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.

Broadcloth Breasts

A shady friend for torrid days
Is easier to find
Than one of higher temperature
For frigid hour of mind.

The vane a little to the east
Scares muslin souls away;
If broadcloth breasts are firmer
Than those of organdy,

Who is to blame? The weaver?
Ah! the bewildering thread!
The tapestries of paradise
So notelessly are made!

~Emily dickinson

Pam: Oh, this one is oddn!It’s easier to find a shady friend on a hot day, than a warm friend on a cold one?

Brenna: I think so–“fair weather friends.” It’s easy to find friends who will stick with you when things are good. But those friends flee when they catch a whiff of trouble. And whose fault is it that some people are like this? God’s?? How weird! That is my paraphrase of this poem.

Pam: What are broadcloth breasts??

Brenna: I think broadcloth was cheaper/tougher than fine materials like organdy. More common. Less prestigious…but the less prestigious friends may be the better ones, the ones who are in it for the long haul. Just because someone looks pretty doesn’t mean they’re going to stick with you.

Pam: Fair. I get the broadcloth/organdy comparison. But. Breasts?

Brenna: “Breasts” because that’s where the heart is? But boy howdy, does that sound super-weird to modern ears.

Pam: It’s so bizarre. Like. Why not describe faces? Or hands? And muslin, of course, is both a fabric and the word you use for a test garment you make in order to insure that your pattern works.

Brenna: It is? I did not know that! Maybe the “muslin” friends, like the test garments, were never made to last.

Pam: Yes! I’m not sure how modern the terminology is to refer to test garments as muslins, but it’s used that way nowadays.

Brenna: I hope that meaning held back then–I think it adds a lot to the poem! Some friendships are never meant to last. They’re pleasant, surface relationships for pleasant, surface times. But when things get real, you need the broadcloth friends. The ones who will stick it out with you.

Pam: Ah! It’s so-called because garment makers typically used muslin, which was pretty cheap, to make the test garment. Then they could make the pattern again, with any adjustments, in the final material, which was probably more expensive. Yes! You want friends who can be made into sturdy bags. Not friends only good for party dresses.

Brenna: So maybe all friendships start as muslin ones? And some stand the test of time and become broadcloth. Some turn out to be organdy–pretty, but not lasting. Others just remain muslin. They never work out.

Pam: They’re basic friendships that don’t delve into anything deeper. Acquaintances, not kindred spirits.

Brenna: “Friends who can be made into sturdy bags”= my new favorite out-of-context quote.

Pam: You and I are BROADCLOTH.

Brenna: You know it!

Pam: I’m going to cross stitch that for you as a constant reminder of our weird friendship.

Brenna: That would be possibly the best gift of all time. You have to stitch it ON broadcloth.


Brenna: Have we discussed this poem enough? I think we have. Thanks for the firm broadcloth breasts, Emily.

Delight or pain?

Are friends delight or pain?
Could bounty but remain
Riches were good.

But if they only stay
Bolder to fly away,
Riches are sad.

~Emily Dickinson

Today, thank your delightful friends. Give thanks for the ones who will listen to you complain about having to do homework, who will talk you down when you’re freaking out about work, who appreciate you when it seems no one else does, who send you unexpected care packages and make you tea and make time for you. Thank the ones who are always there to remind you that you’re not a terrible human being, the ones who make you laugh until you cry. The ones who are honest. The ones who are real.

As for the other ones, well–let them fly away. If you have one true friend, you have riches indeed.



ELYSIUM is as far as to
The very nearest room,
If in that room a friend await
Felicity or doom.

What fortitude the soul contains,
That it can so endure
The accent of a coming foot,
The opening of a door!

~Emily Dickinson

Pam: Elysium can be really near if there’s a friend in it?

Brenna: This one is small yet fascinating. I don’t know what to make of this, but it’s interesting to me that the speaker poses two possibilities for the friend–“felicity or doom”–but only one for what that means to the speaker herself–“elysium.” What if the friend meets doom? This is the Schrodinger’s cat of Emily Dickinson poems–as long as you don’t know whether the friend is meeting felicity or doom, the room contains heaven. And doom. But heaven!

Pam: The speaker is in heaven because there’s a friend nearby. But there’s little regard for the friend’s situation.

Brenna: And how that affects the speaker. So very Emily. Heaven can be in the next room if the friend’s fate turns out well. But if not….she doesn’t offer the alternative. Perhaps it is too painful to consider.

Pam: And the second stanza seems to switch. Now it’s the friend enduring as they’re waiting for the door to open.

Brenna: Oh, I see how you’re reading it–if a friend is nearby, that’s heaven.

Pam: Yes! How do you read it?

Brenna: I read it as, “My friend is in the next room awaiting their fate. Heaven is possibly in that room–if all turns out well for them.” And I read the fortitude as hers while she waits to find out what will happen to the friend.

Pam: Oh, I see! Elysium is friend A going to comfort friend B, who is awaiting fate! That makes far more sense.

Brenna: I hate to say it, but either way she comes across as a bit of a jerk. It’s all about her.

Pam: She does! She’s fond of these tricky constructions, isn’t she?

Brenna: She does love her some convolution in tiny spaces. It’s very pat-myself-on-the-back. Humblebrag!! Emily mastered it long before social media. Reading an Emily Dickinson poem is like crawling around in a very tiny cave.

Pam: See, I read the fortitude as the friend’s awaiting the speaker.

Brenna: Oh, I read it as her waiting to find out–did the friend meet felicity or doom?

Pam: I love how we have such different readings for this short poem. That’s the magic of poetry. We get out what we put in. It can mean what we need it to mean.

Brenna: Yes! Either way you read it, though, she really doesn’t come across so well, does she? “My friend is in an agony of waiting for their own doom but THIS IS ABOUT ME.”

Pam: It is SO HARD when my friend is worrying.

Brenna: You’re having a bad day and that is so rough on me. But maybe I’m totally misreading. What if the elysium, too, is the friend’s perspective? “There could be heaven or hell in this room for my friend.” And then the second stanza, as you were saying, also makes sense from the friend’s perspective. She really does not exactly specify whose perspective this even is. EMILY. Is this poem about her wait, or her friend’s? Is it confusing on purpose? Does she mean for it to be read both ways?? Is the poem, perhaps, saying that when a friend suffers, we suffer, too, and so she actually confuses us as to perspective to create the illusion of being actually IN that situation?? Is she that meta??

What do you think?

The Moon

THE MOON was but a chin of gold
A night or two ago,
And now she turns her perfect face
Upon the world below.

Her forehead is of amplest blond;
Her cheek like beryl stone;
Her eye unto the summer dew
The likest I have known.

Her lips of amber never part;
But what must be the smile
Upon her friend she could bestow
Were such her silver will!

And what a privilege to be
But the remotest star!
For certainly her way might pass
Beside your twinkling door.

Her bonnet is the firmament,
The universe her shoe,
The stars the trinkets at her belt,
Her dimities of blue.

I wanted to find a moon poem for today, because with the Super Wolf Blood Moon coming tonight, it just felt appropriate. But I also wanted something about friendship, and I think this fits the bill there, too.

This is one of very few Dickinson poems that I feel I can understand on surface level. The narrator is musing on the moon; just a few nights ago, it was a crescent; now it’s full and bright and beautiful. The narrator describes the moon like a friend. She’s beautiful, yes, but the descriptions here don’t really veer into romantic, in my opinion. It’s more like looking at your beautiful friend and feeling lucky to be in her presence.

I’m feeling lucky for a lot of things this year. Lucky that I’m alive during a Super Wolf Blood Moon, which sounds so much like a 1980s cartoon I’m not sure it wasn’t actually one; lucky that I have a warm house to stand in while I peer through the window in my actual in-house library. Lucky to have too many books in my to-read pile. Lucky to have friends in all facets of my life–at church and at work, friends past and friends newer, friends I see around town and friends I know through the internet only.

I have a friend named Brenna. She’s an amazing mother to two smart, hilarious kids. She’s an accomplished baker. She’s a middle school French teacher, which means that she is infinitely patient. She is beautiful. She keeps bees and chickens, thereby making her basically a superhero and witch, and I mean those in the best way. She writes about beauty and pain and strength and makes me believe in all of this and more. She has an encouraging word for every disaster. She has excellent taste in books, jigsaw puzzles, chocolate, and tea. She makes my days better. She is my friend.

I hope that you have a friend like Brenna; I hope that you have somebody you look at the way this poem sees the moon.