Lee Upton

Winner of the The Writer Magazine/Emily Dickinson Award in 2005

Dickinson's Day Lilies

 

"She came to me with two day lilies which she put in a sort of childlike way into my hand,...[B]ut she talked soon & thenceforward continuously—..."
—Higginson on Dickinson

Humility wasn't enough, littleness was not low enough;
the lilies she brought might be firebrands,
globes of incense, torches clapping the air.
She listened to the god of miniatures inside her
and grasped two branding irons,
two distillates of loons.
She could not let herself tilt
the room in any direction today, and so
she had considered holding two antlers, two thistles,
two mantles of thorns,
she had considered dangling at her neck
a whalebone
or a diagram of the macula like a family
crest to remind herself:
Breathe in,
do not roar.
The lion in the parlor is playing the lily bearer
with her two jars of bloody milk,
her two bladders of sun soot—
which she can hardly wait to pour
into Higginson's ear.
Only later must she wonder:
Who saw in me a specimen?
But what had she given away
but her two broken, golden-necked swans,
hissing, fragrance-less.
They weren't notched into her own white paper quite yet.
They weren't what would make her.
line

Mark Doty on Lee Upton

In "Dickinson's Day-Lilies," Lee Upton does an extraordinarily difficult thing, illuminating a scene in the great poet's biography: the moment just before Higginson appears, the longed-for mentor and ally who will prove, really, to be neither. Dickinson is choosing a gift of flowers to welcome him, but she already understands the scale of her own imagination beside that of the man she wishes could be her teacher. She knows she is far more ferocious, intellectually and emotionally, than he'll ever be. She is, in the strange and beautiful metaphoric terms of this poem, "The lion in the parlor/...playing the lily bearer/ with her two jars of bloody milk,/ her two bladders of sun soot—". Lee Upton's poem forges a lush, memorable chain of figures for the gift of these blazing flowers, and for the fiery, defiant energy of the poet finding whatever she needs in the world for the forging of her art.

Go Back to Annual Awards Winners' Listing