“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,Emily Dickinson
and then consolidates–
Only the chemist can disclose
Into what carbonates.”
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!!