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.

like flakes, like stars

They dropped like flakes, they dropped like stars,
Like petals from a rose,
When suddenly across the June
A wind with fingers goes.

They perished in the seamless grass,—
No eye could find the place;
But God on his repealless list
Can summon every face.

~Emily Dickinson
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What a shift this is from some of the other Dickinson death poems I’ve read so far this month! Unlike the God who lets children perish unremarked, the God of this poem remembers every face among those who have died. There must have been so much going on inside Dickinson’s head at any given time. I have to wonder if her poetry was an overpressure valve, a way to let out some of the bottled thought before she imploded.

I chose this poem for today not because of the death, though, or the theology, but for the mention of falling stars. The Geminid meteor shower is beginning. You can read about it here. It will be peaking this weekend, and while the waning full moon will make it harder to see meteors, some should be visible nonetheless, and the clear winter air will make up in part for the brightness of the moon.

A meteor is a strange and wondrous thing. Some no bigger than grains, they streak the sky, their death-throes moments of beauty and awe. Each trail of light is the flaming disintegration of a unique piece of matter that is no more. How like soldiers falling. How like a thousand, thousand deaths.

But there is so much beauty in this destruction. Each fall is a flash of wonder, a shred of insight into the workings of the deep heavens.

I hope you find some magic in the night sky.

just a drop

Victory comes late,
And is held low to freezing lips
Too rapt with frost
To take it.
How sweet it would have tasted,
Just a drop!
Was God so economical?
His table’s spread too high for us
Unless we dine on tip-toe.
Crumbs fit such little mouths,
Cherries suit robins;
The eagle’s golden breakfast
Strangles them.
God keeps his oath to sparrows,
Who of little love
Know how to starve!

~Emily Dickinson
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In my senior year of college, I played Emily Dickinson in the play Come Slowly, Eden. This was one of many Dickinson poems that were part of the script. It has stuck with me ever since.

There is something very raw about this poem. It doesn’t follow Dickinson’s usual meter. There’s no real rhyme or slant rhyme. It’s as if the words are pouring forth unchecked.

Yet it’s carefully constructed. Case in point: the phrase “rapt with frost.” “Rapt” here is “spellbound,” “transported,” “silenced.” It’s a homophone, however, for “wrapped,” which works equally well, and the sound of one is surely meant to recall the sound of the other.

Dickinson’s questioning of religion is on full display here, too. The notion of God as “economical” at the expense of compassion is piercing, as is the implication that God “keeps his oath to sparrows” but not human beings.

It’s a powerful poem. There’s something extremely Romantic about it–a spontaneous outpouring of powerful emotions. I love it–and it chills me to the bone.

grasped of God

Drowning is not so pitiful
As the attempt to rise.
Three times, ’t is said, a sinking man
Comes up to face the skies,
And then declines forever
To that abhorred abode

Where hope and he part company,—
For he is grasped of God.
The Maker’s cordial visage,
However good to see,
Is shunned, we must admit it,
Like an adversity.

~Emily Dickinson

I chose this one to continue November’s shipwreck theme, though this is perhaps stretching a little. What really strikes me about this poem, though, is the depiction of the divine.

The speaker begins by describing the human desire for life–a drowning man is said to rise three times, attempting to save himself. When he at last sinks, he descends “to that abhorred abode/Where hope and he , part company.” So far this seems pretty standard. The “abhorred abode” is death, and of course none of us are anxious to get there.

But then Dickinson explains what she’s really getting at–the man loses hope, “For he is grasped of God.” It’s because he’s meeting God that the drowning man despairs.

This is the opposite of how Christianity is supposed to work. The end goal is heaven, God, the divine, eternal life. But there is something deeply human in the tendency of even the most Christian souls to fight death. Christians are supposed to be happy to meet God. Despair is the opposite of faith. This poem takes what must have been a very rebellious view at the time–the notion that we should be glad to meet God, but instead we fight it tooth and nail.

Gentian

GOD made a little gentian;
It tired to be a rose
And failed, and all the summer laughed.
But just before the snows
There came a purple creature 5
That ravished all the hill;
And summer hid her forehead,
And mockery was still.
The frosts were her condition;
The Tyrian would not come 10
Until the North evoked it.
“Creator! shall I bloom?”

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Emily Dickinson apparently really liked gentians. I have only just learned of them this week. That’s about all I’ve got for today, because life has gotten zooey and I do not have time to contemplate gentians at the moment. Here’s hoping you’ve got a little more wiggle room!

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.

memory awake

Remorse is memory awake,
Her companies astir,—
A presence of departed acts
At window and at door.

Its past set down before the soul,
And lighted with a match,
Perusal to facilitate
Of its condensed despatch.

Remorse is cureless,—the disease
Not even God can heal;
For ’t is His institution,—
The complement of hell.

~Emily Dickinson

This is a fascinating poem. The notion that “Remorse is memory awake” rings very true–it’s when we remember that we regret, repent. Remorse sounds like an army in the first stanza, “Her companies astir,” and is also the “presence” of that which we thought was “departed.”

This all seems pretty straightforward and apt. It’s in the final stanza that things get really interesting. The speaker claims first that “Remorse is cureless,” which may be, but then goes on to argue that even God cannot heal it. This questioning of God’s omnipotence is very Dickinson. She then goes on to say that God cannot heal it because it is his own creation and “The complement of hell.”

There is so much going on here. God is powerless against remorse. God created remorse. Remorse is God’s, and is the complement of hell. A complement, according to Merriam-Webster, is ” something that fills up, completes, or makes better or perfect.” So remorse is the perfection of hell, completing it.

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.

Heaven below

Who has not found the heaven below
Will fail of it above.
God’s residence is next to mine,
His furniture is love.

~Emily Dickinson

Dickinson often seems to be dancing on or just over the edge of blasphemy. Heaven on earth? God’s residence here, among us? Yet there’s a lot of food for thought here, and in some ways the thrust of this poem is theologically extremely sound. We must make the world we wish for, and if heaven is our aspiration, well, that means we have our work cut out for us. If we don’t find heaven now, will we ever? And if we don’t recognize the divine in the midst of the profane, how will we ever recognize it at all?