Wonderful rotation

Frequently the woods are pink,
Frequently are brown;
Frequently the hills undress
Behind my native town.

Oft a head is crested
I was wont to see,
And as oft a cranny
Where it used to be.

And the earth, they tell me,
On its axis turned,—
Wonderful rotation
By but twelve performed!

~Emily Dickinson
Image by Valentin Antonucci via Pexels.

Another wonderfully Emily poem. The first stanza is completely comprehensible. Spring, autumn, and winter come again and again. The cycles of nature repeat. So far so good.

The second stanza gets more riddle-y. “Oft a head is crested” that the speaker is used to seeing. What is the head? Is it the head of an actual person, or is she talking about something else? Probably something else, because often there’s a cranny where it used to be. I’m not sure exactly what the “head” here is, but it’s still clear she’s talking about change over time. Often she sees something familiar, but as often it’s gone.

“And the earth, they tell me, / On its axis turned” is a wonderful way of capturing the feeling we all have at the swift passage of time. The speaker describes herself as outside the common knowledge, needing to be told that this magic of change is the work of the world turning. This “Wonderful rotation” is performed by only twelve–the months.

I love the riddling quality of this poem, all the little nuances of the speaker’s character, her awed response to the change of seasons that most of us generally take completely for granted. It seems a fitting poem for the second-to-last day of the year.

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.

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.

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?

Prompt: The wind

Of all the sounds despatched abroad,
There ’s not a charge to me
Like that old measure in the boughs,
That phraseless melody

The wind does, working like a hand 5
Whose fingers comb the sky,
Then quiver down, with tufts of tune
Permitted gods and me.

When winds go round and round in bands,
And thrum upon the door, 10
And birds take places overhead,
To bear them orchestra,

I crave him grace, of summer boughs,
If such an outcast be,
He never heard that fleshless chant 15
Rise solemn in the tree,

As if some caravan of sound
On deserts, in the sky,
Had broken rank,
Then knit, and passed 20
In seamless company.

~Emily Dickinson

There’s so much loveliness in this poem–the wind as music permitted to be heard by both gods and humans; the “fleshless chant,”; the “caravan of sound”…….I could wax rhapsodic about this one. I love how Dickinson literally breaks ranks with her own stanza length by throwing in an extra line in the final stanza where she describes the wind as a caravan breaking rank.

But today’s post is not me geeking out or being baffled by another Dickinson poem. It’s a prompt for you.

What visceral effect does the wind have on you? Is it thrilling? Unnerving? Uplifting? Write a poem or paragraph in which you tease out that feeling through simile and metaphor à la Dickinson.

And so the night became

The cricket sang,
And set the sun,
And workmen finished, one by one,
Their seam the day upon.

The low grass loaded with the dew,
The twilight stood as strangers do
With hat in hand, polite and new,
To stay as if, or go.

A vastness, as a neighbor, came,—
A wisdom without face or name,
A peace, as hemispheres at home,—
And so the night became.

~Emily Dickinson

It’s amazing what you can learn on the interwebs. For example, if you google the first lines of this poem, the first several hits you get are links to videos of people playing this as a song on marimbas. Who knew?

It’s a lovely poem, and does some wonderful things with language. The first line is a conventional sort of opening, but the second begins to work the poem’s magic. “A cricket sang,/And set the sun” can read as, “A cricket sang, and the sun set” or “A cricket sang, and made the sun set.” I love it–this suggestion that the cricket’s tiny melody could be the spell that sings down a star from the sky. The workmen act in a similar way–they leave a “seam” upon the day itself, as if knitting it together, completing it.

The second stanza begins with another conventionally poetic image–“The low grass loaded with the dew”–but then we get some wonderfully Dickinsonian personification. The twilight stands politely waiting. Though we know it is definite, certain, unavoidable, it acts as if we have a choice. It is gentle, reserved.

It makes sense, then, that twilight brings with it wisdom and peace. In the third stanza, it’s compared now not to “strangers” but to “a neighbor.” Though it has neither face nor name, it is familiar, comforting, settling.

I love the way that the first and last lines, taken together, crystallize the entire poem: “A cricket sang,” “And so the night became.”

Mermaids in the basement

I started early, took my dog,
And visited the sea;
The mermaids in the basement
Came out to look at me,

And frigates in the upper floor
Extended hempen hands,
Presuming me to be a mouse
Aground, upon the sands.

But no man moved me till the tide
Went past my simple shoe,
And past my apron and my belt,
And past my bodice too,

And made as he would eat me up
As wholly as a dew
Upon a dandelion’s sleeve—
And then I started too.

And he—he followed close behind;
I felt his silver heel
Upon my ankle,—then my shoes
Would overflow with pearl.

Until we met the solid town,
No man he seemed to know;
And bowing with a mighty look
At me, the sea withdrew.

~Emily Dickinson

There’s so, so much I love about this poem, and so much I could say. It has the feel of the best kinds of fairy tales–the old ones–lovely and darkly glimmering, beautiful and somehow ominous, and just familiar enough for its strangeness to feel bone-chillingly strange.

On this reading, the thing that strikes me is the perspective in the poem–not just the speaker’s voice, but the physical position from which she is speaking. It begins in an ordinary way–she rises early, and goes to the shore with her dog. Then things begin to get interesting. The mermaids in the “basement” are presumably rising up from the depths of the sea; the frigates ride atop it, in the upper floor. To the mermaids, fantastical creatures of myth, the human speaker is the curiosity; to the massive frigates, she is merely a stranded mouse.

The speaker stands by the sea as the tide comes in–past her shoes, apron, belt, bodice, threatening/promising to swallow her completely. This would seem ominous, but then we get the odd line, “And then I started too.” Started what? To become the sea? To rise like the tide?

Suddenly now she is not in the sea but with it, being followed by it, the sea brushing her ankle, her shoes overflowing. Speaker and sea arrive at a town, and the line “No man he seemed to know” echoes the earlier line “But no man moved me,” again linking water and woman, and excluding man. Finally, the sea bows and withdraws, seeming to understand that it must leave her in the realm of land-dwelling things.

The whole poem reads almost like one of those Greek myths in which human and nature collide and coalesce in strange and unexpected ways. There is magic here, certainly, whether it is the magic of mermaids and sentient waters, or merely the magic of language to evoke the wondrous and strange.

Zero at the Bone

A narrow Fellow in the Grass
Occasionally rides –
You may have met him? Did you not
His notice instant is –

The Grass divides as with a Comb,
A spotted Shaft is seen,
And then it closes at your Feet
And opens further on –

He likes a Boggy Acre –
A Floor too cool for Corn –
But when a Boy and Barefoot
I more than once at Noon

Have passed I thought a Whip Lash
Unbraiding in the Sun
When stooping to secure it
It wrinkled And was gone –

Several of Nature’s People
I know, and they know me
I feel for them a transport
Of Cordiality

But never met this Fellow
Attended or alone
Without a tighter Breathing
And Zero at the Bone.

~Emily Dickinson

This is one of my favorites. If you don’t like snakes, consider yourself warned: snake stories follow.

My most recent snaky encounters were at the beach, if you don’t count the five-foot blacksnake skin festooned through our shed last week. On a nature trail at the Outer Banks, coming back along the path through a marshy area one afternoon, a rustle of movement in the grass caught my son’s and husband’s attention. A long, thick fellow was riding through the scrubby undergrowth. We couldn’t identify him, despite the interesting markings on his back, and thus weren’t too keen to get close. We tried to snap pictures for later identification, but still haven’t succeeded in figuring out exactly who he was.

We were headed back toward the car, content with our excitement for the day, when something rustled on the other side of the path, about ten yards or so from the first fellow. It was another indeterminate brown snake, smaller than the first but rather lively and not inclined to welcome visitors. As best we can determine, this was a water snake of some sort, but again, we weren’t terribly interested in snuggling up to discuss with him the finer points of his taxonomy.

Earlier this summer, we were at a cookout with friends and family. Everyone had eaten all the burgers and s’mores they could stand, and twilight was falling thick around us. Evening is typicaly not a snaky time, so the sudden movement in the gloaming grass didn’t immediately clue me in. It came closer, and I realized a small snake was headed right for me in the dark. As I hollered “Snake!!” and everyone crowded around (we are the kind of people who usually run toward snakes), the snake decided to curl up on the apparent safety of my right shoe. It was a milk snake–a really lovely little being–normally very docile, but camera shy. As the lights came on, the snake on my right shoe, failing to associate its safe haven with the nearly identical object next to it, attacked my left shoe. So I got bit by a snake this summer, but in the best possible way.

Other snaky encounters this summer have included repeated visits from a large blacksnake who insists on getting tangled up in netting in the neighboring garden, and who must periodically be untangled and released with gentle hands and stern warnings. It’s been a good summer for snakes. I’m still waiting for the magical teensy-tinsy ringneck snakes who like to bask on our warm carport cement on a summer evening.

Even though I happen to be one of the people who loves and appreciates snakes, Dickinson is absolutely spot-on in her description of encountering them unexpectedly. Whenever I am out berry-picking and a sudden rustle in the grass draws my eye to the flicker of a disappearing scaly tail, the first words that jump into my mind are the last ones of this poem–“Zero at the Bone.”

This audience of idleness

From cocoon forth a butterfly
As lady from her door
Emerged—a summer afternoon—
Repairing everywhere,

Without design, that I could trace, Except to stray abroad
On miscellaneous enterprise
The clovers understood.

Her pretty parasol was seen
Contracting in a field
Where men made hay, then struggling hard With an opposing cloud,

Where parties, phantom as herself,
To Nowhere seemed to go
In purposeless circumference,
As ’t were a tropic show.

And notwithstanding bee that worked,
And flower that zealous blew,
This audience of idleness
Disdained them, from the sky,

Till sundown crept, a steady tide,
And men that made the hay,
And afternoon, and butterfly,
Extinguished in its sea.

~Emily Dickinson

Dickinson here articulates perfectly the air that butterflies give off. While everything around them is purposeful, bursting and growing and hunting and prowling and photosynthesizing and raising babies, butterflies are just fluttering around. They appear so purposeless in their beauty that they are not even active enough to be idleness itself–they’re simply the “audience of idleness.” They’re spectating idleness rather than participating in it, so idle are they.

Dickinson describes the apparent aimlessness of butterflies wonderfully. They fly “without design,” “miscellaneous enterprise,” communing with “phantom” parties in a “purposeless circumference.”

Of course butterflies are doing something. They just look like they’re not. In the process, though, they are a reminder to slow down, to take the long, fluttering route, to savor each drop of every sweet summer day before it vanishes into the sea of night, into the onset of autumn, and the distant memory of winter.

Presentiment

Presentiment is that long shadow on the lawn
Indicative that suns go down;
The notice to the startled grass
That darkness is about to pass.

~Emily Dickinson

Such a small yet fascinating poem. The first thing we read, that unwieldy first line, mimics the length of the shadow on the lawn. This line is twelve syllables, while the remaining three lines have only eight syllables each. They are all perfectly matched, the last two even rhyming in a true rhyme with “grass” and “pass.” I love when poems do this–when their structure somehow mirrors their subject matter. “Presentiment” itself is a long, unwieldy word, and perhaps presentiment itself is an unwieldy, awkward thing–what do we do with our presentiments, if we have them? What do we make of them? How do they affect us? Are they even real?

I’m not sure why the grass is startled. Doesn’t it know to expect the passing darkness? It’s not as if it’s never happened before or will never happen again. The very notion of presentiment being connected to the setting of the sun is strange–of course the sun goes down. It does this every day. It’s not a presentiment if we know it’s going to happen.

But Dickinson is, of course, dealing in metaphor. Presentiment is symbolized by that long shadow, the stretching shade that tells us that something else, something different, is on its way. Darkness follows light.

In the final line, “darkness is about to pass.” This is a rich choice of words. On the one hand, darkness is about to pass over–it’s about to happen. But on the other hand, the choice of “pass” conveys a sense of motion, a certainty that, no matter what, the darkness is not forever. This, too, shall pass.