It was a full serving of Emily Dickinson poetry last night at the Folger. Co-sponsored by the Folger Library and Poetry Society of American (PSoA), Tracy K Smith led with a reading of Dickinson poetry as well as her own, much of it inspired by the Bard of Amherst herself. A special treat of the night, however, was a talk given by Dr. David DeVorkin, curator at Smithsonian Air and Space, on the state of astronomy during Dickinson’s time and how that may have affected her poetry, with an interesting acknowledgement of the work of Tracy Smith’s father on the Hubble telescope and her poetry in his honor. It was a most interesting convergence/confluence of ideas and of art/science.
Let’s recapture some of the poetry covered. A Dickinson catalog, we can call it, for all the Emily Dickinson lovers out there…
Alice Quinn from PSoA opened with a recitation of “This world is not conclusion.” Ironically, or maybe by design, it would be a recurring theme throughout the night. Traci began her presentation with “I saw no Way – The Heavens were stitched,” a historical evolution of the poem “I’m Nobody! Who are you?” and “If I’m lost – now –.”
Here, Smith read from the Dickinson-Higginson letter of 25 April 1862, “I had a terror – since September.” Next, “I reason, Earth is short” and “To put this World down, like a Bundle.” Smith questioned the antecedent of the pronoun in “I know that He exists.” One of Smith’s poems echoed some themes from “Because I could not stop for Death,” which she read immediately after. She continued the astronomy theme with “There is a solitude of space,” and the mystical piece “Through what transports of patience.”
I regret now not capturing the titles/first lines of the Tracy Smith poems to reproduce them also. I made the same omission with Kay Ryan four years ago, and with Peter Gizzi three years ago. I missed the birthday celebration two years ago (out of town) and last year (medical absence) but I plan to make every one from this year forward.
Dr. DeVorkin’s presentation dove-tailed exquisitely both with Tracy Smith’s readings from her own collection, “Life on Mars,” dedicated to her memory of her father who worked on the Hubble Telescope, and to the many mentions of astronomical phenomena in Dickinson’s poetry and the state of astronomy studies she would have been exposed to mid 19th century at Holyoke. Smith earlier mentioned her father’s experience with the Hubble Telescope, its initial failure followed by its success. DeVorkin reflected on the early days of development of the Hubble project and said the flaws in the project were not with the scientists and opticians, but with management. It might have been interesting to chat with him during the reception, but my date was tired from a long day at work. So we went home directly after having a taste of the Dickinson recipe birthday cake.