streaks of meteor

Through the straight pass of suffering
The martyrs even trod,
Their feet upon temptation,
Their faces upon God.

A stately, shriven company;
Convulsion playing round,
Harmless as streaks of meteor
Upon a plant’s bound.

Their faith the everlasting troth;
Their expectation fair;
The needle to the north degree
Wades so, through polar air.

~Emily Dickinson
Image via Pexels.

This morning, I’m writing in a hospital room at the University of Virginia, where a loved one is recovering from a surgical procedure. All is well, no worries–but the act of writing from this semi-uncomfortable semi-padded bench is shifting my perspective.

I am committed to this year of a Dickinson poem a day. I’ve missed some days here and there due to illness or the general craziness of life, but I’ve gone back and caught up each time. Now, seventeen days from the end of the year, I am seventeen days away from a year of Dickinson’s poetry.

Pam and I began this project together. Life has gotten incredibly full for her, and I’ve been flying solo here for a while. Most days I blog shortly after I get up in the morning, before the chaos of the day takes hold. I find that on days when I don’t blog early, I’m liable to forget to do it at all.

There is a lot to be said for habit, for routine. I am a person who tends to resist any kind of daily challenge–draw daily, write daily, etc. It just doesn’t seem to fit with the way I work, with my personality and tendencies. But having done this for most of a year now, I understand better why a daily practice works for so many people. There is something comforting in it, something deeply stable, something that says that even if you’ve been sleeping on a minimally-padded bench in a maximally-frigid hospital room, there are constants, touchstones, things to circle back to. I get it now in a way I didn’t before.

My constants tend to be less daily and more widely cyclical–rituals for the new and full moons, the turning of the seasons, noticing the beings that come and go in my yard with changes in months and weather. I watch for the house wrens and catbirds in the spring as they seek out nesting sites.

And I wait for the meteor showers. The Perseids in the summer, and now the Geminids, streaking the sky silver on these darkest nights of the year. They peak this weekend, and though they may be difficult to see because of the full moon, I’m going to look for them anyway.

Tonight, hopefully, we’ll be home from the hospital. I will be clean, and warm. Scattered candles will be glowing, Christmas music playing, warm scents hovering on the air. I will step outside, the clear cold on my skin a revelation, and I will crane my neck back to scry the heavens for signs and portents. There is magic in the winter skies. You only have to look.

White Martyrdom

To learn the transport by the pain,
As blind men learn the sun;
To die of thirst, suspecting
That brooks in meadows run;

To stay the homesick, homesick feet
Upon a foreign shore
Haunted by native lands, the while,
And blue, beloved air—

This is the sovereign anguish,
This, the signal woe!
These are the patient laureates
Whose voices, trained below,

Ascend in ceaseless carol,
Inaudible, indeed,
To us, the duller scholars
Of the mysterious bard!

~Emily Dickinson

This poem is an interesting contrast to yesterday’s, in which the poet argues that something attained is worth less than it was before–that when a starving man finally gets food, that food loses its deliciousness simply by being available. This poem, on the other hand, argues that to never be able to reach something longed for is torment–“the sovereign anguish,” “the signal woe!”

Which one is it, Emily?

She is a study in contradictions. I’ve read I don’t know how many mentions and discussions of the paradoxes within Dickinson’s poems, but her whole body of work is rife with contradiction between one poem and the next, too.

I don’t know what to do with this poem, but I know that, aside from the infernal paradoxes, what intrigues me most is the second stanza. The speaker gives the example of someone far from home, longing for familiar places. She repeats the word “homesick” for emphasis, an interesting choice in a short poem that makes me wonder if this is really what this poem, at its heart, is all about.

Of course, because this is Dickinson, this is all liable to be heavily metaphorical and probably has a lot to do with death. But what it reminds me of is the concept of white martyrdom.

It seems that there is some disagreement over whether it is properly labeled “green” or “white,” but I’m going with “white” since that’s how I first encountered the term. In the lives of saints, martyrdom is typically bloody–“red martyrdom.” People die for their faith in spectacularly gory ways. But the desert hermits and many of the Irish monks pursued a different kind of holiness-through-suffering. They left behind the familiar, the beloved, and struck out for new and forbidding terrains, where landscape itself served as a reminder that this world is only temporary. Giving up your life and ascending to everlasting reward is one thing. Giving up your homeland and living out your days in separation from home is another. There is pain and privation in both, and while death is the ultimate sacrifice one can make in this world, the giving-up of home is a more prolonged suffering.

When Columcille and his monks set out in their curraghs for what would come to be called Skellig Michael, they were pursuing white martyrdom, leaving behind the green hills of Ireland for an existence eked out on a barren rock in the sea. Their experience must have been nearly identical to what Dickinson describes in this poem–except that they chose their lot, while the tone of the poem seems to suggest otherwise.

delight // pain

Delight becomes pictorial
When viewed through pain,—
More fair, because impossible
That any gain.

The mountain at a given distance
In amber lies;
Approached, the amber flits a little,—
And that ’s the skies!

~Emily Dickinson
Image via

I don’t know how much I have to add to this. It’s so true! When we’re suffering, all the good times appear “pictorial.” All the possible connotations fit. Something that is pictorial is not only lovely, but also unreal–a picture, after all, is not the real thing. In times of pain, delight seems not only lovely, but impossibly so.

The second stanza elaborates. When we’re at a certain distance from happiness, mired in the morass of our own misery, that happiness is tinged with different colors–colors that the real thing doesn’t possess. This poem is a tightly-constructed and well-thought-out mini-meditation on the nature of suffering and what it does to our experience of happiness.

A question:

FOR each ecstatic instant
We must an anguish pay
In keen and quivering ratio
To the ecstasy.

For each beloved hour
Sharp pittances of years,
Bitter contested farthings
And coffers heaped with tears.

~Emily Dickinson

I find this one perplexing. In the first stanza, the speaker tells us that for every happiness, there must be an equal sorrow, and perhaps this is true. But in the second stanza, she shifts her argument to the extreme. Now she’s arguing that for each happy hour, we pay for it for years in bitterness and tears.

What is she doing here? I really don’t know quite what to make of this one. What do you think?