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?

November

Besides the autumn poets sing,
A few prosaic days
A little this side of the snow
And that side of the haze.

A few incisive mornings,
A few ascetic eves,—
Gone Mr. Bryant’s golden-rod,
And Mr. Thomson’s sheaves.

Still is the bustle in the brook,
Sealed are the spicy valves;
Mesmeric fingers softly touch
The eyes of many elves.

Perhaps a squirrel may remain,
My sentiments to share.
Grant me, O Lord, a sunny mind,
Thy windy will to bear!

~Emily Dickinson

This is a lovely tribute to the days that don’t often receive one. I’m going to put it next to this classic by Keats, because they seem to have much in common. Enjoy these sweet, rare autumn days.

Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness,
Close bosom-friend of the maturing sun;
Conspiring with him how to load and bless
With fruit the vines that round the thatch-eves run;
To bend with apples the moss’d cottage-trees,
And fill all fruit with ripeness to the core;
To swell the gourd, and plump the hazel shells
With a sweet kernel; to set budding more,
And still more, later flowers for the bees,
Until they think warm days will never cease,
For summer has o’er-brimm’d their clammy cells.

Who hath not seen thee oft amid thy store?
Sometimes whoever seeks abroad may find
Thee sitting careless on a granary floor,
Thy hair soft-lifted by the winnowing wind;
Or on a half-reap’d furrow sound asleep,
Drows’d with the fume of poppies, while thy hook
Spares the next swath and all its twined flowers:
And sometimes like a gleaner thou dost keep
Steady thy laden head across a brook;
Or by a cyder-press, with patient look,
Thou watchest the last oozings hours by hours.

Where are the songs of spring? Ay, Where are they?
Think not of them, thou hast thy music too,—
While barred clouds bloom the soft-dying day,
And touch the stubble-plains with rosy hue;
Then in a wailful choir the small gnats mourn
Among the river sallows, borne aloft
Or sinking as the light wind lives or dies;
And full-grown lambs loud bleat from hilly bourn;
Hedge-crickets sing; and now with treble soft
The red-breast whistles from a garden-croft;
And gathering swallows twitter in the skies.

~John Keats, “To Autumn”

Who robbed the woods?

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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.

Summer’s last rites

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THE GENTIAN weaves her fringes,
The maple’s loom is red.
My departing blossoms
Obviate parade.

A brief, but patient illness, 5
An hour to prepare;
And one, below this morning,
Is where the angles are.

It was a short procession,—
The bobolink was there, 10
An aged bee addressed us,
And then we knelt in prayer.

We trust that she was willing,—
We ask that we may be.
Summer, sister, seraph, 15
Let us go with thee!

In the name of the bee
And of the butterfly
And of the breeze, amen!

~Emily Dickinson

This is a fascinating poem. Its basic meaning is clear–it’s about the passage of summer into autumn, the beginning of the slow death of the year that somehow creeps up on us every trip around the sun.

The first stanza lays out botanical cues that summer is ending. I had to look up gentian (a flower/herb). I don’t know what to make of the second stanza, with its “below this morning” and being “where the angles are.” Something about the angle of the light, maybe?? No idea on this one.

As a beekeeper, I love the third, middle stanza, with its “aged bee” as the officiant of summer’s funeral. The notion of an aged bee is rich with meaning. At the risk of falling down a bee-geek hole, it’s worth noting that honeybees during the summer live for a matter of weeks, due to the stresses of their constant foraging, but during the winter they can live for months. Ironically, the “harder” time of the year is not their harder time. Still, even a life-span of months hardly seems “aged,” and I suspect Dickinson is using the word ironically to show how quickly summer seems to pass.

In the fourth stanza, the speaker expresses a desire to follow summer to wherever it’s gone, rather than remain for the long winter. Relatable. The line “Summer, sister, seraph” echoes the structure and rhythm of her poem that begins, “I never lost as much but twice.” The penultimate line of that one is “Burglar, banker, father,” and I can’t read this one without hearing echoes of that one, which is also about loss–but of a person rather than a season.

The final stanza of this poem is especially effective. The rhyme scheme, which has been mostly slant up to this point, suddenly disappears. Four-line stanzas abruptly give way to a three-line mock liturgy. The poem, like summer itself, is cut short.

meek mornings

The morns are meeker than they were – 
The nuts are getting brown –
The berry’s cheek is plumper –
The rose is out of town.

The maple wears a gayer scarf –
The field a scarlet gown –
Lest I sh’d be old-fashioned 
I’ll put a trinket on. 

~Emily Dickinson

5:59 a.m. The sun has not yet risen, has not sent even a whisper of pink over the horizon. A month ago the skies would have been a riot of predawn color, the birds jubilant. Meeker now, indeed.

These are strange and precious days–the adolescent days of autumn, as awkward and unpredictable as a child growing into her skin. Like an almost-teen, these autumn/summer days sometimes hang on to the past like grim death, refusing to acknowledge that change is inevitable. Other times, they bolt forward, early out of the gate, overeager for whatever is next.

Here, autumn is having a Lost Boys moment, reluctant to grow up. The days have been swelteringly hot, not unusual for September but always disconcerting. It’s supposed to have been autumn for eight days now. It hasn’t felt like it.

Even so, the pumpkins are swelling in the garden. The hummingbirds who did battle over the feeder in the back yard haven’t shown themselves for a few days. The Canada geese who raised their family in the cattle pond down the road have been gone for a while now.

Things are shifting. The world tilts, spins, shifts, rebels a little against the sun. Meek mornings are a sign of silent insurrection, not of any underlying actual meekness.

The dark days are coming. They are here. Let us light candles and bonfires in the darkness, draw close to hearth and home, bring in the harvest, and spin the long nights into stories.

Summer’s dregs

THESE are the days when birds come back,
A very few, a bird or two,
To take a backward look.

These are the days when skies put on
The old, old sophistries of June,—
A blue and gold mistake.

Oh, fraud that cannot cheat the bee,
Almost thy plausibility
Induces my belief,

Till ranks of seeds their witness bear, 1
And softly through the altered air
Hurries a timed leaf!

Oh, sacrament of summer days,
Oh, last communion in the haze,
Permit a child to join,

Thy sacred emblems to partake,
Thy consecrated bread to break,
Taste thine immortal wine!

~Emily Dickinson

These are the last hot days of summer, returning in full force here at the end of September. In the Valley, temperatures are climbing. It’s about time to put the garden to bed, but it feels like it’s time to water it.

Bursts of dragonflies explode from the pine trees on our evening walks in the heavy evening heat. The sun beats down as if it is mid-July. But it will dip below the horizon much, much sooner. Bright red globes of tomatoes still punctuate the garden.

These are strange and precious days, heavy with summer yet whispering in the slant of the light, in the dripping gold walnut leaves, of fall. Hummingbirds still visit the feeder, still war over its sweet sugar syrup.

But tomorrow is the Autumn Equinox, Mabon, the harvest holiday. Tomorrow the balance will tip, and thought the two butterflies tangling their flights outside my window don’t know it yet, the long dark of the year is waiting in the wings.

Esoteric time

’T WAS later when the summer went
Than when the cricket came,
And yet we knew that gentle clock
Meant nought but going home.

’T was sooner when the cricket went
Than when the winter came,
Yet that pathetic pendulum
Keeps esoteric time.

~Emily Dickinson

So much human thought is devoted to time, which bemuses me, since time is something we’ve constructed. We invented it, and then got ourselves all bent out of shape over it. We talk about time management, worry about it, pay people to do it for us. And yet we never quite seem to fully understand it. We’ve created a creature that’s grown beyond our understanding. Esoteric indeed.

Autumn is almost here. Monday is the Autumn Equinox. The sun will cross the equator and we will cross into the dark side of the year. We will celebrate the darkness at Halloween, and then in December we will light a hundred thousand million lights to try to hold it back.

Our relationship with time is a fascinating one.