Darkest before dawn

WHEN night is almost done,
And sunrise grows so near
That we can touch the spaces,
It ’s time to smooth the hair

And get the dimples ready, 5
And wonder we could care
For that old faded midnight
That frightened but an hour.

~Emily Dickinson

The morning sky is tinged deep blue. Dawn hasn’t yet breached the eastern horizon. The balance is just beginning to tilt toward autumn. Days are shortening. It seems to happen so quickly–a month ago, wouldn’t the sun have risen by now?

I find myself growing impatient for the sunrise. Suddenly, somehow, we are already in that part of the year when sunlight begins to seem precious, a resource not to be wasted for a second. Though the fall equinox is still weeks away, autumn hovers on every shaft of golden afternoon light, plays in the golding leaves of the walnuts and the brown-crinkled edges of the oaks. The fawns who were born in the woods this spring are losing their sun-dapple spots–they won’t need them when the leaves have fled and the sun is scarcer.

Soon the sun will rise and night will slip away into the busy forgetfulness of day. Soon the heat of summer will be a memory only.

Dews & sands

Angels in the early morning
May be seen the dews among,
Stooping, plucking, smiling, flying:
Do the buds to them belong?

Angels when the sun is hottest 5
May be seen the sands among,
Stooping, plucking, sighing, flying;
Parched the flowers they bear along.

~Emily Dickinson

Over the past few weeks, our weather here in the Shenandoah Valley has fluctuated wildly, as per usual. The oppressive heat of August finally broke toward the end of the month. Storms lashed the mountains, spilling rain over the blue slopes of the Alleghenies.

Now the temperature is climbing again. The skies cleared by rain a day or two ago are clotted with white clouds piling on top of each other. (Sometimes, when I squint my eyes just so, I can imagine that the towering clouds are mountains, unbelievably tall, dwarfing the planet itself.)

Hurricane season is well underway, and it is strange to think that in this oppressive heat, a storm is barrelling down on us. The winds and rain in the Atlantic will strike us, dissipated a good bit, by the end of this week, tearing the first-golding leaves from walnut trees and flinging them in a damp scatter across still-green grass.

Autumn is coming. The flowers that are dew-soaked in the morning will soon be parched, or storm-torn. The wheel of the year spins on.

summer sounds

Farther in summer than the birds,
Pathetic from the grass,
A minor nation celebrates
Its unobtrusive mass.

No ordinance is seen, 5
So gradual the grace,
A pensive custom it becomes,
Enlarging loneliness.

Antiquest felt at noon
When August, burning low, 10
Calls forth this spectral canticle,
Repose to typify.

Remit as yet no grace,
No furrow on the glow,
Yet a druidic difference 15
Enhances nature now.

~Emily Dickinson

The crickets’ song in this poem begins as “pathetic,” “minor,” “unobtrusive.” By the end of the poem, however, it has become “pensive,” “spectral,” even “druidic.” The humble cricket-song takes on magical and mythological significance.

Your prompt is to take one of the sounds of summer and magnify it, tease out all its meanings and correspondences. What is it on the surface, and what lies beneath?


A something in a summer’s day,
As slow her flambeaux burn away,
Which solemnizes me.

A something in a summer’s noon,—
An azure depth, a wordless tune, 5
Transcending ecstasy.

And still within a summer’s night
A something so transporting bright,
I clap my hands to see;

Then veil my too inspecting face, 10
Lest such a subtle, shimmering grace
Flutter too far for me.

The wizard-fingers never rest,
The purple brook within the breast
Still chafes its narrow bed; 15

Still rears the East her amber flag,
Guides still the sun along the crag
His caravan of red,

Like flowers that heard the tale of dews,
But never deemed the dripping prize 20
Awaited their low brows;

Or bees, that thought the summer’s name
Some rumor of delirium
No summer could for them;

Or Arctic creature, dimly stirred 25
By tropic hint,—some travelled bird
Imported to the wood;

Or wind’s bright signal to the ear,
Making that homely and severe,
Contented, known, before 30

The heaven unexpected came,
To lives that thought their worshipping
A too presumptuous psalm.

~Emily Dickinson
“As slow her flambeaux burn away”…….

I’ve been studiously avoiding this poem for a while because the syntax baffled me in places and I didn’t know what to say about it. I’ve read and re-read it, thinking that I’d write about it, and every time, I came up short. Suddenly, as I’m staring at the end of summer and the start of the school year, I realize that maybe my wordlessness is the point.

Despite the fact that this is a long poem by Dickinson’s usual standards, she too seems to have trouble pinning a word to the experience she’s describing. For the first three stanzas, she repeats the words “a something,” as if she’s struggling to say what she means–or is acknowledging that some things can’t be trapped by language, affixed on paper like pinned insects.

This sense of vagueness continues through the rest of the poem, maintained by words like “veil,” “subtle,” “rumor,” “dimly.” The funky syntax in places helps to sustain this vagueness, too. I’m still not sure exactly how to parse the eighth stanza–“no summer could for them”?!? Really, Emily? But I think now that all this verbal meandering and twisting out of reach is extremely intentional. Dickinson is recreating summer in the form of a poem.

There’s something ephemeral about this sweet hot season–it slips away before we’ve completely made sense of it, fully enjoyed it. Like the poem, with its longer-than-usual length but shorter-than-usual stanzas, summer seems both long and short. And like the poem, it is hazily dreamlike, magical. The three-line stanzas begin to feel incantatory. Dickinson uses language like “shimmering” and “wizard-fingers.” The summer’s day is described as simultaneously solemn, ecstatic, and transporting. It’s a religious experience in the last stanza, with words like “heaven,” “worshipping,” and “psalm.”

I wonder if what Dickinson is doing here is not so much trying to define summer as capture our human experience of it. It is a magical season, a holy one–but then, they all are. Summer is elusive, fleeting. As I read through the poem yet another time, I realize that this is one that will continue to echo in my consciousness as I watch my children swimming underneath the August stars, running wild on the dark dew-soaked grass.

Summer Storm

There came a wind like a bugle;
It quivered through the grass,
And a green chill upon the heat
So ominous did pass
We barred the windows and the doors As from an emerald ghost;
The doom’s electric moccason
That very instant passed.
On a strange mob of panting trees,
And fences fled away,
And rivers where the houses ran
The living looked that day.
The bell within the steeple wild
The flying tidings whirled.
How much can come
And much can go,
And yet abide the world!

~Emily Dickinson

Storms here begin with a slight shift of the light, a fluttering at the margins of the day. First the wind rises, kindled before the approaching tempest. Pine boughs toss and nod to slim locusts and walnuts, polite at first, until their branches begin a frenzied tangle. The first few premature walnut leaves tear loose and fall like golden teardrops dashed away by an invisible hand. Distant harbingers of autumn, they are sobering in their brightness, shimmering reminders that all things come to an end.

But the storm is not truly imminent until the Alleghenies are lost behind a cloak of blue-grey, first blurring and then vanishing as if into legend. When the mountains disappear, and only then, is the onslaught inevitable. Then we batten down the hatches, dash for the laundry, and wait. Though, more often than not, there isn’t time to wait before the first few spattering drops, dashed sideways by the courier wind, cut sideways through the whirling air.

As I write, the rain has stopped blowing sideways and is falling almost straight down, thunder grumbling above and lightning just flashes barely illuminating the lowering clouds. Some time after the end of June, summer thunderstorms cease to have the look of downpours that bring rainbows and instead take on the tints of autumn, hints of long rainy days that fade seamlessly into lengthening nights. Every season comes hard on the heels of the one before and ties itself into knots with the next. Sometimes I think there are either no seasons, or three hundred sixty-five of them. Maybe even twenty-four seasons a day…

This rain falls on already damp red clay, on tomatoes and peppers that have had quite enough, thank you, on chickens who don’t seem to mind too much as long as it’s not a hurricane. The bees have tucked themselves away safely in their boxes. How dry and warm it must be inside, the air heavy with warmth and pollen and the hum of tens of thousands of wings.

Yesterday was a garden day, a yard day, a swimming pool day. A day to overdo the fresh air and sunshine, because really, such things cannot be overdone. Today is a day for tea and introspection, a day to draw back out of the elements and open a book of poetry.

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.

drunk on summer

I TASTE a liquor never brewed,
From tankards scooped in pearl;
Not all the vats upon the Rhine
Yield such an alcohol!

Inebriate of air am I,
And debauchee of dew,
Reeling, through endless summer days,
From inns of molten blue.

When landlords turn the drunken bee
Out of the foxglove’s door,
When butterflies renounce their drams,
I shall but drink the more!

Till seraphs swing their snowy hats,
And saints to windows run,
To see the little tippler
Leaning against the sun!

~Emily Dickinson

It’s easy to be drunk with summer these days. Though it’s not technically summer yet, schools are out, gardens are bursting into bloom, and the air is full of the golden trajectories of honeybees. Here in the north of the South, we’re having perfect weather–warm but not hot, balmy breezes, blue skies punctuated by puffs of white cloud.

It won’t last–it never does. We’re typically in a drought by August, and before that, temperatures have become wretchedly hot and the air is humid. It’s hard to sleep at night with the windows open.

But for now, we are living in a temperate paradise. The soft wind carries the scent of sun-warmed pines through the screen, and in the evenings, the crystalline song of a wood thrush traces invisible lines of silver through the perfumed air. Impossible not to be drunk on summer these days. It’s best to just sink into it.

Rain and not bees

A drop fell on the apple tree
Another on the roof;
A half a dozen kissed the eaves,
And made the gables laugh.

A few went out to help the brook,
That went to help the sea.
Myself conjectured, Were they pearls,
What necklaces could be!

The dust replaced in hoisted roads,
The birds jocoser sung;
The sunshine threw his hat away,
The orchards spangles hung.

The breezes brought dejected lutes,
And bathed them in the glee;
The East put out a single flag,
And signed the fete away.

~Emily Dickinson

If we were having the kind of summer shower Dickinson is writing about, I would be picking up my bees today. No such luck. Bees, like other witches, do not appreciate getting wet. They get downright grouchy. When the barometer falls, otherwise lovely honeybees become Not Very Nice People.

So today, instead of picking up my bees, I am daydreaming of bees, reading Dickinson’s poems about or referencing bees, and wondering when this rain is going to end.

This is not a summer shower. This is a summer monsoon. It’s just not stopping. It’s supposed to rain all day tomorrow, too, so no bees until Tuesday.

I’ve waited two years. I guess I can wait a little longer.

Baronial bees!

Some rainbow coming from the fair!
Some vision of the World Cashmere
I confidently see!
Or else a peacock’s purple train,
Feather by feather, on the plain
Fritters itself away!

The dreamy butterflies bestir,
Lethargic pools resume the whir
Of last year’s sundered tune.
From some old fortress on the sun
Baronial bees march, one by one,
In murmuring platoon!

The robins stand as thick to-day
As flakes of snow stood yesterday,
On fence and roof and twig.
The orchis binds her feather on
For her old lover, Don the Sun,
Revisiting the bog!

Without commander, countless, still,
The regiment of wood and hill
In bright detachment stand.
Behold! Whose multitudes are these?
The children of whose turbaned seas,
Or what Circassian land?

~Emily Dickinson

There’s much to love about this poem. In my edition, it’s titled “Summer’s Armies,” which I really like. It seems fitting. So many armies–hordes and throngs of birds, insects, blossoms, marching on into eternity, felled cyclically but always resurrected.

And the “baronial bees,” of course. The image is amusing to anyone who’s ever spent even a few minutes bee-watching. Never have I ever seen bees march one by one. Order they have in spades, but not in any way we think of it, and certainly not in a single-file way. There is a beautiful order to a hive, to its comings and goings, but on a warm day, to the human eye a bustling hive looks at first like sheer chaos. It’s an airport where no one appears to be performing air traffic control. Bees are everywhere. They clot the air, zoom in for crazy landings, twist and squiggle their ways around each other. Yet they know exactly what they’re doing, and nobody crashes into anybody or anything else.

They are a murmuring platoon, though. There are few lovelier sounds than their soft constant hymn to the sun.

Purple clover

THERE is a flower that bees prefer,
And butterflies desire;
To gain the purple democrat
The humming-birds aspire.

And whatsoever insect pass,
A honey bears away
Proportioned to his several dearth
And her capacity.

Her face is rounder than the moon,
And ruddier than the gown
Of orchis in the pasture,
Or rhododendron worn.

She doth not wait for June;
Before the world is green
Her sturdy little countenance
Against the wind is seen,

Contending with the grass,
Near kinsman to herself,
For privilege of sod and sun,
Sweet litigants for life.

And when the hills are full,
And newer fashions blow,
Doth not retract a single spice
For pang of jealousy.

Her public is the noon,
Her providence the sun,
Her progress by the bee proclaimed
In sovereign, swerveless tune.

The bravest of the host,
Surrendering the last,
Nor even of defeat aware
When cancelled by the frost.

~Emily Dickinson

Emily has a lot to say about purple clover. It’s a humble sort of flower, yet completely wonderful, too–often written off as a weed, but transmogrified into the sweetest honey.

White clover comes early here. Its blossoms carpet the lawn, providing some of the first nectar for pollinating insects. It’s small and low-growing, profuse, starring the green with tiny fireworks of pink-tinged white. The purple clover comes later. I just spotted some in the garden last week, and left it where it was. As gardeners go, I am probably a bit more whimsical than is strictly wise. There’s a wild poppy that reseeds itself year after year among the tomatoes and lettuce. I let it, and enjoy its random burst of color among the green.

The purple clover will stay in the garden at the edge of the bean patch. I will watch it for honeybees, maybe cut and dry some for herbal tea. It is a reminder that life is uncontrollable, persistent, and strangely sweet.