a perished sun

We learn in the retreating
How vast an one
Was recently among us.
A perished sun

Endears in the departure
How doubly more
Than all the golden presence
It was before!

~Emily Dickinson
Image via Pexels.

Today is the darkest day of the year. The winter solstice. This seems like a fitting poem for the day. May you be warm and loved, and may you find light even in the longest night.

to keep the dark away

I sing to use the waiting,
My bonnet but to tie,
And shut the door unto my house;
No more to do have I,

Till, his best step approaching,
We journey to the day,
And tell each other how we sang
To keep the dark away.

~Emily Dickinson
Image via Pexels.

Things 1 and 2 are on break, and are clamoring to use my computer, so I’ll keep this one short. This poem calls to mind the English carol “In praise of Christmas,” with its emphasis on the power of music and togetherness to drive away the dark cold of winter. The lyrics are below. May you be warm and safe this winter’s day, surrounded by love.

All hail to the days that merit more praise
Than all of the rest of the year
And welcome the nights that double delights
As well for the poor as the peer
Good fortune attend each merry man’s friend
That doth but the best that he may
Forgetting old wrongs with carols and songs
To drive the cold winter away

‘Tis ill for a mind to anger inclined
To think of small injuries now
If wrath be to seek, do not lend her thy cheek
Nor let her inhabit thy brow
Cross out of thy books malevolent looks
Both beauty and youth’s decay
And wholly consort with mirth and with sport
To drive the cold winter away

This time of the year is spent in good cheer
And neighbors together do meet
To sit by the fire with friendly desire
Each other in love to greet
Old grudges forgot are put in the pot
All sorrows aside they lay
The old and the young doth carol this song
To drive the cold winter away

When Christmas tide comes in like a bride
With holly and ivy clad
Twelve days in the year much mirth and good cheer
In every household is had
The country guise is then to devise
Some gambols of Christmas play
Whereat the young men do the best that they can
To drive the cold winter away

~“In Praise of Christmas”

aurora

Sleep is supposed to be,
By souls of sanity,
The shutting of the eye.

Sleep is the station grand
Down which on either hand
The hosts of witness stand!

Morn is supposed to be,
By people of degree,
The breaking of the day.

Morning has not occurred!
That shall aurora be
East of eternity;

One with the banner gay,
One in the red array,—
That is the break of day.

~Emily Dickinson
Image via Tobias Bjorkli on Pexels.

Sleep is supposed to be simply shutting our eyes. But instead, it is a journey to another world–a station from whence one can depart to anywhere. The first couple of stanzas, in true Emily fashion, seem simple enough.

Then we move farther into the poem. Morning is supposed to be daybreak. So far so good–but Dickinson interrupts us, shifts gears. Instead of telling us what morning actually is to her, she says that it hasn’t happened. It is always tempting to suppose that she’s talking about death. But maybe here she’s talking about resurrection instead–morning is the thing that comes after every night, but true morning is the life after death.

It is completely frustrating interesting to me that I can spend a whole flipping year with Dickinson and still not really know what she’s talking about. I wonder if she’s playing with me, with her readers. Did she write in a kind of shorthand purely for herself? Or was she fully aware of playing with her someday readers, writing in riddles to tease us?

cold

Safe in their Alabaster Chambers –
Untouched by Morning –
and untouched by noon –
Sleep the meek members of the Resurrection,
Rafter of Satin and Roof of Stone –

Grand go the Years,
In the Crescent above them –
Worlds scoop their Arcs –
and Firmaments – row –
Diadems – drop –
And Doges surrender –
Soundless as Dots,
On a Disk of Snow.

~Emily Dickinson
Image via Pexels.

Dickinson is so good at cold. This is a wintry poem. The opening image of alabaster chambers conjures images of cool white rooms, devoid of heat and blazing light–of any kind of warmth, for these are the chambers of the dead. The bright times of day cannot touch them. Years, worlds, firmaments pass them by, leaving them unscathed, unwarmed.

From alabaster chambers at the beginning to a “Disk of Snow” at the end, everything about this poem carries for me the feel of rooms in old houses when I was a child–rooms that somehow locked in the chill of night or winter and seemed to radiate it back during the heat of the day. No matter what has changed in the world beyond their walls, old houses have a way of ignoring it all, of remaining untouched somehow by the bright passage of time.

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.

a certain Slant of light

There’s a certain Slant of light,
Winter Afternoons –
That oppresses, like the Heft
Of Cathedral Tunes –

Heavenly Hurt, it gives us –
We can find no scar,
But internal difference –
Where the Meanings, are –

None may teach it – Any –
‘Tis the seal Despair –
An imperial affliction
Sent us of the Air –

When it comes, the Landscape listens –
Shadows – hold their breath –
When it goes, ’tis like the Distance
On the look of Death –

~Emily Dickinson
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I don’t remember when I first encountered this poem–in high school, perhaps, or maybe even middle school. Certainly it was in a textbook, offered up as an example of the work of a famous American poet. Regardless, it’s always rung deeply true for me. There is something about the light on a winter afternoon that’s oppressive, that reminds me of endings and the oncoming rush of darkness.

We’re nearing the darkest day of the year. A week from this Saturday is the winter solstice. After that, the balance will tip back towards light. But for now, darkness gathers its force. For now, winter afternoon sunbeams are a reminder of what has passed, what we have lost, what we will lose. For now, the light is a rare and precious thing, but not without barbs.

like flakes, like stars

They dropped like flakes, they dropped like stars,
Like petals from a rose,
When suddenly across the June
A wind with fingers goes.

They perished in the seamless grass,—
No eye could find the place;
But God on his repealless list
Can summon every face.

~Emily Dickinson
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What a shift this is from some of the other Dickinson death poems I’ve read so far this month! Unlike the God who lets children perish unremarked, the God of this poem remembers every face among those who have died. There must have been so much going on inside Dickinson’s head at any given time. I have to wonder if her poetry was an overpressure valve, a way to let out some of the bottled thought before she imploded.

I chose this poem for today not because of the death, though, or the theology, but for the mention of falling stars. The Geminid meteor shower is beginning. You can read about it here. It will be peaking this weekend, and while the waning full moon will make it harder to see meteors, some should be visible nonetheless, and the clear winter air will make up in part for the brightness of the moon.

A meteor is a strange and wondrous thing. Some no bigger than grains, they streak the sky, their death-throes moments of beauty and awe. Each trail of light is the flaming disintegration of a unique piece of matter that is no more. How like soldiers falling. How like a thousand, thousand deaths.

But there is so much beauty in this destruction. Each fall is a flash of wonder, a shred of insight into the workings of the deep heavens.

I hope you find some magic in the night sky.

from frost

Some, too fragile for winter winds,
The thoughtful grave encloses,—
Tenderly tucking them in from frost
Before their feet are cold.

Never the treasures in her nest
The cautious grave exposes,
Building where schoolboy dare not look
And sportsman is not bold.

This covert have all the children
Early aged, and often cold,—
Sparrows unnoticed by the Father;
Lambs for whom time had not a fold.

~Emily Dickinson
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Well, this is Christmassy. A poem about dead children, cold in the grave. Sheesh, Emily. What’s most notable about this poem, though, is that it reads like the kid version of “Because I could not stop for Death.” The grave/death is depicted as a kind caretaker, gently tucking them in, protecting them from the harshness of life. It provides safe harbor, a place where nothing can find or harm them.

And then there’s the ending. Dickinson ends this one with a little heresy. Describing the dead children Biblically as “lambs” and “sparrows,” she says that they are “unnoticed by the Father,” contradicting the Biblical passage about how no sparrow falls unnoticed by God, and all the Biblical references to God as loving shepherd who lets no sheep become lost.

What to do with this? Dickinson argues that death is kinder to these lost lambs than God–more attentive and protective. One can only wonder what her preacher father would have thought of such a poem, how Puritan New England would have received it. Maybe Dickinson tied up her poems and tucked them away not because she wanted to remain anonymous, but because she knew her world wasn’t ready for them.

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
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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.

the Ice

They won’t frown always — some sweet Day
When I forget to tease —
They’ll recollect how cold I looked
And how I just said “Please.”

Then They will hasten to the Door
To call the little Girl
Who cannot thank Them for the Ice
That filled the lisping full.

~Emily Dickinson
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Wow, so this is an “I told you so” poem par excellence. The pathos is dripping from every line. The speaker in this poem is a little child who seems used to being chastised or ignored, and who, as far as we know, has only ever said “please.” I am reminded of Charles Dickens’s Oliver Twist, with his “Could I please have some more?”

The child seems horribly ignored–she imagines a future in which she is gone and the faceless “They” of the poem hurry to the door to call her home. But she is dead and buried, iced over in winter.

Geez. Emo Emily.