a certain Slant of light

There’s a certain Slant of light,
Winter Afternoons –
That oppresses, like the Heft
Of Cathedral Tunes –

Heavenly Hurt, it gives us –
We can find no scar,
But internal difference –
Where the Meanings, are –

None may teach it – Any –
‘Tis the seal Despair –
An imperial affliction
Sent us of the Air –

When it comes, the Landscape listens –
Shadows – hold their breath –
When it goes, ’tis like the Distance
On the look of Death –

~Emily Dickinson
Image via Pexels.com

I don’t remember when I first encountered this poem–in high school, perhaps, or maybe even middle school. Certainly it was in a textbook, offered up as an example of the work of a famous American poet. Regardless, it’s always rung deeply true for me. There is something about the light on a winter afternoon that’s oppressive, that reminds me of endings and the oncoming rush of darkness.

We’re nearing the darkest day of the year. A week from this Saturday is the winter solstice. After that, the balance will tip back towards light. But for now, darkness gathers its force. For now, winter afternoon sunbeams are a reminder of what has passed, what we have lost, what we will lose. For now, the light is a rare and precious thing, but not without barbs.

Sunset?

Where ships of purple gently toss
On seas of daffodil,
Fantastic sailors mingle,
And then—the wharf is still.

~Emily Dickinson

My edition of Dickinson’s poems has the posthumously-added titles, and they’ve got me wondering–how is it possible to title someone else’s poems after her death? I’m a novelist, and wretched at titles. I dream of publication for many reasons, not least of which is the prospect of someone else telling me what my books ought to be called. A novel is a massive thing, and for me to distill my own into a single word or phrase is daunting.

But a poem is different. It’s shorter, generally, and more enigmatic, more open to interpretation in some ways. The title of a poem seems to me to matter in a way the title of a novel might not. A title can alter the entire meaning of a poem.

When I read this particular poem, I think, “Ah, lovely sunset metaphor.” But am I thinking this because of the title? The title, which someone else slapped on after Dickinson’s death, far past the reach of her intent, has already colored the poem for me. Maybe it’s not about sunset? Maybe it’s…something else? I don’t know.

I’m starting to feel the way about this posthumous titling that I feel about seeing the movie before reading the book–it can preemptively ruin the whole thing.

The parlor of the day

The day came slow, till five o’clock,
Then sprang before the hills
Like hindered rubies, or the light
A sudden musket spills.


The purple could not keep the east,
The sunrise shook from fold,
Like breadths of topaz, packed a night,
The lady just unrolled.


The happy winds their timbrels took;
The birds, in docile rows,
Arranged themselves around their prince
(The wind is prince of those).


The orchard sparkled like a Jew,—
How mighty ’t was, to stay
A guest in this stupendous place,
The parlor of the day!

~Emily Dickinson

First impressions: Oooh, colors! Imagery! This is good. Oh, wait, casual anti-Semitism. Ick.

Second-read impressions: I love all the color imagery. Sometimes Dickinson seems to be painting with words in an impressionistic sort of way, splashing them across the page for their affect as much as their precise meaning. “The sunrise shook from fold”–how do we read this? It seems meant to be felt as much as understood. Is it a sheep fold? or a fold of cloth? Regardless, we feel the essence of what she is getting at–something once contained, now freed.

And then there’s “The lady.” Rhythmically, this could just as easily be “A lady,” but Dickinson is specific. Which lady? Are we supposed to know this? Intuit it? Either way, the kernel of sense is clear.

And how do the birds arrange themselves “in docile rows” around the wind? Long experience observing chickens has taught me that birds + wind does not in any way equal anything remotely like “docile.” Again, it’s the feeling rather than the meaning that matters here.

We are always guests in the morning. We cannot remain in it, much as we might like to. It moves on–or we move on. One way or the other, our sojourn there cannot last.