Our lives are Swiss,–

Our lives are Swiss,—
So still, so cool,
Till, some odd afternoon,
The Alps neglect their curtains,
And we look farther on.

Italy stands the other side,
While, like a guard between,
The solemn Alps,
The siren Alps,
Forever intervene!

~Emily Dickinson
The intervening Alps. Image via Pexels.com

Not technically a poem about winter, but it feels wintry to me, with its mention of the snow-capped Alps and our still, cool lives. Based on prior experience, I’m suspicious that Dickinson is talking about death (surprise!!), but I think there are other ways to read this poem.

She could be referring to the moment of death, at which we “look farther on.” But if this is the case, then something, represented by the Alps, prevents us from ever getting there. So what I think this poem is about, really, is our rare and beautiful moments of transcendence in this mortal life–the moments when we get a glimpse of the divine, when the Alps’ curtains fall and for an instant, we have an experience of something beyond this mortal coil.

Odd secrets of the line

Just lost when I was saved!
Just felt the world go by!
Just girt me for the onset with eternity,
When breath blew back,
And on the other side
I heard recede the disappointed tide!

Therefore, as one returned, I feel,
Odd secrets of the line to tell!
Some sailor, skirting foreign shores,
Some pale reporter from the awful doors
Before the seal!

Next time, to stay!
Next time, the things to see
By ear unheard,
Unscrutinized by eye.

Next time, to tarry,
While the ages steal,–
Slow tramp the centuries,
And the cycles wheel.

~Emily Dickinson

The phrase “Odd secrets of the line” has snared my imagination. It reminds me of these lyrics, so today’s post is a conversation between two poems. I’ll put them both here and let them talk it out.

Heaven’s a bar down by the dock
Where the liquor is free they keeps a great stock
There’s always a place, always a smile
For a sailor come home from sea
Girls they are beauties they dance and they sing
They treat an old tar like a lord or a king
Heaven’s a bar down by the dock
Where there’s liquor for all and it’s free

Heaven’s a bar down by the dock
Where the liquor is free they keeps a great stock
There’s always a place, always a smile
For a sailor come home from sea

There in the snug drinking with me Shipmates return from the seven salt seas Tarry tailed tars, gold buckles shoes
The cream and the dregs of the crew.
Just sailors on shore with a dream in their eyes
Who saw the world’s end where the sea meets the sky
Vision remains, wonders recalled By the trinkets that hang on the walls

Late in the night clouds hurry past
The moon winks and goes, the doors are barred fast
The charts are laid out, the contraband found The crossbones laid out on the ground
The figurehead does it she never gets tired She beckons a breeze from her berth by the fire
Songs roll around, waves hit the bar
Til the bottles wash up on the shore

~”Heaven’s a bar,” via Warham Whalers

The culprit

Surgeons must be very careful
When they take the knife!
Underneath their fine incisions
Stirs the Culprit – Life!

~Emily Dickinson

I’ve read this short poem over and over, and am still struggling to make sense of it. Surgeons have to be careful because what’s at fault is life itself? Maybe she means that life is imperfect, that we only get sick and injured, need mending and healing, because we are alive? Surgeons have to be careful not to kill people, because life itself is what’s to blame for all our ailments? I think that’s it…..what do you think?

Enough?

A modest lot, a fame petite,
A brief campaign of sting and sweet
Is plenty! Is enough!
A sailor’s business is the shore,
A soldier’s—balls. Who asketh more
Must seek the neighboring life!

~Emily Dickinson

The multiple exclamations make me wonder if the lady doth protest too much. Does Dickinson really feel this way–is this what she really wants–“A modest lot, a fame petite”? It almost feels as if she’s trying to convince herself. With the lines about sailor and soldier, the seeker seems to be reminding the listener (perhaps herself?) to stay in her own lane, not to ask for anything but what she’s been given–a very New England Puritanical philosophy. The last line, while it can read as a caution, could also be a challenge. Don’t like what you’ve been allotted? Go elsewhere! Strive! Break all the boundaries and seek the life you really want!

It’s strange how little we know about Emily Dickinson’s motivations–how little is certain. Recent scholarship is upending the notion of the reclusive lovelorn spinster too shy to show her poetry to the world. The old infantilizing view of Dickinson held sway for so long–generations of American schoolchildren were raised on it. How is it possible that the motivations of someone who lived such a comparatively short time ago are so mysterious?

I wonder what Dickinson would say if she could see us now. I suspect she would laugh.

We wondered at our blindness

Her final summer was it,
And yet we guessed it not;
If tenderer industriousness
Pervaded her, we thought

A further force of life 5
Developed from within,—
When Death lit all the shortness up,
And made the hurry plain.

We wondered at our blindness,—
When nothing was to see 10
But her Carrara guide-post,—
At our stupidity,

When, duller than our dulness,
The busy darling lay,
So busy was she, finishing, 15
So leisurely were we!

~Emily Dickinson

What strikes me most strongly about this poem is the contrast. There are layers of it–contrasts between life and death, busyness and inactivity–but particularly the contrast between knowing and not-knowing.

“We guessed it not”–the speaker, speaking for a collective “we,” repeatedly returns to the notion that “we” didn’t know what was coming, but implies that the now-deceased did. Words like “stupidity” and “duller than our dulness” underscore and even levy judgment on this not-knowing. While the subject of the poem apparently knew she was dying and used this knowledge as impetus to achieve more than ever, more lovingly than ever, those around her failed to notice the cause of her activity.

How could they have known she was dying, particularly if she was so active to the last? I think that at least part of what this poem is teasing out is the common experience of blaming ourselves in the wake of a dear one’s passing. If only we had known, we should have seen it coming, we should have behaved differently…a thousand regrets and what-ifs crop up by which we torment ourselves.

Often Dickinson writes from the perspective of the deceased. Here, the dead woman isn’t really the point of the poem–it’s the way in which those who survive her are doubly wounded by her passing.We

Summer dew

A dew sufficed itself
And satisfied a leaf,
And felt, “how vast a destiny!
How trivial is life!”

The sun went out to work,
The day went out to play,
But not again that dew was seen
By physiognomy.

Whether by day abducted,
Or emptied by the sun
Into the sea, in passing,
Eternally unknown.

~Emily Dickinson

Summer mornings in the Valley are dew-soaked and sparkling. As the sun climbs the arc of the sky, its heat burns away the liquid diamonds. Shaded, they linger for hours, but in the direct light of the sun, the moon’s tears dissipate quickly.

We are the dew of Dickinson’s poem, so certain in our smallness, our ephemerality. We suffice ourselves; we believe we are the answer to our own questions, the center of our own orbits. Like the dew, though, we vanish. What do we leave behind? And where do we go? What happens to the dew? Is it “by day abducted”–does it evaporate back into the same changeless cycle, or will it at last find the sea?

That Dickinson uses the phrase “in passing” suggests that the sun’s dropping of the dew into the sea is a casual gesture, offhanded. The dew that was so sufficient unto itself is, to the sun, a literal drop in the ocean. A drop of dew, to itself, is everything. In the vastness of the sea, it becomes nothing, eternally unknown.

And yet what is the sea but drops of water, gathered together from across a spinning planet, across lifetimes and ages, across space and time, all things coming together in one great final infinity?

Thunder

The farthest thunder that I heard
Was nearer than the sky,
And rumbles still, though torrid noons
Have lain their missiles by.
The lightning that preceded it
Struck no one but myself,
But I would not exchange the bolt
For all the rest of life.
Indebtedness to oxygen
The chemist may repay,
But not the obligation
To electricity.
It founds the homes and decks the days,
And every clamor bright
Is but the gleam concomitant
Of that waylaying light.
The thought is quiet as a flake,—
A crash without a sound;
How life’s reverberation
Its explanation found!

~Emily Dickinson

This seemed an appropriate poem for today, the day of July’s full moon. The July full moon is sometimes called the Buck Moon, for the bucks who are rubbing off their spring velvet in preparation for autumn. It’s also known as the Thunder Moon, for the summer storms that are prevalent during the month.

We’ve had some spectacular thunderstorms this season–the kind that split the air so that for an instant, nothing breathes. The kind that shake houses and trees to their foundations. In the instant that thunder first cleaves the sky, nothing else is possible, nothing else exists. The sound of it is one thing, the feeling another. When it rips through the clouds overhead, your breastbone shudders in your chest. It is so loud it is almost inaudible–like a giant too large for our eyes to take in.