Mary & Emily: Between Greenwood & Gratitude

There’s Something About Mary…and Emily

Copyright 2020, Vincent Hostak (except for verse as quoted). The dialogue is a work of fiction and not the words of the authors except as quoted from published works. Links to this post in full are welcome by all readers.

I threatened to post this in January. It’s now February 9. Emily Dickinson was born in December. Mary Oliver passed in January 2019. As mentioned in the teaser, they are nothing short of Wild, Abandoned muses. I’m inventing a new anniversary, this February day, for these kindred poets who shared from an interior landscape that reflected the natural world they adored. Lyrical, metaphysical, immersed in forests, beaches, meadows, and the fabled Greenwood– as much invented as these were real to them, I’ll have them meet in a dream. This took a very strange turn and is now a “Half-Act Play” of an imagined dialogue between their souls: Strange Cumulus….Sisters?


I’d lie awake briefly that night as occasions from the day were replaying in my mind.  Each were lined up to crowd the moment when my eyelids would finally drop.  Which of these would move across the line quivering between wakefulness and my next trance?  

Sleep advances like a crosscurrent you couldn’t predict, when you were waist deep wading in your thoughts.  Then it catches you in the undertow and soon you are headed southeasterly from the shore in the breakers you craved. What my mind chose to replay seemed the most insignificant of details. One moment I was looking for a lost notebook that took the color of all the clutter in the room.  Then, I remembered that I left the lid off the trash can I opened earlier that evening. I’d just grabbed the last small orange from the fruit bowl as I also lifted the bulging trash liner from the kitchen basket.  Outside I left the frosted zinc lid of the trash can on the ground collecting snowflakes.  I’d peeled away enough of the rind to eat from the orange as if it was a small apple.  I tossed the remainder of the Clementine on top of the bag in the can.   Snow was coming down in wet heavy clumps now and I was impatient to get back inside.  I left a sweet wedge of orange behind in the rinds. 

Now I’m tumbling towards the Scorpion Reef and the sounds of the room are silenced by the deep compression of Gulf water

– This is a dream. This is how it works. –

The sound of scuttling, small sharp claws scraping metal and puncturing sheet plastic go unobserved in the cold post-midnight air.  A small, auburn, fleecy inverted triangle of a head bobs above the silver rim of the trash can.  The fullest of moons is fully obscured by curtains of snow clouds drawn in for the night.  Although this moon won’t set for hours, the only light in this setting comes from a streetlamp.

The fox sways his head back and forth and his crystal whiskers catch the light.   He leaps out and lifts his body again as his lean back legs touch the flagstones.  This action draws a cursive “m” in the night.  Observed from the angle of a beetle looking upward, it might be an “E.”  These ciphers hang in the air just long enough to be decoded by some consciousness tumbling in the sea.  This is a dream.  This is how it works.

There is a rind hanging from the fox’s mouth.  His black lips are crusted with sugar, nectar from the orange quickly freezing there despite the warmth of his breath.  He seems to kiss the night air with these sweetened lips.  These actions create small clouds that hover in the air and he canters away toward the shelter of a row of browned hibiscus shrubs.  The clouds drift to rest separately above two sides of a tiny brook formed by snow melt from a drainpipe and channeled through decorative limestone beneath drapes of ivy.  The water has only yet to freeze. 

One these clouds starts to speak.

Emily Dickinson, from Public Domain

Mary:  I’m sure that it was a fox that woke me.  Its clattering is distinct, more elegant than those aggressive forest racoons.  Did it find the kibble I left?

(Mary’s house is in some Southland woods by a brook.  She dispels all myths of how a ghost might be clothed.  There are no flowing garments.  She rises in a black turtleneck that hides the creases in her neck.  She has on faded jeans cuffed at her sockless ankles, just above her sand salted, blue deck shoes.)

Emily: Oh, wherever am I now?

(Emily lifts her head from a decomposing fallen timber. It is soft like a pillow, moss lined and there are no splinters.  But there are tufts of green lace clinging to her hair which she let fall while lonely-ing in the wood.  In this way she looks more the ghost than gentlewoman.  She wears a white dress and brushes twigs from the folds).

I made too much of leisure 
and slept in these woods-
Late afternoon into this moonlit Night-
Bird whistles customary to my rising,
Passed over without my notice.
I heard a fox.

(She continues)::  Dear sister, is it you I hear?  You blend to the gurgling stream.

Mary:   Not likely.  But, I’ll play.  Hello, “sister.”

Emily:  Not my sister true.  I know her voice. Have you just woke?

Mary:  I sleep lightly, wake early.  You though, are a deep sleeper I can tell.  You rest on the “linen of flowers.” Your other body is a bit unkempt.

(Mary refers to Emily corporeal, whom she can see drift in and out of the cloud as a faint projection)

Emily:  I am of a mess, it seems, always to be.  Oftentimes I drift off in the Greenwood.  I am missed by no one I think. -Find me among the riot of the sparrows But, I left a candle burning on my writing desk, perhaps? Night has snuffed it with a silent pinch of Hand, I am sure.

Mary:  I know your voice, “sister.”  You sound like someone who saved my life.  You and Edna, and Robert Frost.

Emily:  I know not of her nor him.  But the Frost? Here:

“As Frost is best conceived
By force of its Result-
Affliction is inferred
By subsequent effect-“

Mary:  Oh, it is most definitely you!  I would never have recognized you in…eh… billows.

Emily:  These are garments strange I must admit.

Mary:  However it is that we find ourselves here, this is a fair reunion. Even as…clouds. I see your other body, faintly, sometimes, fading in and out of the puffs.

Emily:  Never have we met.  But you voice is true like the wind-” ‘quivers down with tufts of tune.”

Mary:  You think? Not bad for a cumulus-humilis.

Emily:  Pray?

Mary:  Always! To the moon above the mirrored sand.  It shines brightly tonight.  But, I’m so sorry, I mean to say my voice is uncommon, for a cloud.

Emily:  Indeed!  Clouds that speak, strange, but not so very. I consider themselves disguising always. Now, they are my disguise. And your’s:

“A curious Cloud surprised the Sky,
’Twas like a sheet with Horns;
The sheet was Blue—
The Antlers Gray—
It almost touched the lawns.”

Mary:  No horns, I hope. Not a transformation I’d hoped, for. But, You are everything I imagined, dear.  Except for your ‘raiment.’    You were photographed in more structured lines. The daguerrotype….you were so young.  I would not have imagined you sporting these smoky balloons. There’s a poet, Billy Collins…I’m quite sure you would never approve of how he unfrocked you in his poem.  Quite a salty little verse. He’s better when he writes about dogs.  All of us are, dear.

Emily:  Something- modern are you.  You converse like a sunset that moves too swiftly for my recordance. You have many friends?  But this William C.?  Not for me, I fear. I’m not much for salty. It is for sailors, venison and Cape Cod Bay…not verse.  We are of other times. But like kin, perhaps?

Mary:  I read you in measures constant.

Emily:  How, then, modern woman? It was all my secret.

Mary: Oh you couldn’t keep it that way, dear. The music is in just about everyone’s ears these days. Forget that riot of sparrows, dear girl. You went viral in my time, even before.

Emily:  I was sick a time or two. “I could not stop for Death.” Than a time of three, “He kindly stopped for me.” Gone…then all of this…cloudiness. A surprise that these went to the printer at all. Lavinia. The sister I thought you were. How many?

Mary: Over 1700, dear girl. You were prolific.

Emily:  Heavens! I mean, Heavens NO! There were such juvenile pursuits among them all. Valentines and such!

Mary: Nothing can be done now, girl. Besides, they are almost all beloved. Even, and I agree with you, the syrup among those hotcakes. Although I love them mostly all.

Emily:  And you?

Mary:   Oh they paid us in our time. Long inky, potholed roads to get there, of course. Roads through Rejection…and Ohio and Connecticut. But, I made many books. “In our time…” I memorized what you said about time.  I was almost sure there was none, but now I’m certain its nothing but a series of Nows:

"Forever – is composed of Nows –
‘Tis not a different time –
Except for Infiniteness –
And Latitude of Home –"

“Latitude of Home.”  It rhymes with Gratitude.  I’ve named the place I long to Iive as:  Gratitude.  Still longing. I think this is never meant to go away, even when you are… here. Wherever. Whatever. A Cloud. I think that is the pang that makes feel real. I feel it–I must still be real. Yes, even here, in these ridiculous…tufts! In this intersection where we find ourselves crossing, I am still longing, Emily. So glad to meet you again, Emily.  I am Mary.

Emily:  Oh, dear, dear Cloud Mary! It as if you spy upon my thoughts…if that’s what these things can still be called. As sure as you sing, you Are!  You are -My Sister! Mary! The Cloud by the brook. Meet us again, here. In Transcendant-Nows!

To Be Continued

The clouds have briefly opened and shaken the last of the snow to further dust the rooftops and spruce crests.  It’s moonset and my eyes are rolling back and forth behind their curtains.  The fox can be seen swimming the brook between the Greenwood and Gratitude and washing outland into the Gulf. Words roll in with me and my watterlogged and matted fur grips the sand and clings with salty mangrove leaves.

My whiskers itch.
I am a fox
rustling through poets' trash
looking for those sweet remnants
never disclosed,
beneath grimy cones of grounds,
drying coils of gristle,
and bitter wilted kale.
Where are the orange rinds
to sweeten my lips
so I may bless this night air?

Verse in quotes from published works of Emily Dickinson. Verse without quotes imagined by the author.

Billy Collins’ poem “Taking Off Emily Dickinson’s Clothes” was referenced without its content and can be found almost everywhere. Emily would most certainly not approve.

Why the World Needs More Chicagos

It is 1 degree Fahrenheit this Sunday morning. I’ve been here in Chicago a full week for a project.  A west facing window at a close relative’s house, has an ice veneer over 90% of its surface.  It is not even a month past the Midwinter mark and the ground is nearly permafrost.  So, why then do I hear a voice saying “the world needs more Chicagos”? I spent some important, but young, years here growing up: most of elementary school through High School. I visited rarely for many years after, not again until my thirties-then about once each decade. It grew up and became a world class city. Rediscovering the city now as an older adult, exploring Ravenswood, Uptown, Edgewater and Rogers Park, on assignment interviewing social justice advocates for an audio project, I am exposed to cultures and points of view I wasn’t previously.

I’m returning to Denver in the early evening and happy to do so. Denver is a city that won my heart with wilderness just a wild hog’s hair away from the sprawling town; close family I love and, of course, a dog. On days almost as cold as this there is warm sunshine that cuts through the dry air and hits the crest of your head.  Still, I’m moved to a deep affection for the city of Nelson Algren, Carl Sandburg, Saul Bellow and Gwendolyn Brooks. Chicago allows me glances of a patchwork of neighborhoods rich with persons from every family of humankind.  It presents me with a morning when I can walk along a colossal grey lake that sometimes rages to third story offices, often devours beaches and always fascinates. 

What compels this affection is of course the character of the city’s people. They interact with tough weather, struggle with change and growth, troublesome inequities and ceaseless revitilization, while retaining a legendary friendliness. Yes, the friendliness is real.

It is meeting Shaims (pronounced loosely “shay-emz”), my driver one day, a refugee from a Middle East country. He mails a check for some $600.00 to his daughter every month to help with room and board at a University downstate.  At a stoplight in Rogers Park, he wrote his name with his finger in the air, in Arabic, so I could briefly see its ornamental beauty.  He told me it means “sun.”

It’s Miriam and Heidi in a Northshore coffee shop, in their mid to late seventies, overheard speaking of Walt Whitman.  The two are interrupted by me, apologetically. I’m eager to tell them, I’m from Denver– a city Whitman visited and loved.  I share that he was impressed, then, by the smelters where workers shoveled out silver bricks. He even called Denver the “Queen City of the plains.”  It was how they offered me a chair with no second thought, because I had time to kill, and they, like the blessed whole of citykind here, are friendly and “don’t bite.”  I was invited to their book club.  It was an invitation I had to decline but this did not prevent them from chiming: “Next time, then.”

It’s a scavenger potluck dinner of sorts with friends, where the guests bring ingredients to cook harvested from across the city and cabinets. Some of these prove surprisingly difficult to find in local markets. But all arrive, with all the produce and hospitable temperaments intact, despite the late-breaking snow and special side trips required at rush hour. Soon, there are steaming saucepans and the air is generous with the aroma of smoky spices.

It’s close family in the city, who like me wake too early, because each day is so precious you don’t want to miss a second of it, or, worse, fail to behold the cardinals drawn to the feeding platform in the yard with a bounty of raw peanuts.  “Peanut Mountain” was poured there, before full day-break by The Philanthropist to the Birds of the Western Suburbs.

It is being a guest at a local church later on this Sunday for a service honoring Dr. King. The congregation is first met moving chairs from the main sanctuary to an unattached Fellowship Hall –where the newer heater can keep up with the now 5 degree day.   This unlike the 130+ year-old building, wherein, today, you can see your breath. This is a Midwestern welcome: being forced to sit closer together in a smaller room.  It is listening to congregant Sandy’s story.  She, to the left in a folding chair, strikes up conversation immediately with this guest. I learn about her duties as a Census worker and she can tell whether or not I care. I do.

It’s not Wilder’s Our Town. But it is a town of towns, each often full of approachable people. I’m certain that the world-at-large needs more Chicagos.  We need to look further than the reports that unfairly amplify the danger of living in the city. There has to be a balance struck between it being one of the “top 25 most dangerous cities in America,” and hands down, the friendliest. Because, with all the work it still has to do, it’s a place filled with the endlessly curious. These are folks not afraid of making eye contact with strangers.  In fact, watch Chicagoans, they lead with their eyes as they enter a room, the train, or as they flood to the sidewalk. Like the woman responding to my question: “Am I on the right Union Station to Aurora line? Will it stop at Stone Ave?” Because, puzzingly, on the BNSF-Metra sometimes there are stop announcements, sometimes there are not. It was a “not” day. I was on the right train, by the way, as the woman in a nearby seat confirmed, adding: “Your stop is just three away.” Friendly. In other circumstances, maybe your driver’s eyes recognize you warmly in the rearview mirror. My name is Shaims. Let me embroider it in the air and share a small piece of the tapestry of my life.

Vincent Hostak is the creator/host of the podcast “Crossings-The Refugee Experience in America.” Look for a series of Chicago episodes coming in late January through February 2020, featuring topics of resettlement, the changes in public policy affecting admissions to the US, poetry and other writing from refugees and their sons and daughters, special programs for refugee girls, and how trauma and mental health services help integration of newcomers to America. More at: