If Emily Dickinson had written in Italian, she might have said:
L’anima sceglie i suoi compagni
e poi chiude la porta;
la sua divina maggioranza
estranei non sopporta.
Impassible, sente il cocchio che si ferma
presso il cancello esterno.
Impassible, guarda un re prostrarsi
sul suo tappeto.
So che da tutto il mondo
puo scegliare uno solo:
chiuder le valve poi dell’attenzione
come fossero pietra.
The 12-13 hour days of go-go-go for the past two weeks have caused me to sleep in on weekends and, as a result, have kept me in Florence. It’s definitely not a problem, but I was so hoping to venture out into Italy, perhaps to Venice and Pompeii. Instead, I find myself wanting—no, needing—to stay in my cozy studio. It’s the People Overload condition I wrote about in my pre-departure blog entry. If I’m around a lot of people and interacting with them for more than a few hours a day, my soul screams for solitude.
Long ago, I fell in love with Emily Dickinson, whose elliptical words and ideas spoke to me like no other writer. Then I studied her formally with Dr. Elizabeth Oakes at Western Kentucky University, and my adoration and respect for Dickinson multiplied immeasurably. Libby, as she asked her students to call her, led me toward appreciating Dickinson’s art as well as her life and personality, as expressed in her art. That’s when I learned that a woman’s life and art—especially if she lived before the twentieth century—are inextricably woven to the point of inseparability. Yet, because of the patriarchal literati who set the canon until it was disheveled in the 1990s, any woman artist’s life has often been misrepresented—e.g., Dickinson’s white dress as the only choice in her wardrobe, her unceasing reclusiveness, her lack of desire to publish her work. All inaccurate.
Last week in Florence, my non-traditional students and I wandered into a bookstore. Lauren, my bibliophiliac counterpart on the trip, wanted a collection of Shakespeare’s Sonnets in Italian, and I wanted a collection of Dickinson’s poems in Italian. We found what we were looking for. However, when I got home with my slim volume, I glanced through it and didn’t feel the magnetic, electrical urge to read it. Based on even my faint grasp of the Italian language, the translation didn’t seem quite right. Plus, there was not a single dash to be found. I put the little paperback aside.
Tonight, our daily cultural activity was a visit to a libreria, or bookstore, guided by my Accademia Europea di Firenze Italian Language professor, Tiberia Leo. Following our small group activity, Tiberia asked us to find a book that interested us, and I headed straight for the poesia section. I scanned the shelves through the alphabetized last names, and my eyes led me to the top shelf—too high for me. I found a rolling stool in another section, then carried and plopped it in front of the high poetry shelf. Perched on this friend of short readers, I gently pulled down the cardboard box that enclosed a collection of Emily Dickinson’s poems, 1,705 to be exact. I held the thick volume like a bible, and the thin pages felt like the delicate paper reserved for sacred texts. I opened the book randomly, and that’s when I saw the reason for the book’s 2½” spine: English versions on the left side of each page, Italian ones on the right.
By the time I found my current favorite, “The Soul selects her own Society,” my hands were trembling. I could feel my heart beating faster, my face flushing. It was exactly what I was looking for. Its price and heft—tagged at €29 and weighing maybe a pound or two—seemed excessive, especially since I’d need to pack it in my already stuffed backpack for the return trip home. Instead, I copied the Italian version of #303 on the last page of my Italian notebook, and I replaced the cardboard cover for its return to the shelf.
Tiberia stopped by to see which book I’d selected, and I showed the Dickinson tome to her. She remarked on my flushed face, and I showed her my trembling hands. I don’t remember exactly what she said, but she reminded me that it would be an excellent gift to myself, a beautiful souvenir of the trip. She was right.
Each morning on my way to the AEF, I pass Casa Guidi, the Italian home of Elizabeth Barrett Browning and Robert Browning and the site of her death in 1861. Since I haven’t been able to catch the home open for visitors during its limited hours, I’ve contacted the Browning Society in England to request a class tour of the home. Now that I own this bilingual Dickinson volume, it seems only right to be in the former home of the “Foreign Lady” who “enchanted” Dickinson when she was a “sombre Girl.”
Now I must resist closing the door to my upstairs studio, shutting out the ample city, and enchanting myself with these sacred pages until it’s time for me to fly away.