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

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.

“Only a balloon”

You’ve seen balloons set, haven’t you?
So stately they ascend
It is as swans discarded you
For duties diamond.

Their liquid feet go softly out
Upon a sea of blond;
They spurn the air as’t were to mean
For creatures so renowned.

Their ribbons just beyond the eye,
They struggle some for breath,
And yet the crowd applauds below;
They would not encore death.

The gilded creature strains and spins,
Trips frantic in a tree,
Tears open her imperial veins
And tumbles in the sea.

The crowd retire with an oath
The dust in streets goes down,
And clerks in counting-rooms observe,
“’T was only a balloon.”

~Emily dickinson

This poem is meeting me right where I am today. Lately, my life has seemed overfull of clerks in counting-rooms who cannot or will not see the wonder all around us. I’m reminded anew of why I teach–because kids, of any age, have not yet succumbed to all the world’s shoulds and supposed tos. Kids still see the magic in balloons, and this is part of what makes them infinitely better company than a great many adults.

I feel sorry for the clerks. How dreary to be somebody who only sees the surface of things, whose soul does not intuit beyond the obvious to the possible–to the impossible, even. What are we if we accept the current possible and refuse to imagine what seems in this moment impossible? How much art, science, literature, beauty, wonder in the course of human history would never have happened if we all looked at balloons and said, “Hmph. Only a balloon and nothing more”? How often do we let the clerks have the last word?

Only clouds.