YOU left me, sweet, two legacies,—
A legacy of love
A Heavenly Father would content,
Had He the offer of;

You left me boundaries of pain 5
Capacious as the sea,
Between eternity and time,
Your consciousness and me.

~Emily Dickinson

On Thursday night, I wound up in the emergency room. I’ve had my share of ER visits, all of which were scarier than this one. This time, my back gave out on me and the pain was so intense I passed out. My G.P.’s after-hours doctor said that I needed to go to the ER, so I went. It’s nothing life-threatening, nothing super-serious–but it’s the most blindingly, breathtakingly awful pain I’ve ever experienced.

I’m doing much better now, out of pain and taking it easy as my back heals. Of course, I’m thinking about pain, and disposed to take Dickinson’s words on the subject quite literally.

My ER diagnosis is sacroiliac joint dysfunction. This is pretty common, apparently, particularly among women. The first cause listed on my discharge instructions? Pregnancy. I cannot think of a more visceral link between pain and love.

I’m about 200% sure that this Emily Dickinson poem is not about having children and the love and pain that are inextricably alchemized through that process, but right now, that’s where I’m at with this poem–that’s what it holds for me in this moment. And I don’t think it really matters–what Dickinson’s getting at is that pain is part of love, that pain and love are equally products of our relationships with one another. There can be no love without the possibility for pain, and I’ve never heard of a pain-free relationship that was worth anything.


’T WAS a long parting, but the time
For interview had come;
Before the judgment-seat of God,
The last and second time

These fleshless lovers met,
A heaven in a gaze,
A heaven of heavens, the privilege
Of one another’s eyes.

No lifetime set on them,
Apparelled as the new
Unborn, except they had beheld,
Born everlasting now.

Was bridal e’er like this?
A paradise, the host,
And cherubim and seraphim
The most familiar guest.

~Emily dickinson

This one is titled “Resurrection” in my copy of Dickinson’s poems. “Perfect for Easter!” I thought, and then, “Oh, come on, Emily,” when I read it and saw that it is actually a love poem. Just when you think she can only write about death (or orioles) she takes death and turns it into a poem about undying love.

But then, when you think about it, isn’t that what Easter is–a love story?

“The Moon is distant from the Sea”

The Moon is distant from the Sea –
And yet, with Amber Hands –
She leads Him – docile as a Boy –
Along appointed Sands –

He never misses a Degree –
Obedient to Her eye –
He comes just so far – toward the Town –
Just so far – goes away –

Oh, Signor, Thine, the Amber Hand –
And mine – the distant Sea –
Obedient to the least command
Thine eye impose on me –

~Emily Dickinson

I chose this poem in honor of February’s full moon, the Snow Moon. Last night the clouds hung heavy with snow and the light of the moon, amber or otherwise, didn’t touch my little patch of earth. But the moon is still there, irrevocable as the tides, pulling and tugging at consciousness even when invisible.

This is yet another in the category of “Is It a Love Poem??” It easily could be, but the “Signor” could be God as easily as the beloved. Rather than comment on that, I want to focus instead on the gender reversal in this poem.

Dickinson begins with the Moon as “She” and the sea as “Him.” The moon has for thousands of years been associated with the feminine, so there’s nothing surprising her. The interesting thing happens in the third stanza–the female speaker takes the place of the masculine sea, and “Signor,” whoever he is, takes on the feminine role of the moon. I love this kind of gender-bending; it happens occasionally in Dickinson’s poems, and while I don’t know what exactly it means, I find it fascinating.

If we go with a religious reading, there’s precedent for this, of course, in descriptions of God as not only a masculine force, but also a mother bird gathering her chicks under the nurturing shelter of her wings. But why the gender reversal partway through the poem?

Maybe it’s because, in any sustained relationship, socially-constructed notions of gender have to blur from time to time. No one can be the sole nurturer; no one can be the sole protector. Our roles wax and wane over the cycles of time like the phases of the moon. Roles that are stereotypically “feminine” can and should be played by both partners in a relationship, and so should the stereotypically “masculine” ones. I can’t know if Dickinson was thinking anything along these lines, but the fact that she so easily compares the influence of the masculine (God, the beloved) to a feminine power (the moon) is suggestive.

There are so many interesting features in this poem–the gorgeous evocations of the moon’s amber light, the poignancy of the repeated emphasis on the impossible distance between the speaker and the object of her devotion, the sheer beauty of Dickinson’s language. No matter how you read it, it’s a lovely poem to read under the light of the full moon.

Prompt: Loyalty

SPLIT the lark and you’ll find the music,
Bulb after bulb, in silver rolled,
Scantily dealt to the summer morning,
Saved for your ears when lutes be old.

Loose the flood, you shall find it patent,
Gush after gush, reserved for you;
Scarlet experiment! sceptic Thomas,
Now, do you doubt that your bird was true?

Emily Dickinson

Continuing in the fashion of is-this-a-love-poem poems: is this a love poem? It seems more like an I-told-you-so poem. The speaker is telling an unnamed person that music can be found inside a lark, if you split it open. The music is described beautifully–“bulb after bulb, in silver rolled”–and it persists in memory even after the lark is gone. Consider, too, what happens if we unleash a flood: it does what floods do! It floods!

The speaker then closes with an address, referring to the unnamed as a “sceptic Thomas”–slightly off from the usual “doubting Thomas” that I’m used to hearing, but the meaning is the same. Thomas, who refused to believe that the risen Jesus was, in fact, the risen Jesus, until he could feel the wounds from the cross, inspires the narrator’s own doubter: where does the lark’s music really come from? What happens if I open this dam and let the water out?

The speaker in this poem is, I believe, the lark, but that’s a discussion for another day. What I find far more interesting is the idea of questioning how a thing works, and then destroying it to find its source: and, of course, losing the thing in the process.

For today’s prompt, consider some natural phenomenon that seems magical, and which you might be able to slice through to suss out its mysteries. What happens then? What do you learn, or keep, or not?



HE put the belt around my life,—
I heard the buckle snap,
And turned away, imperial,
My lifetime folding up
Deliberate, as a duke would do
A kingdom’s title-deed,—
Henceforth a dedicated sort,
A member of the cloud.

Yet not too far to come at call,
And do the little toils
That make the circuit of the rest,
And deal occasional smiles
To lives that stoop to notice mine
And kindly ask it in,—
Whose invitation, knew you not
For whom I must decline?

~Emily Dickinson

In a cursory search for information on this poem, what I’ve discovered is that, though it’s included among Dickinson’s love poems, interpretations seem to identify it as a poem about either the speaker’s devotion to God, or her devotion to her poetic calling. If it’s not a love poem, what is it doing with the other love poems?

This is an interesting example of the significance of context. Because I was thinking of it as a love poem, surrounded as it is in my text by love poems under the heading “LOVE,” I assumed this was a love poem and proceeded accordingly in my reading of it.

It’s a pretty terrible love poem.

The images are of constraint, ignoring, condescension. My 21st-century sensibility protests, “Nobody puts Emily in a corner–or in a belt–whatever!!” It’s not a love poem, I suppose, so much as a poem of devotion. But that devotion is enforced rather than chosen, and no matter how you read it, the “he” doesn’t come out looking so good.

It’s hard to separate my own knowledge and cultural context from this poem. Frankly, “he” sounds like an abuser. The speaker gets snapped into a belt, constrained, controlled. Her lifetime is folded up, she does little toils, she declines invitations because of “him.”

There is a strange sort of elitism in the speaker’s role, however constrained. She is “a member of the cloud.” This sense of a rarefied role–how sincere is it? How tongue-in-cheek? She declines a specific identity in the first stanza, identifying herself as “a dedicated sort.”

This is a strange, strange poem, and the more I read it and delve into it, the stranger it becomes. No matter how I read it, it feels deeply problematic. This one is definitely in the category of “love poems that probably aren’t actually love poems.”

In which we are not sure whether this is actually a love poem:


Have you got a brook in your little heart,
Where bashful flowers blow,
And blushing birds go down to drink,
And shadows tremble so?

And nobody, knows, so still it flows,
That any brook is there;
And yet your little draught of life
Is daily drunken there.

Then look out for the little brook in March,
When the rivers overflow,
And the snows come hurrying from the hills,
And the bridges often go.

And later, in August it may be,
When the meadows parching lie,
Beware, lest this little brook of life
Some burning noon go dry!

~Emily Dickinson

Brenna, haphazardly choosing today’s poem: On page 18, IX strikes me as kind of a weirdo one.”Have you got a brook in your little heart.” WHY DOES THIS MAKE ME LAUGH

Pam: Let me flip over. I’ve lost my book. Give me a minute!0

Brenna: I shall paraphrase for you thusly: Your love is a little brook. It is smol and secret. But in March WATCH OUT, PASSION and other things polite nineteenth-century ladies only speak of via euphemism. But then by August, your love is dried up and DEAD and everything Emily Dickinson writes is about DEATH.

Pam: Oh my goodness. Flipping over now.

Brenna: I may be feeling a little punchy…

Pam: I think punchy is the right way to approach this one.”Have you got a brook in your little heart” Emily what even. Everything is bashful and blushing and trembling!

Brenna: Usually she reserves “little” as an epithet for herself, but here it’s second person. But I still get the feeling she’s talking to/about herself.And if you don’t watch out, you will be Overcome! And then die.When your love is in full flood, it will take out bridges!! Beware!!

Pam: I absolutely think she’s talking about herself, and that’s what cracks me up the most. It’s disguised to look humble and it’s doing the exact opposite. Look at me, I am so dainty and I have this very tiny love, which I am shouting about in a poem!

Brenna: YES. My love is very smol and cute and dainty, but then it gets huge and ragingly powerful and it will TAKE YOU DOWN. And then it dies.

Pam: Are you also reading the torrents of March as just inexpressibly huge lust? Is that just me? I’m honestly equating this with the animals going twitterpated in Bambi. Spring = birds and bees!

Brenna: I am reading this exactly the same way. Spring=innocent puppy love. March=lust. It will destroy you and everything else in its path. August=you are OLD and DRIED UP and love is no longer for you. So there!!

Pam: Exactly!!We have the cold in this poem, too! The snows hurrying from the hills. What were you saying about cold in Dickinson’s poems?

Brenna: Cold=passion. Aha!! It still holds true! My Cold Theory of Dickinson!!

Pam: It’s an I Am Very Special poem.

Brenna: It is! It strikes me that rather a lot of her poems are “I Am Very Special” poems. Like Poe, who wrote that from earliest childhood he was totally and completely unlike anyone else. There is so freaking much exceptionalism in poetry. Maybe just American poetry?? Or maybe white people poetry…

Pam: I honestly think it’s just a poet characteristic. I’m not going to say I’m also like that, but I’m also like that. I think if you didn’t have such an inflated sense of self-worth, you’d probably choose a saner career than poet.

Brenna: Is that why we write? Then how do we explain the constant and crippling self-doubt?? She had it too! Why are we paradoxes???

Pam: I think being a writer makes one automatically a parodox. So what do we do with this wilting flower?

Brenna: Hmmm…..Well, let me ask you this– Do you have a brook in YOUR little heart, hmm? Why is this even in the “Love” section? We’re only assuming it’s love because it’s in that section, but this could be ANYTHING. I don’t know what to do with this weirdo poem. Maybe we post it along with a single question–what on earth does she mean??

Pam: Oh, goodness. I don’t have a brook in my heart. My heart is composed primarily of lost socks and pizza.

Brenna: I want to laugh and cry at the same time, that is so true. Lost socks and pizza….yes….It’s the freaking METER. The meter is what makes this poem so very especially weird. Meter and rhyme scheme. It sounds like one of those horrible poems written just to rhyme.

Pam: YES. The poem bends itself in knots to fit the rhyme.

At this point, dear reader, we just gave up.