Emily Dickinson’s “Color — Caste — Denomination — ”, like the great equalizer, death, discards all my best and worst as mere symptoms of my fallible, error-prone status as human.

Color – Caste – Denomination –
These – are Time’s Affair –
Death’s diviner Classifying
Does not know they are –

As in sleep – All Hue forgotten –
Tenets – put behind –
Death’s large – Democratic fingers
Rub away the Brand –

If Circassian – He is careless –
If He put away
Chrysalis of Blonde – or Umber –
Equal Butterfly –

They emerge from His Obscuring –
What Death – knows so well –
Our minuter intuitions –
Deem unplausible –

“These — are Time’s Affair” is an easy concept, somewhat nostalgic in nature. They are words that role off the tongue. Just as conditions of race, social standing, or religious ideology skirt out of memory as soon as we are dead. Or, perhaps even in sleep.

Important only when our consciousness is controlled by time, “Color — a black president, Caste — corporate titans vs. poverty’s luckless, and Denomination — Catholics, Mormons and Muslims, all define current events. These concepts are essential to understanding temporal civilization and earthly history, but lousy at classifying people.

The poem suggests to me, by its own simplicity, that it need not be so hard to avoid defining myself and others by such episodic concerns.

If I really want to get it straight, the poem counsels, when looking for what really matters in this life, I should use death as my guide. For death does not know about distinctions: “Does not know they are — / As in sleep — All Hue forgotten —”.

All the principles that guide my treatment of myself and others; all my beliefs about what to expect; all the doctrines I’ve inherited about God and honor: are no more, no less than “Tenets — ” that are flawed when “put behind — ”.

As the “purest” type of white person, “Circassian women were said to be the most beautiful on earth, prized by Turkish sultans. The use of this kind of human description is funny when followed by the idea of “careless,” almost scientific, experiment. Butterfly cocoons of different species, may be indistinguishable.  Put two chrysalis (that sheltered stage of growth that obscures color) away on a shelf.  They may emerge from that obscure state to surprise the experimenter by their color.

If I am focused on the differences, (“Our minuter intuitions —”), the poem has a wry, sardonic retort. For by prizing such transient descriptions I am more sheltered from the truth than the larvae.  For I cannot  perceive what “Death — knows so well —”.  Red, or yellow, black and white, “Blond — or Umber — / Equal Butterfly — ”.

Digest A Poem A Day — Accept What Comes Your Way

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