I’m going to share a musical performance of an Emily Dickinson poem, but before I get to that, I’m going to continue my memoir-of-influences series on things that formed the idea of the Parlando Project earlier in my life. I’m going to try to keep it short, which will force some amputations, but I feel embarrassed spending much time on the small events of my single life. Those in a hurry, or only interested in the new audio piece and what I have to say about that, can skip down to the second section of this post.
At the end of the last post I had moved to Newburgh, a town on the Hudson river about 60 miles north of New York City. I don’t know if the town knew what to do with The Seventies, it seemed between eras; and in some larger sense I might not have known what to do either, but like the town I had a daily job to do, and kept doing it. Can we say that had some value?
I liked many of the people I worked and lived with during my five years there. I still think of some of them from time to time, and they were often kind to me. The folks who worked with me at St. Luke’s Hospital, particularly those in the Emergency Department, worked hard under significant limitations trying to do things that we could only address partway. I could say much of that under-addressed were systematic issues — and I’d be right — and the levers of those systems were outside our direct grasp. Another part of those limitations were closer to us, internal. I said I’d try to be brief. I said there would be amputations. Newburgh had a racism problem. The town, the region, was populated by stratums of immigrants, with the original European WASP colonials to Irish, Italian, and Puerto Rican waves following on. Mixed in there were Afro-Americans who were there, as they were everywhere in the United States. I don’t know the exact demographic details, and I said I’d try to keep this concise, but I’d guess the Black Americans were first in the region from servant and slavery times, and then there was some low-paid and otherwise undesirable work that still may have seemed better than some parts of America for Black folks. Few poor people ever emigrate for marginal gains from acceptable situations.
That work had shriveled over the years, and what jobs there were, those other immigrant waves got some of the employment from the white folks who did the hiring. Again, I’m no expert, I may have some of this wrong, but when I think of the Irish and Italian Americans who can recount the derogatory tropes employed against their ancestors,* I still suspect that even within the cruel othering they received, they sometimes got, in practice, hiring preferences over Afro-Americans.
This led to the town, in the time I was there, with an underclass of underemployed Black folks viewed by too many of the white population as shiftless, ungrateful and unenterprising wards of the state. Think I’m amputating too much to say this was a prominent white attitude? Ten years before I arrived there was a controversy that was called “The Battle of Newburgh.” I didn’t know much of this specific history in 1971, but the attitudes were still easy to hear and feel while I lived there. Here’s a link to a 30 minute podcast on the 1971 controversy. Wonder what happened later? Here’s an article that updates things to 2015.
Back in my Emergency Room, The Seventies, we were the place anyone came when things broke down. Folks needing medical care that couldn’t pay. Victims of violence. Stressed out or addicted people. Worn-out old workers and beneath the working-class people. I worked the 3-11 shift, the busiest one in the ER. We’d typically get 50-70 such situations every shift. What could we do for them, right now, in our imminent place? Patch’em up. Give them a preliminary diagnosis and maybe a shot or some pills. Hand off a referral card to a medical system already fragmenting and requiring insurance levels of payment from various payers. Witness their deaths.
So those folks I worked with, who did this, were they racists? I’m not saying that. I can’t see into the hearts of them — not then, and not with any level of magnification now. I know we were frustrated with the people in and around the treatment beds at times, thinking that what’s close and in front of us was the most significant thing in what was going on. No, no, we’d no doubt say, that thought wasn’t from the color of their skin, that was what they did, or were doing, or weren’t doing. From what some of my coworkers said talking among our tired selves, I could hear racism, hear pat rationalizations. I’d be hearing this from folks on a modest paycheck given the responsibility of a past that isn’t even the past as Faulkner put it. Our actions were mostly care — yes I saw kindness too, even when our philosophies and capacities could not fully appreciate the lives of our patients and their families. Perhaps it was good that we were too busy to think about that incongruity. Would our care have been better if we — speaking now of the whole group of us, including myself — were less ignorant and more broadly empathetic? That’s certain. But such wiser folks weren’t there then, we were. Imperfection trying to heal what could be treated directly.
A couple of years before this, a songwriter was 40 miles to the north of me, goofing off with his Canadian R&B band buddies in a big pink house. Sing heavenly muse, he sang these lines:
Remember when you’re out there
Tryin’ to heal the sick
That you must always
First forgive them.”
To this day, when someone, almost always a white person, concludes some confession to me with a variety of the phrase “You might think I’m a racist because I said that.” I reply “You said it, and you might well be to some degree. So, what are you going to do about that, and about the situation that is before us?” Ignorance and prejudice may not guide us well in trying to solve things, to remedy faulty systems — so what efforts can reduce that so we can see more clearly? But beyond that, even though our thoughts and prejudices can make us work blindly or in the wrong direction, the injured and endangered may be more in need of helpful actions than faultless inner wisdom.
Is writing and performing poetry a helpful action? Well, it’s not clearly so as is binding wounds or performing CPR. Poetry is in the calling-attention business, including part I normally celebrate here as “Other People’s Stories.” With that focus, I feel conflicted in writing so much within this series which touches on individual and sometimes trivial things in my life. What good will calling those things to attention do? Perhaps it helps make you aware of the “unimportant” things in your life, or the dependencies we have in others who have broadened or deadened what we’ve seen and felt. It can be someone else’s story that helps you see the contours of your own story.
And then too, poetry is full of little, trivial things that poets write down to stand for the ineffable larger things. Can our lives stand for the larger things? They do I believe, or they can, in ways we never fully know.
Once more a chord sheet if you’d like to sing this too.
The Emily Dickinson Poem
Emily Dickinson has many poems where the small things stand for larger, and then she has others using more philosophical language — yet I was still struck by the first line of today’s Emily Dickinson poem. Poems sometime seek to grab your attention right at the beginning, and this one does that with a trinity: “Color — Caste — Denomination.” These things rule so much of our lives. We may think we don’t let them rule us, but then we see the next person is using them to guide them — or perhaps guide them in how they view us. How can that not affect us. How many next persons can there be without us sometimes being one of those next persons, or yielding to the next person in our lives?
A couple of short notes on things to mention in the poem since we’re running too long. Who’s a “Circassian?” It’s a Middle-Eastern Muslim-believing ethnic group largely exiled from their homeland by the old Russian Empire. “Caste” is a word given by Portuguese colonialists to a hereditary hierarchy they found in South Asia, but it has taken on new usage in modern America to describe the intertwined prejudices and discriminations based on skin color, ethnic background, religion, and economic class. Both terms show a breath in Dickinson’s reading and education. Even though Dickinson’s America was approaching or undergoing a war around race-based chattel slavery when this poem was written, Dickinson seems to give religious prejudice equal or greater weight in the “minuter intuitions” her poem holds that we use to obscure our common humanity. Some scholars have pointed to this poem as a comment on Irish-Catholic immigration in Dickinson’s region at this time which led to a substantial reaction from the existing Protestant settlers.**
My musical setting for it is simple, just guitar and voice, as I’m somewhat rushed for time — and then wanting to use what gifted time I find available when I can record acoustic guitar with open microphones that would otherwise pickup other noise. Though that may have been a practical reason, I think the simplicity works for this hymn from Dickinson’s alternative hymnal. You can hear my performance with the audio player below, or with this alternative, a highlighted link that will open a new tab with an audio player.
*Not doubting those stories — see the next note as we see that connect to Emily Dickinson. And I haven’t mentioned anti-Semitism in its Jewish and Muslim varieties. Or the ugly anti-Chinese laws and hate. Oh, and First Nations? I could go on. And that’s just America. I know I have an international readership. Other countries have their own varieties of this, as we’ll see too in Dickinson’s poem. We had all kinds of supposed levels of intelligence and moral fitness that bedeviled us then and now.
**As I mentioned in one of my favorite posts on the roots of Emily Dickinson, her mid-19th century Amherst Massachusetts region had Afro-Americans, mostly in her time in servant class jobs. As she grew into adulthood, the Irish immigrant wave started to displace them, and anti-Irish sentiment ran high. Emily’s brother Austin, who she was close to, at least dabbled with the notorious anti-immigrant Know-Nothings. When young Austin was assigned to teach Irish immigrant kids in Boston, he found the job stressful. There’s a letter from his sister Emily where she jokes that it sounds so bad for him that he ought just as well to go and kill some of them, referencing in the same letter a notorious Boston murder case with anti-Catholic connections. Generously, I sense Emily the satirist there, but this kind of edge-lord humor, then as now, can just be “just joking” license as well. I think: Dickinson, for all her independence of mind, was part of systems, just as you and I are. Even Transcendentalism, the time’s new thought movement that sought to open up cultural enquiry, was not without racism and prejudice. Emerson’s “American Civilization” which I presented part of earlier here, and which is contemporary with this poem, contained portions with racist ethnography.
The most remarkable thing I can think of regarding Emily Dickinson and Irish-Catholic prejudice is that she ended up working elbow to elbow with Irish maids on her rural homestead that retained elements of its former farmhouse work-load carried with other poor first generation Irish immigrants as the hired help. The longest serving maid, Margaret “Maggie” Maher — did she recall Irish poetic bards and song? When Emily’s precious packets of her remarkable poems, overran a portion of a bureau drawer, Maggie offered up her immigrant’s trunk, in which she’d carried her all to America. When the Dickinsons decided they didn’t like the likeness in the oft-seen daguerreotype of Emily we rely on now, they tossed it out, and Maggie rescued it and kept it. Maggie worked beside Emily as she cared for her invalid mother during her prolonged illness, and she then cared for Emily as she lay dying. She was a loyal worker, but it’s said Emily told her to burn the poems. Then, she didn’t obey. When Mabel Loomis Todd was given the task of arranging the poems for posthumous publication, I read that Maggie did housework for Todd to free up her time for the editorial efforts.
And here’s the final thing, as final as death’s equivalence that today’s poem recounts. When Emily Dickinson died, she, this descendant of one of the town old-guard WASP leaders, asked that her coffin be carried by the Irish workers of her homestead. Aren’t you glad you read footnotes, patient reader? You can read a summary account I relied on for much of this in this academic paper available via JSTOR. It’s author Aife Murray expanded her research into this book, which I read a few years back.