Chrysolite?

It can’t be summer,—that got through;
It ’s early yet for spring;
There ’s that long town of white to cross
Before the blackbirds sing.

It can’t be dying,—it ’s too rouge,—
The dead shall go in white.
So sunset shuts my question down
With clasps of chrysolite.

~Emily Dickinson
Olivine, which is maybe chrysolite?
Image via Wikipedia.

“That long town of white” is the phrase that got me from this poem–but the single word “chrysolite” is what sent me down an internet rabbit hole. What is chrysolite? It sounds like a mineral. Here’s what I learned:

There is no such thing as chrysolite. Or rather, no one is entirely sure exactly what chrysolite is. It appears in the Old Testament, is referenced multiple times in the Bible, and seems to refer to what could be a fairly wide array of green minerals.

Chrysolite could be all kinds of things, including olivine and peridot. What I think is fantastic about its use in this poem is that it’s the last word, and it’s unclear exactly what it is. This fits beautifully and perfectly with the message of the poem. Dickinson starts by pondering and getting things wrong. “It can’t be summer,” and “it’s early yet for spring.” It’s as if she can’t pin down exactly where she is. She has some idea, but can’t articulate it precisely.

The poem ends with sunset shutting down her question with “clasps of chrysolite.” It’s perfectly fitting that her unanswerable question–or her question with an unspeakable answer–should be locked down with clasps of some mysterious substance whose exact name and nature we can only guess at. There’s Biblical resonance to chrysolite, there are loads of suggestions and possibilities–but in the end, we, like the speaker of this poem, can’t know exactly what she’s talking about.

I love how often Dickinson engages with the idea of the unknowable, the inexpressible. It’s a side of her I wasn’t aware of when I began this project nearly a year ago.

The sun’s leaving

The sun just touched the morning;
The morning, happy thing,
Supposed that he had come to dwell,
And life would be all spring.


She felt herself supremer,—
A raised, ethereal thing;
Henceforth for her what holiday!
Meanwhile, her wheeling king


Trailed slow along the orchards
His haughty, spangled hems,
Leaving a new necessity,—
The want of diadems!


The morning fluttered, staggered,
Felt feebly for her crown,—
Her unanointed forehead
Henceforth her only one.

~Emily Dickinson

Getting caught up on a zillion neglected things this Memorial Day weekend, so today’s post is just a poem and the sun setting over the Alleghenies. Here’s to sun-filled days and starry nights!

Spring springs eternal

A LADY red upon the hill
Her annual secret keeps;
A lady white within the field
In placid lily sleeps!


The tidy breezes with their brooms
Sweep vale, and hill, and tree!
Prithee, my pretty housewives!
Who may expected be?


The neighbors do not yet suspect!
The woods exchange a smile—
Orchard, and buttercup, and bird—
In such a little while!


And yet how still the landscape stands,
How nonchalant the wood,
As if the resurrection
Were nothing very odd!

~Emily dickinson

There’s a lovely quality of waiting to this poem–the anticipation of something beautiful and familiar, something expected and consistent. Spring is like that–we can depend upon it. It always comes, bringing with it its usual cast of characters. Though there may be fluctuations from year to year, it always arrives essentially on time.

Dickinson absolutely crams this poem with personification–it’s everywhere, in almost every line. The red and white ladies are probably specific plants she’s thinking of, but they could be any red and white spring blooms. I like how the poem ends with the notion of the earth itself not being overwhelmed by anticipation, as we human creatures often are when spring is near. The landscape is “still,” the wood “nonchalant.” Nature always trusts that spring is coming. It’s we humans who forget that, who get overwhelmed, distracted, who lose hope. But nature waits, patiently, knowing that all things arrive in their season.

Who?

BRING me the sunset in a cup,
Reckon the morning’s flagons up,
And say how many dew;
Tell me how far the morning leaps,
Tell me what time the weaver sleeps
Who spun the breadths of blue!


Write me how many notes there be
In the new robin’s ecstasy
Among astonished boughs;
How many trips the tortoise makes,
How many cups the bee partakes,—
The debauchee of dews!


Also, who laid the rainbow’s piers,
Also, who leads the docile spheres
By withes of supple blue?
Whose fingers string the stalactite,
Who counts the wampum of the night,
To see that none is due?


Who built this little Alban house
And shut the windows down so close
My spirit cannot see?
Who ’ll let me out some gala day,
With implements to fly away,
Passing pomposity?

~Emily dickinson

This is peak Dickinson. This is perhaps The Most Emily Poem of all time. For starters, it’s a riddle. Dickinson piles on question after question, never answering them. There’s also a lot of exclaiming and rapture about nature. She mentions robins. She mentions bees. She even describes bees as “debauchee of dews,” a phrase she uses in another poem, the better-known “I taste a liquor never brewed.”

There are lots of unanswerable questions, lots of breathless delightings in the glories of nature. There are oodles of gorgeous and quirky descriptions: “how many dew,” “astonished boughs,” “withes of supple blue,” and on and on. There’s an obscure references–what is an “Alban house”? Is she talking about Scotland? Why?? Or is she referencing the saint? Again, why?? And, of course, in true Dickinsonian fashion, the poem ends in death–with the promise of resurrection.

“Till summer folds her miracle”

THE SPRINGTIME’S pallid landscape
Will glow like bright bouquet,
Though drifted deep in parian
The village lies to-day.


The lilacs, bending many a year,
With purple load will hang;
The bees will not forget the time
Their old forefathers sang.


The rose will redden in the bog,
The aster on the hill
Her everlasting fashion set,
And covenant gentians frill,


Till summer folds her miracle
As women do their gown,
Or priests adjust the symbols
When sacrament is done.

~Emily Dickinson

The lilacs are browning, their heady fragrance now a memory. How quickly flowers pass! Now the peonies are tight buds atop long green stalks, waiting. Lilies and irises are a promise only, thickets of green spikes.

The wildflowers, though, are hardier things, despite being smaller and seeming so delicate. Daisies are blooming in the field now. Dandelions and Queen Anne’s lace and all those little white and purple and yellow things I cannot name will flourish all summer long. But they, too, will give way to winter. Best to hold on to the beauty of these spring days as tightly as possible.

Secrets

THE SKIES can’t keep their secret!
They tell it to the hills—
The hills just tell the orchards—
And they the daffodils!


A bird, by chance, that goes that way
Soft overheard the whole.
If I should bribe the little bird,
Who knows but she would tell?


I think I won’t, however,
It’s finer not to know;
If summer were an axiom,
What sorcery had snow?


So keep your secret, Father!
I would not, if I could,
Know what the sapphire fellows do,
In your new-fashioned world!

~emily dickinson

One of the biggest surprises for me of this project has been discovering how many of Dickinson’s poems have been set to music. This one is no exception–there’s a choral version, apparently arranged for middle school choir by a middle school teacher. There’s also a more operatic version, which you can listen to here, if you’re so inclined.

As I read through the poem, I’m not sure what to say about it. It’s one I feel like I need to discuss with somebody. The first two stanzas make sense to me, but the last two…..I get lost on “If summer were an axiom.” If summer were easily quantifiable/understandable? Why “snow” if we’re talking about summer? And who are the “sapphire fellows” in the final stanza? Are they birds? Pieces of the blue sky? I’m not sure what to make of it, but the overall feeling seems clear–the world is a beautiful place, magical even. Maybe we don’t need to quantify it in order to appreciate it–and maybe that’s what Dickinson is doing with her poem, weaving language in an unquantifiable way in order to mimic the inexplicable beauties of nature.

The whole poem has the feel of an impressionist painting. Splashes of words create an emotional response, even if/though individual words might not make a ton of sense out of context.

No notice was to me…

Two Butterflies went out at Noon—
And waltzed above a Farm—
Then stepped straight through the Firmament
And rested on a Beam—


And then—together bore away
Upon a shining Sea—
Though never yet, in any Port—
Their coming mentioned—be—


If spoken by the distant Bird—
If met in Ether Sea
By Frigate, or by Merchantman—
No notice—was—to me—

~Emily dickinson

Butterfly season has begun. The little pale-violet moths appeared first, their color scarcely a whisper above white. Next, a larger orange and black-veined butterfly, and then a black one with shimmering blue spots. How ephemeral they are, how delicate–the wind or a small bird’s beak can destroy them. Yet they persist, somehow, eternal despite their fragility. Their coming feels momentous as the arrival of a queen after winter’s frigid dry air and short days. When they disappear into an impossibly blue sky, are they ever really gone, or do they transcend all of it, this warming spring day, this greening field, this world perched forever on the brinks of seasons?

Bereaved acknowledgment

I DREADED that first robin so,
But he is mastered now,
And I ’m accustomed to him grown,—
He hurts a little, though.


I thought if I could only live
Till that first shout got by,
Not all pianos in the woods
Had power to mangle me.


I dared not meet the daffodils,
For fear their yellow gown
Would pierce me with a fashion
So foreign to my own.


I wished the grass would hurry,
So when ’t was time to see,
He ’d be too tall, the tallest one
Could stretch to look at me.


I could not bear the bees should come,
I wished they ’d stay away
In those dim countries where they go:
What word had they for me?


They ’re here, though; not a creature failed,
No blossom stayed away
In gentle deference to me,
The Queen of Calvary.


Each one salutes me as he goes,
And I my childish plumes
Lift, in bereaved acknowledgment
Of their unthinking drums.

~emily dickinson

This is a strange one indeed. The speaker is talking about things that Dickinson typically gets excited about–robins, daffodils, bees–but instead of anticipating them, she tells us she has “dreaded” them. The robin “hurts a little,” the “pianos in the wood” can “mangle” her, the daffodils’ yellow can “pierce” her. If it’s aware of her needs, Nature ignores them, showing no deference to her feelings. She is the “Queen of Calvary”–the queen of suffering? The queen of salvation? What exactly does this mean?

Such a strange poem. The speaker describes the beauties of spring as torments and herself as “bereaved.” What is she grieving? Does the freshness and new life of spring remind her of something she can’t have, something she lost? Why does spring hurt?

There is something in these early days of spring–some underlying coldness on the sunniest days, some lingering frost–that reminds us that spring is not forever. Of all the beauties of the year, spring’s somehow seem the most fleeting, the most fragile. Blossoms are easily crushed, and bees may live for only weeks or days. Perhaps it’s this ephemerality that pains Dickinson–the knowledge that all this beauty, from the moment it bursts forth, is already passing into memory.

“Take care, for God is here. That’s all.”

THE MURMUR of a bee
A witchcraft yieldeth me.
If any ask me why,
’T were easier to die
Than tell.


The red upon the hill
Taketh away my will;
If anybody sneer,
Take care, for God is here,
That ’s all.


The breaking of the day
Addeth to my degree;
If any ask me how,
Artist, who drew me so,
Must tell!

~Emily dickinson

Yesterday, an errant honeybee found her way into my kitchen. I caught her in a glass jar and set her free. I wonder where home is for her. Redbuds haze the wooded hillsides with their purple gauze, and dogwood buds have unfurled into white-green blossoms. The other morning, when I went out just before sunrise to let out the chickens, the Alleghenies to the west blazed momentarily red with the light of the dawning sun. Spring is full of such moments, fleeting and peerless. “Take care, for God is here. That’s all.”

Pneumonia weather

XXVIII
I know a place where summer strives
With such a practised frost,
She each year leads her daisies back,
Recording briefly, “Lost.”


But when the south wind stirs the pools
And struggles in the lanes,
Her heart misgives her for her vow,
And she pours soft refrains


Into the lap of adamant,
And spices, and the dew,
That stiffens quietly to quartz,
Upon her amber shoe.

~Emily Dickinson

When I was a child, my mother called this “pneumonia weather.” The skies are clear blue, the sunlight warm–and yet there’s a lingering chill behind the glimmer, a reminder that winter hasn’t yet loosed its fingers completely. There will be days in the high seventies, even in the eighties. And there will be mornings when we wake to hard frost.

Only the hardiest blossoms survive this weather. Spring teases them from tight buds to tempt fate. Spring and autumn balance each other on either side of the wheel of the year in a way that summer and winter cannot. Summer and winter are opposites, but spring and autumn are nearly-identical twins. One is redheaded, one has locks of fern-green and forsythia–but they are like the same person seen coming and going.

In the Shenandoah Valley in winter, we exclaim over unseasonably warm days. We grumble about cold summer rains. But the wild swings in spring and autumn do not surprise us. There are a thousand seasons in each one–microseasons, shifting from one to the next as the sun arcs the sky. The daisies won’t arrive till full summer, but the snowy drifts of bloom lacing the apple branches take their chances. They are gamblers all. Maybe they will swell to fruit this summer. Or maybe they are only the ghosts of possibility, beads of quartz frost on amber shoes.