a perished sun

We learn in the retreating
How vast an one
Was recently among us.
A perished sun

Endears in the departure
How doubly more
Than all the golden presence
It was before!

~Emily Dickinson
Image via Pexels.

Today is the darkest day of the year. The winter solstice. This seems like a fitting poem for the day. May you be warm and loved, and may you find light even in the longest night.

Wheat and chaff

I worked for chaff, and earning wheat
Was haughty and betrayed.
What right had fields to arbitrate
In matters ratified?

I tasted wheat,—and hated chaff,
And thanked the ample friend;
Wisdom is more becoming viewed
At distance than at hand.

~Emily Dickinson

I’m in the thick of NaNoWriMo, so how about another writing prompt?

In the first stanza of this poem, the speaker gets more than what she asked for, and reacts badly. What does your character want most? What happens when they are in a position to actually get what they want? Of course the trials and privations in which writers like to place their characters help to reveal those characters’ personalities–but sometimes, getting exactly what we want reveals other things about us. How does someone react to sudden fortune, wealth, status, privilege? What does this say about them?

Time trembles

LOOK back on time with kindly eyes,
He doubtless did his best;
How softly sinks his trembling sun
In human nature’s west!

~Emily Dickinson

Years ago, I worked as a professional organizer and time management consultant. As a fledgling organizer, I read books, took online courses, and absorbed as much as I could about the ways in which we use space and time, and how to make better use of them. This poem is recalling those experiences and that knowledge for me now, because it is a plea to humans to change their perspective of time, which is much of what time management consulting is about.

The fact that the speaker needs to begin this way–even needs to write this poem at all–says something about human nature. We tend not to “look back on time with kindly eyes.” We blame time for our own shortcomings–there wasn’t enough time, I didn’t have enough time, it took too much time, who has time for that? Time, rather than our own failure to use it wisely, takes the blame. I think a huge part of that is our own Western view of time as linear, as opposed to other ways of understanding time as a circle or spiral that loops back on itself.

Whenever we don’t have enough time, it’s not time itself that’s to blame. It’s our use of time–but it’s so much easier to just say, It’s not my fault, I didn’t get enough time.

The line about the “trembling sun” is especially evocative of our attitudes towards time. Why is the sun “trembling”–is it because we’ve exhausted time? because time has learned to fear us? a little of both? Either way, it doesn’t sound positive. With our attitudes toward and use of time, we make time itself tremble.

I learned its sweetness right

I had a daily bliss
I half indifferent viewed,
Till sudden I perceived it stir,—
It grew as I pursued,

Till when, around a crag,
It wasted from my sight,
Enlarged beyond my utmost scope,
I learned its sweetness right.

~Emily Dickinson

Yesterday evening, we took a walk around the field and through the woods. The stifling August heat of the past weeks had dissipated suddenly, and though it was still deep summer, the cool tinge in the air foreshadowed autumn. These are precious days, these days of aging summer. The garden pours forth a bounty, the bees cluster in the hive entrances, fanning away the day’s heat, and the leaves have not yet begun to turn, but there is a feeling of waiting that hangs in the air.

Yesterday, for the first time, it felt as if autumn was possible. Suddenly it felt right to be back in school. The year circles back around.

This is the first year in twelve years that I’ve gone back to school full-time. When Thing 1 was born, I finished out the few remaining months of the school year and then quit my full time teaching job to stay home with him. Then Thing 2 came along. I continued tutoring and teaching part time, in addition to stints at other work, but I haven’t gone back to full-time teaching until now.

It’s a mixed bag, for me. I love the students. I love the small school where I teach. My colleagues are wonderful. The energy of school is exciting, stimulating, fun. But I’ve given up my old every-other-day schedule, where I alternated full days of teaching with full days at home to write.

It’s a difficult transition. Full days around lots of people are completely exhausting. Writing time has shrunk from 7:30-4:30 every other day to an hour in the evening. I knew this would be hard. I’m feeling now just how challenging it is. And I’m looking back at those long writing days, those vast swaths of free time–to write, but also to ramble the woods and fields when the ideas wouldn’t come, to indulge in the soul-filling work of daydreaming, to have another cup of tea.

I think part of what’s so rich about autumn, what makes it the season of magic, is its complexity. It’s a season of harvest but also of loss, of richness and of letting go, of bounty and the certainty of future privation. This seems like a fitting poem for a late summer day as I look forward into a new season, a new normal, and allow myself a little grace to mourn what’s left behind.

We wondered at our blindness

Her final summer was it,
And yet we guessed it not;
If tenderer industriousness
Pervaded her, we thought

A further force of life 5
Developed from within,—
When Death lit all the shortness up,
And made the hurry plain.

We wondered at our blindness,—
When nothing was to see 10
But her Carrara guide-post,—
At our stupidity,

When, duller than our dulness,
The busy darling lay,
So busy was she, finishing, 15
So leisurely were we!

~Emily Dickinson

What strikes me most strongly about this poem is the contrast. There are layers of it–contrasts between life and death, busyness and inactivity–but particularly the contrast between knowing and not-knowing.

“We guessed it not”–the speaker, speaking for a collective “we,” repeatedly returns to the notion that “we” didn’t know what was coming, but implies that the now-deceased did. Words like “stupidity” and “duller than our dulness” underscore and even levy judgment on this not-knowing. While the subject of the poem apparently knew she was dying and used this knowledge as impetus to achieve more than ever, more lovingly than ever, those around her failed to notice the cause of her activity.

How could they have known she was dying, particularly if she was so active to the last? I think that at least part of what this poem is teasing out is the common experience of blaming ourselves in the wake of a dear one’s passing. If only we had known, we should have seen it coming, we should have behaved differently…a thousand regrets and what-ifs crop up by which we torment ourselves.

Often Dickinson writes from the perspective of the deceased. Here, the dead woman isn’t really the point of the poem–it’s the way in which those who survive her are doubly wounded by her passing.We

“this bequest of wings”

He ate and drank the precious words,
His spirit grew robust;
He knew no more that he was poor,
Nor that his frame was dust.
He danced along the dingy days,
And this bequest of wings
Was but a book. What liberty
A loosened spirit brings!

~Emily Dickinson

What is it about our favorite books–not the ones we liked or even loved, but the ones we need almost as viscerally as breath? There are books I revisit from time to time, stories that never grow old but rather new, richer, stories that unfold a little more each time I return to them. These are the “precious words” Dickinson is talking about–the ones that can change everything, that transport us, that have the power to save us from our circumstances and even ourselves.

I don’t know why, but I haven’t felt my usual need to read this year. It feels odd to not be in the midst of a book, to not have a pile of them stacked up and waiting, to not binge-read hundreds of pages in a couple of days. But for some reason, since the beginning of this year, I just haven’t wanted to read.

About a month ago, though, I picked up my well-read and pencil-marked copy of Moby Dick. I am not sure I’ll ever be able to articulate why a 21st century feminist writer/French teacher/wife/mother would need this book the way I do–but I do. I need it. It is, for me, one of those life-giving books. I even like the tedious chapters on whale body-parts. I realize this makes me something of a freak. I could not care less.

I haven’t been blowing through the book the way I usually do. Instead, I’ve been reading it in bits and pieces, slowing down, finding new passages to underline. By the time I’m eighty I will probably have underlined half the words in the book. It’s fascinating the way a very conscious, deliberate re-reading of a familiar book can become a reading of oneself as a reader, too. The things that years-ago me found necessary to underscore are still vital, but now there are more things, new things, words I missed fully appreciating on all my previous read-throughs. This book keeps transforming itself in my hands. Like Janet in the tale of Tam Lin, I keep hold of it, but just barely. Sometimes it threatens to twist out of my grasp.

Wings indeed. A book is perhaps the truest form of freedom, not only because it frees us from this world for a little while, but because the story itself is free to grow, change, eternally become.

word

A word is dead
When it is said,
Some say.
I say it just
Begins to live
That day.

~Emily Dickinson

Who owns a story? Who owns a poem? A play? A piece of music? There’s something very modern about Dickinson’s sensibility in this poem. While old schools of criticism have focused on seeking intrinsic, inviolate meanings in literature, newer ones play with subjectivity, with individual responses.

There is much talk in the writing community about how once a book is in the hands of readers, it no longer belongs solely to the author. Each reader brings to each story a different set of experiences, emotions, perspectives. Stories become not weakened by this, but stronger. They begin to live and breathe, to take on lives of their own. They multiply themselves into myriad visions, and in this way assure their own survival.

The instant a word is spoken, written, it breathes its first breath and comes alive.

Pain

Pain has an element of blank;
It cannot recollect
When it began, or if there were
A day when it was not.

It has no future but itself,
Its infinite realms contain
Its past, enlightened to perceive
New periods of pain.

~Emily Dickinson

I think Dickinson is speaking here about mental and emotional anguish, but when I read this poem, I think first of physical pain. During the times in my life when I’ve experienced the greatest physical agony–recovering from a car accident, recovering from two C-sections–pain has taken on the character Dickinson describes. It seems endless, and it’s impossible to remember what it really felt like not to hurt.

I’ve read this poem over and over–it often catches my eye as I’m leafing through my copy of Dickinson’s poems. The way in which Dickinson elevates pain–“infinite realms,” “enlightened”–makes it almost a revelatory experience. In some ways, I suppose it is. We learn through pain exactly what we are made of. When I read it, though, I think first of those I know who live with chronic illness. The pains I have felt have always passed eventually, but theirs persist, are eternal. I can only imagine, and look to this poem, to try to understand their realities.

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.

Perspective

IT makes no difference abroad,
The seasons fit the same,
The mornings blossom into noons,
And split their pods of flame.


Wild-flowers kindle in the woods,
The brooks brag all the day;
No blackbird bates his jargoning
For passing Calvary.


Auto-da-fé and judgment
Are nothing to the bee;
His separation from his rose
To him seems misery.

~Emily Dickinson

I had to look up “auto-da-fé,” and wow. Basically, it’s an allusion to the Inquisition. You can read a definition here.

That one word crystallizes the meaning of the poem. Dickinson is comparing the eternal cycles of nature to the most extreme that humanity has to offer–Calvary, the Inquisition–and concluding that really, none of that human stuff matters to nature. Our doings, which seem so momentous to us, are nothing to nature. Our beliefs, religions, dogmas, don’t matter beyond ourselves.

On one hand, it’s a terrifying thought–everything we get so riled up about doesn’t really matter in the end, or at least doesn’t matter beyond ourselves. On the other hand, it’s comforting–perhaps a little bit of much-needed perspective. The world will go on without us.