Imagine the astonishment of Lavinia Dickinson when she opened a cherry cabinet in 1886 to discover hundreds of poems by her late sister, Emily. A family friend described the unexpected treasures, “written on backs of brown-paper bags or of discarded bills, programs, and invitations; on tiny scraps of stationery pinned together; on leaves torn from old notebooks. . . on mildewed subscription blanks, or on. . . drug-store bargain flyers. There are pink scraps, blue and yellow scraps, one of them a wrapper of Chocolat Meunier.” Of course, it is the poems’ themes—often flowers, insects, light, weather, or birds—that make Emily Dickinson the favorite poet of so many nature lovers.
Nearly 70 years later, assemblage artist Joseph Cornell re-discovered Dickinson for himself, arranging a Chocolate Meunier wrapper in each of eight boxes depicting the poet as an absent songbird. Literary critic Christopher Benfey particularly admires Cornell’s haunting 1953 Toward the Blue Peninsula (for Emily Dickinson), saying “In its visionary minimalism, the white box with its central blue window sums up a whole cluster of themes that Cornell associated with Dickinson: birds and prisons, the transitory rooms of hotels and decrepit mansions, the starlit sky and the escape and the refuge provided by the voyaging imagination. Toward a Blue Peninsula is at once a deeply personal response to ‘the Dickinson experience’ as well as the single most trenchant interpretive response, in all of American art, to the meaning of her life and work.”
I happened upon Benfey’s delectable, original book, A Summer of Hummingbirds, at the library last week. Far behind in life and work, my reading card was already full, but I couldn’t pass by Benfrey’s subtitle: “Love, Art, and Scandal in the Intersecting Worlds of Emily Dickinson, Mark Twain, Harriet Beecher Stowe, and Martin Johnson Heade.” Says Benfey, “The book had its origins in a confluence of hummingbirds,” when Emily Dickinson gave a poem about hummingbirds to the young protégé of hummingbird painter, Martin Johnson Heade. The poem’s image of a hummingbird’s flight, its “route of evanescence”, flits through the volume, helping to connect the many biographical, cultural, literary, and artistic threads that make this the perfect book to read in the sunshine beside the cardinal flowers.
Though I’d never heard of it before, the book has been widely praised. A Chicago Tribune critic says, “Many will find the narrative in "A Summer of Hummingbirds" to be as dartingly peripatetic as the avian of its title. In part this is because Benfey is chasing an abstract concept, the emergence of a new mind-set after the Civil War, and he finds evidence of it in widely disparate places.” Benfey explains his focus on “this informal cult of hummingbirds” that captivated Dickinson, Head, Stowe, and so many others this way: “. . . . Americans during and after the Civil War gradually left behind a static view of existence, a trust in fixed arrangements and hierarchies. In science and in art, in religion and in love, they came to see a new dynamism and movement in their lives, a brave new world of instability and evanescence. This dynamism, in all aspects of life, found perfect expression in the hummingbird.”
The book was also featured on NPR in its series, Summer Books to Feed Your Literary Addiction. You can even hear the author read Dickinson’s “route of evanescence” poem and a chapter from the book. But be forewarned—finishing this volume will exponentially increase the to-be-read stack by your bedside. Benfey’s deft depictions of cross-pollinations between artists, from Lord Byron to Cornell, left me aching to read more of all their works. There is less about the birds that inspired such devotion than I would have wished, and nowhere does Benfey address the hummingbird in the room—as wild populations and habitats decline, where will future artist find such wild inspiration? Critics and others who dwell apart from the natural world would do well to keep in mind another poem of Dickinson’s which reflects on the indifference of nature to the dead—even those who once found their evanescent muses on the wing. . . .
Safe in their alabaster chambers,
Untouched by morning
And untouched by noon,
Sleep the meek members of the Resurrection,
Rafter of satin, and roof of stone.
Light laughs the breeze
In her castle of sunshine,
Bubbles the bee in a stolid ear,
Pipe the sweet birds in ignorant cadences:
Ah, what sagacity perished here!
Grand go the years in the crescent above them;
Worlds scoop their arcs, and firmaments row,
Diadems drop and Doges surrender,
Soundless as dots on a disk of snow.