Thanksgiving day

ONE day is there of the series
Termed Thanksgiving day,
Celebrated part at table,
Part in memory.

Neither patriarch nor pussy, 5
I dissect the play;
Seems it, to my hooded thinking,
Reflex holiday.

Had there been no sharp subtraction
From the early sum, 10
Not an acre or a caption
Where was once a room,

Not a mention, whose small pebble
Wrinkled any bay,—
Unto such, were such assembly, 15
’T were Thanksgiving day.

~Emily Dickinson

What a weird one, Emily.

It starts out ordinarily enough. Out of all the holidays in the series of the year, Thanksgiving is one. We celebrate it with meals and with remembrance. So far so good.

“Neither patriarch nor pussy”–wtf, Emily? Neither an old man or a cat? I have no idea what she’s getting at. Somewhere between an old man and a cat?? Skipping this. Moving on. “I dissect the play.” This echoes other Dickinson poems in which she speaks of observing others as being like her own private theatrical experience (see, “The show is not the show”). Thanksgiving seems to the speaker like a “reflex holiday”–perhaps a day when one is on automatic pilot, when we go through the motions. This is an interesting take on the day, for sure, and yet one that probably resonates for many people.

In the next stanzas, the syntax completely loses me. If there hadn’t been any subtraction–any loss–then what? I am completely flummoxed by the ending. If we hadn’t ever lost anything, we wouldn’t know how to be thankful?? If we hadn’t ever been subtracted from, we wouldn’t be who we are, looking back on the past and those who were subtracted?? Emily Dickinson, is this yet another poem about death???

I’ve got nothing here. So I’ll just say this–may your Thanksgiving be a heck of a lot easier to understand than this poem.

Hunting season

THIS merit hath the worst,—
It cannot be again.
When Fate hath taunted last
And thrown her furthest stone,

The maimed may pause and breathe, And glance securely round.
The deer invites no longer
Than it eludes the hound.

~Emily Dickinson

This one is eluding me right now. I *think* she’s saying that when you’ve experienced the worst, then you get a respite. I am really not sure. The combination of 6:30am and a weekend of two kid slumber parties is not helping me out.

I chose this one for the deer and the hound–a break from ghosts and wandering spirits. Hunting season has just begun here in the rural South. In one way or another, a lot of folks have deer on the brain.

We don’t hunt, though we have a lot of friends and family who do. Our closest approximation to hunting is checking the trail cam we keep in the woods behind our house. Usually there are several pictures of deer, perhaps a raccoon or two, and a bunch of random tree pictures probably triggered by the wind in the branches or the flight of a passing bird.

Last night, though, we checked the latest set of images and found three pictures of bear cubs. We geeked out pretty hard over these. Baby bears are stinking adorable. Their noses and heads are out of all proportion to their little bodies.

It was magical to see them, to know that these huge creatures are moving along the paths we walk daily. However, I now have cause to fear a different kind of hunting. I think it’s time to go batten down the beehives……

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.

In which we are not sure whether this is actually a love poem:


Have you got a brook in your little heart,
Where bashful flowers blow,
And blushing birds go down to drink,
And shadows tremble so?

And nobody, knows, so still it flows,
That any brook is there;
And yet your little draught of life
Is daily drunken there.

Then look out for the little brook in March,
When the rivers overflow,
And the snows come hurrying from the hills,
And the bridges often go.

And later, in August it may be,
When the meadows parching lie,
Beware, lest this little brook of life
Some burning noon go dry!

~Emily Dickinson

Brenna, haphazardly choosing today’s poem: On page 18, IX strikes me as kind of a weirdo one.”Have you got a brook in your little heart.” WHY DOES THIS MAKE ME LAUGH

Pam: Let me flip over. I’ve lost my book. Give me a minute!0

Brenna: I shall paraphrase for you thusly: Your love is a little brook. It is smol and secret. But in March WATCH OUT, PASSION and other things polite nineteenth-century ladies only speak of via euphemism. But then by August, your love is dried up and DEAD and everything Emily Dickinson writes is about DEATH.

Pam: Oh my goodness. Flipping over now.

Brenna: I may be feeling a little punchy…

Pam: I think punchy is the right way to approach this one.”Have you got a brook in your little heart” Emily what even. Everything is bashful and blushing and trembling!

Brenna: Usually she reserves “little” as an epithet for herself, but here it’s second person. But I still get the feeling she’s talking to/about herself.And if you don’t watch out, you will be Overcome! And then die.When your love is in full flood, it will take out bridges!! Beware!!

Pam: I absolutely think she’s talking about herself, and that’s what cracks me up the most. It’s disguised to look humble and it’s doing the exact opposite. Look at me, I am so dainty and I have this very tiny love, which I am shouting about in a poem!

Brenna: YES. My love is very smol and cute and dainty, but then it gets huge and ragingly powerful and it will TAKE YOU DOWN. And then it dies.

Pam: Are you also reading the torrents of March as just inexpressibly huge lust? Is that just me? I’m honestly equating this with the animals going twitterpated in Bambi. Spring = birds and bees!

Brenna: I am reading this exactly the same way. Spring=innocent puppy love. March=lust. It will destroy you and everything else in its path. August=you are OLD and DRIED UP and love is no longer for you. So there!!

Pam: Exactly!!We have the cold in this poem, too! The snows hurrying from the hills. What were you saying about cold in Dickinson’s poems?

Brenna: Cold=passion. Aha!! It still holds true! My Cold Theory of Dickinson!!

Pam: It’s an I Am Very Special poem.

Brenna: It is! It strikes me that rather a lot of her poems are “I Am Very Special” poems. Like Poe, who wrote that from earliest childhood he was totally and completely unlike anyone else. There is so freaking much exceptionalism in poetry. Maybe just American poetry?? Or maybe white people poetry…

Pam: I honestly think it’s just a poet characteristic. I’m not going to say I’m also like that, but I’m also like that. I think if you didn’t have such an inflated sense of self-worth, you’d probably choose a saner career than poet.

Brenna: Is that why we write? Then how do we explain the constant and crippling self-doubt?? She had it too! Why are we paradoxes???

Pam: I think being a writer makes one automatically a parodox. So what do we do with this wilting flower?

Brenna: Hmmm…..Well, let me ask you this– Do you have a brook in YOUR little heart, hmm? Why is this even in the “Love” section? We’re only assuming it’s love because it’s in that section, but this could be ANYTHING. I don’t know what to do with this weirdo poem. Maybe we post it along with a single question–what on earth does she mean??

Pam: Oh, goodness. I don’t have a brook in my heart. My heart is composed primarily of lost socks and pizza.

Brenna: I want to laugh and cry at the same time, that is so true. Lost socks and pizza….yes….It’s the freaking METER. The meter is what makes this poem so very especially weird. Meter and rhyme scheme. It sounds like one of those horrible poems written just to rhyme.

Pam: YES. The poem bends itself in knots to fit the rhyme.

At this point, dear reader, we just gave up.

The sad, sad tale of a little, little boat, a gallant, gallant sea, and a greedy, greedy wave

’T WAS such a little, little boat
That toddled down the bay!
’T was such a gallant, gallant sea
That beckoned it away!
’T was such a greedy, greedy wave
That licked it from the coast;
Nor ever guessed the stately sails
My little craft was lost!

~Emily Dickinson

Since this is Dickinson, and therefore the boat could be anything from a heart to a soul to a life to a dream, and since I didn’t plan my day out very well and am pressed for time, I’m going to sidestep meaning and focus on Dickinson’s word choice.

It’s the repetition here that really interests me. “Little, little,” “gallant, gallant,” and “greedy, greedy” are all two-syllable words. “Little” and “greedy” are words a child would know (and “gallant” is definitely a word that child-Emily would have known). (I’m not sure why the sea is “gallant”–could this be an emulation of the childlike tendency to misunderstand words? The sea is hardly actually gallant if it is involved in the boat’s demise.) The repetition of these short words in one small poem gives it a childlike quality–it almost sounds as if the boat is a child’s toy. Anyone who’s ever sailed a toy boat will agree that they often “toddle” rather than taking to the water like swans. After it “toddled down the bay,” the boat takes no further action–it is acted upon. It is beckoned away, licked from the coast, and lost. In the last line, Dickinson uses “little” a third time. The use of the same generic adjective three times in eight lines adds to the childish quality.

The “stately sails” that don’t notice the loss of the small craft are like adults who don’t notice or honor the force of the loss children feel. When we are very young, our hearts are broken time and again, sometimes by big things, but often by tiny ones. As adults, it’s all too easy to forget this, to say condescendingly, “It’s not the end of the world,” when to the child’s mind it is, and no adult perspective matters, can soothe the pain of loss.

Whatever the boat stands in for–whatever’s been lost–the speaker’s reaction to it is like a child’s–simple, devastated, emotional. I think in a way that’s how loss hits all of us. I think of adults I’ve known who’ve lost their parents and said, “I’m an orphan.” It doesn’t matter that they’re sixty or seventy–the loss hits them hard, strikes at them in a way that makes them feel suddenly small, young, powerless. In the face of loss, we all become childlike, adrift in the wide, wide world.