1862


Someone should add music. “It ceased to hurt me, though so slow” is musical, easy to understand and sweet-sounding. It embodies familiar feelings of having survived loss. But, not without a melancholy reluctance to let go of hurt.

It ceased to hurt me, though so slow
I could not feel the Anguish go –
But only knew by looking back –
That something – had benumbed the Track –

Nor when it altered, I could say,
For I had worn it, every day,
As constant as the Childish frock –
I hung upon the Peg, at night.

But not the Grief – that nestled close
As needles – ladies softly press
To Cushions Cheeks –
To keep their place –

Nor what consoled it, I could trace –
Except, whereas ’twas Wilderness –
It’s better – almost Peace –

Dickinson borrows from the lexicon of railroads, “That something – had benumbed the Track – ” to add to the sense of motion. We are carried along in a life that refuses to stop despite a deprivation forced upon us.  Still, we can’t keep from looking back: “I could not feel the Anguish go – /But only knew by looking back – ” .

In another poem of Dickinson’s that is familiar to many fans of the poet, we are told that hope “..sings the tune without the words – and never stops – at all.” The silent force of hope acts on our minds and spirits without our being aware. Then, one day I realize my once deeply felt sorrow has undergone a change; “Nor when it altered, I could say, / For I had worn it, every day,”.

Don’t get me wrong, is the warning of the third stanza. Here, the poem instructs me to avoid the mistake of thinking that while the debilitating effects of great loss have been alleviated – grief itself is not cast out: “But not the Grief – that nestled close”.  As needlecraft is employed to decorate and comfort, so grief and its aftermath renders the tapestry of days, “To keep their place -”.

While I read this poem, I, too, am compelled to think about the past, and wonder “what consoled it,” . There is nothing “I could trace -” that would fulfill such a mighty undertaking!  All I know is, “whereas ’twas Wilderness – / It’s better – almost Peace -”.

If a modern band like, say, “The Who” were to record this song-poem, I feel certain they would scream in all the right places. And, give drive-time radio listeners and MP3 download zealots a high time.

Ponder A Poem A Day – Accept What Comes Your Way

I’ve been looking at quite a few websites devoted to Halloween recently. A recurring theme is of being trapped, locked inside a haunted house or other creepy place.  On some level we must all be claustrophobic. Emily Dickinson uses that spooky dread to call attention to a private “trap” that is a feature of the human species in, “A single Screw of Flesh”.

A single Screw of Flesh
Is all that pins the Soul
That stands for Deity, to mine,
Opon my side the Vail –

Once witnessed of the Gauze –
Its name is put away
As far from mine, as if no plight
Had printed yesterday,

In tender – solemn Alphabet,
My eyes just turned to see –
When it was smuggled by my sight
Into Eternity –

More Hands – to hold – These are but Two –
One more new-mailed Nerve
Just granted, for the Peril’s sake –
Some striding – Giant – Love –

So greater than the Gods can show,
They slink before the Clay,
That not for all their Heaven can boast
Will let its Keepsake – go

In the first stanza there’s a dichotomy set up between “…Flesh (and) … the Soul”; body and spirit. There is ample room for me to speculate that Dickinson has no need for metaphysics, if I prefer to think of this as the me that others know versus the me I know myself to be.

I might mention here that some editors have changed “vail” to “veil” in this poem, where vail in, “Opon my side the Vail – ”, is judged as a figure of speech for a lady’s hat. But, there’s an old English usage of vail that fits perfectly if we want the word to carry the metaphor for contradicting energies. That is because vail, meaning “take off one’s hat or otherwise show respect or submission to someone” leaves a more universal, i.e. males included, application. I think, too, it lines up with Dickinson’s suggestion of my spirit being obliged to submit to the confines of physicality. I have a picture of a proud competent spirit/servant showing respect, with eyes cast downward, that the body/employer will have the last word.

My experience is often of feeling my soul’s identity is obscured because, “Its name is put away” by the actions I pursue. The hungers, angers, dreams and ambitions that are “As far from mine, as if no plight / Had printed yesterday,” when writing one line took hours. Hours.

Did you ever see a better analysis of the effort taken to be known in all my best intentions, as opposed to what others – family, friends, lovers, bosses – interpret? “In tender – solemn Alphabet,” – so much care, so much deliberateness in tackling a role, or a project. Only to do a one-eighty, “My eyes just turned to see – / When it was smuggled by my sight / Into Eternity – ” never to be the success I imagined.

But, no matter. There are always, “More Hands – to hold – These are but Two -”. Perhaps the point is not, after all, to succeed. Perhaps the chase to find a reconciliation of my flesh and my identity-as-I-know-it is, “Just granted, for the Peril’s sake – ”.  Why didn’t I think of it myself?  “Some striding – Giant – Love -…So greater than the Gods can show,” is an over-arching principle.

The struggle I find myself in at this point is to accept that there is a greater truth than spirit or body, soul or flesh – even if it is Love – that great, long striding Giant. And, that like a memento of an adventurous trip, spirit will be a souvenir put away in deference to the authority of the fixed number of years I’m given.  And, “slink before the Clay, /That not for all their Heaven can boast / Will let its Keepsake – go”.

Go?

Ponder A Poem A Day – Accept What Comes Your Way

Spring will soon give way to scorching summer days. Perhaps then, the intention behind Emily Dickinson’s extraordinary use of white, “Dare you see a Soul in the White Heat?” will be unambiguous.

Dare you see a Soul at the White Heat?
Then crouch within the door –
Red – is the Fire’s common tint –
But when the vivid Ore

Has vanquished Flame’s conditions –
It quivers from the Forge
Without a color, but the Light
Of unanointed Blaze –

Least Village has its Blacksmith
Whose Anvil’s even ring
Stands symbol for the finer Forge
That soundless tugs – within –

Refining these impatient Ores
With Hammer, and with Blaze
Until the Designated Light
Repudiate the Forge –

“Dare you see a Soul at the White Heat? / Then crouch within the door -”.  It is a dare, as well as a warning. If I stop to look at fire’s ultimate temperatures, I cannot resist the white hot heart. Yet, if I don’t have proper respect for what a blacksmith mixes, using experienced skill, I can only gawk. Or, worse, get too close with amateur clumsiness.

When the cause, ..Fire’s common tint – / .. the vivid Ore” leads to its effect, the results promise transformation from liquid metal to precise instrument.  That is, if the blacksmith has learned how to make it happen, through learning, courage and intact belief.

Life may bring about what seems to me unbearable personal issues and abhorrent circumstances, “Flame’s conditions -”.

If so, then, rage “..quivers from the Forge”.

If I feel crushed and engulfed, I may become emotionally depressed, in other words, “Without a color, but the Light / Of unanointed Blaze -”

As in a play, right at the apex of the poem’s dramatic tension, we take a break. The poem’s picture, “Least Village has its Blacksmith / Whose Anvil’s even ring”, reminds me of a common site that is as customary as it is generally understood to be dangerous.

While I relax, it’s as if the poem takes me to a chatty place I can access through memories of various graphic illustrations of a blacksmith. Who hasn’t been enchanted by smithies in Victorian art? Western movies dramatized blacksmith shops repeatedly.

There’s a romantic quality to seeing a man’s tender skin in close proximity to a working anvil. Because horseshoes and other necessary implements painstakingly fabricated as the result of manipulating white-hot iron, “(s)tands symbol for the finer Forge”.

That which doesn’t kill me makes me.

Here’s the real dare. Do I have the courage, the guts, the moxie, the pluck to see my own soul – “That soundless tugs – within – ”?

The poem’s challenge in the final stanza is to take the time, love and self-reflection for “Refining these impatient Ores / With Hammer, and with Blaze”. My “ores” and yours won’t be the same. In fact, “my hammer and blaze” look somewhat different from my parents or my even my children’s. The tools of understanding, interest, talent, and weaknesses or sins, even circumstance and motivation obviously differ from person to person.

Still, the principle is the same. Eventually, the poem promises, you and I both will arrive at the Great “Until..”. I will have that sense of self benefited by  “… the Designated Light”.  Then, the old struggles will recede and die away, “Repudiate(d by) the Forge -” of personal conflicts.

Ponder A Poem A Day – Accept What Comes Your Way

Could it be madness if my behavior is inconvenient to everyone around me? I suppose it’s a universal fear to find oneself unhinged from the reality that is defined by family and friends. Emily Dickinson’s “The first Day’s Night had come” plays with this fear.

The first Day’s Night had come –
And grateful that a thing
So terrible – had been endured –
I told my Soul to sing –

She said her Strings were snapt –
Her Bow – to Atoms blown –
And so to mend her – gave me work
Until another Morn –

And then – a Day as huge
As Yesterdays in pairs,
Unrolled it’s horror in my face –
Until it blocked my eyes –

My Brain – begun to laugh –
I mumbled – like a fool –
And tho’ ’tis Years ago – that Day –
My Brain keeps giggling – still.

And Something’s odd – within –
That person that I was –
And this One – do not feel the same –
Could it be Madness – this?

There is safety for me in this poem that is perhaps an illusion. But, then, when can one tell if personal illusions serve our greater good? Or, remove us from it? It’s a question I’ve thought about alot. When I was a child, my reality was unlike anything I could find at home. Friends gradually became important. But, I sensed the fears I had about the feelings that rocked me and tossed me were not shared by others.

Acknowledging, “She said her Strings were snapt -/ Her Bow – to Atoms blown – ”, debunks and discredits all the voices in my head that say I shouldn’t feel my wreck and ruin of emotions. The fact, though, of there being a legitimate part of me that is not completely shattered when it says, “And so to mend her – gave me work / Until another Morn – ” is something to hold on to.

I don’t believe this poem’s first stanza reflects a child’s or even a young adult’s response to death or other loss. It’s too full of experience. The ability to talk to myself about distinctions in what I think, feel and do in the face of great pain testifies to considerable skill and sophistication. Sometimes this means simply acknowledging a kind of blindness about what, in fact, I am feeling, or about what the next step might be: “And then – a Day as huge / As Yesterdays in pairs, / Unrolled it’s horror in my face – / Until it blocked my eyes – ”. Nevertheless, to “unroll” implies moving forward. The fear of this “horror” is of being out of control; of being moved in a direction I neither understand, nor like.

I am acquainted with the kind of hysteria described in the fourth stanza. There is absolutely no self reflection in such a state. I’m not sure whether the distance described between the here-and-now of the present-day circumstance of the poem and when “I mumbled – like a fool -” indicates longing or feelings (undescribed) I continue to identify within.

I can see that the person I am today is like someone else entirely from my younger self. Is that a good thing? Or, not? The not knowing is kooky, wacky, puzzling and mystifying. “That person that I was – / And this One – do not feel the same – ”.

Ponder A Poem A Day – Accept What Comes Your Way

postscript: Wilkie Collins wrote “Woman in White” in 1860. See Madwomen in the Attic on BBC Radio 4 at 1130 BST on Tuesday 20 April 2010 and afterwards on BBC iPlayer.

One of the reasons I return often to read Emily Dickinson poems is the recurrent topic of change.

I was recently reading one of the letters Dickinson wrote in the summer of 1861 and was struck by these poignant and strangely tender words, “God made me…He built the heart in me – Bye and bye it outgrew me – and like the little mother – with the big child – I got tired holding him -…”.

Casually expressed, while acknowledging a mystery, this is a thought spoken with acceptance of inevitable transformation in self awareness. But, in the poems, there is much evidence to contradict such sanguine compliance with change. I wonder if Dickinson’s “I Years had been from Home” doesn’t describe the discomforts of reshaping, or remodeling, one’s perspectives.

I Years had been from Home
And now before the Door
I dared not enter, lest a Face
I never saw before

Stare solid into mine
And ask my Business there –
“My Business but a Life I left
Was such remaining there?”

I leaned upon the Awe –
I lingered with Before –
The Second like an Ocean rolled
And broke against my ear –

I laughed a crumbling Laugh
That I could fear a Door
Who Consternation compassed
And never winced before.

I fitted to the Latch
My Hand, with trembling care
Lest back the awful Door should spring
And leave me in the Floor –

Then moved my Fingers off
As cautiously as Glass
And held my ears, and like a Thief
Fled gasping from the House –

I understand “Home,” and “the Door” of the first stanza like wistful remembrance of my innocent, if childish, self.  Homesick for those days, “I dared not enter”, toys with lingering childishness in imagining I could return if I wanted to those blameless years. However, what I would find would be the me that I am today. “.. a Face/I never saw before/Stare stolid into mine/And ask my Business there – ”.

Daydreaming and fantasizing how I’d rather my life be than how it is, can create a kind of unreal existence if it goes on long enough. Then, if I change my life into something from which I no longer need to escape in fantasy, what does that do to my recollection of years of living with one foot, so to speak, in unreality? Reflecting cannot be helped. I have to “..ask my Business there – /’My Business but a Life I left/Was such remaining there?’ ”.

The poem acknowledges what may on the surface seem utterly absurd. A successful life pining for its former, very limited existence. I might even try to re-imagine my fantasies just to push away the feelings of loss. “I leaned upon the Awe -/ I lingered with Before – ”. Fear and longing become entwined. I may briefly experience myself as two different people, the here-and-now me and the former me with “the awful Door”, to separate two “selves.”

But, finally, I know it is not the past that beckons most: “And held my ears, and like a Thief / Fled gasping from the House – ”.

Digest A Poem A Day – Accept What Comes Your Way

One of the things I love about poems by Emily Dickinson is how they go beyond most poetry, even great poetry, which derive power in precision. Many beautiful poems find ways to express what we respond to by saying, “Oh! I’ve thought that; or, felt that; or, noticed it. But, I never considered writing it.”

Dickinson poems do that in an almost off-handed manner. Why? I think Dickinson’s dominance over other works is in jumping from the universal-but-unspoken truths we all recognize once they been articulated.  Then, confounding us with a larger truth. In “He fumbles at your Soul” the poem reorganizes our sense of time and space for the sake of bringing us back to what it considers the only important space – within each heart.

He fumbles at your Soul
As Players at the Keys –
Before they drop full Music on –
He stuns you by Degrees –

Prepares your brittle nature
For the etherial Blow
By fainter Hammers – further heard-
Then nearer – Then so – slow –

Your Breath – has time to straighten –
Your Brain – to bubble cool –
Deals One – imperial Thunderbolt –
That scalps your naked soul –

When Winds hold Forests in their Paws –
The Universe – still –

The wooshing rhythm and clipped phrases mimic the wild unpredictability of a storm. And, of passion. Of a lover whose “hands fumble at your Soul”, in the way a piano virtuoso plays (with?) the keys.

Our lives are “taken for a ride,” or, if you prefer the modern phrase, “follow your bliss.”

By contrast, we are reminded that finally if we have a way to get there, we want to return to a quieter place than where we were before.

Before reading the poem.

Digest A Poem A Day – Accept What Comes Your Way

I can’t imagine a more perfect verbal image of how it feels to be outside looking in – as a state of mind – than Emily Dickinson’s “I had been hungry, all the Years – ”.

If, and it’s a very big “if”, “My Noon had Come – to dine -” also recalls a state of mind, I am reminded of those times in almost everyone’s life when old habits and beliefs seem weaker than before. New hope may rise in an area of life that we thought we had closed. Either by choice or childhood prejudices.

Maybe it’s a midlife crisis when nothing of normality satisfies and we reach for “the Table” and its “curious wine”. We risk everything for the chance that life will take on renewed meaning.

I had been hungry, all the Years –
My Noon had Come – to dine –
I trembling drew the Table near –
And touched the Curious Wine –

‘Twas this on Tables I had seen –
When turning, hungry, Home
I looked in Windows, for the Wealth
I could not hope – for Mine –

I did not know the ample Bread –
‘Twas so unlike the Crumb
The Birds and I, had often shared
In Nature’s – Dining Room –

The Plenty hurt me — ’twas so new —
Myself felt ill – and odd –
As Berry – of a Mountain Bush –
Transplanted – to a Road –

Nor was I hungry – so I found
That Hunger – was a way
Of Persons outside Windows –
The Entering – takes away

The poem ends with one of Dickinson’s characteristic preferences. Inaccessible people, places and things have their own magic. And, the eternal quest of mere mortals is to find a balance between real and imagined.

Digest A Poem A Day – Accept What Comes Your Way

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