If I may have it when it’s dead


If I may have it, when it’s dead,
I’ll be contented—so—
If just as soon as Breath is out
It shall belong to me—

Until they lock it in the Grave,
‘Tis Bliss I cannot weigh—
For tho’ they lock Thee in the Grave,
Myself—can own the key—

Think of it Lover! I and Thee
Permitted—face to face to be—
After a Life—a Death—We’ll say—
For Death was That—
And this—is Thee—

I’ll tell Thee All—how Bald it grew—
How Midnight felt, at first—to me—
How all the Clocks stopped in the World—
And Sunshine pinched me—’Twas so cold—

Then how the Grief got sleepy—some—
As if my Soul were deaf and dumb—
Just making signs—across—to Thee—
That this way—thou could’st notice me—

I’ll tell you how I tried to keep
A smile, to show you, when this Deep
All Waded—We look back for Play,
At those Old Times—in Calvary,

Forgive me, if the Grave come slow—
For Coveting to look at Thee—
Forgive me, if to stroke thy frost
Outvisions Paradise!

~Emily Dickinson

One last creepy poem for your Halloween reading–enjoy!

The pantomime

I breathed enough to learn the trick,
And now, removed from air,
I simulate the breath so well,
That one, to be quite sure

The lungs are stirless, must descend Among the cunning cells,
And touch the pantomime himself.
How cool the bellows feels!

~Emily Dickinson

In this poem, the speaker describes herself as lifeless, though of course she is alive. Dickinson seems to be describing a deep depression, the kind that makes one feel dead while still technically living.

This, I think, is the official take on this poem. What’s interesting to me, though, obsessed as I am at the moment with all things spooky and eerie, is all the details that suggest that she really is not alive–that we’re listening to a ghost.

She tells us that she did breathe, once, but is now “removed from air.” In the second stanza she insists that she looks so alive that one “must descend” into the cells of her lungs to realize that she is not, in fact, actually breathing. She is a pantomime of human life, her “bellows” “cool” to the touch.

Sounds like a ghost to me.

That dark parade

THERE’S been a death in the opposite house
As lately as to-day.
I know it by the numb look
Such houses have alway.

The neighbors rustle in and out, 5
The doctor drives away.
A window opens like a pod,
Abrupt, mechanically;

Somebody flings a mattress out,—
The children hurry by; 10
They wonder if It died on that,—
I used to when a boy.

The minister goes stiffly in
As if the house were his,
And he owned all the mourners now, 15
And little boys besides;

And then the milliner, and the man
Of the appalling trade,
To take the measure of the house.
There ’ll be that dark parade 20

Of tassels and of coaches soon;
It ’s easy as a sign,—
The intuition of the news
In just a country town.

~Emily Dickinson

There is so, so much very deeply creepy stuff going on in this poem.

It’s frequently anthologized, but I know it best by just that first line. I didn’t remember all the disturbing detail from my past encounters with this poem–just that first line. The first stanza is interesting, with its suggestion that what transpires within a house affects the appearance of its exterior. This works on a symbolic level, too–what happens within us can be written on our faces, or at least give off a feel that hints at what’s going on inside.

The second and third stanzas, though, are where things really start to get dark. The second stanza ends with a window opening “like a pod,” and I am too much a product of my times not to imagine some kind of sci-fi business there. In the third stanza, the mattress of the deceased goes flying out that window, and the speaker identifies with children wondering “if It died on that.” Shudder. The dehumanizing of the dead person is brief but chilling. And then we learn that the speaker, in a rare twist from Dickinson’s usual M.O., is male.

Then we get the litany of the folks in all the death-related trades who enter the house, and things do not get less unsettling. The minister goes in as if he owns the house, mourners, and all the little boys, too. The milliner (why do we need a hat??) and “the man/Of the appalling trade,” presumably the funeral director, then enter.

The speaker ends by imagining the “dark parade” that is about to transpire, and then pulls back the focus by presenting this as just one of many such incidents “in just a country town.”

In many of Dickinson’s poems about the deaths of individuals, the focus is entirely on the deceased and that person’s impact on those s/he left behind. This poem is different–the deceased is never even really described as human. The entire thrust of the poem is toward the wrongness of death, the dehumanization of it.

It’s a disturbing poem on many levels.

Spider

The spider as an artist
Has never been employed
Though his surpassing merit
Is freely certified

By every broom and Bridget Throughout a Christian land.
Neglected son of genius,
I take thee by the hand.

~Emily Dickinson
I mean. Look at thos eyelashes. ❤
Image via Pexels.com

Dickinson does not shy away from critters that make others squirm. In that sense, this poem recalls “A narrow fellow in the grass.” But it’s quite different, aside from taking on a subject that squicks out many people.

The first stanza establishes the spider as an artist. The speaker goes on to argue that the worth of the spider is proved by brooms and those who wield them. It’s a fun little tongue-in-cheek moment–the playful side of Dickinson that is often present but that doesn’t seem to get as much attention as the angst because angst is Serious Literary Business.

The final image of Dickinson taking the spider by the hand is similarly playful, and her final epithet for the creature is marvelous–“neglected son of genius.” This is some much-needed spider appreciation, and I am here for it.

not Death

It was not Death, for I stood up,
And all the Dead, lie down –
It was not Night, for all the Bells
Put out their Tongues, for Noon.

It was not Frost, for on my Flesh
I felt Siroccos – crawl –
Nor Fire – for just my marble feet
Could keep a Chancel, cool –

And yet, it tasted, like them all,
The Figures I have seen
Set orderly, for Burial
Reminded me, of mine –

As if my life were shaven,
And fitted to a frame,
And could not breathe without a key,
And ’twas like Midnight, some –

When everything that ticked – has stopped –
And space stares – all around –
Or Grisly frosts – first Autumn morns,
Repeal the Beating Ground –

But most, like Chaos – Stopless – cool –
Without a Chance, or spar –
Or even a Report of Land –
To justify – Despair.

~Emily Dickinson

This is the Poe poem of Dickinson poems. So many fantastic details: hot breezes that “crawl” across the flesh, cold feet, bodies laid out for burial, a claustrophobic framing of a life, “grisly frosts,” the silence of a midnight when “everything that ticked – has stopped,” and space staring back at us.

The speaker insists that she’s not dead, but details all the parallels between her own state and death, while also outlining the differences. She is in a moment of existential crisis–a moment of perfect silence when she is left utterly alone with herself in the universe. What is the crisis, precisely? It’s not until the final stanza that she breaks from describing the symptoms to identify the disease, the dis – ease. She is “Without a Chance, or spar – Or even a Report of Land.” In the final line, the final word, of the poem, she names the answer to the riddle.

Necromancer, landlord

What inn is this
Where for the night
Peculiar traveller comes?
Who is the landlord?
Where the maids?
Behold, what curious rooms!
No ruddy fires on the hearth,
No brimming tankards flow.
Necromancer, landlord,
Who are these below?

~Emily Dickinson
Image via Pexels.com

When this project began, I knew Emily Dickinson was into death, but I had no idea just how good she was at being creepy. This poem is no exception. I assume this poem is about death/the grave, but my imagination keeps snagging on the phrase “Necromancer, landlord.” A necromancer is someone who communicates with the dead as a magical practice, presumably a living someone. Is the necromancer the keeper of the graveyard? Or someone/something more nebulous? Who knows? What I do know is that the image of the necromantic keeper of this macabre hotel “below” makes for a wonderfully creepy poem.

One need not be a chamber to be haunted

One need not be a chamber to be haunted,
One need not be a house;
The brain has corridors surpassing
Material place.

Far safer, of a midnight meeting External ghost,
Than an interior confronting
That whiter host.

Far safer through an Abbey gallop,
The stones achase,
Than, moonless, one’s own self encounter
In lonesome place.

Ourself, behind ourself concealed,
Should startle most;
Assassin, hid in our apartment,
Be horror’s least.

The prudent carries a revolver,
He bolts the door,
O’erlooking a superior spectre
More near.

~Emily Dickinson
Image via Pexels.com

I have very little to say about this one. It’s perfect, really, and completely true. We are the most terrifying spectres we will ever meet. Humans can be haunted by the past, by the undone, by the unrealized. Our minds are more expansive than any construction, and so are vastly more capable of housing ghosts. The lines about encountering oneself in a lonesome place on a moonless night are especially vivid. We hide our true selves behind our external selves, and what we carry inside us should concern us more than any outer threat.

Though I doubt Dickinson was thinking specifically about writing and scary stories with this one, it also works on that kind of meta-level–we carry within us all the scary stories we are capable of creating.