Called to my full

I ’m ceded, I ’ve stopped being theirs;
The name they dropped upon my face
With water, in the country church,
Is finished using now,
And they can put it with my dolls,
My childhood, and the string of spools
I ’ve finished threading too.

Baptized before without the choice,
But this time consciously, of grace
Unto supremest name,
Called to my full, the crescent dropped,
Existence’s whole arc filled up
With one small diadem.

My second rank, too small the first,
Crowned, crowing on my father’s breast,
A half unconscious queen;
But this time, adequate, erect,
With will to choose or to reject,
And I choose—just a throne.

~Emily Dickinson
Image by Peter de Vink via Pexels.

I’ve always read this as a love poem–specifically a poem about marriage. I’ve never been a huge fan of most love poems, and Dickinson’s make me uncomfortable sometimes, particularly when they extol the glories of being married, as if marriage is the completion of a woman. But rereading this now, I wonder if it really has to be a love poem. Maybe…the metaphors and language certainly work for marriage. But ultimately, if it is a love poem, it’s a weird one. There’s no mention of the beloved. The only man in the poem, the only other individual other than the speaker, is the father, who perhaps is just a father but maybe stands in here, too, for God himself.

If that’s the case–if the “father” is God–then this becomes a very different poem. The speaker is making a break from the religion and conventions with which she’s been raised. The end of childhood here is no cause for nostalgia, but the embrace of freedom.

In the middle of the poem, I’m intrigued by the reference to the moon–“Called to my full, / The crescent dropped.” She is living into her full potential, her true, unobscured state.

As the poem continues, the speakers uses the language of royalty and power–“rank,” “queen,” “throne”–and we get a sense that this is not so much a poem about love as personal power. Maybe, if it’s a love poem at all, it’s a love poem to herself, to the changes that have empowered her, brought her to where she is.

I think I like it a lot better this way.

If I may have it when it’s dead


If I may have it, when it’s dead,
I’ll be contented—so—
If just as soon as Breath is out
It shall belong to me—

Until they lock it in the Grave,
‘Tis Bliss I cannot weigh—
For tho’ they lock Thee in the Grave,
Myself—can own the key—

Think of it Lover! I and Thee
Permitted—face to face to be—
After a Life—a Death—We’ll say—
For Death was That—
And this—is Thee—

I’ll tell Thee All—how Bald it grew—
How Midnight felt, at first—to me—
How all the Clocks stopped in the World—
And Sunshine pinched me—’Twas so cold—

Then how the Grief got sleepy—some—
As if my Soul were deaf and dumb—
Just making signs—across—to Thee—
That this way—thou could’st notice me—

I’ll tell you how I tried to keep
A smile, to show you, when this Deep
All Waded—We look back for Play,
At those Old Times—in Calvary,

Forgive me, if the Grave come slow—
For Coveting to look at Thee—
Forgive me, if to stroke thy frost
Outvisions Paradise!

~Emily Dickinson

One last creepy poem for your Halloween reading–enjoy!

love//pain

YOU left me, sweet, two legacies,—
A legacy of love
A Heavenly Father would content,
Had He the offer of;

You left me boundaries of pain 5
Capacious as the sea,
Between eternity and time,
Your consciousness and me.

~Emily Dickinson

On Thursday night, I wound up in the emergency room. I’ve had my share of ER visits, all of which were scarier than this one. This time, my back gave out on me and the pain was so intense I passed out. My G.P.’s after-hours doctor said that I needed to go to the ER, so I went. It’s nothing life-threatening, nothing super-serious–but it’s the most blindingly, breathtakingly awful pain I’ve ever experienced.

I’m doing much better now, out of pain and taking it easy as my back heals. Of course, I’m thinking about pain, and disposed to take Dickinson’s words on the subject quite literally.

My ER diagnosis is sacroiliac joint dysfunction. This is pretty common, apparently, particularly among women. The first cause listed on my discharge instructions? Pregnancy. I cannot think of a more visceral link between pain and love.

I’m about 200% sure that this Emily Dickinson poem is not about having children and the love and pain that are inextricably alchemized through that process, but right now, that’s where I’m at with this poem–that’s what it holds for me in this moment. And I don’t think it really matters–what Dickinson’s getting at is that pain is part of love, that pain and love are equally products of our relationships with one another. There can be no love without the possibility for pain, and I’ve never heard of a pain-free relationship that was worth anything.

The wealthy fly

I envy seas whereon he rides,
I envy spokes of wheels
Of chariots that him convey,
I envy speechless hills

That gaze upon his journey; 5
How easy all can see
What is forbidden utterly
As heaven, unto me!

I envy nests of sparrows
That dot his distant eaves, 10
The wealthy fly upon his pane,
The happy, happy leaves

That just abroad his window
Have summer’s leave to be,
The earrings of Pizarro 15
Could not obtain for me.

I envy light that wakes him,
And bells that boldly ring
To tell him it is noon abroad,—
Myself his noon could bring, 20

Yet interdict my blossom
And abrogate my bee,
Lest noon in everlasting night
Drop Gabriel and me.

~Emily Dickinson

Ah, unrequited love. The first five stanzas follow a distinct pattern–the speaker envies anything and everything that is close to her beloved. There is a definite undertone of Shakespeare’s balcony scene in Romeo and Juliet here, with Romeo’s longing to be a glove on Juliet’s hand so that he could be close to her. Dickinson, of course, gets more extensive and unexpected in her wishes–the fly outside the beloved’s window is “wealthy.”

Unlike Romeo, however, the speaker of this poem ends her expressions of longing with a surprising twist–after suggesting that she could make her beloved happy, she asks in the final stanza that it not be so, “Lest noon in everlasting night/ Drop Gabriel and me.” After stanzas of unrequited longing, she switches gears. There is something very Puritanical about this–don’t let me be happy, because if I am happy then I could become unhappy, and that would be worse. The “noon” of a relationship between them might end in “everlasting night.”

This poem, though it feels very conventional on the surface, seems to be riffing on and playing with older poetic conventions. Dickinson expands the metaphors for love to the prosaic and even slightly distasteful (Oh, that I were a fly upon his windowpane…). She also turns the poem on its head in the final stanza. I’m reminded of the cliché that “it is better to have loved and lost than never loved at all.” Dickinson suggests here that it’s better to have loved but never been requited than to have loved and lost. Or maybe she feels she’s lost before she’s even begun.

A summer love song

I envy seas whereon he rides,
I envy spokes of wheels
Of chariots that him convey,
I envy speechless hills

That gaze upon his journey;
How easy all can see
What is forbidden utterly
As heaven, unto me!

I envy nests of sparrows
That dot his distant eaves,
The wealthy fly upon his pane,
The happy, happy leaves

That just abroad his window
Have summer’s leave to be,
The earrings of Pizarro
Could not obtain for me.

I envy light that wakes him,
And bells that boldly ring
To tell him it is noon abroad,—
Myself his noon could bring,

Yet interdict my blossom
And abrogate my bee,
Lest noon in everlasting night
Drop Gabriel and me.

~Emily Dickinson

Though it’s not a sonnet by any stretch, that’s what this poem reminds me of most–a plaintive love song wherein the speaker envies anything and everything in proximity to the beloved. It’s evocative of Romeo’s wish to be a glove upon Juliet’s hand that he might touch her cheek. Dickinson’s speaker wishes to be the sea beneath the beloved’s ship, the wheels of his carriage, the hills he passes, the nests under his eaves, the fly on his window, the leaves of nearby trees. Even the wealth of Pizarro, in the form of earrings, couldn’t buy her the delights these things enjoy in being close to her beloved.

As in a sonnet, there’s a shift toward the end of this poem, beginning with the telling Yet. In the final stanza, she asks that her blossom be prohibited, her bee done away with (presumably these are forms she might take in order to be close to him, and of course they carry their own romantic/sexual imagery). The “noon” she longs for, the fully developed connection to her beloved, might drop her into “everlasting night,” and that would be worse than her current longing.

The One Where I Get to Quote Tori Amos

“you sign Prince of Darkness/try squire of dimness”

~Tori Amos, “She’s Your Cocaine”

Part 3: LOVE

V

DOUBT me, my dim companion!
Why, God would be content
With but a fraction of the love
Poured thee without a stint.
The whole of me, forever,
What more the woman can,—
Say quick, that I may dower thee
With last delight I own!


It cannot be my spirit,
For that was thine before;
I ceded all of dust I knew,—
What opulence the more
Had I, a humble maiden,
Whose farthest of degree
Was that she might
Some distant heaven,
Dwell timidly with thee!

~Emily Dickinson

Sometimes Emily Dickinson gets downright sassy with the love poems. As Pam and I were tossing around possibilities for today’s poem a couple of days ago, we realized that there is a whole other category of Dickinsonian love poems we hadn’t yet considered: the insulting ones.

The second stanza of this poem reads like any other sweet love poem: “I am yours, all of me, I’m not worthy of you but I love you forever,” etc. etc. etc. Even the second half of the first stanza is fairly typical. There’s nothing especially notable about the sentiment, nothing to make it stand out among a saccharine sea of love poetry. It’s the first few lines–notably the very first one–that set the tone, that color the rest and make them something they wouldn’t be without that damning preamble.

“Doubt me, my dim companion!” The tone sounds at once affronted and, frankly, insulting. It sounds like an astonished interjection, a “how dare you!” from the speaker to her beloved. And “dim.” Dim. That is not flattering. The beloved is too dense to see or understand or appreciate exactly how much he is loved. It’s this first line that makes this a love poem in a rather nontraditional sense. Sure, there are poems about unrequited love, but this one strikes a very particular tone from the get-go. “Doubt” as the very first word in a love poem is telling.

There’s something about “dim companion” that really feels like a zing. The speaker is being condescending. This isn’t the kind of insult you throw out in a blaze of temper without thinking at all. It’s carefully constructed to chip away at its object. “You think you’re so smart. Well, let me tell you, my dim companion.” For a woman confined to as exceptionally narrow a sphere as Dickinson’s, this feels especially significant. “You, you man of the world, you traveler, you educated one, it’s you who’s the unobservant one, you who can’t see what’s right in front of you.” He may think he’s the Prince of Darkness, but really he’s just another squire of dimness who can’t recognize the obvious and can’t appreciate what he’s got.

The “dim companion” epithet also feels to me like it’s really modifying the speaker’s description of herself toward the end of the poem. She’s just a “woman” and a “humble maiden,” and this makes her companion’s dimness even more embarrassing for him. Here’s the speaker, merely a humble maid, and yet she sees so much more than her beloved man of the world.

Then there are the second, third, and fourth lines. “I have lavished so much love on you that God himself would be content with even a little bit of it.” Here’s that classic Dickinson blasphemy–loving the beloved more than God–with a new edge. “You are more demanding than God,” with the implication “but you’re not God, so you have no right to be so demanding. Yet I love you anyway.”

It’s not a happy love poem. This relationship does not seem like it’s on completely solid footing at the moment. Yet there’s something poignantly real about the speaker’s frustration. We’ve all been there–we’ve all loved someone who seemed unable or unwilling to acknowledge or appreciate our affection in the way we wanted them to, whether romantically or otherwise.

There’s a lot to unpack in this poem, but the way the first few lines color the entire thing is fascinating to me. It’s almost as if Dickinson is deconstructing a love poem. Take off the first four lines and it’s just a love poem. With those first four lines, however, it’s something more–a poem that acknowledges both the ecstasy and the utter frustration of love.

“The Moon is distant from the Sea”

The Moon is distant from the Sea –
And yet, with Amber Hands –
She leads Him – docile as a Boy –
Along appointed Sands –


He never misses a Degree –
Obedient to Her eye –
He comes just so far – toward the Town –
Just so far – goes away –


Oh, Signor, Thine, the Amber Hand –
And mine – the distant Sea –
Obedient to the least command
Thine eye impose on me –

~Emily Dickinson

I chose this poem in honor of February’s full moon, the Snow Moon. Last night the clouds hung heavy with snow and the light of the moon, amber or otherwise, didn’t touch my little patch of earth. But the moon is still there, irrevocable as the tides, pulling and tugging at consciousness even when invisible.

This is yet another in the category of “Is It a Love Poem??” It easily could be, but the “Signor” could be God as easily as the beloved. Rather than comment on that, I want to focus instead on the gender reversal in this poem.

Dickinson begins with the Moon as “She” and the sea as “Him.” The moon has for thousands of years been associated with the feminine, so there’s nothing surprising her. The interesting thing happens in the third stanza–the female speaker takes the place of the masculine sea, and “Signor,” whoever he is, takes on the feminine role of the moon. I love this kind of gender-bending; it happens occasionally in Dickinson’s poems, and while I don’t know what exactly it means, I find it fascinating.

If we go with a religious reading, there’s precedent for this, of course, in descriptions of God as not only a masculine force, but also a mother bird gathering her chicks under the nurturing shelter of her wings. But why the gender reversal partway through the poem?

Maybe it’s because, in any sustained relationship, socially-constructed notions of gender have to blur from time to time. No one can be the sole nurturer; no one can be the sole protector. Our roles wax and wane over the cycles of time like the phases of the moon. Roles that are stereotypically “feminine” can and should be played by both partners in a relationship, and so should the stereotypically “masculine” ones. I can’t know if Dickinson was thinking anything along these lines, but the fact that she so easily compares the influence of the masculine (God, the beloved) to a feminine power (the moon) is suggestive.

There are so many interesting features in this poem–the gorgeous evocations of the moon’s amber light, the poignancy of the repeated emphasis on the impossible distance between the speaker and the object of her devotion, the sheer beauty of Dickinson’s language. No matter how you read it, it’s a lovely poem to read under the light of the full moon.