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.

Ghost

THE ONLY ghost I ever saw
Was dressed in mechlin,—so;
He wore no sandal on his foot,
And stepped like flakes of snow.
His gait was soundless, like the bird, 5
But rapid, like the roe;
His fashions quaint, mosaic,
Or, haply, mistletoe.

His conversation seldom,
His laughter like the breeze 10
That dies away in dimples
Among the pensive trees.
Our interview was transient,—
Of me, himself was shy;
And God forbid I look behind 15
Since that appalling day!

~Emily Dickinson

This is a fascinatingly spooky little poem. The first line is fantastic–“The only ghost I ever saw,” the speaker says, as if she might be expected to have seen many more–or as if she is recounting a shared experience. You’ve seen ghosts; I’ve seen one, too. This ghost, she tells us, “was dressed in mechlin,” a kind of lace. This seems to be the ghost of one long-dead–she identifies it as “he” but tells us additionally that not only is he quiet and fast, he is “quaint.”

In the second stanza, we get more information about the ghost’s behavior. He speaks seldom, but interestingly, he also laughs. The speaker tells us that the encounter was “transient,” as one might expect from a ghost.

There’s nothing about this particular ghost that seems disturbing, other than, of course, the obvious fact that he is a ghost. He converses, laughs a little, apparently goes on his way after a brief encounter. The speaker even tells us that the ghost was shy of her.

So the final two lines come as a bit of a twist: “God forbid I look behind/Since that appalling day!” Other than the fact of the ghost’s existence, there’s nothing about him that seems creepy or particularly threatening. The ghost himself appears afraid of the living. So why does the speaker suddenly do an about-face at the end, describing the meeting as “appalling,” and painting a picture of herself as terrified from that day forward to look behind her?

Perhaps it is precisely the ghost’s ordinariness that is distressing. This ghost is not anything more than the spirit of an ordinary human being–a person not unlike the speaker. He is a reminder of the speaker’s own mortality–an insistence that she, too, is never far from her own death, that death is something that waits for us all.

The stillest night

LET down the bars, O Death!
The tired flocks come in
Whose bleating ceases to repeat,
Whose wandering is done.

Thine is the stillest night,
Thine the securest fold;
Too near thou art for seeking thee,
Too tender to be told.

~Emily Dickinson

One of the things I’ve learned so far over the course of this year is that there are many iterations of Peak Emily. There’s the delighting-in-birds Emily. The angsty unrequited-love Emily. There’s the seemingly less well-known meta-Emily who thinks about the nature of thinking.

But always, always, there is in-love-with-death Emily. “Because I could not stop for death” has got to be the most famous of this iteration, but this poem is definitely in that vein. In this poem, however, death is not lover but shepherd. The Biblical allusion is clear. Dickinson paints a portrait of death that is at once restful and divine–Death here is essentially God himself.

As October poems go, this one is a bit of an odd choice, but it does have to do with death, and there is something admittedly creepy about anyone who seems happy about the idea that death is “too near…for seeking.”

The awful door

I YEARS had been from home,
And now, before the door,
I dared not open, lest a face
I never saw before

Stare vacant into mine 5
And ask my business there.
My business,—just a life I left,
Was such still dwelling there?

I fumbled at my nerve,
I scanned the windows near; 10
The silence like an ocean rolled,
And broke against my ear.

I laughed a wooden laugh
That I could fear a door,
Who danger and the dead had faced, 15
But never quaked before.

I fitted to the latch
My hand, with trembling care,
Lest back the awful door should spring,
And leave me standing there. 20

I moved my fingers off
As cautiously as glass,
And held my ears, and like a thief
Fled gasping from the house.

~Emily Dickinson

This is a poem about the fear of returning to a familiar place after a long absence, of course, but what my imagination has snagged on is line 15. “Who danger and the dead had faced”?? Who is this speaker? Emily Dickinson, Vampire Hunter?? She most likely means it in a much more prosaic way, but it’s still an intriguing line. There’s a whole mess of stories behind that line. What dangers has the speaker previously faced? What is so terrifying about facing the dead, especially if they’re just ordinary dead people and not zombies?

I have admittedly strayed down a quirky path with this one, but that line feels like such a tease. There is a lifetime of mystery implied by that line. All kinds of things we’re not allowed to know, because they’re not particularly germane to the message of the poem.

But it’s October, and I have spooky stuff on the brain, so I’m going to have fun imagining what the poet has left out.