ESSENTIAL oils are wrung:
The attar from the rose
Is not expressed by suns alone,
It is the gift of screws.

The general rose decays;
But this, in lady’s drawer,
Makes summer when the lady lies
In ceaseless rosemary.

I was unemployed for a long time after I finished my masters, and if there’s one thing that I heard over and over–and which helped my peace of mind exactly none–it’s this: yes, life is hard now, but this trying time will make you stronger. If there’s any true piece of advice that people hate to receive more than this, I’d love to know it.

Dickinson’s point here is that in order to extract the attar (literally, the rose’s essential oil), you have to put the rose through the ringer. You can’t ask it nicely, or wait for it to dry in the sun–you have to process it. Leave the roses on the vine? They’ll decompose. But their essential oil, the perfume that remains after the extraction, will last forever. This will preserve the smell of summer even in the coldest months, even when the lady who purchased it–or for whom it was purchased–has died, and only rosemary (the herb of remembrance) remains of her.

So the roses went through a process and the bit that was left–the distilled oil–comes out fragrant, long-lasting, desired. Part of me wants to find this beautiful. Part of me is very tired of having to be personally distilled in order to come out the other side stronger, smarter, or at least employed.

This is the first Dickinson poem that has wholly embodied melancholy this year. Here’s to coming out the other side as fresh as rosewater.

personal response

The stimulus in danger

I LIVED on dread; to those who know
The stimulus there is
In danger, other impetus
Is numb and vital-less.
As ’t were a spur upon the soul,
A fear will urge it where
To go without the spectre’s aid
Were challenging despair.

~Emily Dickinson

I’m finding this poem really intriguing in light of yesterday’s. In that poem, the speaker describes the “splinter” that can throw a person off course. The tone of that poem makes it clear that the splinter is not a good thing. In this poem, however, dread acts in much the same way as the splinter in the previous poem–it intrudes. In this case, however, the intrusion is welcome–and productive.

This could be the procrastinator’s hymn, really. It reminds me of every friend I’ve ever known who swore they couldn’t start a paper until the night before it was due, that they thrived under pressure, that they needed a deadline–and needed it to be imminent–in order to get anything done.

It’s interesting to note that Dickinson couches this observation in the past tense, speaking as if from beyond the grave: “I lived on dread.” She goes on to invoke all the others who understand the efficacy of danger as a motivator. Even more interesting, I think, is the ending–fear urges to soul to go where it could not go otherwise. Without fear, the speaker would be “challenging despair.” Fear as a means of avoiding despair is an intriguing thought. I’m not sure what exactly to make of it. It feels deeply significant that the poem ends on the word “despair,” as if all the speaker’s fear-driven attempts (at what?) have, in the end, still come to naught.



THE BRAIN within its groove
Runs evenly and true;
But let a splinter swerve,
’T were easier for you
To put the water back
When floods have slit the hills,
And scooped a turnpike for themselves,
And blotted out the mills!

~Emily Dickinson

This seemed like an excellent reminder for the thirteenth of January, when the sheen is beginning to rub off the year a little. Sometimes it’s habit that makes the magic possible.

With that in mind, here’s a prompt–what is the splinter that swerves you off course? What do you do to smooth the way?

personal response

“Sometimes almost more”

THIS was in the white of the year,
That was in the green,
Drifts were as difficult then to think
As daisies now to be seen.
Looking back is best that is left,
Or if it be before,
Retrospection is prospect’s half,
Sometimes almost more.

~Emily Dickinson

This morning I woke to a dusting of snow across the yard and driveway. The snow is gone now, but more hangs in the pale, heavy cloud blanket that rings my sky.

Winter is a time for introspection, and for retrospection. I like the notion that “retrospection is prospect’s half”–the looking-backward and the looking-forward dovetail, inform each other. In order to look ahead with any clarity of vision, it’s good to know where you’ve been. In order to look back with any optimism, it’s good to know you are headed somewhere.

I also like how Dickinson says that retrospection is “sometimes almost more” than prospect. “Sometimes almost” is the same thing, really, as “not ever,” but it sounds so different. There’s a suggestion here that retrospection could almost tip the balance, could weight the scales so ponderously that maybe, just maybe, it could almost change the equation.

The white-lead clouds brood overhead, heavy with unfallen snow.

personal response

The sad, sad tale of a little, little boat, a gallant, gallant sea, and a greedy, greedy wave

’T WAS such a little, little boat
That toddled down the bay!
’T was such a gallant, gallant sea
That beckoned it away!
’T was such a greedy, greedy wave
That licked it from the coast;
Nor ever guessed the stately sails
My little craft was lost!

~Emily Dickinson

Since this is Dickinson, and therefore the boat could be anything from a heart to a soul to a life to a dream, and since I didn’t plan my day out very well and am pressed for time, I’m going to sidestep meaning and focus on Dickinson’s word choice.

It’s the repetition here that really interests me. “Little, little,” “gallant, gallant,” and “greedy, greedy” are all two-syllable words. “Little” and “greedy” are words a child would know (and “gallant” is definitely a word that child-Emily would have known). (I’m not sure why the sea is “gallant”–could this be an emulation of the childlike tendency to misunderstand words? The sea is hardly actually gallant if it is involved in the boat’s demise.) The repetition of these short words in one small poem gives it a childlike quality–it almost sounds as if the boat is a child’s toy. Anyone who’s ever sailed a toy boat will agree that they often “toddle” rather than taking to the water like swans. After it “toddled down the bay,” the boat takes no further action–it is acted upon. It is beckoned away, licked from the coast, and lost. In the last line, Dickinson uses “little” a third time. The use of the same generic adjective three times in eight lines adds to the childish quality.

The “stately sails” that don’t notice the loss of the small craft are like adults who don’t notice or honor the force of the loss children feel. When we are very young, our hearts are broken time and again, sometimes by big things, but often by tiny ones. As adults, it’s all too easy to forget this, to say condescendingly, “It’s not the end of the world,” when to the child’s mind it is, and no adult perspective matters, can soothe the pain of loss.

Whatever the boat stands in for–whatever’s been lost–the speaker’s reaction to it is like a child’s–simple, devastated, emotional. I think in a way that’s how loss hits all of us. I think of adults I’ve known who’ve lost their parents and said, “I’m an orphan.” It doesn’t matter that they’re sixty or seventy–the loss hits them hard, strikes at them in a way that makes them feel suddenly small, young, powerless. In the face of loss, we all become childlike, adrift in the wide, wide world.

personal response

Almost!: Emily Dickinson on FOMO

WITHIN my reach!
I could have touched!
I might have chanced that way!
Soft sauntered through the village,
Sauntered as soft away!
So unsuspected violets
Within the fields lie low,
Too late for striving fingers
That passed, an hour ago.

~Emily Dickinson

One of the loveliest moments you get to have as an English teacher is the one when you tell your students that, now that they’ve learned and mastered the rules, they get to break the rules. This is a lovely example of rule-breaking. Dickinson’s incomplete sentences here are perfect. The first line has no verb. The second has no object. The fourth and fifth have no subject. She’s breaking things all over the place. After setting up the rhythm and maintaining it for four lines, she disrupts it in the fifth. The rhyme scheme is broken, too–and it can hardly help but be, in a nine-line poem. Who writes a nine-line poem??

Dickinson never identifies the subject of the poem, either. We really have no idea who or what was within her reach. She compares it/them to violets–but we don’t know much else. This also feels like a massive rule-breaking. If you’re going to write words, people should be able to read them and know what you’re talking about, right? I mean, it’s Dickinson, so this could definitely be a poem about death….But.

On second read, the poem strikes me as masterful. Dickinson breaks all these rules, and the incompleteness of the rhyme scheme, the missing words, the lack of a clearly identified subject, all underscore with a quiet sort of fierceness the idea of missing something, and being incomplete or unfulfilled as a result.

Emily Dickinson FOMO.

Okay, maybe not really that, but what the poem seems to be about, more than whoever or whatever the speaker just missed, is the sobering reality that life is full of missed opportunities. Maybe the speaker doesn’t name her subject because, like the rest of us, she doesn’t know what she’s missed.


January 9: If I can stop one heart from breaking

If I can stop one heart from breaking,

I shall not live in vain;

If I can ease one life the aching,

Or cool one pain,

Or help one fainting robin

Unto his nest again,

I shall not live in vain.

–Emily Dickinson

Today has been full of tiny annoyances.

I woke up angry at my 5:30 am alarm, because I went to bed later than I should have. I left the house five minutes later than I’d like. I forgot to print new rosters for my classes this morning (which have been in a constant state of flux, since it’s the start of the semester), so I had to rig an attendance system on the fly.

In office hours, I spent a full hour assembling a particle board shelf to sit on top of my desk, frustrated with the materials, the office, the mother of the amoeba who wrote the assembly instructions, and anything else in the vicinity.

They’re piling up for tomorrow, too. My car needs gas. I have to take the kids to get haircuts after school tomorrow. I have to take my daughter to get (what will probably be expensive) clothes for her first dance class on Friday. I have to buy cupcakes for my son to bring to school on Friday. I have to finish planning food for his birthday party on Saturday. I have to bake his birthday cake and somehow make it look like Cappy from Mario Odyssey. I have to do some laundry or we are all going to drown in smelly clothing.


Or I can stop.

Or I can take a breath, and realize that all of these annoyances are things that I either caused or asked for, and step back. I can remember, like Emily Dickinson tells us above, that I can do something good with a really small action. Maybe I don’t always get the laundry done on time, but I can talk to my daughter on the way to school. I can sing her songs and wish her a good day when I drop her off.

I can go a step further, and, like the speaker in the poem, I can look for hurts to mend. You have to be looking to see someone whose heart is breaking; probably they won’t tell you when things get bad, because we all wear these masks every day so that people think that we are Fine, our jobs are Fine, our lives are Fine, when we are anything but. You have to be looking for robins’ nests to find the birds who could use a helping hand.

Last summer, an incredibly annoying pair of birds built a nest on our front porch. They were barn swallows, and they built their nest out of mud. After the first day, I went out and knocked down their half-finished effort. The next day it stormed, and they came back, bewildered, and stood on the ledge where their nest had been. They didn’t stick around for the worst of the rain, and I decided that if they came back, I’d let them stay.

They came back. They built a nest. They had babies–I’d hear them screeching right outside the laundry room window. They had too many babies. There were five baby starlings in that small nest, and when they started hopping around in there, the nest couldn’t accommodate them. I looked outside one day and saw four babies perched on the ledge, and my heart sank. Nearly eight years ago, when I was pregnant with my son, we had similar birds nest outside a different front door, and when their babies fell out of the nest, they died. It wasn’t a good thing for a pregnant woman to see.

I raced outside and found the ridiculous barn swallow nestling perched on the porch, fine as could be. I scooped him up with a piece of paper, dodging the angry parents, and plopped him back in the nest. I must have done this daily for a week before looking outside one day and finding the nest empty.

It’s such a small thing to put a baby bird back in the nest. Maybe it’s not even a necessary thing. But it’s not in vain, either.