Thanksgiving day

ONE day is there of the series
Termed Thanksgiving day,
Celebrated part at table,
Part in memory.

Neither patriarch nor pussy, 5
I dissect the play;
Seems it, to my hooded thinking,
Reflex holiday.

Had there been no sharp subtraction
From the early sum, 10
Not an acre or a caption
Where was once a room,

Not a mention, whose small pebble
Wrinkled any bay,—
Unto such, were such assembly, 15
’T were Thanksgiving day.

~Emily Dickinson

What a weird one, Emily.

It starts out ordinarily enough. Out of all the holidays in the series of the year, Thanksgiving is one. We celebrate it with meals and with remembrance. So far so good.

“Neither patriarch nor pussy”–wtf, Emily? Neither an old man or a cat? I have no idea what she’s getting at. Somewhere between an old man and a cat?? Skipping this. Moving on. “I dissect the play.” This echoes other Dickinson poems in which she speaks of observing others as being like her own private theatrical experience (see, “The show is not the show”). Thanksgiving seems to the speaker like a “reflex holiday”–perhaps a day when one is on automatic pilot, when we go through the motions. This is an interesting take on the day, for sure, and yet one that probably resonates for many people.

In the next stanzas, the syntax completely loses me. If there hadn’t been any subtraction–any loss–then what? I am completely flummoxed by the ending. If we hadn’t ever lost anything, we wouldn’t know how to be thankful?? If we hadn’t ever been subtracted from, we wouldn’t be who we are, looking back on the past and those who were subtracted?? Emily Dickinson, is this yet another poem about death???

I’ve got nothing here. So I’ll just say this–may your Thanksgiving be a heck of a lot easier to understand than this poem.

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