Poets of Franklin County: The houses that Emily Dickinson built
GREENFIELD (August 2, 2014) — Two jars offer "Easy" and "Harder" words for aspiring poets to use in creating poems during Saturday's garden party at Greenfield poet Mary Clare Powell's home on Silver Street. Recorder/Trish Crapo
GREENFIELD (August 2, 2014) — Lilly Deviolet, 10, and friend Aneesa Brewer, 9, both of Greenfield, read Emily Dickinson poems that were suspended in a dangling mobile from a tree during Saturday's garden party to open Mary Clare Powell's new Emily Dickinson "rest stop" on Silver Street in Greenfield. Recorder/Trish Crapo
GREENFIELD (August 2, 2014) — Greenfield poet Mary Clare Powell and partner Violet Walker speak to an audience of about 50-60 people gathered to commemorate the opening of the couple's Emily Dickinson "rest stop" on Silver Street in Greenfield. Recorder/Trish Crapo
GREENFIELD (August 2, 2014) — Poems created by Lilly Deviolet, 10, and friend Aneesa Brewer, 9, are among those created from slips of paper that featured words and phrases from Emily Dickinson poems and other sources. The poem writing activity delighted participants of all ages. Recorder/Trish Crapo
Walk or drive down Silver Street near Greenfield High School and you’ll see that three new houses have cropped up on what used to be a wide, grassy lawn. No, it’s not a sudden housing boom but an art installation hosted by Greenfield poet Mary Clare Powell and her partner Violet Walker at 170 Silver St.
The “houses” are actually small representations — 7 feet long, 4 feet wide and 8 feet tall — built from plywood and painted white, their walls and roofs stenciled in large black letters with phrases from Emily Dickinson’s work. Viewers must walk around the houses to read the phrases and may not come upon them in the order they appear in Dickinson’s poems, creating an interesting disorientation until the words begin to fall into place in the reader’s mind.
The three newly installed structures in Greenfield are just a sampling of 40 houses that Peter Krasznekewicz built as part of “The Little White House Project: Dwell in Possibility,” an art installation he created when he was a Deerfield Academy student in 2011. Houses from Krasznekewicz’s project were installed on the lawns at Deerfield Academy in 2011 and at locations in Amherst, including The Homestead, Emily Dickinson’s home, now a museum, in the spring of 2012.
Powell and Walker envision their installation as a poetry “rest stop” along Silver Street. Though dogs are not allowed on the lawn, people are invited to come in off the sidewalk and view the houses, or borrow books from a lending library the couple created from a repurposed glass aquarium they purchased at a tag sale.
“Take one, bring one,” a sign taped to the aquarium invites.
At a garden party held to commemorate the rest stop’s opening in early August, people helped themselves to refreshments or viewed an exhibit of paintings that local artist Sandy Denis has painted in response to Dickinson poems. Music wafted through the yard, provided by David Sands on guitar and Gus Hollingsworth on accordion. From time to time, Walker sat in, playing a musical saw that produced plaintive melodies, sounding not unlike a woman singing.
For the festivities, the couple had also devised a mobile, using a Hula-Hoop, from which Dickinson poems — printed on waterproofed cards — dangled in the breeze. Lilly Clare Deviolet, 10, and her friend Aneesa Brewer, 9, took hold of the fluttering poems and studied them.
Deviolet, who is Powell’s granddaughter, said that she had read Dickinson’s poems before but it was the first time Brewer had encountered them.
“This is cool,” Brewer said, as she read aloud a poem that began, “My friend must be a Bird — Because it flies!”
The girls said that they had enjoyed another activity set up as part of the day’s festivities: writing poems at a table set up at the back of the garden. They pointed out where they had tacked their poems side by side among others displayed on boards propped up under the tree.
At the poem-writing table, two glass bowls held slips of paper with typewritten words and phrases culled from Dickinson’s work and other sources. Aspiring poets could choose from either bowl — one marked “Easy Words,” the other, “Harder Words.” Other than those directions, there were really no rules. Some people used only phrases from the bowls, creating spare, imagistic lines. Others used the lines from the bowls as starting points, freely filling in their own words between them.
“I’m not a poet,” said Reba Rasbury of Greenfield, adding that she was not going to over think her first attempt at combining the phrases from the bowls to create a poem. She read the poem to Caryln Saltman of Turners Falls.
“This is good,” she said, smiling, and rose to post her poem on the communal boards.
A long journey
“It’s been a long journey with the houses,” Powell told a gathering of 50 to 60 people. Friends had chipped in to purchase the three houses as a Christmas present for her, Powell told the audience. She and a friend had repainted them to freshen them up, keeping the original phrase on one of the houses but choosing new ones for the other two.
One of the phrases Powell chose was the first line from Dickinson’s poem numbered 690: “Forever is composed of Nows.”
“I’m trying to learn in my own life that every moment is precious,” Powell told the audience. “That may the hardest thing I’ve ever tried to learn.”
Another phrase Powell chose was the first line of poem 677: “To be alive — is Power.”
The phrase that Powell decided to keep from Krasznekewicz’s choices was a line from a condolence letter that Dickinson wrote to her cousin, the Rev. Perez Cowan, on the occasion of his sister’s death.
“I know there is no pang like that for those we love, nor any leisure like the one they leave so closed behind them, but Dying is a wild Night and a new Road,” Dickinson wrote. Krasznekewicz had excerpted this last phrase to stencil on his little house.
Walker said that the phrase had caused some consternation. Shortly after the houses were installed, Walker received a phone call from a woman who said that she and three other women had driven by and seen the words “Dying is a wild Night,” from Silver Street. One of the women in the car had recently lost a son to suicide, the caller informed Walker, and, seeing the phrase, she put her face in her hands and began to sob.
Out of respect for the caller and her friend, Powell and Walker decided to turn the house so that only the phrase “a new road” was visible from Silver Street. Walker was sorry that the phrase had offended anyone, yet found it compelling that words that Dickinson wrote over a century ago had the power to move someone today.
At the event, it was clear that others remain moved as well. Powell spoke enthusiastically of Dickinson’s work, calling her, “inexhaustible.” Powell said that she had presented some of Dickinson’s poems at a panel entitled “Badass Women Poets” at this year’s Massachusetts Poetry Festival held in Salem.
“She was a virgin in the traditional sense of the word,” Powell said of Dickinson, “in the sense that she is a woman who is for herself first, not for others.”
Margaret Freeman, a founder of the Emily Dickinson Society who leads a monthly reading circle on Dickinson at her home in Heath, took her turn at the mic wearing a T-shirt imprinted with a Dickinson poem. The reading circle, which meets the second Friday of every month, was celebrating its 10th anniversary this year, Freeman said.
Off the shelf and out of the box
“Mary Clare always gets the poetry off the shelf,” Kat Good-Schiff of Easthampton said admiringly of Powell. Good-Schiff, along with several of the others gathered at the event, is in a writing group with Powell. “She gets it off the shelf, off the page, out of the box.”
Powell’s last poetry event was held at a pool, Good-Schiff pointed out, referring to the reading Powell held at the Greenfield YMCA in 2013 to launch “Box of Water,” a collection of poems that Powell published not as a traditional book but instead printed on individual cards and sold in a box.
“She’s so generous,” Good-Schiff added. “These houses are not just for her but for everybody.”
Trish Crapo is a writer and photographer who lives in Leyden. She is always looking for Franklin County poets with recent publications or interesting projects to interview for her column. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.