Blackbirdan online journal of literature and the artsSpring 2022  Vol.21  No. 1
an online journal of literature and the arts
 print preview

Emily Dickinson’s Maid Remembers
Margaret (Maggie) Maher (1841–1924), an Irish domestic,
worked in the Dickinson household for three decades.

I churned the butter for the bread she made.
I filled the lamps she lit, then wiped away the soot.
Sometimes she even wrote the way I spoke—English balanced
on my Irish tongue—“Your letter this wet evening was a great
treat to me”—my words woven with hers, tucked
between dashes until I could no longer tell the difference.

Me in the kitchen, her in the pantry, we talked
as Girls do—Fond and late, though we were not girls
and I knew more of her than she ever did of me,
my memories of Ireland dissolving like ink in dishwater
or slops, Tipperary County, Ireland, the Mountain
of Women all places it seemed I had dreamed.

Emily lost herself in a reverie of making—
corn cakes, gingerbread, wine jelly molded in patterns
of roses or wheat—paper and pencil beside
the pastry board, her muse domestic but never small,
inspiration a cloud of flour in her hands, then a white wing—
her favorite verbs transformative: stir, sift, dissolve.

She wrote on scraps of anything—invitations, candy
wrappers, circulars, envelopes, lists. As the bread rose,
so did the phrases, words jotted like recipes—to make
a prairie it takes a clover and one bee equal to the rice cake
she made for company, nothing too small for that hot-as-coal
-in-the-stove attention, no boundary line to art.

If you look for me in her letters, you’ll only see a glimpse—
Maggiewarm and wild and mighty,
Maggiegood and noisy, the North Wind of the Family,
but Sweets without a Salt would at the last cloy.
I saved her from housework.
I brought her the world.

When her cherry bureau filled with poems—drafts
held together with straight pins like squares for a quilt—
I offered the trunk I’d brought from Ireland as storage
for the ones she’d finished and sewn into little books.
She made me promise to destroy them when she died.
Did she ask knowing I would disobey her?

Her sister burned her letters as requested.
But those poems were the world where we’d lived,
that green and yellow kitchen—a gift shop now—
a place where dreams were couriers, her words
about them ferocious, combustible, too alive to unsay.
I could not bring myself to do it.

I saved the only picture of her too—
that daguerreotype one no one liked,
but by which the world now knows her.
I couldn’t give up that direct gaze, like the Sherry
in the Glass, the severe part in the chestnut hair,
the velvet ribbon crossed each day at her throat.

When her world went dark that day as she
made a loaf cake with [me], I was not afraid,
though it was two years till the coachman kindly stopped,
her dying not Eternity, but a hard road we took together till
she was Called Back, her stubby pencil falling from her hand.
I wiped her brow with cool cloths, changed the stinking,

sweat-soaked batiste gown, bathed the narrow, cinnamon-
freckled body no man had wed, listening until the end
for what she did and did not say, her way ever slant
and indirection. Thirty years, I worked in that house,
seventeen beside her. California beckoning, I never
meant to stay. But a community of feeling

sprang up between us, the Invisible grown neighborly.
There’s Ransom in a voice, she said once, as I know
there’s voltage in a charge. The busy wicks our lives
were made the whole house bright. But it’s the kitchen
I remember, door open on her garden, how all our
summer afternoons to me have had so many wings.  

The italicized words are from Emily Dickinson's poems and letters. Much of the information about Margaret Maher's life and details of the Dickinson household, as well as some of the language in the poem, are taken from Aífe Murray's wonderful book, Maid as Muse: How Servants Changed Emily Dickinson's Life and Language.

return to top