Sunday, March 26, 2017

And Staples in the Song...

The Soul has Bandaged moments - 
When too appalled to stir -
She feels some ghastly Fright come up
And stop to look at her -

Salute her, with long fingers -
Caress her freezing hair -
Sip, Goblin, from the very lips
The Lover - hovered - o'er -
Unworthy, that a thought so mean
Accost a Theme - so - fair -

The soul has moments of escape -
When bursting all the doors -
She dances like a Bomb, abroad, 
And swings opon the Hours,

As do the Bee - delirious borne -
Long Dungeoned from his Rose -
Touch Liberty - then know no more -
But Noon, and Paradise 

The Soul's retaken moments -
When, Felon led along, 
With shackles on the plumed feet, 
And staples, in the song,

The Horror welcomes her, again, 
These, are not brayed of Tongue -

I often think of the line, "The soul has bandaged moments." Sometimes I wonder, what moment isn't bandaged. There are so many images in this poem by Emily Dickinson, the poem itself is almost like a collage. Look at the next-to-last stanza, where you think there's going to be some relief—"retaken moments"—but no, "retaken" seems to be even worse than "bandaged," because the soul has become a prisoner to that stapled song...

Seriously, "And staples, in the song." I wish I'd written that line! 

Friday, March 24, 2017

Saint (not) Emily

"I heard a fly buzz — when I died—" begins a poem by Emily Dickinson. Past tense: "died." Metaphor; we die a thousand deaths a day, after all, though we usually use more banal euphemisms: heartbreak, disappointment, setback, shock.

Saints do not write poetry. Saints are probably not even saints, except (to those who believe) in retrospect. Poets are human beings (what a radical thing to say, I know), with the spectrum of human emotions on display, and sometimes that spectrum is on display in a single poem. From acceptance to denial, from tranquility to upheaval, from sincerity to sarcasm—if every poem is an exploration of some aspect of the human condition, how can we expect a single tone throughout?

We have been conditioned to read Emily Dickinson as Saint Emily, living her monastic existence at a remove from such quotidian things as anger, desire, rebellion, discontent. We do her (and our own critical thinking skills) a disservice when we turn to her poems as examples of sainthood or sacrifice or selflessness. Instead, we should look for what is real, for what constitutes a living, breathing, rejoicing, hurting human being, susceptible to a thousand deaths a day, with the ability to tell us how it feels.

Sunday, March 19, 2017


A time-worn cliche, but one without which we cannot seem to do: the heart. I reread Louise Erdich's novel Love Medicine earlier this week (ah, spring break—week of favorite books!); in the title chapter (my English Comp. II students of recent years may recall this as a short story) hearts play a significant role, although the "medicine" doesn't quite work as expected.

Emily Dickinson uses the heart as a metaphor, though of course she puts her own spin on it. Here, for example:

The mob within the heart
Police cannot suppress
The riot given at the first
Is authorized as peace

Uncertified of scene
Or signified of sound
But growing like a hurricane
In a congenial ground

One of the ways she "spins" any metaphor is to mix it. What begins with a "mob" ends here with "a hurricane," all happening within the heart. Talk about interior landscapes, interior weather! Crowds and unrest—not two of Dickinson's favorite things, and yet this poem is almost an acceptance—almost a celebration—of the press and turmoil of one's inner "mob": memories, desires, one's entire storied and peopled past. The heart as a scene of a "riot"—something unlike our usual cliche, and that much nearer truth.

Saturday, March 18, 2017

A Reduceless Mine

To own the Art within the Soul
The Soul to entertain
With Silence as a Company
And Festival maintain

Is an unfurnished Circumstance
Possession is to One
As an Estate perpetual
Or a reduceless Mine.

It is tempting to look at Emily Dickinson's poems and assume that, for her, every moment was fraught with the potential for a poem. She seemed to live poetry, live on some higher plain of existence than most of us can manage. Of course, this can't be true. She had ordinary moments, no doubt. One cannot be always hearing that roar on the other side of silence (to paraphrase George Eliot, because I'm too lazy to get up and find my copy of Middlemarch and look up the exact quote).

(Brief tangent: Emily Dickinson read Middlemarch and loved George Eliot; one wonders if she lingered over that quote, put the novel down for a moment and allowed herself to go behind the silence...)

She did spend her adult life exploring how art is a bridge between experience and meaning. The artist takes what she or he perceives and reorganizes it, emphasizing what needs to be emphasized and discarding what isn't (at that moment) needed. The result is a creation in which possibility and meaning are represented and presented.  A poem to include in a letter to a friend. Or a poem to keep to herself, written in the middle of the night, a "reduceless Mine" as she reorganized her world according to her own vision.

Thursday, March 16, 2017

In the Zone

There is a Zone whose even Years
No Solstice interrupt—
Whose Sun constructs perpetual Noon
Whose perfect Seasons wait—

Whose Summer set in Summer, till
The Centuries of June
And Centuries of August cease
And Consciousness—is Noon.

I'm wondering what I can learn about the creative process from reading Emily Dickinson. I am focusing on her lesser-known poems, feeling there must be something I have overlooked in all my years of reading her work. This poem struck me as her statement of being "in the zone," carried away by the imagination to the land of truth, the place more real that that world outside her window (and yet, informed by it). A simplistic reading, I am certain, and yet it resonates: "And Consciousness—is Noon"—the acme of creativity. She felt it too: looking up and wondering how the oil in the lamp had gotten so low in so short a time, then realizing she had been writing for hours, not minutes, as it had seemed. Her "Noon" may have been midnight, but the metaphor holds. Is there any creative person for whom noon is Noon?

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

Delight without a Cause

It is a lonesome Glee—
Yet sanctifies the Mind—
With fair association—
Afar upon the Wind

A Bird to overhear
Delight without a Cause—
Arrestless as invisible—
A matter of the Skies.

"A lonesome Glee," "Delight without a Cause"—this Dickinson poem presents us with paradox upon paradox about what "sanctifies the Mind."

The magnitude of how she chose to live is no small matter. A life seemingly small in terms of its boundaries, yet limitless in intellect and imagination. "Arrestless as invisible— / A matter of the Skies." Breathtaking.

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Her Parting Face

Frigid and sweet Her parting Face—
Frigid and fleet my Feet—
Alien and vain whatever Clime
Acrid whatever Fate.

Given to me without the Suit
Riches and Name and Realm—
Who was She to withhold from me
Penury and Home?

There are Emily Dickinson poems that feel as if they were written in a warm pantry just off the kitchen, the air fragrant with cinnamon and freshly-baked bread. Then there are poems that feel as if they were written in a room at the top of the house in the frigid and sweet hours, the hours when solitude and loneliness duke it out.

"Riches and Name and Realm"—the best description of love ever penned. Unrequited, unreturned, unregarded. The mind goes round and round, imagining the scenarios that could have inspired this poem. The mind alights on its own scene of past anger, of back-turning, of indignation. Dickinson transports us always, and the journeys are swift, and we find ourselves in midnight worlds.