Charm-i-days idea #2: Emily Dickinson poetry

A new illustrated collection of Emily Dickinson’s poetry is presumably for kids but would feather anyone’s bookshelf.

Isabelle Arsenault's Dickinson ... hope on shoulder

Isabelle Arsenault's Emily

Hope’s all the rage these days after our recent election, but Emily Dickinson got there first. One of our greatest poets, Dickinson’s reputation as America’s favorite quirky hermit sometimes overshadows her genius. This new collection, My Letter to the World and Other Poems, presents a few of her rightfully well-known poems with drop-dead gorgeous illustrations by Isabelle Arsenault.

While hope (that “thing with feathers”) is perched on Dickinson’s shoulder in the cover illustration, many of the poems she wrote describing her feelings toward death and isolation are featured in this collection as well, which is part of a series that pairs classic poems with contemporary illustrations. Arsenault’s paintings complement the poetry beautifully, and it’s hard to avoid words like “haunting” and “dreamy” when describing them.

So yes, the illustrations are haunting and dreamy, but they also contain a good bit of whimsy (you have to peer through the death imagery to get it, which is just as Dickinson would have liked it).

Taking a Dickinson seminar in grad school, I discovered that her initial poems were prettied up a bit by her first editor. It was nice of him to publish her and all (which isn’t quite how they say things in grad school), but by trying to make her what he deemed presentable, he put her work in packages that she didn’t really intend. Paired with these illustrations, the poems have another context entirely.

In fact, some of her verses seem even more riddle-like in this presentation. Illustrations that accompany one of the poems recast Dickinson in her trademark white dress as more of a tumbling teacup:  “I cannot live with You — / It would be Life — / And Life is over there — / Behind the Shelf.”

One of my favorites opens the book: “There’s a certain slant of light, / On winter afternoons – / That oppresses, like the heft / Of cathedral tunes.” The first time I read that poem as a child, I was astounded that someone understood my hidden melancholy. So even though the aforementioned “haunting”-ness may not make this book the very merriest of holiday gifts, the hope is there, too – and the smart kid on your list will appreciate the nuance.

My Letter to the World and Other Poems, (Visions in Poetry), $9.95

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