The forest of the dead

OUR journey had advanced;
Our feet were almost come
To that odd fork in Being’s road,
Eternity by term.

Our pace took sudden awe, 5
Our feet reluctant led.
Before were cities, but between,
The forest of the dead.

Retreat was out of hope,—
Behind, a sealed route, 10
Eternity’s white flag before,
And God at every gate.

~Emily Dickinson

For someone who often wrote of Death as a courteous gentleman, Dickinson wrote some pretty macabre stuff, too. The line that jumps out at me from this poem is “the forest of the dead.” In the poem, it’s the obstacle between the speaker and the “cities.” The line reminds me of Carrie Ryan’s YA zombie novel The Forest of Hands and Teeth, which is a great read even if, like me, you are squeamish about all things zombie.

As a country-dweller, I’m often bemused by how often in the human imagination cities are associated with goodness, order, intellectualism, etc.; while nature, particularly very rural parts of it, are scary, benighted, chaotic, deadly. I feel safer in the middle of the woods than in any city.

Who robbed the woods?

Image via Pexels.com

Who robbed the woods,
The trusting woods?
The unsuspecting trees
Brought out their burrs and mosses
His fantasy to please. 5
He scanned their trinkets, curious,
He grasped, he bore away.
What will the solemn hemlock,
What will the fir-tree say?

~Emily Dickinson

In my imagination, this is the beginning of a dark and twisty fairy tale. I assume Dickinson is talking about the change of seasons here, about autumn giving way to winter, but the personification makes me want to read this a bit more literally and think of winter as a sentient entity–like Hades stealing Persephone from the world of sunlight, or like some fey elf-lord bringing down winter on the land. Like the White Witch in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe.

It’s wonderful all the places a poem can lead, all the winding avenues of thought it opens up before us.

Bat

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THE BAT is dun with wrinkled wings
Like fallow article,
And not a song pervades his lips,
Or none perceptible.

His small umbrella, quaintly halved, 5
Describing in the air
An arc alike inscrutable,—
Elate philosopher!

Deputed from what firmament
Of what astute abode, 10
Empowered with what malevolence
Auspiciously withheld.

To his adroit Creator
Ascribe no less the praise;
Beneficent, believe me, 15
His eccentricities.

~Emily Dickinson

I love all of Dickinson’s advocation for the creepy critters amongst us. Her descriptions are spot-on and delightful. My favorite is of the bat in flight as a “small umbrella, quaintly halved.” The bat is an “Elate philosopher,” and while he is “empowered with…malevolence,” he withholds it. The Creator of the bat deserves praise for this creation as well as others. Dickinson ends on the notion that the oddness of creation is goodness, and I could not agree more.

Thunderstorm

THE WIND begun to rock the grass
With threatening tunes and low,—
He flung a menace at the earth,
A menace at the sky.

The leaves unhooked themselves from trees 5
And started all abroad;
The dust did scoop itself like hands
And throw away the road.

The wagons quickened on the streets,
The thunder hurried slow; 10
The lightning showed a yellow beak,
And then a livid claw.

The birds put up the bars to nests,
The cattle fled to barns;
There came one drop of giant rain, 15
And then, as if the hands

That held the dams had parted hold,
The waters wrecked the sky,
But overlooked my father’s house,
Just quartering a tree.

~Emily Dickinson

Okay, so not so much a Halloween poem, but there is definitely an element of the spooky and supernatural. It’s difficult to think about thunderstorms today–the sky is October blue, the sun pouring down as if to make up for the fact that it will be departing earlier tonight.

It’s definitely an autumn poem, too, with the leaves blowing from the trees. Everything in the poem is personified, from the wind to the leaves to the birds. All of nature is alive, inhabited, acting and reacting.

The poem ends with the quartering of a tree by lightning, and this does feel like a very Halloween-y image–the old cleft tree, scarred by storm. Though Dickinson does not describe the aftermath, the reader can see the tree, and this is the image with which she leaves us.

The rat

THE RAT is the concisest tenant.
He pays no rent,—
Repudiates the obligation,
On schemes intent.

Balking our wit
To sound or circumvent,
Hate cannot harm
A foe so reticent.

Neither decree
Prohibits him,
Lawful as
Equilibrium.

~Emily Dickinson

In our house it’s mice, but otherwise essentially the same thing. They don’t pay rent, and balk our wit constantly. Sometimes they even show up inside the house in the middle of summer, when the outside world is brimful of goodness for them, as if to remind us that they do not do anything expected.

Mice, though, are small and, until they poop in your silverware drawer, cute. Rats are a different matter. I wonder where the human repulsion toward them began. Did it start with the plague? Does it go back farther? What’s interesting to me in this poem is that Dickinson doesn’t seem squicked out by them. Rather, they are little schemers going about their daily business.

Interestingly, when I searched for images of rats on Pexels.com, I found only mice. Apparently we have a lot of baggage when it comes to rats, and not a lot of pictures.

Storm: a prompt

IT sounded as if the streets were running,
And then the streets stood still.
Eclipse was all we could see at the window,
And awe was all we could feel.

By and by the boldest stole out of his covert, To see if time was there.
Nature was in her beryl apron,
Mixing fresher air.

~Emily Dickinson
Image via Pexels.com.

Today, a prompt, inspired by Dickinson’s mastery of language. In the vein of the poem above, write a description of a natural event without naming the event itself or using any of the words typically associated with it. Dickinson manages to convey the noise, chaos, and finally the dissipation of a storm without ever using language we associate with storms (dark, stormy, tempest, rain, thunder, etc.). See if you can do the same.

Mushroom

The Mushroom is the Elf of Plants –
At Evening, it is not
At Morning, in a Truffled Hut
It stop opon a Spot

As if it tarried always
And yet it’s whole Career
Is shorter than a Snake’s Delay –
And fleeter than a Tare –

’Tis Vegetation’s Juggler –
The Germ of Alibi –
Doth like a Bubble antedate
And like a Bubble, hie –

I feel as if the Grass was pleased
To have it intermit –
This surreptitious Scion
Of Summer’s circumspect.

Had Nature any supple Face
Or could she one contemn –
Had Nature an Apostate –
That Mushroom – it is Him!

~Emily Dickinson

Image via Pexels.com.

Dickinson is right about so many things. The mushroom really is “the elf of plants” (even though, of course, it is not a plant because Science). It appears overnight as if by magic, erupting silently from the humus. A mushroom has a kind of presence–it is solid, architectural, and where a mushroom springs up, it seems to irrefutably belong.

Yet “it’s whole Career / Is shorter than a Snake’s Delay.” Dickinson tells us that the grass is pleased by the interruption of the mushroom, but then goes on to argue that it is Nature’s unbeliever, that it is the one face Nature could condemn.

I wonder how much Dickinson really understood about mushrooms. Did she know that they spring from decay, that they are the unheimlich little denizens of the forest floor who, like the vulture high overhead, transmogrify death into life, decay into vitality and beauty?