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Editorial: Objects bring past alive

  • Steve Glazer and Cassandra Wilfert inspect a basket belonging to Emily Dickinson’s family somewhere between the 1870s to 1880s on July 25 during the Emily Dickinson: Person, Poetry, and Place workshop. Sarah Crosby


Thursday, August 10, 2017

Sometimes the deepest truths about people can be found, as the author Tim O’Brien put it, in “the things they carried.” Sometimes those truths can be glimpsed in the things they left behind.

Teachers from around the country enjoyed such glimpses recently in programs run by the Emily Dickinson Museum to provide a weeklong immersion in the writing, life and home environs of a great American poet and Amherst’s most famous daughter.

During the “Emily Dickinson: Person, Place and Poetry” sessions, the K-12 teachers had a chance to hear from Dickinson scholars, wander around the places where she quietly crafted her work and, perhaps most profoundly, to see hand-written drafts that would evolve into fully developed poems published largely after her death in 1886.

Dickinson scrawled many of those poems on whatever paper she had handy, including the reverse sides of old letters, ragged scraps of paper, envelopes and even chocolate wrappers, reports Gazette arts writer Steve Pfarrer.

With an eye to deepening their understanding in order to bring those insights back to their students, the teachers were able to track the revisions and shifts of meaning within individual works. In “As Summer into Autumn slips,” for instance, the teachers saw how a poem reflecting on the change of seasons also powerfully reflected the death of Dickinson’s father.

In the final stanza, the teachers learned, Dickinson had crossed out several words and substituted the emphatic word “shaft” for the gentler word “thought”:

So we evade the charge of Years

On one attempting shy

The Circumvention of the Shaft

Of Life’s Declivity

There is, of course, no escaping the “charge of Years.” But programs like this — funded with the kind of National Endowment for the Humanities grant that some fear might fall to a Trump administration budget axe — help keep the lights of the past shining toward our present awareness.

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Another window into things left behind comes courtesy of Linda Jane, a 55-year-old Massachusetts trucker and photographer whose images of abandoned places provide richly textured glimpses of past lives that remain, through abandoned objects, somehow present.

Jane’s exhibit at Amherst Town Hall is entitled “Echoes of the Past: Abandoned Photography” and includes images ranging from the toys, shoes and suitcases of a long-shuttered children’s asylum to an old movie house to a car body left to moulder in a field, a tree growing where its engine once roared.

“I’ve always been interested in these kinds of places, the sense of mystery behind them,” Jane told Pfarrer in a phone interview (safety note: she used a headset) from the cab of her truck.

The color images are hauntingly composed and have a dreamline, painterly quality, what Pfarrer calls “a sort of Norman Rockwell-in-the-junkyard look.” Jane says she tinkers with the tone and colors of some pictures. “I don’t like to shoot with any grit in the picture, but I sometimes put grit in.”

In a way, her images operate like memory, using objects to evoke the people who once handled and lived among them, imbuing the scenes with color and feeling and, perhaps, a simple truth.