YOU cannot put a fire out;
A thing that can ignite
Can go, itself, without a fan
Upon the slowest night.

You cannot fold a flood
And put it in a drawer,—
Because the winds would find it out,
And tell your cedar floor.

~Emily Dickinson

What a weird and wondrous little poem. “You cannot put a fire out”? But you can. I’m not initially sure what Dickinson is getting at here. She begins by saying you can’t put out a fire, but goes on to say that a thing that can ignite can burn without help. I’m not sure how these two ideas are connected, besides both being about fire.

In the second stanza, she goes on to say that you cannot “fold a flood” and put it away. This makes more sense. But then she gives her reason–you can’t do this because the winds would find out and tell your floor? The “cedar” here feels forced, thrown in for the sake of the rhyme and nothing else.

What is this poem about? Dickinson seems to be saying that certain things are irrevocable–once out in the world, they cannot be taken back. Fire can burn unchecked once started, can rage out of control. Floods, too, cannot be controlled. I wonder if what she’s really talking about here is speech, language. Once said, a word cannot be unsaid. It can rage like a fire or a flood, and its originator can do nothing to check its spread. The winds telling the floor could be the power of rumor, the tendency of spoken words to spread beyond the speaker’s intended audience.

Storm: a prompt

IT sounded as if the streets were running,
And then the streets stood still.
Eclipse was all we could see at the window,
And awe was all we could feel.

By and by the boldest stole out of his covert, To see if time was there.
Nature was in her beryl apron,
Mixing fresher air.

~Emily Dickinson
Image via

Today, a prompt, inspired by Dickinson’s mastery of language. In the vein of the poem above, write a description of a natural event without naming the event itself or using any of the words typically associated with it. Dickinson manages to convey the noise, chaos, and finally the dissipation of a storm without ever using language we associate with storms (dark, stormy, tempest, rain, thunder, etc.). See if you can do the same.

Lonely houses

I KNOW some lonely houses off the road
A robber ’d like the look of,—
Wooden barred,
And windows hanging low,
Inviting to 5
A portico,

Where two could creep:
One hand the tools,
The other peep
To make sure all ’s asleep. 10
Old-fashioned eyes,
Not easy to surprise!

How orderly the kitchen ’d look by night,
With just a clock,—
But they could gag the tick, 15
And mice won’t bark;
And so the walls don’t tell,
None will.

A pair of spectacles ajar just stir—
An almanac’s aware. 20
Was it the mat winked,
Or a nervous star?
The moon slides down the stair
To see who ’s there.

There ’s plunder,—where? 25
Tankard, or spoon,
Earring, or stone,
A watch, some ancient brooch
To match the grandmamma,
Staid sleeping there. 30

Day rattles, too,
Stealth ’s slow;
The sun has got as far
As the third sycamore.
Screams chanticleer, 35
“Who ’s there?”

And echoes, trains away,
While the old couple, just astir,
Think that the sunrise left the door ajar!

~Emily Dickinson

So begins a very October series of poems–Dickinson on the creepy, the macabre, the night-dwelling creatures, in honor of the spookiest month of the year.

I cannot adequately express how much I love this poem. This is the Dickinson poem I had no idea I needed. It’s deliciously creepy, linguistically playful, and just generally delightful.

This poem seems to represent a whole other side of Dickinson. The sight of “lonely houses” far from the road leads her into a dark little thought-experiment in which she at times seems to be imagining the scene from the perspective of the robber. This is definitely not what I was ever taught about Dickinson in school, and I love how unexpected it is.

She sets the scene so well–the lonely houses, the robber creeping in, the silence threatened by the smallest of sounds, the elderly couple asleep, in peril. What Dickinson is this??

What follows is even better–Dickinson’s wildly inventive use of language to personify the objects and creatures in the house: the gagged clock, the barking mouse, the stirring spectacles, the aware almanac, winking mat, nervous star, and that gorgeous image of the moon sliding “down the stair.” And then that final description of the old couple waking to find the door ajar and surmising that it was the sunrise who left it thus.

The structure is fun, too–uneven line lengths mimicking the tentative steps of the pair of robbers as they strive not to wake the old couple and alert their sentient possessions; and the final stanza, which has one less line than all the rest, as if the robbers have stolen that along with tankard, spoon, and antique jewelry.

I seriously cannot get enough of this poem. I keep reading and rereading it, struck each time by the nuances of some little detail or other, as well as by the entire mood of it, and the sheer unexpectedness of it. It’s a perfect October poem–though Dickinson never mentions the season, it feels like it has to be autumn.

Coming up this month–bats, mice, mushrooms, spiders, ghosts, cobwebs, spirits, graves, and, of course, death. Because Emily Dickinson.

In which Emily is not G-rated and there is a whole lot going on

The thought beneath so slight a film
Is more distinctly seen,—
As laces just reveal the surge,
Or mists the Apennine.

~Emily Dickinson

So much going on in this tiny poem. It’s just a simile, really, but there is all sorts of stuff to unpack. First, Emily Dickinson talking about boobs. !! Definitely not one I ever saw in a middle school English textbook. Then there’s the comparing of the “surge” to mountains, which is a pretty clichéd metaphor for breasts, but still lovely with the correspondence between lace and mist.

But the real gist of the poem is that thoughts are clearer when slightly clouded, and this is a fascinating idea. I wonder what the “film” is that she’s talking about. She seems to be thinking of something specific–“so slight a film”–but the reader has no real clue as to what that film is. Is she talking about language? tone? something else?

I don’t know…but I do know I’ve already expended many more words in trying to unpack this poem than Dickinson ever needed to write it, and that is as good a definition of what poetry is as anything else I can think of.

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.”

So dense a fuzz

To hang our head ostensibly,
And subsequent to find
That such was not the posture
Of our immortal mind,

Affords the sly presumption
That, in so dense a fuzz,
You, too, take cobweb attitudes
Upon a plane of gauze!

~Emily Dickinson

This is a tricksy one, and much is unclear. Who is the “you,” the “we”? What Dickinson seems to be saying for certain is that sometimes we “hang our head ostensibly”–we discredit ourselves, or act humble–when what we want is not to be humble, and when we are not feeling humble at all in “our immortal mind.” The “immortal mind” suggests the notion of the higher self, and so I think Dickinson’s message in the first stanza is fairly clear. Sometimes we’re humble when we don’t need or want to be. Sometimes we’re right, dangit.

The second stanza, to me, is best summed up in the phrase “so dense a fuzz.” I’m not sure what exactly Dickinson means with any of the second half of this poem. Line 5 is decently clear–when we know we don’t need to be humble, when we know we’re right, we feel a sly presumption–but what exactly is that presumption? “Cobweb attitudes” and “a plane of gauze” suggest that the opinions of the enigmatic “You” are insubstantial. But what’s the dense fuzz? The internal tug between wanting to be humble and wanting to be right?

Perhaps at 6am on a Friday, I’m just in too dense of a fuzz to make sense of this poem. But maybe this is part of what Dickinson is doing–making the reader doubt herself to prove a point. As I read through this poem, and reread it, I find myself doubting my own ability to parse any sense out of it. Dickinson has planted me squarely in the midst of the dense fuzz that is the syntax and word choice of this poem.

Well-played, Emily, well-played.

You cannot put a fire out

You cannot put a fire out;
A thing that can ignite
Can go, itself, without a fan
Upon the slowest night.

You cannot fold a flood
And put it in a drawer,—
Because the winds would find it out,
And tell your cedar floor.

~Emily Dickinson

This is an odd one. The first stanza seems fairly self-explanatory. Fire is powerful. It can spark seemingly without warning, and once it gets going, it can be impossible for humans to stop. Fire here could be a metaphor for all sorts of things that are uncontrollable by human beings.

The second stanza begins in the same vein–just as you can’t control fire, you can’t control water. A flood is wild, something that cannot be folded up and put away.

Then it gets weird. You can’t control a flood because “the winds would find it out”? “And tell your cedar floor”?? Umm…..

I think what Dickinson is really talking about here is trying to control language. Once something is put into words, it’s out there in the world. It cannot be taken back. If you try to control a word once it’s been spoken, you can’t. I’m reminded of this Dickinson poem:

A word is dead
When it is said,
Some say.
I say it just
Begins to live
That day.

~Emily Dickinson

Words take on lives of their own. Once said, they cannot be unsaid. While the last line of this poem feels contrived–this whole “cedar floor” business sounds as if it’s trying too hard to match rhyme and rhythm–the point is a powerful one.


A something in a summer’s day,
As slow her flambeaux burn away,
Which solemnizes me.

A something in a summer’s noon,—
An azure depth, a wordless tune, 5
Transcending ecstasy.

And still within a summer’s night
A something so transporting bright,
I clap my hands to see;

Then veil my too inspecting face, 10
Lest such a subtle, shimmering grace
Flutter too far for me.

The wizard-fingers never rest,
The purple brook within the breast
Still chafes its narrow bed; 15

Still rears the East her amber flag,
Guides still the sun along the crag
His caravan of red,

Like flowers that heard the tale of dews,
But never deemed the dripping prize 20
Awaited their low brows;

Or bees, that thought the summer’s name
Some rumor of delirium
No summer could for them;

Or Arctic creature, dimly stirred 25
By tropic hint,—some travelled bird
Imported to the wood;

Or wind’s bright signal to the ear,
Making that homely and severe,
Contented, known, before 30

The heaven unexpected came,
To lives that thought their worshipping
A too presumptuous psalm.

~Emily Dickinson
“As slow her flambeaux burn away”…….

I’ve been studiously avoiding this poem for a while because the syntax baffled me in places and I didn’t know what to say about it. I’ve read and re-read it, thinking that I’d write about it, and every time, I came up short. Suddenly, as I’m staring at the end of summer and the start of the school year, I realize that maybe my wordlessness is the point.

Despite the fact that this is a long poem by Dickinson’s usual standards, she too seems to have trouble pinning a word to the experience she’s describing. For the first three stanzas, she repeats the words “a something,” as if she’s struggling to say what she means–or is acknowledging that some things can’t be trapped by language, affixed on paper like pinned insects.

This sense of vagueness continues through the rest of the poem, maintained by words like “veil,” “subtle,” “rumor,” “dimly.” The funky syntax in places helps to sustain this vagueness, too. I’m still not sure exactly how to parse the eighth stanza–“no summer could for them”?!? Really, Emily? But I think now that all this verbal meandering and twisting out of reach is extremely intentional. Dickinson is recreating summer in the form of a poem.

There’s something ephemeral about this sweet hot season–it slips away before we’ve completely made sense of it, fully enjoyed it. Like the poem, with its longer-than-usual length but shorter-than-usual stanzas, summer seems both long and short. And like the poem, it is hazily dreamlike, magical. The three-line stanzas begin to feel incantatory. Dickinson uses language like “shimmering” and “wizard-fingers.” The summer’s day is described as simultaneously solemn, ecstatic, and transporting. It’s a religious experience in the last stanza, with words like “heaven,” “worshipping,” and “psalm.”

I wonder if what Dickinson is doing here is not so much trying to define summer as capture our human experience of it. It is a magical season, a holy one–but then, they all are. Summer is elusive, fleeting. As I read through the poem yet another time, I realize that this is one that will continue to echo in my consciousness as I watch my children swimming underneath the August stars, running wild on the dark dew-soaked grass.


A word is dead
When it is said,
Some say.
I say it just
Begins to live
That day.

~Emily Dickinson

Who owns a story? Who owns a poem? A play? A piece of music? There’s something very modern about Dickinson’s sensibility in this poem. While old schools of criticism have focused on seeking intrinsic, inviolate meanings in literature, newer ones play with subjectivity, with individual responses.

There is much talk in the writing community about how once a book is in the hands of readers, it no longer belongs solely to the author. Each reader brings to each story a different set of experiences, emotions, perspectives. Stories become not weakened by this, but stronger. They begin to live and breathe, to take on lives of their own. They multiply themselves into myriad visions, and in this way assure their own survival.

The instant a word is spoken, written, it breathes its first breath and comes alive.

And so the night became

The cricket sang,
And set the sun,
And workmen finished, one by one,
Their seam the day upon.

The low grass loaded with the dew,
The twilight stood as strangers do
With hat in hand, polite and new,
To stay as if, or go.

A vastness, as a neighbor, came,—
A wisdom without face or name,
A peace, as hemispheres at home,—
And so the night became.

~Emily Dickinson

It’s amazing what you can learn on the interwebs. For example, if you google the first lines of this poem, the first several hits you get are links to videos of people playing this as a song on marimbas. Who knew?

It’s a lovely poem, and does some wonderful things with language. The first line is a conventional sort of opening, but the second begins to work the poem’s magic. “A cricket sang,/And set the sun” can read as, “A cricket sang, and the sun set” or “A cricket sang, and made the sun set.” I love it–this suggestion that the cricket’s tiny melody could be the spell that sings down a star from the sky. The workmen act in a similar way–they leave a “seam” upon the day itself, as if knitting it together, completing it.

The second stanza begins with another conventionally poetic image–“The low grass loaded with the dew”–but then we get some wonderfully Dickinsonian personification. The twilight stands politely waiting. Though we know it is definite, certain, unavoidable, it acts as if we have a choice. It is gentle, reserved.

It makes sense, then, that twilight brings with it wisdom and peace. In the third stanza, it’s compared now not to “strangers” but to “a neighbor.” Though it has neither face nor name, it is familiar, comforting, settling.

I love the way that the first and last lines, taken together, crystallize the entire poem: “A cricket sang,” “And so the night became.”