This World is not Conclusion

This World is not Conclusion.
A Species stands beyond –
Invisible, as Music –
But positive, as Sound –
It beckons, and it baffles –
Philosophy, dont know –
And through a Riddle, at the last –
Sagacity, must go –
To guess it, puzzles scholars –
To gain it, Men have borne
Contempt of Generations
And Crucifixion, shown –
Faith slips – and laughs, and rallies –
Blushes, if any see –
Plucks at a twig of Evidence –
And asks a Vane, the way –
Much Gesture, from the Pulpit –
Strong Hallelujahs roll –
Narcotics cannot still the Tooth
That nibbles at the soul –

~Emily Dickinson
Image via Pexels.

The mystery of what comes after–this seems like a very Emily sort of poem, of wondering. The bulk of the poem seems to be contemplating the riddle of what follows this life–but the final lines throw it a bit up in the air. What is “the Tooth/That nibbles at the soul”? Through the rest of the poem, Dickinson seems to be expressing faith, if imperfect. But the last lines throw it all into question. Does she mean that the life after this one plucks at the soul, calling it? Or does she mean, by nibbling, that something is consuming the soul?

Ultimately, the poem, like its subject, is a sort of riddle. Dickinson is describing a mystery, and the point, perhaps, is not for us to know what that mystery is, but through her language to feel the wondering, the doubt, the confusion, the mystery itself.

to keep the dark away

I sing to use the waiting,
My bonnet but to tie,
And shut the door unto my house;
No more to do have I,

Till, his best step approaching,
We journey to the day,
And tell each other how we sang
To keep the dark away.

~Emily Dickinson
Image via Pexels.

Things 1 and 2 are on break, and are clamoring to use my computer, so I’ll keep this one short. This poem calls to mind the English carol “In praise of Christmas,” with its emphasis on the power of music and togetherness to drive away the dark cold of winter. The lyrics are below. May you be warm and safe this winter’s day, surrounded by love.

All hail to the days that merit more praise
Than all of the rest of the year
And welcome the nights that double delights
As well for the poor as the peer
Good fortune attend each merry man’s friend
That doth but the best that he may
Forgetting old wrongs with carols and songs
To drive the cold winter away

‘Tis ill for a mind to anger inclined
To think of small injuries now
If wrath be to seek, do not lend her thy cheek
Nor let her inhabit thy brow
Cross out of thy books malevolent looks
Both beauty and youth’s decay
And wholly consort with mirth and with sport
To drive the cold winter away

This time of the year is spent in good cheer
And neighbors together do meet
To sit by the fire with friendly desire
Each other in love to greet
Old grudges forgot are put in the pot
All sorrows aside they lay
The old and the young doth carol this song
To drive the cold winter away

When Christmas tide comes in like a bride
With holly and ivy clad
Twelve days in the year much mirth and good cheer
In every household is had
The country guise is then to devise
Some gambols of Christmas play
Whereat the young men do the best that they can
To drive the cold winter away

~“In Praise of Christmas”

heaven!

Going to heaven!
I don’t know when,
Pray do not ask me how,—
Indeed, I ’m too astonished
To think of answering you!
Going to heaven!—
How dim it sounds!
And yet it will be done
As sure as flocks go home at night
Unto the shepherd’s arm!

Perhaps you ’re going too!
Who knows?
If you should get there first,
Save just a little place for me
Close to the two I lost!
The smallest “robe” will fit me,
And just a bit of “crown”;
For you know we do not mind our dress
When we are going home.

I ’m glad I don’t believe it,
For it would stop my breath,
And I ’d like to look a little more
At such a curious earth!
I am glad they did believe it
Whom I have never found
Since the mighty autumn afternoon
I left them in the ground.

~Emily Dickinson
Image via Min An, Pexels.

There are so many interesting things happening in this poem. First off, it’s unlike many, many other Dickinson poems about death in that it’s neither dark and foreboding nor eagerly anticipating death.

Secondly, the speaker is addressing someone. She exclaims at the beginning, and then asks not to be asked more questions, as if she’s responding to someone who’s just posed one. Who is the speaker talking to? To an actual person? To herself? It seems impossible to say. There are lots of exclamation marks in that first stanza, too, to underscore her astonishment at being asked this question–and admittedly, if there is an actual person posing it, it’s a weird one. The speaker says it sounds “dim,” uncertain, suggesting that the idea of heaven is a long way off, but then acknowledges that “it must be done.” It’s a funny sort of resignation. Oh, heaven? Yeah, I guess we have to do that. Okay.

The second stanza begins humorously. “Perhaps you’re going too!” Is this an Emily burn? Hey, maybe you’ll eventually make it to heaven! “Who knows?” But then the tone abruptly shifts to seriousness, with the speaker asking the person she’s addressing to save a place for her near two loved ones who have preceded her in death. But then again, she shifts tone, and starts pondering her dress–what to wear to heaven? Just a bit of robe, just a small crown. It’s as if she’s trying to distract herself from the thought of her losses.

But she can’t stave off such thoughts for long. In the third stanza, she insists that she doesn’t believe, because she wants to stay here to “look a little more/At such a curious Earth!” It’s as if she’s an observer from another world looking in from the outside. As if, perhaps, despite her insistence to the contrary, she (and all of us) belong to heaven and are only sojourning here. And then she shifts again, back to her lost loved ones. She’s glad that they believed, even if she doesn’t. The speaker ends with a stark image of loss, of an autumn afternoon when she buried them.

There is a lot going on here–the poem is a swirl of emotions and images. It mimics the turmoil in the speaker’s own mind, the uncertainty of her thoughts. It seems as if she’s grappling with the notion of mortality and immortality. She doesn’t want to think about them, and yet can’t keep herself from doing so.

thirst

I bring an unaccustomed wine
To lips long parching, next to mine,
And summon them to drink.

Crackling with fever, they essay;
I turn my brimming eyes away,
And come next hour to look.

The hands still hug the tardy glass;
The lips I would have cooled, alas!
Are so superfluous cold,

I would as soon attempt to warm
The bosoms where the frost has lain
Ages beneath the mould.

Some other thirsty there may be
To whom this would have pointed me
Had it remained to speak.

And so I always bear the cup
If, haply, mine may be the drop
Some pilgrim thirst to slake,—

If, haply, any say to me,
“Unto the little, unto me,”
When I at last awake.

~Emily Dickinson
Image via Pexels.

This one is challenging to me. I’m not sure what Dickinson is getting at–it’s certainly metaphorical, whatever it is. I can’t imagine she actually wants to go gallivanting all over New England, pushing wine on dying people.

The central image that arises in this poem, and which must be key to understanding it, is that of thirst. In the first stanza, Dickinson describes “lips long parching” to which she offers a drink.

The next few stanzas offer up more subtle references to thirst. In the second stanza, we get a sharp contrast between eyes “Crackling with fever” and the speaker’s own “brimming eyes”–a contrast between heat and liquid, hot and cool. The third stanza gives us hands grasping the glass, the subject of the speaker’s ministrations having died unsated, thirst unslaked despite the proximity of the drink. The fourth stanza offers the image of the frozen dead–moisture locked away in frost. At this point, they are surely beyond the transformative power of wine or any liquid.

With the fifth stanza, we get back to very direct descriptions and mentions of thirst. “Some other thirsty there may be,” the speaker imagines, “And so I always bear the cup.” And then the thirst and liquid language pours out, as the speaker envisions the “drop” that will “slake” someone else’s “thirst.”

She ends with a Biblical reference, which feels a bit strange–it’s very dry in contrast to the liquid language of the rest of the poem. Almost a platitude–except, of course, this is Dickinson, so she is shaping it to her own ends. Exactly what those are, I’m still unsure about. What exactly is the wine she’s offering? And why? She is trying to help the dying–what is the aid she offers? This one is going to need more mulling over, no pun intended, if I’m going to grasp exactly what she’s getting at. What exactly is the thirst she’s talking about? And how would the reclusive Dickinson have thought to address this?

Perhaps the answer is poetry. Whether or not she was shy, as the old myth of the poet proclaims, Dickinson certainly wasn’t out evangelizing to and fro across the Massachusetts countryside. What she was doing was writing. So maybe her poems, her words, are the “unaccustomed wine.” I wonder if she knew they would reach their readers after her death–she must have at least thought of this when she tucked them away in a drawer, tied into neat packets.

Dickinson’s poetry is certainly “unaccustomed”–it definitely would have been to readers at the time. Her attitudes, her style, her unique twist on her subjects–all of these things make her work stand alone, stand out. Maybe this is a poem about her poetry, about a poetic vision of the world that the then-living world wasn’t ready for.

aurora

Sleep is supposed to be,
By souls of sanity,
The shutting of the eye.

Sleep is the station grand
Down which on either hand
The hosts of witness stand!

Morn is supposed to be,
By people of degree,
The breaking of the day.

Morning has not occurred!
That shall aurora be
East of eternity;

One with the banner gay,
One in the red array,—
That is the break of day.

~Emily Dickinson
Image via Tobias Bjorkli on Pexels.

Sleep is supposed to be simply shutting our eyes. But instead, it is a journey to another world–a station from whence one can depart to anywhere. The first couple of stanzas, in true Emily fashion, seem simple enough.

Then we move farther into the poem. Morning is supposed to be daybreak. So far so good–but Dickinson interrupts us, shifts gears. Instead of telling us what morning actually is to her, she says that it hasn’t happened. It is always tempting to suppose that she’s talking about death. But maybe here she’s talking about resurrection instead–morning is the thing that comes after every night, but true morning is the life after death.

It is completely frustrating interesting to me that I can spend a whole flipping year with Dickinson and still not really know what she’s talking about. I wonder if she’s playing with me, with her readers. Did she write in a kind of shorthand purely for herself? Or was she fully aware of playing with her someday readers, writing in riddles to tease us?

cold

Safe in their Alabaster Chambers –
Untouched by Morning –
and untouched by noon –
Sleep the meek members of the Resurrection,
Rafter of Satin and Roof of Stone –

Grand go the Years,
In the Crescent above them –
Worlds scoop their Arcs –
and Firmaments – row –
Diadems – drop –
And Doges surrender –
Soundless as Dots,
On a Disk of Snow.

~Emily Dickinson
Image via Pexels.

Dickinson is so good at cold. This is a wintry poem. The opening image of alabaster chambers conjures images of cool white rooms, devoid of heat and blazing light–of any kind of warmth, for these are the chambers of the dead. The bright times of day cannot touch them. Years, worlds, firmaments pass them by, leaving them unscathed, unwarmed.

From alabaster chambers at the beginning to a “Disk of Snow” at the end, everything about this poem carries for me the feel of rooms in old houses when I was a child–rooms that somehow locked in the chill of night or winter and seemed to radiate it back during the heat of the day. No matter what has changed in the world beyond their walls, old houses have a way of ignoring it all, of remaining untouched somehow by the bright passage of time.

granite lip

If I should n’t be alive
When the robins come,
Give the one in red cravat
A memorial crumb.

If I could n’t thank you,
Being just asleep,
You will know I ’m trying
With my granite lip!

~Emily Dickinson
Image via Pexels.

Sheesh, Emily. This is another one of those “poor lil’ Emily” poems that seems so wildly at odds with poems like “Because I could not stop for Death.” Is she writing from the perspective of a child? That would explain the pathetic tone and the simplistic diction. I’m not sure. I do like the line about the “granite lip”–it evokes both the cold stiffness of the dead and their stone memorials. There’s a wonderfully weird sort of suggestion here of the speaker somehow morphing into her own memorial, becoming the stone angel of her own grave. Maybe. Maybe not. It’s the end of a long day.

It’s strange to try to reconcile all the different Emilys. I don’t know if it’s even possible, aside from spouting some vague platitudes about how we all contain worlds within ourselves.

streaks of meteor

Through the straight pass of suffering
The martyrs even trod,
Their feet upon temptation,
Their faces upon God.

A stately, shriven company;
Convulsion playing round,
Harmless as streaks of meteor
Upon a plant’s bound.

Their faith the everlasting troth;
Their expectation fair;
The needle to the north degree
Wades so, through polar air.

~Emily Dickinson
Image via Pexels.

This morning, I’m writing in a hospital room at the University of Virginia, where a loved one is recovering from a surgical procedure. All is well, no worries–but the act of writing from this semi-uncomfortable semi-padded bench is shifting my perspective.

I am committed to this year of a Dickinson poem a day. I’ve missed some days here and there due to illness or the general craziness of life, but I’ve gone back and caught up each time. Now, seventeen days from the end of the year, I am seventeen days away from a year of Dickinson’s poetry.

Pam and I began this project together. Life has gotten incredibly full for her, and I’ve been flying solo here for a while. Most days I blog shortly after I get up in the morning, before the chaos of the day takes hold. I find that on days when I don’t blog early, I’m liable to forget to do it at all.

There is a lot to be said for habit, for routine. I am a person who tends to resist any kind of daily challenge–draw daily, write daily, etc. It just doesn’t seem to fit with the way I work, with my personality and tendencies. But having done this for most of a year now, I understand better why a daily practice works for so many people. There is something comforting in it, something deeply stable, something that says that even if you’ve been sleeping on a minimally-padded bench in a maximally-frigid hospital room, there are constants, touchstones, things to circle back to. I get it now in a way I didn’t before.

My constants tend to be less daily and more widely cyclical–rituals for the new and full moons, the turning of the seasons, noticing the beings that come and go in my yard with changes in months and weather. I watch for the house wrens and catbirds in the spring as they seek out nesting sites.

And I wait for the meteor showers. The Perseids in the summer, and now the Geminids, streaking the sky silver on these darkest nights of the year. They peak this weekend, and though they may be difficult to see because of the full moon, I’m going to look for them anyway.

Tonight, hopefully, we’ll be home from the hospital. I will be clean, and warm. Scattered candles will be glowing, Christmas music playing, warm scents hovering on the air. I will step outside, the clear cold on my skin a revelation, and I will crane my neck back to scry the heavens for signs and portents. There is magic in the winter skies. You only have to look.

a missing friend

I had a guinea golden;
I lost it in the sand,
And though the sum was simple,
And pounds were in the land,
Still had it such a value
Unto my frugal eye,
That when I could not find it
I sat me down to sigh.

I had a crimson robin
Who sang full many a day,
But when the woods were painted
He, too, did fly away.
Time brought me other robins,—
Their ballads were the same,—
Still for my missing troubadour
I kept the “house at hame.”

I had a star in heaven;
One Pleiad was its name,
And when I was not heeding
It wandered from the same.
And though the skies are crowded,
And all the night ashine,
I do not care about it,
Since none of them are mine.

My story has a moral:
I have a missing friend,—
Pleiad its name, and robin,
And guinea in the sand,—
And when this mournful ditty,
Accompanied with tear,
Shall meet the eye of traitor
In country far from here,
Grant that repentance solemn
May seize upon his mind,
And he no consolation
Beneath the sun may find.

~Emily Dickinson
A guinea. Image via Wikipedia.

My edition of Dickinson’s poems includes a note after this one that suggests it may have been sent to a friend who was delinquent in responding to letters. It has a teasing tone, referring to the absent friend as a “traitor” after comparing the friend at length to a lost guinea, a flown robin, and a wandering star.

What really strikes me about this poem is how long it is. By Dickinsonian terms, this is practically an epic. There’s something touching in this gesture, in the idea that Emily would write a longer poem to tease a friend than to examine the depths of her own soul. She reportedly would bake for friends, including poems along with the food, and fully expecting the food to be more appreciated.

If this poem was included in a letter to a friend, imagine being that friend. I wonder if Dickinson’s correspondents appreciated the words they were receiving as anything more than mere letters–if they had any inkling that the person writing to them was squirreling away packets of poetry that would one day change the literary world.

a certain Slant of light

There’s a certain Slant of light,
Winter Afternoons –
That oppresses, like the Heft
Of Cathedral Tunes –

Heavenly Hurt, it gives us –
We can find no scar,
But internal difference –
Where the Meanings, are –

None may teach it – Any –
‘Tis the seal Despair –
An imperial affliction
Sent us of the Air –

When it comes, the Landscape listens –
Shadows – hold their breath –
When it goes, ’tis like the Distance
On the look of Death –

~Emily Dickinson
Image via Pexels.com

I don’t remember when I first encountered this poem–in high school, perhaps, or maybe even middle school. Certainly it was in a textbook, offered up as an example of the work of a famous American poet. Regardless, it’s always rung deeply true for me. There is something about the light on a winter afternoon that’s oppressive, that reminds me of endings and the oncoming rush of darkness.

We’re nearing the darkest day of the year. A week from this Saturday is the winter solstice. After that, the balance will tip back towards light. But for now, darkness gathers its force. For now, winter afternoon sunbeams are a reminder of what has passed, what we have lost, what we will lose. For now, the light is a rare and precious thing, but not without barbs.