Letter to Susan Dickinson from Thomas Dwight Gilbert, Grand Haven, Mich., Sept. 7, 1857, Presaging the Disinterment of Bodies
How lonely it feels now that you and Austin have gone back to Amherst after your season here! I still hope you can convince your husband to take up the challenge of seizing opportunities that exist in Michigan and lands further west. I understand it would be difficult now that your father-in-law has built you such an elegant residence there. However, you have seen the rafts of logs that arrive daily and the mills in action, the ships that ferry goods to Chicago and from there down the Mississippi, so you are aware of the possibilities. I am not surprised by the strength of Emily’s emotion at the prospect your sojourn could lead to a permanent change. I fear Emily’s attachment to you might not be entirely healthy, as it seems to transcend the bounds of feeling that normally accompany the relationship she has with you by virtue of your marriage to her brother. I know you must maintain good relations, but be careful – she is volatile person, all the more so for being reclusive.
Strangely, for the past several days now I have been unable to free myself of the vision of Emily here in the frontier (which it is still more of than a state), freed of her self-imposed cloister. I can’t imagine her being impressed by the newly constructed bank or even the beauty of our inland sea, but the cemetery—have you written to her of it? Surely she would find inspiration in the close proximity of a burial ground to the heart of a village. As you yourself noted, it should be designated as the site for a park or a commons. The other day there was a funeral for a half-Indian trapper and the hymns the mourners sang at the graveside were clearly audible downtown where workers are building a new church. Would she not have loved that? The lack of perfection is so great that I cannot help but believe she would be more comfortable here mingling in this haphazard congregation.
I am finally near the point of living in Grand Rapids full time. As you know, my business interests have caused me to be unsettled between the two towns. Although modest by Massachusetts standards, Grand Rapids provides more diversions and they keep their dead at a more respectable distance. Maybe paradise is being constructed in Grand Haven, or else a refuge for poets since they are more comfortable in the presence of death than justice.
Give my love to Austin and poor Emily. She once sent me one of her poems, did I tell you? It engendered in me so great a combination of wonder and unease that I cannot but imagine your own turmoil having read many more of her verses, and being so infinitely more the object of her interest. Forgive the unkindness of my brevity, especially having touched upon these delicate topics, but the many rough details of life here demand that I now stop.
She settled for him, and he settled down—more or less. They settled in together in a farmhouse outside of town, which often left her stranded since they had only one vehicle. She had 911 on speed-dial, and the police compiled a record of the times they came and settled the bourbon-and-humidity fueled fights. Her best friend told her to hire a lawyer, file papers, fight for a settlement. By winter she knew how they felt—those settler-women who followed their men to new territory, seduced by the promise of a better life. The annual Settlers’ Day festival in town commemorated the nobility of their sacrifice: Bullshit, she thought, pulling back her hair and lighting a cigarette from a stove-top burner. She knew how it felt to look out over the prairie from a sod-roofed hut, as though you were already dead and buried, your gravestone tipped over and settled in the dirt, even your name eroded away.
Some of us with husbands and significant others obsessed with Civil War re-enactment decided to get authentic with mourning their absence. We organized ourselves into committees. I volunteered for Furniture and Accouterments since I collect antiques and know all the area store owners. Everyone chipped in $100 initially and we established dues. We soon collected enough horsehair furniture and yellowed doilies to furnish a living room, mine, since I’m an empty-nester with a restored 19th century house already open for the annual Parade of Homes tour. For the past year a small audience has perched on folding chairs and watched as we, stiff in whalebone corsets, receive news of Shiloh. We cry every Friday and Saturday night, and Sunday afternoon. Now our husbands pray to spend more time with us. Oh precious, oh darling, beat of my heart, we say, grow tired of dying and we’ll see.
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Marc J. Sheehan is the author of two poetry collections — Greatest Hits from New Issues Poetry & Prose and Vengeful Hymns from Ashland Poetry Press. His flash fiction piece, “The Dauphin,” was recently broadcast on “Weekend All Things Considered” as part of its Three-Minute Fiction series. Other flash fiction pieces have appeared in, or are forthcoming from, Passages North, Pithead Chapel, and others. He is Communications Officer at Ferris State University in Big Rapids, Michigan.