November left

The night was wide, and furnished scant
With but a single star,
That often as a cloud it met
Blew out itself for fear.

The wind pursued the little bush,
And drove away the leaves
November left; then clambered up
And fretted in the eaves.

No squirrel went abroad;
A dog’s belated feet
Like intermittent plush were heard
Adown the empty street.

To feel if blinds be fast,
And closer to the fire
Her little rocking-chair to draw,
And shiver for the poor,

The housewife’s gentle task.
“How pleasanter,” said she
Unto the sofa opposite,
“The sleet than May—no thee!”

~Emily Dickinson
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This is a perfect poem for the start of December, in so many ways. Dickinson begins with the image of a vast night whose darkness is interrupted only by a lone star–and that star is frequently obscured by scudding clouds. With the personification of the star as fearfully extinguishing itself, the poet captures the very human sense of apprehension many of us feel as we approach the darkest day of the year.

November in this poem is like a small, disgruntled creature–it leaves, but then doesn’t, climbing up into the eaves to linger and fret. Just as there is but a lone star in the sky, there is a single living creature out on this dark, cold night–a dog, returning home late, padding almost silently along. Does plush make a sound? The speaker says it does–but it must be a sound that is all but silent. With the wind blowing, how could anyone hear that plush?

In the last two stanzas, the speaker brings us inside a home, where a houswife’s duties are to make sure the blinds are fastened against the night and weather, and to “shiver for the poor.” In the final stanza, the woman addresses “the sofa opposite”–presumably there is someone there? Her spouse? A child? A friend? Maybe a cat or dog?? She remarks that the inclement weather is more pleasant than May. It’s an interesting comment–on one hand, it’s unexpected. Of course May is more pleasant. But for the housewife, May likely means all manner of chores, while the sleet affords her the opportunity to sit, cozy by the fire.

The last line, however–or rather, the last two words–are perplexing. The housewife says that the sleet is more pleasant than May, and then adds, “no thee!” She’s addressing the sofa opposite, and if there’s someone on it, what do we make of this remark? Is she saying, “No, you are more pleasant than May,” or is she saying that sleet is more pleasant than May because there is now “no thee”? She could either be complimenting or issuing a Dickinson-style burn. I really can’t tell which one. What do you think?

Irrevocable

YOU cannot put a fire out;
A thing that can ignite
Can go, itself, without a fan
Upon the slowest night.

You cannot fold a flood
And put it in a drawer,—
Because the winds would find it out,
And tell your cedar floor.

~Emily Dickinson

What a weird and wondrous little poem. “You cannot put a fire out”? But you can. I’m not initially sure what Dickinson is getting at here. She begins by saying you can’t put out a fire, but goes on to say that a thing that can ignite can burn without help. I’m not sure how these two ideas are connected, besides both being about fire.

In the second stanza, she goes on to say that you cannot “fold a flood” and put it away. This makes more sense. But then she gives her reason–you can’t do this because the winds would find out and tell your floor? The “cedar” here feels forced, thrown in for the sake of the rhyme and nothing else.

What is this poem about? Dickinson seems to be saying that certain things are irrevocable–once out in the world, they cannot be taken back. Fire can burn unchecked once started, can rage out of control. Floods, too, cannot be controlled. I wonder if what she’s really talking about here is speech, language. Once said, a word cannot be unsaid. It can rage like a fire or a flood, and its originator can do nothing to check its spread. The winds telling the floor could be the power of rumor, the tendency of spoken words to spread beyond the speaker’s intended audience.

Fire

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

Emily Dickinson

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!!