The Mushroom is the Elf of Plants –
At Evening, it is not
At Morning, in a Truffled Hut
It stop opon a Spot

As if it tarried always
And yet it’s whole Career
Is shorter than a Snake’s Delay –
And fleeter than a Tare –

’Tis Vegetation’s Juggler –
The Germ of Alibi –
Doth like a Bubble antedate
And like a Bubble, hie –

I feel as if the Grass was pleased
To have it intermit –
This surreptitious Scion
Of Summer’s circumspect.

Had Nature any supple Face
Or could she one contemn –
Had Nature an Apostate –
That Mushroom – it is Him!

~Emily Dickinson

Image via

Dickinson is right about so many things. The mushroom really is “the elf of plants” (even though, of course, it is not a plant because Science). It appears overnight as if by magic, erupting silently from the humus. A mushroom has a kind of presence–it is solid, architectural, and where a mushroom springs up, it seems to irrefutably belong.

Yet “it’s whole Career / Is shorter than a Snake’s Delay.” Dickinson tells us that the grass is pleased by the interruption of the mushroom, but then goes on to argue that it is Nature’s unbeliever, that it is the one face Nature could condemn.

I wonder how much Dickinson really understood about mushrooms. Did she know that they spring from decay, that they are the unheimlich little denizens of the forest floor who, like the vulture high overhead, transmogrify death into life, decay into vitality and beauty?


THE SKIES can’t keep their secret!
They tell it to the hills—
The hills just tell the orchards—
And they the daffodils!

A bird, by chance, that goes that way
Soft overheard the whole.
If I should bribe the little bird,
Who knows but she would tell?

I think I won’t, however,
It’s finer not to know;
If summer were an axiom,
What sorcery had snow?

So keep your secret, Father!
I would not, if I could,
Know what the sapphire fellows do,
In your new-fashioned world!

~emily dickinson

One of the biggest surprises for me of this project has been discovering how many of Dickinson’s poems have been set to music. This one is no exception–there’s a choral version, apparently arranged for middle school choir by a middle school teacher. There’s also a more operatic version, which you can listen to here, if you’re so inclined.

As I read through the poem, I’m not sure what to say about it. It’s one I feel like I need to discuss with somebody. The first two stanzas make sense to me, but the last two…..I get lost on “If summer were an axiom.” If summer were easily quantifiable/understandable? Why “snow” if we’re talking about summer? And who are the “sapphire fellows” in the final stanza? Are they birds? Pieces of the blue sky? I’m not sure what to make of it, but the overall feeling seems clear–the world is a beautiful place, magical even. Maybe we don’t need to quantify it in order to appreciate it–and maybe that’s what Dickinson is doing with her poem, weaving language in an unquantifiable way in order to mimic the inexplicable beauties of nature.

The whole poem has the feel of an impressionist painting. Splashes of words create an emotional response, even if/though individual words might not make a ton of sense out of context.

“The fathoms they abide”

 Full fathom five thy father lies; 
              Of his bones are coral made; 
    Those are pearls that were his eyes: 
              Nothing of him that doth fade, 
    But doth suffer a sea-change 
    Into something rich and strange. 
    Sea-nymphs hourly ring his knell: 
    Hark! now I hear them—Ding-dong, bell.

~William Shakespeare, The Tempest
Emily Dickinson

Today’s poem comes to you courtesy of my great-great-grandmother’s copy of Emily Dickinson’s poems. Yesterday my mom gave it to me. She had been going through her books, found this one, and thought I might like to have it. I had forgotten to tell her about this project, so it seemed a wonderful, magical coincidence.

The book is old, worn, obviously well-read. Its spine is completely missing. Any dust jacket it once bore is long gone (I wonder if that paper has rotted away into soil, its molecules alchemized into earth, blossoms, bees…)

New and old…

My great-great-grandmother’s name was Lucile Jansen Bower. A generation before her, my great-great-great-grandmother, wife of an authoritarian husband, walked into the Atlantic Ocean one day and did not return. Officially, she drowned. Her story, as it has come to be handed down over a century, ends with, “but she was a very strong swimmer.” The implication is that her death was not accident but escape. I read The Awakening in college, long before I ever heard this family tale, and the first hearing broke me out in cold chills, forever conflating Edna and my ancestor in my imagination.

I wonder what Lucile thought of as she read this poem. Did she hold it up against her own marriage as a woman holds a dress against her body to estimate the fit? Did she think of her mother-in-law and the fathoms she abided?

Emily Dickinson must have thought of Ariel’s song from The Tempest as she wrote these lines. The first stanza begins in rather ordinary fashion–girl becomes woman becomes wife. It all sounds solemn and expected. Then, the turn–in the second stanza, the telling “If.” If her life lacked awe, amplitude, if the gloss wore off–only if–then that lack is as unknown as the ocean’s depths. Why “if”? Why introduce the idea at all if it isn’t so? Dickinson implies that in her marriage, the wife is silent, silenced. This is an interesting poem to include among the sections of love poems in Dickinson’s work. The wife in the first stanza is like a caterpillar become butterfly. In the last stanza, the allusion parallels her with a dead man. Birth, new life, death. The more Dickinson I read, the more I marvel at her ability to make basically anything all about death.

When I stand at the edge of the Atlantic, I think of my great-great-great-grandmother. In an anachronistic imagined memory I see her, standing with her back to a continent. I cannot see her face. She looks out at the infinite expanse, monsters gliding beneath its unquiet surface. She understands that they are free.

If I could somehow stop her, would this change the course of history? In the second this thought takes to lodge in my brain she steps out into the surf, her skirts billowing around her, and strikes out, strong and confident, for the impossible horizon.

Sea-nymphs hourly ring her knell.


“ASHES denote that fire was;
Respect the grayest pile
For the departed creature’s sake
That hovered there awhile.

Fire exists the first in light,
and then consolidates–
Only the chemist can disclose
Into what carbonates.”

Emily Dickinson

Brenna: The first thing I want to say is that I was looking for a poem that would make me feel warm. Fire seemed like a good start. I forgot that this is Dickinson, so the fire is dead. sigh

Pam: You tried, though! That is pretty hilarious. She can turn even fire into a memorial for both dead creature and fire.

Brenna: Right?! I swear. Emily is the original goth girl.

Pam: I would like to say that her rhyme scheme in this poem is absolutely bananas. Consolidate/carbonate? Really, Emily?? You used “carbonate” as end rhyme???

Brenna: Is “carbonate” even a verb?? Or did she just verb it? But this poem. As tortuous as the rhyming of “carbonate” is, it has some cool stuff going on. I love the idea of fire as a creature that is temporarily invoked, that hovers awhile and then leaves. It’s like a wild creature that comes and goes.

Pam: It is a creature that has also consumed a dead creature! The “departed creature”: is this an animal or a person?

Brenna: Hmm…departed creature…I don’t think it’s necessarily human. Just “animal” in the sense of “alive,” “animate.” It’s sort of demi-god-like. It’s an entity. The specifics don’t necessarily matter. But again, this is Dickinson, so she may be talking about someone who just kicked the bucket.

Pam: So the poem is titled “Fire,” but it’s about ashes and death.

Brenna: It is. EMILY.

Pam: So why call it “Fire”?

Brenna: Well, at the beginning the fire is dead–but then it’s not REALLY dead. It has “carbonated,” whatever the heck that is. It’s as if some kind of alchemy has transpired.

Pam: Because only fire has the power to reduce a creature–what kind of creature doesn’t matter, as you said, because it could be any creature–into ashes. Fire comes from light but it causes the opposite, I suppose.

Brenna: Fire has morphed from heat and light to….something. Ahh, yes. Fire creates death. Peak Emily.

Pam: It’s a devourer. It devours what was and leaves a transmuted other. So it’s death squared?

Brenna: And then it goes, right? I get the sense from this poem that the fire isn’t really dead. It’s just come and gone.

Pam: Death of the soul AND death of the flesh?

Brenna: Fire exists in light (the soul in heaven?). Then it consolidates (soul enters flesh?). Then it carbonates into something else, but only the chemist (God?) can say what that is.

Pam: And who set the fire?

Brenna: God the chemist.

Pam: For such a short poem, we’re coming up with a long list of questions.

Brenna: I think God is the chemist who transforms soul into flesh and then back out of flesh again into some other state that we can’t know.

Pam: This is a poem that makes me wonder about circumstances. Were cremations common? For people, or animals? Did she witness one? Or the aftermath? Did someone’s house burn down? What inspired this?

Brenna: Hmm…she talks so much about conventional burials and tombs. I can’t imagine cremation was common. But this poem is similar in metaphor to yesterday’s, “The White Heat.” Fire is a purifying/purging force that burns away the dross of human nature. So this is a perfect poem for Imbolc/St. Brigid’s Day/Candlemas!

Brenna: I think fire, in her poetic lexicon, is shorthand for divinely-inspired or divinely-accomplished change. Transformation. As far as I can remember, she doesn’t tend to use it so much in the sense of passion. She tends to use the language of storm and cold for that, which is interesting. I think of her description of poetry: “When I read a book and it makes my whole body so cold no fire can ever warm me, I know that is poetry.”

Pam: I did not know that! I’m definitely not a Dickinson scholar.

Brenna: So I think that, for her, fire is not the hot, hot lovin’ metaphor that it is for other poets. It’s about change, transformation, sublimation, growth, alchemy.

Pam: But there’s no gold here! We get ashes.

Brenna: We do get ashes!! But we must respect them!!

A dare:

DARE you see a soul at the white heat?
Then crouch within the door.
Red is the fire’s common tint;
But when the vivid ore

Has sated flame’s conditions,
Its quivering substance plays
Without a color but the light
Of unanointed blaze.

Least village boasts its blacksmith,
Whose anvil’s even din
Stands symbol for the finer forge
That soundless tugs within,

Refining these impatient ores
With hammer and with blaze,
Until the designated light
Repudiate the forge.

~Emily Dickinson

In the thin darkness before dawn, temperatures plummeted to low single digits here in the north of the South. Before sunrise I bundled up and went outside to break the crust of ice from the chickens’ water. The coming sunrise was a yolk-colored watercolor wash along the horizon, brightening against the lightening sky, and the thin fingernail moon hung high, framed by piercing stars. The cold was so violent it burned, the air sere and searing.

I chose this poem for today simply because it seemed pleasant to think about anything white-hot on a day like today. As I read and reread it, I am first reminded of John Donne’s “Batter my heart, three person’d God” from his Holy Sonnets. Both Donne and Dickinson invoke a creator who makes through violent change, through extreme trial, by pushing the raw material to its limits. The difference is that while Donne begs God to bludgeon him into shape, Dickinson envisions the end of the process as the newly-refined material repudiating the forge.

Here’s where Dickinson gets supremely Dickinsonian. “Repudiate” is a fascinating choice here, with a couple of possible meanings: “to refuse to accept,” or “to reject as untrue or unjust.” Refusing to accept the creator/circumstances of creation is one thing; rejecting them as untrue or unjust is another. They are similar, but there is a significant shade of difference.

As I continue mulling over this poem, the second thing that strikes me is that the current extreme cold is an opposite yet similar metaphor–opposite in temperature, but similar in function. Heat refines in one way, cold in another. I think of how allergists tell people to either wash linens in hot water or seal them in plastic and put them in the freezer to kill dust mites. Heat and cold can both burn. We talk about long-lingering food in freezers as being “freezer-burned.” I think of this line from the poem “Angus McGregor,” by B. D. Pancake: “The hills at thirty below have teeth.” On my drive home this evening, I heard on the news that eight people in the midwest have died from the cold this week. The forge is metaphorical. The forge is real.

It is telling that Dickinson begins the poem with a dare: “Dare you see a soul at the white heat?” Can you handle bearing witness to the process of creation?

the shadow of a flame

Fairy Sails

THIS is the land the sunset washes,
These are the banks of the Yellow Sea;
Where it rose, or whither it rushes,
These are the western mystery!
Night after night her purple traffic
Strews the landing with opal bales;
Merchantmen poise upon horizons,
Dip, and vanish with fairy sails.

~Emily Dickinson
fairy sails at sunset in the foothills of the Alleghenies

This immediately strikes me as a rare gem of a Dickinson poem. It is thoroughly lovely and in-the-moment, with nary a mention of buzzing flies or someone’s funeral (though I suppose the “western mystery,” the going-down-place of the sun, could be connected to death–but you know what, I’m going to stick with the prettiness this time and not read too much into it).

The phrase “the land the sunset washes” is gorgeously descriptive, and I love how light becomes water in this poem–it “washes” across the landscape. If I’m reading this right, the “Yellow Sea” is also the light in its entirety. This whole poem is one tiny, perfect, jewel-like description of a single moment–but also the eternal recurrence, “night after night,” of sunset.

There is something wonderfully profligate (to use the word in a Dickinson kind of way) about how, despite the very short length of this poem, she strews it lavishly with lush descriptions that are at once immediately evocative and yet at time a bit elusive. “Where,” “whither,” “mystery,” “vanish”–while the sensory details are precise and shimmering, painting a vivid picture, and at the same time the thrust of the poem is toward mystery, the unknown–magic.

One of the things about Dickinson’s poetry that never ceases to delight and astonish me is the way she packs so much meaning into so few words. How is this tiny poem about sunset in all its glorious specificity, and the vast mystery of, well, pretty much everything? How does she do it?? There is magic at work here, clearly.

I love, love, love that she ends the poem with “fairy sails.” The prosaic ships of merchantmen are transformed in the golden light to fae craft that work their own magic, dipping and vanishing.

As I read and re-read the poem, it strikes me that Dickinson is both describing an almost alchemical process, and also performing word-alchemy herself–light to water, water to light. This idea has set roots in my brain, and I’m wondering now–what would happen in my own writing if, the next time I described some elemental force (like air) I described it in terms of a completely different elemental force (like fire). What would happen to my language? How much richer would it grow?

So, here’s a bonus prompt, if you’ve made it this far through my raptures of delight: describe an element using the descriptive language suited to a different element. What happens if you write about earth as if it is water, fire as if it is air?