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25 July 2022

Don't put up my Thread & Needle

Don't put up my Thread & Needle –
I'll begin to Sow
When the Birds begin to whistle –
Better stitches – so –

These were bent – my sight got crooked –
When my mind – is plain
I'll do seams – a Queen's endeavor
Would not blush to own –

Hems – too fine for Lady's tracing
To the sightless Knot –
Tucks – of dainty interspersion –
Like a dotted Dot –

Leave  my Needle in the furrow –
Where I put it down –
I can make the zigzag stitches
Straight – when I am strong –

Till then – dreaming I am sewing
Fetch the seam I missed –
Closer – so I – at my sleeping –
Still surmise I stitch –
                                                Fr681 (1863)  J617

One thing Emily Dickinson is not remembered for is her sewing. She had, however, at least a passing interest in sewing. Naturally she would. Sewing was considered a basic female household skill, a way for womenfolk to benefit the poor, and at the least, a harmless social activity.
    During her younger years Dickinson was a member of Amherst's Sewing Society, both a benevolent and a social group. She was, however, not an enthusiastic member. We know this from a letter she wrote a girlhood friend when Dickinson was twenty:
The sewing Society has commenced again – and held its first meeting last week – now all the poor will be helped – the cold warmed – the warm cooled – the hungry fed – the thirsty attended to – the ragged clothes – and this suffering – tumbled down world will be helped to it's feet again – which will be quite pleasant to all. I dont attend – notwithstanding my high approbation – which must puzzle the public exceedingly. I am already set down as one of those brands almost consumed – and my hardheartedness gets me many prayers.

                        - Letter to Jane Humphrey, January, 1850 

Dickinson's tone in this letter is lighthearted, flippant, even. Her idea that she might be considered 'one of those brands almost consumed' reminds me of old folks shaking their heads at twenty-somethings and muttering, 'Live fast, die young.' While 'brand' can mean both a persona and a product identifier (and, at the time she wrote this, the mark inflicted on slaves – although I do not believe there is a shadow of that meaning in the poem), Dickinson uses its earliest meaning here: a piece of burning wood. She is amused that by avoiding the sewing society she is marked as a fast liver, a fire brand with not much stick left. But at least that assessment gets her many prayers.

Notwithstanding her expressed lack of interest, sewing is central to this poem. One can read it as the speaker's straightforward bit of instruction to a friend or family member to keep her sewing things handy until she has recovered enough from some unnamed ailment and can see better. This reading makes sense biographically. Within a year of writing the poem, Dickinson was spending months in Boston under an ophthalmologist's care. The doctor severely restricted her time outdoors, her reading, and her writing. Dickinson herself referred to this period as being in jail, or in Siberia. She was terrified of not being able to read again.
from Historical Sewing:
Example of pintucks:
from Historical Sewing

    But the terror isn't evident in this poem. The speaker begins optimistically: her sewing materials shouldn't be put away because she'll be using them again come spring – and with better results. In the second stanza she explains that her vision was 'crooked' but when her mind is 'plain', that is, clearer, she will be able to sew seams a Queen would be proud of. She goes on: her Hems will be so neatly done that they can't be seen, can't be traced back to their tiny and nearly invisible knots. The 'Tucks' she mentions are pintucks, which are narrow little folds sewn into place. Those stitches will be smaller than dots – 'Like a dotted Dot'.
    The speaker specifies that her sewing needle should be left in the seam where she put it down. Although her stitches had become 'zigzag', she claims she can make them straight again.
   The last stanza suggests a real passion for sewing in that the speaker wants a piece she was working on, one with a missed seam, placed near her while she sleeps so she can at least dream that she is sewing. This does not sound like Jane Humphrey's pen pal!

So let's read the poem a different way! But let's keep the vision crisis, the dim light, the restricted reading and writing.

It is hard to miss the 'Sow' in the first stanza that early editors 'corrected' to 'Sew'. But 'Sow' is important. The first stanza ends with 'so' as if to reinforce the word. Additionally, Dickinson makes reference to the agricultural 'Sow' in the fourth stanza where she specifies her needle should be left in the 'furrow' where she had put it down as if it were a hoe in between rows of radishes. Perhaps she wants her pencil left in the pages where she left off so she can work on any 'zigzag' lines when she once again has the vision and strength.
    How else might sewing and sowing be alike? Poetry is the link. Poetry stitches words, thoughts, and images together. A good poet, like Dickinson!, sews with straight sight, writes with strength, dreams of lines and images, longs to write. More literally, Dickinson physically stitched groupings of her poetry into little booklets we call 'fascicles'. Agriculturally, poetry sows and plants seeds; and tends and prunes words until the poem is shapely and bears fruit.
   The weaving together of sewing, sowing, and poetry seems almost effortless. The pain is there to be seen but it isn't powerfully felt. We wait for spring, we are confident, like the speaker, that she will pick up where she left off, that even while sleeping she is still dreaming. The poem itself is an answer to the question of return. We see ourselves that, yes, her hems are too fine for Lady's tracings.

The poem alternates trochaic tetrameter with trochaic trimeter – not the iambic meters Dickinson more typically uses. I'm also struck by all the important words that begin with 'S': Sow, stitches, so, seams, sightless, straight, strong, sleeping, surmise, stitch. In the last stanza there is an extra abundance of 's' sounds: sewing, seam, missed, closer, so, sleeping, still, surmise, stitch. I think it is the smoothness of the 's' sounds that help the poem glide over the difficult time Dickinson alludes to. There are only two harsh-sounding words in the poem: crooked and zigzag. Yet their harshness is in regards to the stitches rather than the hopes.