with this fellow, that he was experiencing the same kind of feeling as I. But I felt that he hadn't carried the feeling to the next step, to ask what he would feel like if he actually met Emily in person.

So I began expatiating, explaining the question. I even asked another question, and when I did so, I could tell that McGee was angry, because I had continued on with my subject without first consulting him. But to my delight, everyone else seemed interested, and a lively discussion ensued. I walked about the room as the talk flittered back and forth. Finally, during a lull, the man in charge walked up to my side. He pointed out that McGee had stood up and walked out of sight around the L-shaped end of the room.

I walked around so I could see McGee, who was seated at a table. I walked over to him and kindly asked if he now wanted to ask his question. He immediately stood up and shambled back into the main part of room, with me following. He proceeded to ask a ponderous clumsy question about whether Emily's poems were sad. No one else seemed to quite understand; but I did. However, I wouldn't have used the word "sad." The word which came to my mind was "remorse."

I had keenly felt a sense of remorse in all of Emily's poems. Even when I thought about her life and the story of the man who had been building the house or boat. I sensed that she had felt remorse because the man hadn't finished his project. The same kind of remorse seemed to permeate all of her poems. Indeed, I knew what McGee was talking about, and I struggled to bring it to words, so that we could all discuss it.

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