a way of persons outside windows

I had been hungry all the years;
My noon had come, to dine;
I, trembling, drew the table near,
And touched the curious wine.

’T was this on tables I had seen,
When turning, hungry, lone,
I looked in windows, for the wealth
I could not hope to own.

I did not know the ample bread,
’T was so unlike the crumb
The birds and I had often shared
In Nature’s dining-room.

The plenty hurt me, ’t was so new,—
Myself felt ill and odd,
As berry of a mountain bush
Transplanted to the road.

Nor was I hungry; so I found
That hunger was a way
Of persons outside windows,
The entering takes away.

~Emily Dickinson
Image via Pexels.com

If I’ve learned anything about Emily Dickinson over the course of this year of an Emily poem a day, it’s that there are vastly more Dickinsons than I realized when I began this project. This is a very specific one of them–the I-got-what-I-thought-I-wanted-and-realized-I-don’t-want-it Dickinson.

On one level, this is simply that. A hungry person, upon having food made available to her, realizes it isn’t as appetizing as she imagined it would be. So often we long for something, only to be disappointed upon receiving it.

But there’s much more going on here. In the third stanza, the speaker metions “Nature’s dining-room,” where she shared her meager crumbs with birds. Upon leaving nature and entering into human habitation, she becomes disconnected from the natural world, from the birds and from the just-enough that nature offers–in other words, just what we need, without the excess that many of us have come to expect from our civilized lives.

meek mornings

The morns are meeker than they were – 
The nuts are getting brown –
The berry’s cheek is plumper –
The rose is out of town.

The maple wears a gayer scarf –
The field a scarlet gown –
Lest I sh’d be old-fashioned 
I’ll put a trinket on. 

~Emily Dickinson

5:59 a.m. The sun has not yet risen, has not sent even a whisper of pink over the horizon. A month ago the skies would have been a riot of predawn color, the birds jubilant. Meeker now, indeed.

These are strange and precious days–the adolescent days of autumn, as awkward and unpredictable as a child growing into her skin. Like an almost-teen, these autumn/summer days sometimes hang on to the past like grim death, refusing to acknowledge that change is inevitable. Other times, they bolt forward, early out of the gate, overeager for whatever is next.

Here, autumn is having a Lost Boys moment, reluctant to grow up. The days have been swelteringly hot, not unusual for September but always disconcerting. It’s supposed to have been autumn for eight days now. It hasn’t felt like it.

Even so, the pumpkins are swelling in the garden. The hummingbirds who did battle over the feeder in the back yard haven’t shown themselves for a few days. The Canada geese who raised their family in the cattle pond down the road have been gone for a while now.

Things are shifting. The world tilts, spins, shifts, rebels a little against the sun. Meek mornings are a sign of silent insurrection, not of any underlying actual meekness.

The dark days are coming. They are here. Let us light candles and bonfires in the darkness, draw close to hearth and home, bring in the harvest, and spin the long nights into stories.

Time trembles

LOOK back on time with kindly eyes,
He doubtless did his best;
How softly sinks his trembling sun
In human nature’s west!

~Emily Dickinson

Years ago, I worked as a professional organizer and time management consultant. As a fledgling organizer, I read books, took online courses, and absorbed as much as I could about the ways in which we use space and time, and how to make better use of them. This poem is recalling those experiences and that knowledge for me now, because it is a plea to humans to change their perspective of time, which is much of what time management consulting is about.

The fact that the speaker needs to begin this way–even needs to write this poem at all–says something about human nature. We tend not to “look back on time with kindly eyes.” We blame time for our own shortcomings–there wasn’t enough time, I didn’t have enough time, it took too much time, who has time for that? Time, rather than our own failure to use it wisely, takes the blame. I think a huge part of that is our own Western view of time as linear, as opposed to other ways of understanding time as a circle or spiral that loops back on itself.

Whenever we don’t have enough time, it’s not time itself that’s to blame. It’s our use of time–but it’s so much easier to just say, It’s not my fault, I didn’t get enough time.

The line about the “trembling sun” is especially evocative of our attitudes towards time. Why is the sun “trembling”–is it because we’ve exhausted time? because time has learned to fear us? a little of both? Either way, it doesn’t sound positive. With our attitudes toward and use of time, we make time itself tremble.

Which, sir, are you?

In lands I never saw, they say,
Immortal Alps look down,
Whose bonnets touch the firmament,
Whose sandals touch the town,—

Meek at whose everlasting feet
A myriad daisies play.
Which, sir, are you, and which am I,
Upon an August day?

~Emily Dickinson

One of the gorgeous things about poetry is that it often unfolds slowly, like a flower. You have to wait for it. Its meanings unfurl gradually, and you can read a poem several times before the magical reading that suddenly unlocks the final key to its meaning.

That has been my experience of this poem. I’ve read it several times while paging through my copy of Dickinson’s poem. Each time, I thought, “I have no idea what to do with this. It’s just Emily being all Emily in the most annoying way–“Big strong man, I am so small!”

Somehow, though, I read it yet again a few days ago and it fell open, like one of those puzzle boxes that unlatch easily the moment you hit on the right spot to press. This poem is Emily being all Emily, but in the best way.

It initially reads as flirty Emily, which is definitely not the Emily we’re all taught to know in English classes. She starts out sounding very innocent and ignorant: “In lands I never saw,” and follows it up with “they say,” suggesting that she’s getting her information secondhand, that she doesn’t probably really know what she’s talking about. She then proceeds to personify the Alps as if she has seen them, right down to the little daisies playing at their feet.

The Alps are “immortal,” they “look down,” their “bonnets touch the firmament,” their feet are “everlasting.” They stand in stark contrast to the “meek” daisies playing around them. The Alps are eternal, the daisies fleeting.

Dickinson ends her poem with a question to an unnamed man: “Which, sir, are you, and which am I,/ Upon an August day?” It’s this question that truly unlocks the meaning of the poem, like that last little piece you press on the puzzle box when you’ve just about given up.

The tone here is so flirty and coy. Of course she’s the daisies and he’s the immortal Alps. She’s flattering him, setting him up.

But.

She poses the question, and it’s the fact that it is a question that unlocks the wonderful subversiveness of this poem. The man is going to read this and think, “I’m the Alps, duh!” But Dickinson’s ending with the question itself makes us ask. Which one is which? The fact that the end of the poem is a question mark opens it up to interpretation. What if he’s the daisies and she’s the Alps? What if the woman is eternal and powerful and not the man?

But again, she ends with a question, and this to me is the real meaning and genius of the poem. The fact that she does ask, that she does set up a potentially subversive answer, is important. The poem isn’t really about who’s the Alps and who’s the daisies–it’s about the fact that she dares to pose this as a question in the first place.

Perspective

IT makes no difference abroad,
The seasons fit the same,
The mornings blossom into noons,
And split their pods of flame.


Wild-flowers kindle in the woods,
The brooks brag all the day;
No blackbird bates his jargoning
For passing Calvary.


Auto-da-fé and judgment
Are nothing to the bee;
His separation from his rose
To him seems misery.

~Emily Dickinson

I had to look up “auto-da-fé,” and wow. Basically, it’s an allusion to the Inquisition. You can read a definition here.

That one word crystallizes the meaning of the poem. Dickinson is comparing the eternal cycles of nature to the most extreme that humanity has to offer–Calvary, the Inquisition–and concluding that really, none of that human stuff matters to nature. Our doings, which seem so momentous to us, are nothing to nature. Our beliefs, religions, dogmas, don’t matter beyond ourselves.

On one hand, it’s a terrifying thought–everything we get so riled up about doesn’t really matter in the end, or at least doesn’t matter beyond ourselves. On the other hand, it’s comforting–perhaps a little bit of much-needed perspective. The world will go on without us.

The mystery of a face

A face devoid of love or grace,
A hateful, hard, successful face,
A face with which a stone
Would feel as thoroughly at ease
As were they old acquaintances,—
First time together thrown.

~Emily Dickinson

What a description–not even a complete sentence, yet thoroughly damning. The juxtaposition of “hateful” and “hard” with “successful” is especially interesting. I wonder who she’s talking about…did she have someone specific in mind, someone she knew? Was it a face glimpsed in passing on a street? Or is it merely a face imagined?

Your prompt: write a description of the person behind the face Dickinson is describing. Does the poet see that person as they are, or is there more behind that hard facade?