A Funeral in the Garden: Emily Dickinson and Courtney Barnett

“And when they all were seated,

A Service, like a Drum –
Kept beating – beating – till I thought
My mind was going numb.”
– Emily Dickinson, “I felt a Funeral, in my Brain” (340)

“Life’s getting hard in here,
So I do some gardening,
Anything to take my mind away from where it’s supposed to be.”

– Courtney Barnett, “Avant Gardener”

I thumbed through my slender anthology of Emily Dickinson poems on a lazy Sunday morning while my dusty record player crackled to the tune of Courtney Barnett’s A Sea of Split Peas. It was one of the first vinyl records that I had purchased since deciding to invest in a used turntable some years back. By some cosmic coincidence, the track “Avant Gardener” started playing in the background as I glossed over “I felt a Funeral, in my Brain” (340). I immediately recognized a few thematic connections between the Civil War-era poem and the contemporary indie rock song’s lyrics: Powerlessness and the limits of rationality in the face of a complete mental breakdown. I was struck by the similarities, and I paused to ensure that I was not projecting meaning erroneously. But, it makes perfect sense; neurosis is a pretty timeless experience, after all.

As one of my friends once put it, “Avant Gardener” is possibly the most calming song about having an anxiety attack. After waking up late on a typical Monday, Barnett resolves to do some gardening – as if to superimpose the appearance of order in her life. “I wanna grow tomatoes on the front steps,” she chimes. “Sunflowers, bean sprouts, sweet corn, and radishes.” Barnett’s deadpan is whimsical and endearing as she describes her cheerful burst of productivity leading to a chaotic ambulance ride after her breathing stops. (“The paramedic thinks I’m clever ‘cos I play guitar,” Barnett confesses. “I think she’s clever ‘cos she stops people dying.”) As the song meanders for three listless minutes, Barnett’s flowery lyricism grows denser and darker, ultimately ending with the singer acknowledging, “I’m not that good at breathing in” as gentle guitar chords fade out. We leave Barnett with a feeling that what is inevitable always happens. “Should’ve stayed in bed today,” she sighs, understanding that she cannot tame her panic disorder as though it were an unruly garden.

I think that Courtney Barnett would have enjoyed Emily Dickinson’s company if she stumbled into a time machine and hitched a ride to the writer’s wintry home in Amherst, Massachusetts. Both women harbor a clear affinity for unconventional wordplay, a tendency toward the odd, unexpected, and queer. A weirdo and a recluse exiled by mainstream society, they artfully decode the English language into something strange and dazzling. But, beyond these rather obvious and superficial similarities, the two women successfully capture the trial of suffering a mental breakdown. The pillars of Dickinson’s sanity collapse during a metaphysical wake, just as Barnett’s lungs cease to function until a paramedic arrives with an adrenaline shot in hand. I like to imagine Barnett and Dickinson sitting on a porch together in the evening, recoiling from their respective ordeals and crafting their ill-fated experiences into provocative and jewel-like lines of pathos.

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