Gwendolyn and I were on vacation, staying in a cabin in the woods north of Green Bay. On the first morning we took Virgil for a walk on one of the trails around the lake, and at noon we sat down on a picnic bench in a pine grove. There was a hill slanting behind us, and we could see through the shade to the lake below. Virgil lay in the pine needles under the picnic table while we ate what I had packed for our lunch.

“I’ve been trying to remember this Emily Dickinson poem today,” she said, and recited:

I wonder if it weighs like mine

or has an easier size.

“Is that the first line?” I asked. “I don’t know it.”

“It might be. I think it has a few odd non-rhymes in it. Like ‘choose’ and ‘die’.”

“Why are you thinking about that?” I asked.

“The rhythm of our steps. Walking, your feet pounding. It is like a base line for a poem.”

I had been thinking about work while we walked. I got less anxious as I tired, which was why I had pushed for the hike. The meter of my thoughts was iambic: you Should…you Should…you Should.

I said:

I wonder did they bear it long

or did it just begin

“Yeah! That’s it,” she said. “Say more.”

“I can’t. But I do know that poem. The ‘it’ is grief.”

She turned away. It used to bother me when she did that. It used to make me panic, actually, when I knew she was thinking about what I said but she wouldn’t tell me what it was. I had trained myself to calm down. I was training myself to calm down.

She said, “Dickinson wrote about grief and pain so well that it is tempting to think she must have been transcribing, not creating. But transcription is a myth— it’s not the most grief-stricken people who express grief the best, it is the best poets who express interiority best. That’s what is so awesome about Dickinson— her poetry. Of course. But so many people act like it is her interiority, her emotional experience, that makes her exceptional. Which is sexist, usually.”

Gwendolyn seemed to be looking at the waterline while she talked. By the time she finished she was visibly angry. I was about to speak when she bent down to pet Virgil under the picnic table.

“That’s a good animal,” she said. “Oh buddy, you’ve got some goop in your eye. I’ll get that. Because I’m your buddy. I get the goop out of your eye cause I’m your buddy.”