For a Mold Attack, Read Dickinson

In what has been an abnormally wet fall (it all began with Hurricane Irene postponing the first day of classes), our campus has been hit with a terrible mold problem—so bad, in fact, that we’ve had to close down two dormitories and ship 350 students, most of them freshmen, to motels all over the county.  Campus life has been upended, and we’re being told that it will take from two to five weeks to rewrap pipes, replace ceiling tiles, clean mattresses, and all the rest. The College’s contingency fund will take a big hit.

Elaborate systems have been rolled into place, including medical counseling, transportation, special meal plans, special security at the motels, postponed exams, and library rooms freed up for on-campus study. The students have also been given a poem.

Our president Joe Urgo, an English professor, included the following Emily Dickinson lyric in the e-mail announcement he sent out:

Water, is taught by thirst.
Land — by the Oceans passed.
Transport — by throe —
Peace — by its battles told —
Love, by Memorial Mould —
Birds, by the Snow.

The logic of the poem is clear: we don’t know something until, experiencing the opposite, we desire it. Water we know by having been thirsty, peace by having been at war, birds by having longed for the spring that brings them.

So how is “Memorial Mould” the opposite of love? I’m getting to know more about mold that I ever thought I would and am struck by how it can become “systemic,” spreading behind the walls wherever it is damp and infesting an entire building. It festers out of sight when it is not attended to. It is not unlike people who pull into themselves (trapped in memories?) and become toxic.

All of the images in the poem point to the struggles of lonely people—they are parched, they are lost at sea, we are in the throes of life’s difficulties, they are at war, they are festering, they are cold and numb.

So maybe love is the sunshine that pulls us out of ourselves and into communion with others. It is the cool glass of water, the sight of land, the transport of delight, the deep feeling of peace, the birdsongs of spring.

The poem conveys what I communicated in a more roundabout way to my classes on Friday.  I was hearing dire predictions of lawsuits and departures for other schools. I pointed out to them that they have the opportunity to bond in new and powerful ways. Adversity, I noted, can be a spur to better things.

If I had known of the Dickinson poem at the time, I would have said that community is taught by dispersal.

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  • farida

    I hope the mold situation is happily resolved with everyone’s helath intact.

    I really like the Dickinson poem and appreciate the analogy. I agree with the contrast bewteen love and “memorial mould”, and yet I can’t help but feel there is a sense of lonliness being cast in a pejorative light in your analysis. I appreciate your intent but I just wanted to add the final part of a poem titled Dear Lonely Animal by Oni Buchanan. I’m reflecting on both your post and the Buchanan poem:

    “I can’t sing with the other animals. Because it’s
    hard to know what an animal will do when it
    stops singing. It’s complicated, you know, it’s just


    Robin, I noticed Carl mentioning an idea of teaching the Bible as Literature in a comment on another post and I thought you both might enjoy this link

  • Powerful image, thanks for sparking good thoughts. (once again)

  • farida

    Just wanted to say I didn’t mean “pejorative”. I meant something more like “othering” the idea of lonliness or lonely people. Something like that.Still reflecting.

  • Robin, I’m so sorry your school is going through this rough time. I can only imagine. Gosh, what mess.

    I’m kind of leery of going down my own basement. I was flooded during Irene and later during the Tropical Storm. The water was pumped out, but I fear it’s going to need more than that. Mold is insidious.

    Love the analogy of the poem. Dickinson appears to have covered all of life’s ups and downs (well, you can’t have an ‘up’ without a ‘down’) though she rarely left her home, if at all. She was an amazing woman.

    I hope everything goes smoothly and the school is up and running really soon.

  • Pingback: Mold Causing Problems? Bring in a Ship()

  • Robin Bates

    I wonder if one could make a distinction between loneliness and being alone, Farida. My sense is that Dickinson often liked being alone but that she chafed against her loneliness, feeling that it took some kind of psychological toll. (The line “My life was like a loaded gun” comes to mind.) I can’t think of many poets who did so much with their loneliness and longings, however. Dickinson has written some of the most passionate poems in American literature.

    Yvette, good luck with your mold. It sounds like it will need more than poetry, even good poetry.

  • farida

    Glad you understood, Robin. I don’t really know a lot about Dickinson so maybe ‘ll see if I can find out some more. I actually don’t think I’ve ever read a biography on a writer’s life. A huge omission in my reading life.


  • Literature is as vital to our lives as food and shelter. Stories and poems help us work through the challenges we face, from everyday irritations to loneliness, heartache, and death. Literature is meant to mix it up with life. This website explores how it does so.

    Please feel free to e-mail me [rrbates (at) smcm (dot) edu]. I would be honored to hear your thoughts and questions about literature.

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