Letting go of the familiar isn’t easy. It’s far more comfortable to cling to whatever we have than to move on, reach for something else. I think that’s what Dickinson is getting at here. Our lives are a series of separations, losses, partings, all in preparation or foreshadowing of that one final loss, the one that will change everything forever.
This is a tiny little gem of a poem, and I adore it. I had never encountered it before. In its concision is its brilliance, and every facet sparkles. “The show is not the show” has the ring of a paradox and an aphorism in one. It is not the ostensible show that the speaker is interested in, but the informal, unintentional show that is human behavior. She watches the watchers. Her singular “neighbor” becomes a menagerie–such is the infinite possibility within a single soul. In the penultimate line, the speaker breaks with the meter of the rest of the poem to hit hard with just two words of equal emphasis–“fair play”–which is a fantastic play (haha) on the word “play”. Dickinson begins with difference and contradiction: “the show is not the show,” the watcher becomes the watched, the neighbor and she have different motivations and aims. But the poem ends, in its very last line, by uniting the opposites. Both, after all, are there for the same ultimate purpose–“to see.”
A few days ago, going through shelves and shelves of books, I ran across my copy of a script from a college production of Come Slowly, Eden, a play about the life and poetry of Emily Dickinson. It is a weird, magical, disorienting experience to look at myself, my notes, from a distance of a couple decades–and then to read this poem. The show is not the show–or not always in the ways we expect it to be.