How the old mountains drip with sunset,
And the brake of dun!
How the hemlocks are tipped in tinsel
By the wizard sun!

How the old steeples hand the scarlet,
Till the ball is full,—
Have I the lip of the flamingo
That I dare to tell?

Then, how the fire ebbs like billows,
Touching all the grass
With a departing, sapphire feature,
As if a duchess pass!

How a small dusk crawls on the village
Till the houses blot;
And the odd flambeaux no men carry
Glimmer on the spot!

Now it is night in nest and kennel,
And where was the wood,
Just a dome of abyss is nodding
Into solitude!—

These are the visions baffled Guido;
Titian never told;
Domenichino dropped the pencil,
Powerless to unfold.

Image via

This is a gorgeous poem, and I don’t want to belabor it with my clumsy explanation–just to point out some of my favorite bits. The “wizard sun” is a beautifully evocative phrase, as is “the odd flambeaux no men carry.” Dickinson manages to paint a picture of a moment which is at once thoroughly, specifically Earthly and yet supernatural. Sunset is a liminal space, the melting of day into night. It is both and yet neither, and this poem captures its many shades well.

A spider

A spider sewed at night
Without a light
Upon an arc of white.
If ruff it was of dame
Or shroud of gnome,
Himself, himself inform.
Of immortality
His strategy
Was physiognomy.

~Emily Dickinson
Image via

I just want to take a moment to appreciate the quirkiness of this poem. I love the notion that a spider might be weaving a garment of some kind–a ruff for a dame, a shroud for a gnome. I incline to the latter. What kind of dame is going to wear a spiderweb ruff? A gnome, on the other hand–this is totally plausible.

I love these little moments when Dickinson’s sense of whimsy triumphs. It makes me wonder how she experienced the world every day. I had this notion of her, when I was a student, as this incredibly depressed, tortured soul. That’s what we were taught to think. But she also had a fantastically quirky view of the world. She saw magic in the ordinary. I don’t think we can celebrate that too much.

Mermaids in the basement

I started early, took my dog,
And visited the sea;
The mermaids in the basement
Came out to look at me,

And frigates in the upper floor
Extended hempen hands,
Presuming me to be a mouse
Aground, upon the sands.

But no man moved me till the tide
Went past my simple shoe,
And past my apron and my belt,
And past my bodice too,

And made as he would eat me up
As wholly as a dew
Upon a dandelion’s sleeve—
And then I started too.

And he—he followed close behind;
I felt his silver heel
Upon my ankle,—then my shoes
Would overflow with pearl.

Until we met the solid town,
No man he seemed to know;
And bowing with a mighty look
At me, the sea withdrew.

~Emily Dickinson

There’s so, so much I love about this poem, and so much I could say. It has the feel of the best kinds of fairy tales–the old ones–lovely and darkly glimmering, beautiful and somehow ominous, and just familiar enough for its strangeness to feel bone-chillingly strange.

On this reading, the thing that strikes me is the perspective in the poem–not just the speaker’s voice, but the physical position from which she is speaking. It begins in an ordinary way–she rises early, and goes to the shore with her dog. Then things begin to get interesting. The mermaids in the “basement” are presumably rising up from the depths of the sea; the frigates ride atop it, in the upper floor. To the mermaids, fantastical creatures of myth, the human speaker is the curiosity; to the massive frigates, she is merely a stranded mouse.

The speaker stands by the sea as the tide comes in–past her shoes, apron, belt, bodice, threatening/promising to swallow her completely. This would seem ominous, but then we get the odd line, “And then I started too.” Started what? To become the sea? To rise like the tide?

Suddenly now she is not in the sea but with it, being followed by it, the sea brushing her ankle, her shoes overflowing. Speaker and sea arrive at a town, and the line “No man he seemed to know” echoes the earlier line “But no man moved me,” again linking water and woman, and excluding man. Finally, the sea bows and withdraws, seeming to understand that it must leave her in the realm of land-dwelling things.

The whole poem reads almost like one of those Greek myths in which human and nature collide and coalesce in strange and unexpected ways. There is magic here, certainly, whether it is the magic of mermaids and sentient waters, or merely the magic of language to evoke the wondrous and strange.

Prompt: impossible magic

The one that could repeat the summer day
Were greater than itself, though he Minutest of mankind might be.
And who could reproduce the sun,
At period of going down—
The lingering and the stain, I mean—
When Orient has been outgrown,
And Occident becomes unknown,
His name remain.

~Emily Dickinson

What a feat it would be–to repeat a summer day. To do so would be to command time, to seize it, slow it, make it stop and circle back. These warm indolent days of summer can seem at once eternal and all too fleeting. Dickinson imagines the power of the person who could achieve this feat–capturing the fleeting beauty at its peak.

Your prompt–following Dickinson’s example, write a short poem in which you imagine an impossible power and its use.

sunset on Pamlico Sound

“Only a balloon”

You’ve seen balloons set, haven’t you?
So stately they ascend
It is as swans discarded you
For duties diamond.

Their liquid feet go softly out
Upon a sea of blond;
They spurn the air as’t were to mean
For creatures so renowned.

Their ribbons just beyond the eye,
They struggle some for breath,
And yet the crowd applauds below;
They would not encore death.

The gilded creature strains and spins,
Trips frantic in a tree,
Tears open her imperial veins
And tumbles in the sea.

The crowd retire with an oath
The dust in streets goes down,
And clerks in counting-rooms observe,
“’T was only a balloon.”

~Emily dickinson

This poem is meeting me right where I am today. Lately, my life has seemed overfull of clerks in counting-rooms who cannot or will not see the wonder all around us. I’m reminded anew of why I teach–because kids, of any age, have not yet succumbed to all the world’s shoulds and supposed tos. Kids still see the magic in balloons, and this is part of what makes them infinitely better company than a great many adults.

I feel sorry for the clerks. How dreary to be somebody who only sees the surface of things, whose soul does not intuit beyond the obvious to the possible–to the impossible, even. What are we if we accept the current possible and refuse to imagine what seems in this moment impossible? How much art, science, literature, beauty, wonder in the course of human history would never have happened if we all looked at balloons and said, “Hmph. Only a balloon and nothing more”? How often do we let the clerks have the last word?

Only clouds.

The mundane becomes magical

SHE sweeps with many-colored brooms,
And leaves the shreds behind;
Oh, housewife in the evening west,
Come back, and dust the pond!

You dropped a purple ravelling in,
You dropped an amber thread;
And now you’ve littered all the East
With duds of emerald!

And still she plies her spotted brooms,
And still the aprons fly,
Till brooms fade softly into stars—
And then I come away.

~emily dickinson

Prompt: Who is the “housewife in the evening west?” A goddess? a spirit? something else? There’s all kinds of magic here to play with.

Image via Pixabay

Oriole, Part 1

TO hear an oriole sing
May be a common thing,
Or only a divine.

It is not of the bird
Who sings the same, unheard,
As unto crowd.

The fashion of the ear
Attireth that it hear
In dun or fair.

So whether it be rune,
Or whether it be none,
Is of within;

The “tune is in the tree,”
The sceptic showeth me;
“No, sir! In thee!”

~emily dickinson

This is a weird and wonderful poem. Structurally it’s very different from most Dickinson poems, with its three-line stanzas. The last line of each is markedly shorter than the first two. There is an abrupt, revelatory feel to these short lines, as if Dickinson is demanding that we sit up straight and pay attention because something important is about to be unfolded. The whole thing reads like some obscure ancient riddle.

I think what she’s saying is that the music of birdsong is within each of us–that is, the perception of the song as music. The “only” in the first stanza is interesting. “Or only a divine” sounded to me on the first few readings as if the poet was saying “only” in the sense of “merely,” which feels odd and yet somehow perfectly Dickinsonian, minimizing the divine for some kind of effect. But on about the third reading I wonder if she means “only” in the sense of “purely” or “exclusively.”

This whole poem is like a riddle, the answer of which is different for each person because it is buried deep within ourselves, like our perception of the oriole’s song.

“Take care, for God is here. That’s all.”

THE MURMUR of a bee
A witchcraft yieldeth me.
If any ask me why,
’T were easier to die
Than tell.

The red upon the hill
Taketh away my will;
If anybody sneer,
Take care, for God is here,
That ’s all.

The breaking of the day
Addeth to my degree;
If any ask me how,
Artist, who drew me so,
Must tell!

~Emily dickinson

Yesterday, an errant honeybee found her way into my kitchen. I caught her in a glass jar and set her free. I wonder where home is for her. Redbuds haze the wooded hillsides with their purple gauze, and dogwood buds have unfurled into white-green blossoms. The other morning, when I went out just before sunrise to let out the chickens, the Alleghenies to the west blazed momentarily red with the light of the dawning sun. Spring is full of such moments, fleeting and peerless. “Take care, for God is here. That’s all.”

Spring magic

A murmur in the trees to note,
Not loud enough for wind;
A star not far enough to seek,
Nor near enough to find;

A long, long yellow on the lawn,
A hubbub as of feet;
Not audible, as ours to us,
But dapperer, more sweet;

A hurrying home of little men
To houses unperceived,—
All this, and more, if I should tell,
Would never be believed.

Of robins in the trundle bed
How many I espy
Whose nightgowns could not hide the wings,
Although I heard them try!

But then I promised ne’er to tell;
How could I break my word?
So go your way and I’ll go mine,—
No fear you’ll miss the road.

~emily dickinson

Today is the spring equinox. The robins are back. The sun is shining, and the world is coming fully alive again after its long cold sleep. Night and day balance on an invisible fulcrum. Anything is possible.

This is a poem about magic, about the possibility of the impossible, about the glorious intangible. Okay, it’s an Emily Dickinson poem, so it’s probably somehow about death, but I have decided that I am going to read this as a poem about faeries and how they are Real, dangit. You can read it however you want–“go your way and I’ll go mine,” as the poet says. “No fear you’ll miss the road.” It’s almost as if she’s instructing us to read this poem however we like.

That, after all, is one of the great beauties of poetry–its multiplicities of possibility, of meaning, its ability to be all things to all people. This May, I’ll be substitute teaching a couple of middle school English classes for a friend on maternity leave. I get to teach the poetry unit, and it’s the last lines of this poem that I want to take as my mantra, my teaching philosophy. There is magic in poetry, and teaching can suck that right out if it’s not done well.

The magic is there for each of us to find. Maybe we find the same magic. Maybe we don’t. But it’s there.