Chrysolite?

It can’t be summer,—that got through;
It ’s early yet for spring;
There ’s that long town of white to cross
Before the blackbirds sing.

It can’t be dying,—it ’s too rouge,—
The dead shall go in white.
So sunset shuts my question down
With clasps of chrysolite.

~Emily Dickinson
Olivine, which is maybe chrysolite?
Image via Wikipedia.

“That long town of white” is the phrase that got me from this poem–but the single word “chrysolite” is what sent me down an internet rabbit hole. What is chrysolite? It sounds like a mineral. Here’s what I learned:

There is no such thing as chrysolite. Or rather, no one is entirely sure exactly what chrysolite is. It appears in the Old Testament, is referenced multiple times in the Bible, and seems to refer to what could be a fairly wide array of green minerals.

Chrysolite could be all kinds of things, including olivine and peridot. What I think is fantastic about its use in this poem is that it’s the last word, and it’s unclear exactly what it is. This fits beautifully and perfectly with the message of the poem. Dickinson starts by pondering and getting things wrong. “It can’t be summer,” and “it’s early yet for spring.” It’s as if she can’t pin down exactly where she is. She has some idea, but can’t articulate it precisely.

The poem ends with sunset shutting down her question with “clasps of chrysolite.” It’s perfectly fitting that her unanswerable question–or her question with an unspeakable answer–should be locked down with clasps of some mysterious substance whose exact name and nature we can only guess at. There’s Biblical resonance to chrysolite, there are loads of suggestions and possibilities–but in the end, we, like the speaker of this poem, can’t know exactly what she’s talking about.

I love how often Dickinson engages with the idea of the unknowable, the inexpressible. It’s a side of her I wasn’t aware of when I began this project nearly a year ago.

just a drop

Victory comes late,
And is held low to freezing lips
Too rapt with frost
To take it.
How sweet it would have tasted,
Just a drop!
Was God so economical?
His table’s spread too high for us
Unless we dine on tip-toe.
Crumbs fit such little mouths,
Cherries suit robins;
The eagle’s golden breakfast
Strangles them.
God keeps his oath to sparrows,
Who of little love
Know how to starve!

~Emily Dickinson
Image via Pexels.com

In my senior year of college, I played Emily Dickinson in the play Come Slowly, Eden. This was one of many Dickinson poems that were part of the script. It has stuck with me ever since.

There is something very raw about this poem. It doesn’t follow Dickinson’s usual meter. There’s no real rhyme or slant rhyme. It’s as if the words are pouring forth unchecked.

Yet it’s carefully constructed. Case in point: the phrase “rapt with frost.” “Rapt” here is “spellbound,” “transported,” “silenced.” It’s a homophone, however, for “wrapped,” which works equally well, and the sound of one is surely meant to recall the sound of the other.

Dickinson’s questioning of religion is on full display here, too. The notion of God as “economical” at the expense of compassion is piercing, as is the implication that God “keeps his oath to sparrows” but not human beings.

It’s a powerful poem. There’s something extremely Romantic about it–a spontaneous outpouring of powerful emotions. I love it–and it chills me to the bone.

a way of persons outside windows

I had been hungry all the years;
My noon had come, to dine;
I, trembling, drew the table near,
And touched the curious wine.

’T was this on tables I had seen,
When turning, hungry, lone,
I looked in windows, for the wealth
I could not hope to own.

I did not know the ample bread,
’T was so unlike the crumb
The birds and I had often shared
In Nature’s dining-room.

The plenty hurt me, ’t was so new,—
Myself felt ill and odd,
As berry of a mountain bush
Transplanted to the road.

Nor was I hungry; so I found
That hunger was a way
Of persons outside windows,
The entering takes away.

~Emily Dickinson
Image via Pexels.com

If I’ve learned anything about Emily Dickinson over the course of this year of an Emily poem a day, it’s that there are vastly more Dickinsons than I realized when I began this project. This is a very specific one of them–the I-got-what-I-thought-I-wanted-and-realized-I-don’t-want-it Dickinson.

On one level, this is simply that. A hungry person, upon having food made available to her, realizes it isn’t as appetizing as she imagined it would be. So often we long for something, only to be disappointed upon receiving it.

But there’s much more going on here. In the third stanza, the speaker metions “Nature’s dining-room,” where she shared her meager crumbs with birds. Upon leaving nature and entering into human habitation, she becomes disconnected from the natural world, from the birds and from the just-enough that nature offers–in other words, just what we need, without the excess that many of us have come to expect from our civilized lives.

from frost

Some, too fragile for winter winds,
The thoughtful grave encloses,—
Tenderly tucking them in from frost
Before their feet are cold.

Never the treasures in her nest
The cautious grave exposes,
Building where schoolboy dare not look
And sportsman is not bold.

This covert have all the children
Early aged, and often cold,—
Sparrows unnoticed by the Father;
Lambs for whom time had not a fold.

~Emily Dickinson
Image via Pexels.com

Well, this is Christmassy. A poem about dead children, cold in the grave. Sheesh, Emily. What’s most notable about this poem, though, is that it reads like the kid version of “Because I could not stop for Death.” The grave/death is depicted as a kind caretaker, gently tucking them in, protecting them from the harshness of life. It provides safe harbor, a place where nothing can find or harm them.

And then there’s the ending. Dickinson ends this one with a little heresy. Describing the dead children Biblically as “lambs” and “sparrows,” she says that they are “unnoticed by the Father,” contradicting the Biblical passage about how no sparrow falls unnoticed by God, and all the Biblical references to God as loving shepherd who lets no sheep become lost.

What to do with this? Dickinson argues that death is kinder to these lost lambs than God–more attentive and protective. One can only wonder what her preacher father would have thought of such a poem, how Puritan New England would have received it. Maybe Dickinson tied up her poems and tucked them away not because she wanted to remain anonymous, but because she knew her world wasn’t ready for them.

Friendship

My friend must be a bird,
Because it flies!
Mortal my friend must be,
Because it dies!
Barbs has it, like a bee.
Ah, curious friend,
Thou puzzlest me!

~Emily Dickinson

This poem perfectly captures the perplexing aspects of human friendship. Friends fly away, they die, they leave, they wound. They can puzzle us infinitely, because they, like us, are human and contradictory. No one has the power to injure us quite like someone we love.

This poem appears in collections of Dickinson’s poetry with love poems, and perhaps it is one–but it could be true of any kind of human relationship.

Summer’s last rites

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THE GENTIAN weaves her fringes,
The maple’s loom is red.
My departing blossoms
Obviate parade.

A brief, but patient illness, 5
An hour to prepare;
And one, below this morning,
Is where the angles are.

It was a short procession,—
The bobolink was there, 10
An aged bee addressed us,
And then we knelt in prayer.

We trust that she was willing,—
We ask that we may be.
Summer, sister, seraph, 15
Let us go with thee!

In the name of the bee
And of the butterfly
And of the breeze, amen!

~Emily Dickinson

This is a fascinating poem. Its basic meaning is clear–it’s about the passage of summer into autumn, the beginning of the slow death of the year that somehow creeps up on us every trip around the sun.

The first stanza lays out botanical cues that summer is ending. I had to look up gentian (a flower/herb). I don’t know what to make of the second stanza, with its “below this morning” and being “where the angles are.” Something about the angle of the light, maybe?? No idea on this one.

As a beekeeper, I love the third, middle stanza, with its “aged bee” as the officiant of summer’s funeral. The notion of an aged bee is rich with meaning. At the risk of falling down a bee-geek hole, it’s worth noting that honeybees during the summer live for a matter of weeks, due to the stresses of their constant foraging, but during the winter they can live for months. Ironically, the “harder” time of the year is not their harder time. Still, even a life-span of months hardly seems “aged,” and I suspect Dickinson is using the word ironically to show how quickly summer seems to pass.

In the fourth stanza, the speaker expresses a desire to follow summer to wherever it’s gone, rather than remain for the long winter. Relatable. The line “Summer, sister, seraph” echoes the structure and rhythm of her poem that begins, “I never lost as much but twice.” The penultimate line of that one is “Burglar, banker, father,” and I can’t read this one without hearing echoes of that one, which is also about loss–but of a person rather than a season.

The final stanza of this poem is especially effective. The rhyme scheme, which has been mostly slant up to this point, suddenly disappears. Four-line stanzas abruptly give way to a three-line mock liturgy. The poem, like summer itself, is cut short.

Good-by to men

A TRAIN went through a burial gate,
A bird broke forth and sang,
And trilled, and quivered, and shook his throat
Till all the churchyard rang;

And then adjusted his little notes,
And bowed and sang again.
Doubtless, he thought it meet of him
To say good-by to men.

~Emily Dickinson
Image via Pexels.

Here’s the first of our October graveyard poems. There will be quite a lot of them because, you know, Emily Dickinson and all. This one is really more charming than spooky, though–the little bird, proud of his song, singing off the departed human. Leave it to Emily Dickinson to write an adorable poem on the subject of death.