To my eye, the two women featured just below–the vibrant young mother I photographed in Burkina Faso and the powerhouse poet Emily Dickinson in Amherst, Massachusetts–have qualities in common. Do you see what I see?
Although separated by oceans and ancestors and more than a century of time, both young women model exquisite posture that would serve anyone well, whether she is writing poetry in the seclusion of a candle-lit bedroom in New England, or washing and hanging clothes out to dry in sun-drenched West Africa.
Posture, poetry, power
Because I see poetry in healthy posture and find inspiration in the powerful poems of Emily Dickinson, I will connect some disparate dots and weigh in on the fundamental strengths of the poet’s posture, as captured in the 1847 daguerreotype of her at about age 16, just above.
Also, because some believe the woman in the patterned dress, below left, to be the poet at age 28 or 29, I will comment on her very similar posture, as well.
As an aside, because it makes a compelling case that the woman seated above left could be the reclusive poet, please take a look at this silent 30-second video created with advanced Photoshop layering techniques.
Beyond the facial similarities, another characteristic the two figures share is expansive and powerful posture. Postural similarities don’t hold up as an argument in favor of identifying the poet in her late twenties, however, simply because pretty much everyone sat well at that time.
Healthy posture, a 19th-century norm
- Emily’s chin angles down naturally and her neck is elongated. One indicator of this is that the tragus, the little bump in the middle of the external ear, is positioned above the tip of her nose. This has nothing to do with the length of Emily’s nose, it’s all about the angle of her head influencing the architecture of her neck.
- Neck lengthening is beneficial because it decompresses spinal disks and nerves and resets the baseline length of long back muscles, which reduces muscle pain.
- Seated with siblings, below left, Emily at age 8 or 9 models the same healthy posture as shown in the daguerreotype(s).
- In the daguerreotype(s) and the oil portrait, there’s a lot of separation between Emily’s shoulders and her ears. Her shoulders are relaxed and downward-sloping, which indicates that her rotator cuff muscles are not clenched and pulling her shoulders close into her body.
- Instead, her arms hang wide, as indicated by the significant gap between her body and her arms. And, though she holds flowers in front of her, there isn’t unnecessary strain anywhere in her body.
- Emily’s spine is wonderfully elongated, especially in the 1847 daguerreotype, and her body is both upright and relaxed. Because her shoulders remain back, her chest is open and available for optimal breathing.
- I can’t see Emily’s “behind,” but the physics of such “adequate, erect -” posture dictate what I call “the building-block stack,” and I have to deduce that her behind is in fact behind her and her pelvis well-settled.
- Finally, in both daguerreotypes, the line of the wrist is not broken and the hands are relaxed.
On a Columnar Self— and I Choose, just a Crown–
Because no post featuring Emily Dickinson would be complete without including some of her poetry, I’ll share two favorites.
“On a Columnar Self-” particularly resonates, because I recognize and identify with the subject. The poem reminds me of the time I first sat comfortably. The feeling was very much as if a window had just been opened. I also had the strong awareness that everything I needed was right there, and everything else life brought would be a bonus. I had no further needs because I felt so much delight and self-sufficiency. And that’s some of what Emily describes so compellingly in this poem:
On a Columnar Self—
How ample to rely
In Tumult—or Extremity—
How good the Certainty
That Lever cannot pry—
And Wedge cannot divide
Conviction—That Granitic Base—
Though none be on our side—
Suffice Us—for a Crowd—
And that Assembly—not far off
From furthest Spirit—God—
All the women shown above are regal and self-possessed. They set the bar for us to rise up to our best selves, and, in so doing, call up this second favorite Dickinson poem:
I’m ceded—I’ve stopped being Theirs—
The name They dropped upon my face
With water, in the country church
Is finished using, now,
And They can put it with my Dolls,
My childhood, and the string of spools,
I’ve finished threading—too—
Baptized, before, without the choice,
But this time, consciously, of Grace—
Unto supremest name—
Called to my Full—The Crescent dropped—
Existence’s whole Arc, filled up,
With one small Diadem.
My second Rank—too small the first—
Crowned—Crowing—on my Father’s breast—
A half unconscious Queen—
But this time—Adequate—Erect,
With Will to choose, or to reject,
And I choose, just a Crown—
Burkina Faso woman at communal well, Esther Gokhale
1847 daguerreotype of Emily Dickinson, William C. North, original held at Amherst College, Wikimedia Commons
Unverified daguerreotype ca 1859 that might show Emily Dickinson with Kate Scott Turner, Amherst College Archives and Special Collections, Wikimedia Commons
Head orientation and elongated neck illustration, Gokhale Method
A New Emily Dickinson Emerges, video by North 100, uploaded from YouTube
The Dickinson Children ca. 1840, O. A. Bullard, From the Dickinson Room at Houghton Library, Harvard, Wikimedia
Photo of postcard of Caryatid of the Erechtheion, Athens, Benaki Museum Photographic Archives, 1932-1939