Yesterday my dad was cleaning out birdhouses. He hadn’t seen a bluebird yet, he said. The tree swallows had come and gone suddenly, and he seemed certain it was because the birdhouses needed clearing out. Birds have a way of making their opinions known. Last summer, hummingbirds would hover outside my kitchen window, staring in at me as if to say “Get a move on!!” while I cleaned and refilled their feeder. So I suspect Dad was not wrong about the tree swallows.
This afternoon, while my husband and I walked the dog in the field behind our house, a bird burst from one of the newly-cleaned houses–probably a mockingbird or catbird, judging from its size and the flash of grey. Not a bluebird.
Then, suddenly, wings blazed blue across the winter-brown field. A bird perched on top of another birdhouse and sat there, watching us. I stared against the sun, trying to discern its exact color. A bluebird. They are back, and with them, hope and warmth and light, and permission, for those of us who needed it, to shout for joy to no one but ourselves.
It’s been a week, so for today, I’m just going to leave this here for you. It was a little sparkling breath of wonder for me on a busy and exhausting day that began at the hospital (everyone’s fine–scheduled procedure), continued with a trip to the vet (everyone’s fine but very expensive), and ended with the arrival of friends returning after decades away. So it’s been a good day, but also the kind of day when you just need to pause, take a breath, and indulge in a very small poem.
After many sodden months, the March winds have finally arrived. They howl like wild things, like Grendel alone and friendless outside the mead hall. They sigh fitfully. They gust and caress, rant and hum through the bowing branches of the pines.
The local joke this summer when people complained about the wet weather was that it only rained twice–once for forty days, and once for thirty days. It’s been soggy here, the woods burgeoning with fungus, paths carved out by water. Autumn and winter were wet, too. Rain. Snow. Freezing rain. Sleet. Rain. Again.
At last the winds are here, and their cries are a benediction, better than a rainbow after flood. Gardens are beginning to dry out enough to till. The paths through the woods are no longer treacherously slick. Pearly songs burst from the throats of the little birds that fluff their feathers in the welcome sunlight.
I chose today’s poem because, in my edition of Dickinson’s poems, it’s titled “The Wind.” But each time I read it, I feel pulled farther away from that notion. Wind is like light. It is a dateless melody, it’s phraseless, and it does stir the trees. But other parts of this riddle-poem just don’t seem to work if the answer is really “the wind.” This is a poem I can imagine fitting neatly into Bilbo and Gollum’s riddle-contest. Just when you think you know the answer, the riddle makes a twist. Who would compare the wind to a breeze? What kind of clue is that?
We know that Dickinson didn’t title her poems–they were titled posthumously. In many cases, I have to wonder what the poem-titler was thinking. This is definitely one of those cases.
So what is she writing about? If I’d had to answer this one, I’d probably have had to throw on my invisibility ring and slip out the back way. I don’t know what she’s talking about. It’s the last stanza that really throws me–the notion that morning is best when it’s done. I like morning when it’s happening, but Dickinson seems to be using morning as a metaphor for something that’s best gotten through, gotten over with.
I have no answers for this one. What do you think?
XCIV High from the earth I heard a bird; He trod upon the trees As he esteemed them trifles, And then he spied a breeze, And situated softly Upon a pile of wind Which in a perturbation Nature had left behind. A joyous-going fellow I gathered from his talk, Which both of benediction And badinage partook, Without apparent burden, I learned, in leafy wood He was the faithful father Of a dependent brood; And this untoward transport His remedy for care,— A contrast to our respites. How different we are!
It finally feels like spring is about to visit the Shenandoah Valley. The world still looks groggy and half-asleep, the grass dead, the leaves mulch on the forest floor. It doesn’t look like spring, but the air is beginning to carry that lightness that means flowers will soon be blooming, bees buzzing. Soon the world will come alive again, resurrecting from the muck of winter.
The birds’ songs have shifted, too. They sound different in the spring. There are new visitors, of course, swinging by on their northern migrations, but the birds that remain here through the winter sound different, too, as if they’re unleashing their most golden notes to meet the newly gilded light that pours across the mountain ridges as the sun sets blessedly later.
I had never come across this poem before, but I love it. It came just when I needed it. Life has been hectic lately–one kid in a regional competition, the other working on not one but two major projects at school within days of each other, animals due for vet appointments, humans due for dental appointments, no hope of a haircut in sight, fruit trees and grapevines in need of pruning before the temperatures set their sap flowing.
Life has felt overly crammed. It’s all good stuff, but there’s a heck of a lot of it. There’s a lot of racing around, not a lot of sleeping. I need to channel the outlook of the bird in this poem, his jaunty attitude, his ability to at once engage in benediction and badinage. He’s a parent, too, and of an entire brood. If he can do it–if he can sing despite his cares–then maybe I can, too.
This evening, as the sun still lingers above the sloping shoulders of the Alleghenies and the air is suddenly balmy, the world has turned to gold. Spring is finally coming.
Today’s post is a little bit different–instead of a response to an Emily Dickinson poem, we’re offering you two poems in conversation. One, of course, is by Dickinson; the second is by Robert Frost. Read them, mull over them, let them sit together and have a conversation. See what happens.
Pam: Is this really an entire poem about a gust of wind in her house?
Brenna: I think it is.
Brenna: And, of course, the wind is a dude.
Brenna: The wind taps like a tired man but then enters rapidly. I guess that’s the gusting? The wind lulls and then blows in fits and starts. That seems like a very March wind. My first question: how does one “hand a sofa” to someone?
Pam: Can I just say that you have got to be lonely as everything to be sad when the wind, your only visitor, leaves? Yes, she’s hitting us over the head with the “he is incorporeal” stuff.
Brenna: I love the description of his speech, though–“like the push of numerous hummingbirds.” And I like the reference to the glass instrument–is it the glass harmonica?
Pam: Oh, good question! I have no idea. I’ve never heard of a glass harmonica. I was thinking of water glasses, how you can fill them halfway and run your fingers around them rim to make them sing. But I imagine that you are closer to the truth! As always, I am wondering why the rhyme changes in the last stanza. “man/alone” disrupts the rather straightforward rhyme scheme in lines 2/4 of the previous stanzas (pass/glass, push/bush).
Brenna: Yes! That’s a glass harmonica! Benjamin Franklin invented it as a mechanized instrument, but it’s basically glasses. Okay, you have got to listen to one before we go any further.I am going to google right now.https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eQemvyyJ–gI just watched that. It’s gorgeous!!Isn’t it magical?I wonder if that’s what she’s referring to in the poem–it does sound like the wind!It’s gorgeous. I want this instrument in my daily life.Agreed.Back to rhyme scheme? Man/alone disrupts.Sounds about right.
Pam: Yep. It’s the nail in the coffin of “yes, I’m really alone,” which we can tell because the rhyme scheme is different–and there’s emphasis on the man in that particular rhyme scheme, so we’re left wondering about him, too.
Brenna: And “flurriedly.” Um. Emily. That is hard to say. And is it just me, or does “and I became alone” feel like a very weird way to put it? The contrast between the speaker “boldly” admitting the wind early in the poem, and the wind as “timid” near the end is interesting.
Pam: Yes! In the beginning she’s active–she boldly answers–and in the end she becomes alone, passive.
Brenna: Is she becoming like the wind? She isn’t alone until she knows she is.
Pam: I wonder if the conceit of this poem is what might happen if you thought you heard a knock at the door, but opened it to find only wind, and realized that you were lonelier than you’d originally imagined. Someone knocks, I’m excited because I think I have a visitor, I open the door–and it’s just the wind, and now I am definitely lonely.
This is for everyone who, after struggling through February, emerged hopefully into March to discover that it’s actually February in disguise. It’s below freezing here in what is supposed to be the South. The daffodils are having second thoughts. Sometimes things are not what they ought to be, or what we want them to be. Here’s to making our way through the mist into the light of day, of spring, of fresh hopes and dreams realized.
Dear March – Come in – How glad I am – I hoped for you before – Put down your Hat – You must have walked – How out of Breath you are – Dear March, how are you, and the Rest – Did you leave Nature well – Oh March, Come right upstairs with me – I have so much to tell –
I got your Letter, and the Birds – The Maples never knew that you were coming – I declare – how Red their Faces grew – But March, forgive me – And all those Hills you left for me to Hue – There was no Purple suitable – You took it all with you –
Who knocks? That April – Lock the Door – I will not be pursued – He stayed away a Year to call When I am occupied – But trifles look so trivial As soon as you have come
That blame is just as dear as Praise And Praise as mere as Blame –
Brenna: The thing about this poem that interests me most is that she seems to want to prolong March, and is annoyed by the prospect of April cutting March short.
Pam: This makes me wonder what’s so wonderful about March in Massachusetts.
Brenna: This is an excellent question.
Pam: Because, let me be honest here, March in Alabama is absolutely horrific.
Brenna: March in New England has got to be rougher than March in Virginia, too.
Pam: We had deadly tornadoes on Sunday and we’ve had a ridiculous amount of rain and today it’s 30ish degrees outside with a windchill in the 20s.
Brenna: I did google the red maples, and it turns out that they do briefly turn red in spring before they turn green. But March is NOT a friendly month. It’s freezing here today–lows in the teens this week.
Pam: Perhaps the best thing about March is that February is over?
Brenna: March is breathless–that’s a great description–but it isn’t kind.
Pam: So at least there’s the hope of nicer weather ahead, and green growing things?
Brenna: Yes!I have noticed on walks lately that the birds are singing differently. March is the promise of spring, even if it’s not here yet. And the chickweed and wild onions are green, even if nothing else is yet.
Pam: We have a tremendous amount of growing things. Daffodils are almost done here, actually; they started blooming in the last week of February. The tulip trees are going bonkers. Grass is greening up. But this ridiculous, ridiculous cold weather is 100% February and I am sick of it. I suppose the annoying thing about April is that February does all the work of getting to spring, and then April takes over right as things are getting good.
Brenna: So in March, spring is imminent, but we’re not out of the woods yet. Why is she so reluctant to let April in?Is it something specific about March? Maybe it’s March’s storminess. We’ve talked before about how cold and storms seem to serve as her metaphors for passion, and March is a passionate kind of month meteorologically.
Pam: She’s a little bit scandalous about March, too, isn’t she? Taking it right inside and upstairs and closing the door?
Brenna: Yes! Emily and March–get a room!! It’s as if March and April are suitors. April has stayed away for a year. April is the guy you’re secretly in love with who’s completely uninterested in you until you have a boyfriend, and then he makes a move.
Pam: And, interesting–although of course she had nothing to do with this–the next poem begins “We like March.” We do like March!
Brenna: We LOVE March because IT IS NOT FEBRUARY.
Pam: YES. In Huntsville, we wish that March would stop trying to be February. We feel a little bit like March and February divorced, and we’re spending our week with February before we get a weekend with March. So maybe March is not necessarily her first choice, but she is not going to let April know that.
Brenna: That is a fantastically apt description. Maybe she is angry at April for being absent so long, and so she’s trying to make it jealous by taking March upstairs.
Pam: Beginnings are so fun, aren’t they? When you see the first daffodil shoots, and the first bulbs about to open. And at least here, April doesn’t get any of that. So maybe it’s that March is doing the work for spring and April just gets to breeze on in and take up the mantle, and she’s resentful.
Brenna: As the daughter who stayed home and never married, I can see that resonating with her. Oh, no, wait, Lavinia didn’t get married, either: https://www.emilydickinsonmuseum.org/lavinia_dickinson This is fascinating. Apparently, Lavinia burned Emily’s letters, as Emily requested, but Emily left no instructions about the poems. So the publication of the poems was not in any way counter to Emily’s wishes, as far as anyone can tell.
Pam: What was in the letters, though??
Brenna: Who knows??? But I don’t want anyone reading my letters after I’m dead!!
Pam: Same, but I want to read Emily’s.
Brenna: I always feel weird reading famous people’s letters.
Pam: I understand this is selfish. But Lavinia, WHY?
Brenna: Because Emily said, and she was the oldest sister, and apparently Lavinia was devoted to her. BUT. Did Lavinia read them before burning them??
Pam: Lavinia. What did you know??
Brenna: I’m poking around online and finding references to Dickinson’s letters that suggest that some of them are still out there. ???
A quality of loss is affecting my content today as, after a sunny, breezy early spring day yesterday, I woke to sleet that quickly turned to snow. The afternoon light is wintry now, the snow changed again to rain. But I can take refuge in this poem, and dream of warmer, sunnier days.