Wrecked, solitary

I felt a funeral in my brain,
And mourners, to and fro,
Kept treading, treading, till it seemed
That sense was breaking through.

And when they all were seated, 5
A service like a drum
Kept beating, beating, till I thought
My mind was going numb.

And then I heard them lift a box,
And creak across my soul 10
With those same boots of lead, again.
Then space began to toll

As all the heavens were a bell,
And Being but an ear,
And I and silence some strange race, 15
Wrecked, solitary, here.

~Emily Dickinson

This is probably one of Dickinson’s most well-known poems, particularly the first stanza, and the first line. Much has been said and written about this poem–its opening, the notion of feeling a funeral, the masterful use of repetition. Rather than focusing on the beginning, I want to pay close attention to the end, because it’s here that Dickinson brings in one of her favorite metaphors–shipwreck.

Amherst, Massachussetts is not particularly near the ocean. Yet Dickinson frequently invokes the ocean and ships in her poetry. For most of this poem, she writes about the sensation, particularly the sound, of the “funeral in my brain.” The imagery is that of a funeral, with mourners and footsteps. But then, in the very last line, she switches gears, and suddenly the speaker is “Wrecked, solitary, here.” From funeral, she moves abruptly to shipwreck. It’s a strange, transitionless shift–and yet that’s how shipwrecks must seem. Abrupt, sudden, everything expected ripped away.

Like the speaker, the reader is left shipwrecked at the end of the poem, disoriented, torn from one world and dropped suddenly in another, left alone with silence.

Beyond time

GREAT streets of silence led away
To neighborhoods of pause;
Here was no notice, no dissent,
No universe, no laws.

By clocks ’t was morning, and for night
The bells at distance called;
But epoch had no basis here,
For period exhaled.

~Emily Dickinson

How do you write about nothing? How do you imagine it–how is it even possible to conceive of? Dickinson’s description in this poem reminds me of Ursula K. LeGuin’s depiction of the land of the dead in her Earthsea books.

Both LeGuin and Dickinson conceive of death as a paradoxical place of nowhereness, a thing of nothing.