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 lower metres of the year

The murmuring of bees has ceased;
But murmuring of some
Posterior, prophetic,
Has simultaneous come,—

The lower metres of the year,
When nature’s laugh is done,—
The Revelations of the book
Whose Genesis is June.

~Emily Dickinson
Image via Pexels.com

I love this one. And not just because of the bees. Dickinson begins with a specific, concrete example–this is the time of year when bees are no longer active. Not visibly, anyway. They are clustered in their hives in cold weather, keeping each other warm with their little bee bodies. While the cold must be stressful, worker bees in winter can live for several months. During the height of a honeyflow in summer, a worker’s lifespan is measured in weeks. So while the cold is a danger, winter is also a time of rest for bees. But I digress. Dickinson says that while the bees’ murmuring has ended, for now, another has started. I tend to think that she’s referring here not to an actual sound, but to the signs of winter itself.

In the second stanza, she continues her expansion from the specific to a bigger, more philosophical idea. In this envisioning of the year, June is the beginning, the Genesis–and why not? After all, it’s totally arbitrary to start the new year in January. The ancient Celts began their new year with Samhain and celebrations of the harvest. You can start the new year anywhere in the circle of the year, really.

So winter, for Dickinson, is “the lower metres of the year.” Nature is done laughing, finished with explosions of vegetation and animal life. It is time for rest, time to withdraw into the hive, to come together for warmth, to while away the coldest, darkest part of the year in communion with ourselves and one another.

Before the ice is in the pools

Before the ice is in the pools,
Before the skaters go,
Or any cheek at nightfall
Is tarnished by the snow,

Before the fields have finished,
Before the Christmas tree,
Wonder upon wonder
Will arrive to me!

What we touch the hems of
On a summer’s day;
What is only walking
Just a bridge away;

That which sings so, speaks so,
When there’s no one here,—
Will the frock I wept in
Answer me to wear?

~Emily Dickinson
Image via Pexels.com

I love the icy imagery in this poem. As I read through it for the third or fourth time, though, what I’m imagining is an Emily Dickinson blog post-writing bot. It could select from various options, the most common of which would be “this is a poem about death.”

As Emily Dickinson death poems go, however, this is a lovely one. Death is described as “Wonder upon wonder.” My favorite part is the third stanza. The idea that another world lingers just at the edge of our vision is a compelling one. This is definitely not an angsty Dickinson death poem. Death here is like the turning of the seasons, a natural part of the cycle of life, and is couched as such–but with a magical spin.

How to be forgotten

AFTER a hundred years
Nobody knows the place,—
Agony, that enacted there,
Motionless as peace.

Weeds triumphant ranged, 5
Strangers strolled and spelled
At the lone orthography
Of the elder dead.

Winds of summer fields
Recollect the way,— 10
Instinct picking up the key
Dropped by memory.

~Emily Dickinson

It’s simple, really. Just let a hundred years pass. In a hundred years, the scenes of our suffering will be sanded down by time, glossed over, our traces removed. No one will know, remember. A few may guess, but certainty ended a long time ago.

The places that marked the unforgettable moments of our lives become overgrown, naturalized to their former wildernesses. The last vestiges of our existences, if such remain, are curiosities merely, a line to be idly wondered at, a few lost grave goods.

The wind, perhaps, carries a sense of what went before. Now, when we pass a place where great joy, great sorrow, great intensity of emotion has occurred, we hesitate, a few of us. There is a tinge of something on the breeze, a suggestion. A prickling at the back of the neck. A sudden incalculable rush of feeling. Signs that someone was here, once.

In a hundred years, someone else will perhaps wonder the same thing.

Gentian

GOD made a little gentian;
It tired to be a rose
And failed, and all the summer laughed.
But just before the snows
There came a purple creature 5
That ravished all the hill;
And summer hid her forehead,
And mockery was still.
The frosts were her condition;
The Tyrian would not come 10
Until the North evoked it.
“Creator! shall I bloom?”

Image via Pexels.com

Emily Dickinson apparently really liked gentians. I have only just learned of them this week. That’s about all I’ve got for today, because life has gotten zooey and I do not have time to contemplate gentians at the moment. Here’s hoping you’ve got a little more wiggle room!

Summer’s last rites

Image via Pexels.com

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.

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.