Prose

A Thing with Feathers: Part 2

3 April 2019

She lives on a moor in the north. She lives alone.
[Spring] opens like a blade there.
Anne Carson, ‘The Glass Essay’

1.

So. Emily Dickinson—who may not resemble Emily Dickinson—is closing her eyes in the garret she rents from her boss. We agree there’s nothing much in her room. A bed. A chest of drawers and facsimile crucifix. A chair—the dress she arrived in slumps over its back, caked in sewage. She’s finished one more day supervising the Black Rose anarchist bookstore/co-op. Her passive perception is 20; nothing escapes her. Her charisma is 18. All outcomes in D&D take the form of numbers, added to numbers. Eighteen is a +4 to all rolls related to persuasion, intimidation. It helps her to hawk the fantasy equivalent of Kropotkin and Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak to any borrowers. As she fragments into sleep, the DM asks: does she still hope she’ll wake up back in Massachusetts? I mean, hope is a thing with feathers, right? Also, I don’t know if it counts as hope when you’re in a situation your brain can’t get. If you don’t get the rules, might as well hope something happens?

Each of us gives the DM our character sheets: our states, spells, proficiencies. Moreover, our bonds, ideals, and flaws. D&D has these listed out and itemised, as per the background you choose for your person. Our DM sits us down privately and asks what our characters cherish, believe and what can be inferred from this, positively, negatively etc. Out of these, the DM builds what they call their “knives”. A way—if not to hurt—then to induce character development.

Emily Dickinson is dreaming. She is on stage somewhere, like a ventriloquist. She can’t make sense of the crowd. She begins to panic, remembers travelling circuses, Barnum and Bailey. Did Barnum and Bailey exist when Emily was alive? the DM asks. I don’t know. Emily gets the impression she is being asked to read, but can’t speak. She can only garble and fragment lines of poems she’s written, and ones she’s admired: No coward soul- I see- I’ve known a- like a tent- its shining- rip of nail- to signalise- O God- North America.

Emily Dickinson wakes up, still in Sigil.

2.

Gondal is a city and municipality in the Rajkot district of the Indian state of Gujarat. Gondal state was one of the eight first class princely states of Kathiawar Agency, Bombay Presidency in British India. Ruled by a Hindu Rajput dynasty of the Jadeja clan, the capital of the state was Gondal town.

At some point in 2018, possibly, a group of poets is holding a séance at Hares and Hyenas, a beautiful queer bookstore. The event is called “Dramatis Personae”, possibly after Robert Browning. There are still photos on Facebook. You- there, now, dreaming- can’t remember how long it went: you think you left before it was over. Memory is past hurting now, but it still leaves furrowed, blank nails in your head. In this given photo, for example, everyone who took part is posing. Spoken word artists around Melbourne, rigid in a circle, to channel the ghosts of canonical poets. Everyone selected to channel knows and likes each other, much as you would expect their spirits to, in heaven. Everyone portrays the dead as close to their images as possible, as though they were wax-figurines. Your portray your assigned gender, except for one man as Dorothy Parker, who wears a bonnet and speaks waspishly.  

A woman is Edgar Allan Poe: pencilled-on moustache, black longcoat, eyeshadow and a deep red scarf; she tears up The Raven, almost roaring the last stanza. Her partner is dressed as Lord Byron as he died in the Greek war of independence. Beside them, Hugo Ball, in a metal bird costume he wore at Club Voltaire performing Dadaist soundscapes during the Great War. He looks like a tube of whipped cream wearing a Superman cape. One of them bookends their set by saying: No great man lives in vain. The history of the world is but the biography of… before the mic cuts.

The first English settlement in the Western Presidency was begun in 1618 at Surat in present-day Gujarat, when the East India Company established a factory, protected by a charter obtained from the Mughal Emperor Jahangir.

In 1661 Bombay was ceded to the Kingdom of England as part of the dowry of the infanta Catherine of Braganza on her marriage to King Charles II. So lightly was the acquisition esteemed in England, and so unsuccessful was the administration of the crown officers, that in 1668 Bombay was transferred to the East India Company for an annual payment of £10.

The man impersonating Arthur Rimbaud on the right of the image, in a waistcoat and cravat, performs the poems in a Hercule Poirot-eque voice, emphasising as a preface that we don’t know if in fact he went into the slave trade after he ceased writing in his 20’s. There’s no reliable biography from that time, he gurns in his outrageous accent. In the centre of the picture, in a handstitched gown, with pre-Victorian tresses, is Emily Brontë.

The most upscale residential areas in Gondal are Bhojrajpara, Kailashbag and Radha-Krishna Nagar, near to the bus station and the main market. Gardens and parks include Tulsi Baugh and Ashapura.

The schools in Gondal include St. Mary’s School, Vidhya mandir, Patel Boarding, Akshar Purshotam Swami Narayan High School, and Highway Gurukul. Monghiba High school is one of the oldest girls’ schools in the region.

The largest factors in the economy of Gondal are oil mills and marketing yards. Gondal is the largest producer of ground nut oil in Gujarat. The marketing yard is one of the biggest in the Kathiawar region. Gondal is growing in the cotton trade with the development of many ginning and pressing industries.

Unlike everyone else, who channel their poets unproblematically, Emily is aware of her death. She chats amiably on stage about cohabiting with the other poets: she and her sisters have Christopher Marlowe and William Burroughs for tea. This is said somewhat exasperatedly; William Burroughs has just removed the bright orange cod-piece he wore for his set; he had spent the majority of time poring over the details of his accidental murder of his wife. She reminisces about the tuberculosis that killed her, fondly. How she and Anne had kept up their games in their imaginary world, how—quoting one of her biographers—they remain “in the very closest sympathy which never had any interruption”. She quotes again: “the heroes … tended to resemble the popular image of the Scottish Highlander, a sort of British version of the ‘noble savage’: romantic outlaws capable of more nobility, passion, and bravery than the denizens of ‘civilization’”.

Gondal has a history of art and literature. It is the birthplace of poets, singers and artists like Pankaj Udhas, Manhar Udhas, Nirmal Udhas, Dhumaketu, Makarand Dave, Jay Vasavada, Sairam Dave, Vipul Mangukiya and Atul Pandya.[17][18] The first Gujarati dictionary was written by noted educationalists/authors (like Shri Champaklal Vyas) in Gondal with the financial support of Sir Bhagvatsighji Maharaj.

Bhagvatsingh improved the regional livestock through modern animal husbandry, built dams and irrigation networks and introduced sewerage, plumbing, rail systems, telegraphs, telephone cables and electricity, also becoming  a champion for women’s rights.

Bhagvatsingh’s four surviving sons were all educated abroad.

We run a support group for other poets dead of tuberculosis, she says: Keats, Poe, Elizabeth Barret/Browing, Robert Burns, who is also performing here. Part of the therapy—she laughs dryly—is figuring out from whence someone has become unstuck, adjusting to the mores of the past and future. It’s a two-way deal, for her and her co-sufferers. To conclude her set, she reads “No Coward Soul is Mine”, a poem she says a biographer wrote was “probably as an answer to the violation of her privacy and her own transformation into a published writer.”

She continues quoting: “Despite what my sister Charlotte may have said, it was not my last poem.” Emily smiles. I’ll have to speak to Charlotte one of these days about that.

The lights come up after this for a break, and the photo is taken.


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