Crescent

Each that we lose takes part of us;
A crescent still abides,
Which like the moon, some turbid night,
Is summoned by the tides.

~Emily Dickinson

We are carved out, hollowed by our losses. Each one chips away a little more at us, the lost one taking part of us with them to wherever souls go. But there is never nothing left. “A crescent still abides,” a sliver of light, of hope. And maybe, like the moon, it isn’t so much that we’re taken from as we’re obscured, darkened. Maybe everything is still there–just in shadow.

On this date

GLEE! the great storm is over!
Four have recovered the land;
Forty gone down together
Into the boiling sand.

Ring, for the scant salvation!
Toll, for the bonnie souls,—
Neighbor and friend and bridegroom,
Spinning upon the shoals!

How they will tell the shipwreck
When winter shakes the door,
Till the children ask, “But the forty?
Did they come back no more?”

Then a silence suffuses the story,
And a softness the teller’s eye;
And the children no further question,
And only the waves reply.

~Emily Dickinson

This poem reminds me of a song sung by William Pint and Felicia Dale, so I’m including the lyrics here in full, though there are rather a lot of them. They recount a true story–the loss of the British lifeboat The Mary Stanford on this date ninety-one years ago. It’s a tragic tale, made all the more tragic by the fact that the vessel which The Mary Stanford was sent out to rescue was already saved by the time the English lifeboat launched. It seems like the kind of story that would have struck a chord in Dickinson’s imagination.

When master John Stanford of London town died
They read out his will and his legacy spied
It said take this bequest for to build me a craft
So that with it my name shouldn’t die
And give it to the R.N.L.I.

So they fashioned a lifeboat of Liverpool class
38 feet from the stem to the aft
With a close reefed mainsail on a 20 foot mast
And to grant the last wish of his life
Named it Mary after his wife

She went into service in 1916
And 63 times from the boathouse she screamed
Cross the shale of Rye Bay
Through the teeth of the storm
And into the mouth of the waves
All sailors lives there to save

Johnny come home they all sing from the pier
On the 15th day of November each year
And one day the sea she will give up her dead
And home will come young Johnny Head
Home will come young Johnny Head

Young Johnny Head
Had just turned seventeen
And to serve on the lifeboat was
Young Johnny’s dream
His father was the coxswain
His brother in the crew
And to serve he was willing to die
On the Mary Stanford of Rye

On November 15th
With the storm at its height
The Alice of Riga was losing her fight
Seven miles from Dungeness
She was drifting and lost
And the crew prayed and cried
To the moon
That’s when they heard the maroon

It was four in the morning
When young Johnny Head
On hearing the signal
He leapt from his bed
With his father and brother
They ran like the wind
That whipped up the furious waves
But there were lives to be saved

To haul out the lifeboat
Took blood, sweat and tears
It took them two hours
Must have seemed like two years
Exhausted and spent, they set her afloat
And into the barbarous waves
Rowed Mary to Alice’s aid

It was 6:45 when the shoremen lost sight
of the Mary
As she pitched out into the night
And at 6:51 the coastguard he rang,
Saying “Stand down your lifeboatmen
brave
For the Alice is already saved.”

Nobody knows from that day to this,
Why the coastguard got word
At eleven past six
But the message he kept forty minutes
or more
While seventeen brave men of Rye
Rowed into the tempest to die

It was almost noon on the terrible morn
And the families and launch crew had
Waited since dawn
When suddenly somebody
Pointed and cried
And there in the surf and the spray
The Mary Stanford she lay

Her body was battered
Her keel was upright
No close-reefed mainsail
No crewman in sight
They hauled her ashore
And they knelt round and prayed
Then gazed out again at the main
And the tears they ran like the rain

Then one by one
The sea gave up her dead
First Willie Clark then young Jimmy Head
Then Albert and Rob, the two Cutting boys
And three from the Pope family
And nine more sons of the sea

But young Johnny Head
He never came home
He lies out somewhere in the ocean alone
His comrades lie buried
In the churchyard at Rye
And they keep him a space for his bed
One day they’ll find Johnny Head

So the next time you sail
Around Hastings and Rye
Look to the distance and keep out an eye
And if you see a young man from the R.N.L.I.
Standing guard over the foam
You’ll know that Johnny’s come home

~Allen Maslen, “The Mary Stanford of Rye”

सगरमाथा (Sagarmatha)

I CAN wade grief,
Whole pools of it,—
I ’m used to that.
But the least push of joy
Breaks up my feet, 5
And I tip—drunken.
Let no pebble smile,
’T was the new liquor,—
That was all!

Power is only pain, 10
Stranded, through discipline,
Till weights will hang.
Give balm to giants,
And they ’ll wilt, like men.
Give Himmaleh,— 15
They ’ll carry him!

~Emily Dickinson
Mount Everest image via Pixabay.

Today’s post is going to be a footnote of sorts. I love this poem, and there are all kinds of things to say about it, but I think it also speaks for itself, so I’m going to have fun getting into the weeds a bit instead.

I fell down a rabbit-hole with this one. First I had to Google “Himmaleh.” Turns out it’s Himalaya, but closer to the Sanskrit word. This word is actually two words combined, and they mean “winter house,” which is completely lovely. The Himalayas could very well be winter’s home base.

Then, of course, I had to look up the true name of Mount Everest. It annoys me when people rename places that don’t belong to them, and “Mount Everest” is a prime example. It is decidedly not a “Mount Everest.” Its name is Sagarmatha, which means “Peak of Heaven” and is a vastly preferable and more evocative name.

I think about this kind of thing often–how we call places by the names some white explorer gave them, and not by their true names. I’ve often wondered why we can’t just call countries what the people living in them call them. What is it, this need to rename things in our own image? Does it make them more understandable? More accessible? More easy to fit in a box? Why is Deutschland “Allemagne” in French and “Germany” in English?

Why can’t we just call things by their names? I like that in this poem, Dickinson uses “Himmaleh.”

The griefs

I measure every grief I meet
With analytic eyes;
I wonder if it weighs like mine,
Or has an easier size.

I wonder if they bore it long, 5
Or did it just begin?
I could not tell the date of mine,
It feels so old a pain.

I wonder if it hurts to live,
And if they have to try, 10
And whether, could they choose between,
They would not rather die.

I wonder if when years have piled—
Some thousands—on the cause
Of early hurt, if such a lapse 15
Could give them any pause;

Or would they go on aching still
Through centuries above,
Enlightened to a larger pain
By contrast with the love. 20

The grieved are many, I am told;
The reason deeper lies,—
Death is but one and comes but once,
And only nails the eyes.

There ’s grief of want, and grief of cold,—
A sort they call “despair”;
There ’s banishment from native eyes,
In sight of native air.

And though I may not guess the kind
Correctly, yet to me 30
A piercing comfort it affords
In passing Calvary,

To note the fashions of the cross,
Of those that stand alone,
Still fascinated to presume 35
That some are like my own.

~Emily Dickinson

My first thought is that this is an uncharacteristically long Dickinson poem. That makes sense, given the subject matter. This is Dickinson’s jam, this dwelling on pain.

My next thought is that this whole poem is basically riffing on the old saw that “misery loves company.” That’s not it exactly, of course, but I think the poem and the platitude are touching on the same general human tendency. When we’re suffering, it’s a perverse kind of comfort to know that others are, too, and to wonder about the precise nature of their pain.

I am writing this on Day 3 of a particularly nasty head cold. Also Day 3 of my back going out. Also Day 3 since the realization that I am way out of shape and I need to get myself in gear unless I want to continue throwing out my back. Good times. In the vast scheme of things, these are very small sorrows. But they are mine, dammit, and they are eating my brain at the moment.

Dickinson’s poem is a reminder that we don’t suffer alone–well, that we do, but that we are never the only ones suffering. What saddens me about this poem, though, is the sense I get from it that we will never truly understand one another’s griefs, no matter how much we may try.

This is one of those poems that makes me want to go out and defy it. While the speaker doesn’t seem to ever succeed in understanding the sufferings of those around her, it also seems that she’s relying on observation alone–she keeps wondering, guessing–but never once is there a suggestion that she sits down with anybody else and just listens.

So I think, today, in the midst of my own small griefs, that that’s this poem’s lesson for me. Maybe we can’t ever really understand each other–but we’re certainly not going to get there without trying.

‘Tis harder knowing…

While I was fearing it, it came,
But came with less of fear,
Because that fearing it so long
Had almost made it dear.
There is a fitting a dismay,
A fitting a despair.
’T is harder knowing it is due,
Than knowing it is here.
The trying on the utmost,
The morning it is new,
Is terribler than wearing it
A whole existence through.

~Emily Dickinson

I don’t know, Emily…

I mean, I can see what she’s saying. We can become used to the idea of something dreaded via long anticipation. It can become familiar, almost comfortable. There is a difference between the shock of sudden calamity and its long, inevitable approach.

But I don’t know. Is this healthy, this getting used to awfulness? There’s something horribly resigned about the idea. The phrase “had almost made it dear” combined with the repetition of “fitting” makes me wonder if the speaker of the poem is one of those people who loves her grief, who clings to it as if it is loss that makes her who she is. We’ve all known them–those people who love their privation, who boast of how awful things are for them. Is this what Dickinson is saying? Is she speaking for herself? I don’t know.

It’s so hard to know anything, really, about this poet. She died nearly a hundred years before I was born. We know her through fragments–the back of a recipe here, an envelope there. How do you reconstruct a life?

In which we disagree about childhood

Softened by Time’s consummate plush,
How sleek the woe appears
That threatened childhood’s citadel
And undermined the years!


Bisected now by bleaker griefs,
We envy the despair
That devastated childhood’s realm,
So easy to repair.

~Emily dickinson

I’m going to have to take issue with The Myth on this one. Well, not so much take issue as offer an opposing viewpoint. The world is full of adult humans who would no doubt agree wholeheartedly with the sentiment expressed in this poem: when we’re children, we experience griefs and woes and setbacks that seemed enormous at the time, but now, in retrospect, are enviable in their simplicity, their relative mildness, to what we experience as adults.

But here’s the thing–I suspect that those adults who look back on childhood as some sort of golden age are the grownups who’ve forgotten what it was like to be a child. Perhaps childhood’s griefs–at least for the privileged some of us–are not as “serious” as adulthood’s, but that doesn’t mean they’re any less important or impactful. The storms that rock our childhoods mattered every bit as much then as adult ones do now, and they probably shaped us more, occurring as they did in our formative years.

How can anyone quantify anyone else’s grief, anyone else’s hardship? I frequently hear people–okay, women, it’s almost always women–comparing their griefs and losses to other people’s and concluding that other people have it worse, that they themselves should shut up and just be grateful. But there’s no yardstick for grief. We feel it how we feel it. And when we are children, we feel it keenly. It molds us, carves us, lathes us into what we will become. Childhood’s griefs are no less important that those of adulthood, no less “serious” just because they may appear lesser in magnitude to things that seem important to adults.

Adults too often have forgotten what’s truly important. It’s as if a veil settles over our eyes, clouding our vision of the world. We begin to accept that it’s the things of adulthood that matter, forgetting that entire world of childhood, the world that makes us. Childhood’s griefs are not necessarily “easier to repair”–I’d argue that they’re harder. There is no going back.

So, for all the grownups out there who remember what it was like to be a child, who consciously and eternally hold within their adult shells the children they were (and still are), I see you. Your childish griefs matter. They were real, and they are real. Don’t forget what it was to be a child. The children who have not yet hardened into adults need you to remember.