This World is not Conclusion

This World is not Conclusion.
A Species stands beyond –
Invisible, as Music –
But positive, as Sound –
It beckons, and it baffles –
Philosophy, dont know –
And through a Riddle, at the last –
Sagacity, must go –
To guess it, puzzles scholars –
To gain it, Men have borne
Contempt of Generations
And Crucifixion, shown –
Faith slips – and laughs, and rallies –
Blushes, if any see –
Plucks at a twig of Evidence –
And asks a Vane, the way –
Much Gesture, from the Pulpit –
Strong Hallelujahs roll –
Narcotics cannot still the Tooth
That nibbles at the soul –

~Emily Dickinson
Image via Pexels.

The mystery of what comes after–this seems like a very Emily sort of poem, of wondering. The bulk of the poem seems to be contemplating the riddle of what follows this life–but the final lines throw it a bit up in the air. What is “the Tooth/That nibbles at the soul”? Through the rest of the poem, Dickinson seems to be expressing faith, if imperfect. But the last lines throw it all into question. Does she mean that the life after this one plucks at the soul, calling it? Or does she mean, by nibbling, that something is consuming the soul?

Ultimately, the poem, like its subject, is a sort of riddle. Dickinson is describing a mystery, and the point, perhaps, is not for us to know what that mystery is, but through her language to feel the wondering, the doubt, the confusion, the mystery itself.

streaks of meteor

Through the straight pass of suffering
The martyrs even trod,
Their feet upon temptation,
Their faces upon God.

A stately, shriven company;
Convulsion playing round,
Harmless as streaks of meteor
Upon a plant’s bound.

Their faith the everlasting troth;
Their expectation fair;
The needle to the north degree
Wades so, through polar air.

~Emily Dickinson
Image via Pexels.

This morning, I’m writing in a hospital room at the University of Virginia, where a loved one is recovering from a surgical procedure. All is well, no worries–but the act of writing from this semi-uncomfortable semi-padded bench is shifting my perspective.

I am committed to this year of a Dickinson poem a day. I’ve missed some days here and there due to illness or the general craziness of life, but I’ve gone back and caught up each time. Now, seventeen days from the end of the year, I am seventeen days away from a year of Dickinson’s poetry.

Pam and I began this project together. Life has gotten incredibly full for her, and I’ve been flying solo here for a while. Most days I blog shortly after I get up in the morning, before the chaos of the day takes hold. I find that on days when I don’t blog early, I’m liable to forget to do it at all.

There is a lot to be said for habit, for routine. I am a person who tends to resist any kind of daily challenge–draw daily, write daily, etc. It just doesn’t seem to fit with the way I work, with my personality and tendencies. But having done this for most of a year now, I understand better why a daily practice works for so many people. There is something comforting in it, something deeply stable, something that says that even if you’ve been sleeping on a minimally-padded bench in a maximally-frigid hospital room, there are constants, touchstones, things to circle back to. I get it now in a way I didn’t before.

My constants tend to be less daily and more widely cyclical–rituals for the new and full moons, the turning of the seasons, noticing the beings that come and go in my yard with changes in months and weather. I watch for the house wrens and catbirds in the spring as they seek out nesting sites.

And I wait for the meteor showers. The Perseids in the summer, and now the Geminids, streaking the sky silver on these darkest nights of the year. They peak this weekend, and though they may be difficult to see because of the full moon, I’m going to look for them anyway.

Tonight, hopefully, we’ll be home from the hospital. I will be clean, and warm. Scattered candles will be glowing, Christmas music playing, warm scents hovering on the air. I will step outside, the clear cold on my skin a revelation, and I will crane my neck back to scry the heavens for signs and portents. There is magic in the winter skies. You only have to look.

Two worlds

Departed to the judgment,
A mighty afternoon;
Great clouds like ushers leaning,
Creation looking on.

The flesh surrendered, cancelled,
The bodiless begun;
Two worlds, like audiences, disperse
And leave the soul alone.

~Emily Dickinson

At numerous times over the course of this year-long Emily Dickinson project, I have suspected that I am gradually becoming stupider. Some of Dickinson’s poems hit me like a flash of insight, clear and bracing. Others completely befuddle me, to the point that I wonder if I have forgotten how to word.

The first stanza of this poem is very straightforward. Of course it’s about death! The second stanza? Tricksier. Okay, death means the surrendering of the flesh, the beginning of a bodiless state. But what are the “Two worlds” that “disperse” “like audiences”? Has she named two worlds?

Maybe the two worlds are a reference to the “clouds,” representing heaven, and “Creation,” representing this life, in the first stanza. If this is the case, then what is Dickinson saying about death? That the soul after death has nothing to do with either this world or the next? It’s almost like this woman was not raised by a preacher. Or like she’s the stereotypical P.K., pushing allll the boundaries and challenging alll the beliefs.

Mushroom

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 Pexels.com.

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 little implement

Prayer is the little implement
Through which men reach
Where presence is denied them.
They fling their speech

By means of it in God’s ear;
If then He hear,
This sums the apparatus
Comprised in prayer.

~Emily Dickinson

Prayer can seem like such a small thing.

I have always had a sense of my own prayers as balloons, rising softly only to get stuck bumping around in a corner of the ceiling, never getting where they are supposed to be going. Other people’s prayers, I am certain, find their destination, wing their way right to where they’re supposed to be.

We fling our speech heavenward, hoping for an answer, a cure, absolution, redemption. Where does it go? Where do words go once they are spoken? Where does that sound go?

The “If” in the second and final stanza is so interesting to me. If God hears, then that is prayer. Prayer has been achieved. It isn’t prayer, apparently, if the “little implements” never arrive at their destination.

I wonder what I have been doing all this time.

too far!

I know that He exists.
Somewhere – in silence –
He has hid his rare life
From our gross eyes.

’Tis an instant’s play –
’Tis a fond Ambush –
Just to make Bliss
Earn her own surprise!

But – should the play
Prove piercing earnest –
Should the glee – glaze –
In Death’s – stiff – stare –

Would not the fun
Look too expensive!
Would not the jest –
Have crawled too far!

Emily Dickinson

It’s not just the mention of silence in the first stanza but also the continued metaphor of play and contrast between bliss and pain that calls to mind Robert Browning’s Tempest-inspired “Caliban upon Setebos.” In Browning’s poem Caliban, the monster enslaved by Prospero, muses on his understanding of the divine. It’s a fantastic poem–read it here, and see what you think.

Certain

I NEVER saw a moor,
I never saw the sea;
Yet know I how the heather looks,
And what a wave must be.

I never spoke with God, 5
Nor visited in heaven;
Yet certain am I of the spot
As if the chart were given.

~Emily Dickinson

Dickinson is wonderfully confounding. Sometimes I can’t for the life of me figure out what she’s talking about. Other times, it’s crystal clear. This is one of those clear ones. The diction and syntax are simple, almost childlike. This is a poem a young child could understand, and that fits with her theme of faith.

In this poem, the certainty of rhythm, rhyme, and syntax mirrors the certainty of the speaker. Hers is a childlike faith, which the Bible upholds as the exemplar for everyone. It’s a simple poem, but also masterful in its simplicity.