Some perfect year

‘Twas just this time, last year, I died.
I know I heard the Corn,
When I was carried by the Farms —
It had the Tassels on —

I thought how yellow it would look —
When Richard went to mill —
And then, I wanted to get out,
But something held my will.

I thought just how Red — Apples wedged
The Stubble’s joints between —
And the Carts stooping round the fields
To take the Pumpkins in —

I wondered which would miss me, least,
And when Thanksgiving, came,
If Father’d multiply the plates —
To make an even Sum —

And would it blur the Christmas glee
My Stocking hang too high
For any Santa Claus to reach
The Altitude of me —

But this sort, grieved myself,
And so, I thought the other way,
How just this time, some perfect year —
Themself, should come to me —

~Emily Dickinson

We’re in the thick of National Novel Writing Month, so let’s do a prompt! If you’re stuck and not sure what to write, imagine your main character speaking from beyond the grave. What would they say? What would they care about–and whom? Or, if that’s way too far outside the bounds of your story, imagine what they would think about when they think about having died. Do they believe in an afterlife? What kind? How does this impact the way they behave and believe in this life?

The egg of forests

To venerate the simple days
Which lead the seasons by,
Needs but to remember
That from you or me
They may take the trifle
Termed mortality!

To invest existence with a stately air,
Needs but to remember
That the acorn there
Is the egg of forests
For the upper air!

~Emily Dickinson
Image via Pexels.com

In the first stanza, Dickinson is speaking once again about death. In order to value our days, our moments, even the least amazing of them, we have but to remember that at any point we could be dead.

Thanks, Emily.

The second stanza almost seems at first glance like it belongs to another poem. Not only does it have one less line, but it’s focused now on valuing the world we’re in, the lives we have, because they hold the potential for life beyond this one. If what we have/experience now seems tiny, insignificant, we should remember that the tiny acorn is “the egg of forests” that will one day stretch into “the upper air.”

In a rare Dickinson move, the poet moves from dwelling on how the thought of death should make us value life to the much more optimistic notion that we plant in this life the seeds for the next.

There’s a lot to mull over here. But really, I chose this poem for today because I adore the notion of acorns as little eggs that hatch into entire forests.

Shipwreck

IT tossed and tossed,—
A little brig I knew,—
O’ertook by blast,
It spun and spun,
And groped delirious, for morn.

It slipped and slipped,
As one that drunken stepped;
Its white foot tripped,
Then dropped from sight.

Ah, brig, good-night
To crew and you;
The ocean’s heart too smooth, too blue,
To break for you.

~Emily Dickinson

Image via Pexels.com

Dickinson’s oeuvre is full of shipwreck poems. A ship is always a good metaphor, and she uses them frequently. So, November is shipwreck month here at The Emily Project. This is the season of hurricanes and storms. Last night, the wind rose and knocked everything about the yard. It was a veritable tempest for Halloween night.

In this poem, the storm has overwhelmed the ship that seems “drunk” and “delirious” from its battle with the waves. The last stanza is where Dickinson really gets to the meat of this poem–the ocean (nature? the divine??) doesn’t really care about any of us. We are insignificant, in the grand scheme of things. Yet that hasn’t stopped the speaker from valuing the little craft and its crew, their struggles on the deep. The meaning we find in our lives is meaning we make for ourselves, not anything conferred upon us from without. The universe may not note or care what we do, but we can value human effort and struggle, and feel for those who are lost.

That dark parade

THERE’S been a death in the opposite house
As lately as to-day.
I know it by the numb look
Such houses have alway.

The neighbors rustle in and out, 5
The doctor drives away.
A window opens like a pod,
Abrupt, mechanically;

Somebody flings a mattress out,—
The children hurry by; 10
They wonder if It died on that,—
I used to when a boy.

The minister goes stiffly in
As if the house were his,
And he owned all the mourners now, 15
And little boys besides;

And then the milliner, and the man
Of the appalling trade,
To take the measure of the house.
There ’ll be that dark parade 20

Of tassels and of coaches soon;
It ’s easy as a sign,—
The intuition of the news
In just a country town.

~Emily Dickinson

There is so, so much very deeply creepy stuff going on in this poem.

It’s frequently anthologized, but I know it best by just that first line. I didn’t remember all the disturbing detail from my past encounters with this poem–just that first line. The first stanza is interesting, with its suggestion that what transpires within a house affects the appearance of its exterior. This works on a symbolic level, too–what happens within us can be written on our faces, or at least give off a feel that hints at what’s going on inside.

The second and third stanzas, though, are where things really start to get dark. The second stanza ends with a window opening “like a pod,” and I am too much a product of my times not to imagine some kind of sci-fi business there. In the third stanza, the mattress of the deceased goes flying out that window, and the speaker identifies with children wondering “if It died on that.” Shudder. The dehumanizing of the dead person is brief but chilling. And then we learn that the speaker, in a rare twist from Dickinson’s usual M.O., is male.

Then we get the litany of the folks in all the death-related trades who enter the house, and things do not get less unsettling. The minister goes in as if he owns the house, mourners, and all the little boys, too. The milliner (why do we need a hat??) and “the man/Of the appalling trade,” presumably the funeral director, then enter.

The speaker ends by imagining the “dark parade” that is about to transpire, and then pulls back the focus by presenting this as just one of many such incidents “in just a country town.”

In many of Dickinson’s poems about the deaths of individuals, the focus is entirely on the deceased and that person’s impact on those s/he left behind. This poem is different–the deceased is never even really described as human. The entire thrust of the poem is toward the wrongness of death, the dehumanization of it.

It’s a disturbing poem on many levels.

Though pyramids decay

’T is an honorable thought,
And makes one lift one’s hat,
As one encountered gentlefolk
Upon a daily street,

That we ’ve immortal place,
Though pyramids decay,
And kingdoms, like the orchard,
Flit russetly away.

~Emily Dickinson
Image via Pexels.com

This poem has some things to say to this other poem, so I’ll just put them both here and let them talk it out. The following poem has chatted with Dickinson’s work here before, but I need pretty much no excuse to reread “Ozymandias” for the gazillionth time.

I met a traveller from an antique land,
Who said—“Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. . . . Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed;
And on the pedestal, these words appear:
My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings;
Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.”

~Percy Bysshe Shelley

How to be forgotten

AFTER a hundred years
Nobody knows the place,—
Agony, that enacted there,
Motionless as peace.

Weeds triumphant ranged, 5
Strangers strolled and spelled
At the lone orthography
Of the elder dead.

Winds of summer fields
Recollect the way,— 10
Instinct picking up the key
Dropped by memory.

~Emily Dickinson

It’s simple, really. Just let a hundred years pass. In a hundred years, the scenes of our suffering will be sanded down by time, glossed over, our traces removed. No one will know, remember. A few may guess, but certainty ended a long time ago.

The places that marked the unforgettable moments of our lives become overgrown, naturalized to their former wildernesses. The last vestiges of our existences, if such remain, are curiosities merely, a line to be idly wondered at, a few lost grave goods.

The wind, perhaps, carries a sense of what went before. Now, when we pass a place where great joy, great sorrow, great intensity of emotion has occurred, we hesitate, a few of us. There is a tinge of something on the breeze, a suggestion. A prickling at the back of the neck. A sudden incalculable rush of feeling. Signs that someone was here, once.

In a hundred years, someone else will perhaps wonder the same thing.

Ghost

THE ONLY ghost I ever saw
Was dressed in mechlin,—so;
He wore no sandal on his foot,
And stepped like flakes of snow.
His gait was soundless, like the bird, 5
But rapid, like the roe;
His fashions quaint, mosaic,
Or, haply, mistletoe.

His conversation seldom,
His laughter like the breeze 10
That dies away in dimples
Among the pensive trees.
Our interview was transient,—
Of me, himself was shy;
And God forbid I look behind 15
Since that appalling day!

~Emily Dickinson

This is a fascinatingly spooky little poem. The first line is fantastic–“The only ghost I ever saw,” the speaker says, as if she might be expected to have seen many more–or as if she is recounting a shared experience. You’ve seen ghosts; I’ve seen one, too. This ghost, she tells us, “was dressed in mechlin,” a kind of lace. This seems to be the ghost of one long-dead–she identifies it as “he” but tells us additionally that not only is he quiet and fast, he is “quaint.”

In the second stanza, we get more information about the ghost’s behavior. He speaks seldom, but interestingly, he also laughs. The speaker tells us that the encounter was “transient,” as one might expect from a ghost.

There’s nothing about this particular ghost that seems disturbing, other than, of course, the obvious fact that he is a ghost. He converses, laughs a little, apparently goes on his way after a brief encounter. The speaker even tells us that the ghost was shy of her.

So the final two lines come as a bit of a twist: “God forbid I look behind/Since that appalling day!” Other than the fact of the ghost’s existence, there’s nothing about him that seems creepy or particularly threatening. The ghost himself appears afraid of the living. So why does the speaker suddenly do an about-face at the end, describing the meeting as “appalling,” and painting a picture of herself as terrified from that day forward to look behind her?

Perhaps it is precisely the ghost’s ordinariness that is distressing. This ghost is not anything more than the spirit of an ordinary human being–a person not unlike the speaker. He is a reminder of the speaker’s own mortality–an insistence that she, too, is never far from her own death, that death is something that waits for us all.