Ancestor of dawn

The mountain sat upon the plain
In his eternal chair,
His observation omnifold,
His inquest everywhere.

The seasons prayed around his knees,
Like children round a sire:
Grandfather of the days is he,
Of dawn the ancestor.

~Emily Dickinson
Image via Aron Visuals, Pexels.

My favorite Dickinson poems are the ones like this–close observations of nature couched in fresh language, glimpses into the way Dickinson saw the world around her. She had a way of noticing, of really seeing what was happening in the natural world, and according it its proper importance. She doesn’t put human beings squarely at the center of the universe, as is the human tendency. Of course, she anthropomorphizes like all get out, but there’s an understanding in her observations of birds and weather, trees and seasons. I get the sense that she was tapped into something elemental, something visceral, that she took the time to knit a bond with the natural world in a way that many people never do.

Sunset

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 Pexels.com

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.

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.

delight // pain

Delight becomes pictorial
When viewed through pain,—
More fair, because impossible
That any gain.

The mountain at a given distance
In amber lies;
Approached, the amber flits a little,—
And that ’s the skies!

~Emily Dickinson
Image via Pexels.com.

I don’t know how much I have to add to this. It’s so true! When we’re suffering, all the good times appear “pictorial.” All the possible connotations fit. Something that is pictorial is not only lovely, but also unreal–a picture, after all, is not the real thing. In times of pain, delight seems not only lovely, but impossibly so.

The second stanza elaborates. When we’re at a certain distance from happiness, mired in the morass of our own misery, that happiness is tinged with different colors–colors that the real thing doesn’t possess. This poem is a tightly-constructed and well-thought-out mini-meditation on the nature of suffering and what it does to our experience of happiness.

In which Emily is not G-rated and there is a whole lot going on

The thought beneath so slight a film
Is more distinctly seen,—
As laces just reveal the surge,
Or mists the Apennine.

~Emily Dickinson

So much going on in this tiny poem. It’s just a simile, really, but there is all sorts of stuff to unpack. First, Emily Dickinson talking about boobs. !! Definitely not one I ever saw in a middle school English textbook. Then there’s the comparing of the “surge” to mountains, which is a pretty clichéd metaphor for breasts, but still lovely with the correspondence between lace and mist.

But the real gist of the poem is that thoughts are clearer when slightly clouded, and this is a fascinating idea. I wonder what the “film” is that she’s talking about. She seems to be thinking of something specific–“so slight a film”–but the reader has no real clue as to what that film is. Is she talking about language? tone? something else?

I don’t know…but I do know I’ve already expended many more words in trying to unpack this poem than Dickinson ever needed to write it, and that is as good a definition of what poetry is as anything else I can think of.

सगरमाथा (Sagarmatha)

I CAN wade grief,
Whole pools of it,—
I ’m used to that.
But the least push of joy
Breaks up my feet, 5
And I tip—drunken.
Let no pebble smile,
’T was the new liquor,—
That was all!

Power is only pain, 10
Stranded, through discipline,
Till weights will hang.
Give balm to giants,
And they ’ll wilt, like men.
Give Himmaleh,— 15
They ’ll carry him!

~Emily Dickinson
Mount Everest image via Pixabay.

Today’s post is going to be a footnote of sorts. I love this poem, and there are all kinds of things to say about it, but I think it also speaks for itself, so I’m going to have fun getting into the weeds a bit instead.

I fell down a rabbit-hole with this one. First I had to Google “Himmaleh.” Turns out it’s Himalaya, but closer to the Sanskrit word. This word is actually two words combined, and they mean “winter house,” which is completely lovely. The Himalayas could very well be winter’s home base.

Then, of course, I had to look up the true name of Mount Everest. It annoys me when people rename places that don’t belong to them, and “Mount Everest” is a prime example. It is decidedly not a “Mount Everest.” Its name is Sagarmatha, which means “Peak of Heaven” and is a vastly preferable and more evocative name.

I think about this kind of thing often–how we call places by the names some white explorer gave them, and not by their true names. I’ve often wondered why we can’t just call countries what the people living in them call them. What is it, this need to rename things in our own image? Does it make them more understandable? More accessible? More easy to fit in a box? Why is Deutschland “Allemagne” in French and “Germany” in English?

Why can’t we just call things by their names? I like that in this poem, Dickinson uses “Himmaleh.”

Which, sir, are you?

In lands I never saw, they say,
Immortal Alps look down,
Whose bonnets touch the firmament,
Whose sandals touch the town,—

Meek at whose everlasting feet
A myriad daisies play.
Which, sir, are you, and which am I,
Upon an August day?

~Emily Dickinson

One of the gorgeous things about poetry is that it often unfolds slowly, like a flower. You have to wait for it. Its meanings unfurl gradually, and you can read a poem several times before the magical reading that suddenly unlocks the final key to its meaning.

That has been my experience of this poem. I’ve read it several times while paging through my copy of Dickinson’s poem. Each time, I thought, “I have no idea what to do with this. It’s just Emily being all Emily in the most annoying way–“Big strong man, I am so small!”

Somehow, though, I read it yet again a few days ago and it fell open, like one of those puzzle boxes that unlatch easily the moment you hit on the right spot to press. This poem is Emily being all Emily, but in the best way.

It initially reads as flirty Emily, which is definitely not the Emily we’re all taught to know in English classes. She starts out sounding very innocent and ignorant: “In lands I never saw,” and follows it up with “they say,” suggesting that she’s getting her information secondhand, that she doesn’t probably really know what she’s talking about. She then proceeds to personify the Alps as if she has seen them, right down to the little daisies playing at their feet.

The Alps are “immortal,” they “look down,” their “bonnets touch the firmament,” their feet are “everlasting.” They stand in stark contrast to the “meek” daisies playing around them. The Alps are eternal, the daisies fleeting.

Dickinson ends her poem with a question to an unnamed man: “Which, sir, are you, and which am I,/ Upon an August day?” It’s this question that truly unlocks the meaning of the poem, like that last little piece you press on the puzzle box when you’ve just about given up.

The tone here is so flirty and coy. Of course she’s the daisies and he’s the immortal Alps. She’s flattering him, setting him up.

But.

She poses the question, and it’s the fact that it is a question that unlocks the wonderful subversiveness of this poem. The man is going to read this and think, “I’m the Alps, duh!” But Dickinson’s ending with the question itself makes us ask. Which one is which? The fact that the end of the poem is a question mark opens it up to interpretation. What if he’s the daisies and she’s the Alps? What if the woman is eternal and powerful and not the man?

But again, she ends with a question, and this to me is the real meaning and genius of the poem. The fact that she does ask, that she does set up a potentially subversive answer, is important. The poem isn’t really about who’s the Alps and who’s the daisies–it’s about the fact that she dares to pose this as a question in the first place.