1863


When first reading, “A Tongue – to tell Him I am true!” I felt disoriented by Emily Dickinson’s roundabout, meandering syntax. So, I decided to take on a sense of having been thrust into a mission that seems impossible to understand.  I found a story line acted out between the poem’s speaker and a still-unproven emissary. Play along with me, if you like, to create a complete sentence out of the poem’s first line by using the recognizable lead-in.

Whimsically, at first, I placed the familiar cliche from the movie, “Mission Impossible,” in front of the poem. This is your mission.  If you decide to accept it, you will need:

A Tongue – to tell Him I am true!
It’s fee – to be of Gold –
Had Nature – in Her monstrous House
A single Ragged Child –

To earn a Mine – would run
That Interdicted Way,
And tell Him – Charge thee speak it plain –
That so far – Truth is True?

And answer What I do –
Beginning with the Day
That Night – begun –
Nay – Midnight – ’twas –
Since Midnight – happened – say –

If once more – Pardon – Boy –
The Magnitude thou may
Enlarge my Message – If too vast
Another Lad – help thee –

Thy Pay – in Diamonds – be –
And His – in solid Gold –
Say Rubies – if He hesitate –
My Message – must be told –

Say – last I said – was This –
That when the Hills – come down –
And hold no higher than the Plain –
My Bond – have just begun –

And when the Heavens – disband –
And Deity conclude –
Then – look for me – Be sure you say –
Least Figure – on the Road –

The first line of the poem, now, has a subject (you), a main verb (will need), and a prepositional phrase …well, I’m not going to turn this into a grammar lesson, though I confess I always loved conjugating sentences.  Right away, I feel lured into accepting this mysterious appointment with the promise of more than a fair wage: “It’s fee – to be of Gold -”.  In this conjured mission, the only assurance of reliability, “… I am true!” is set opposite the vulnerable condition of precarious reliance on nature’s “monstrous House”, and, “A single Ragged Child -”.

If the “Him” referenced throughout the poem is an allusion to posterity, and “a Mine” is the rich source, or treasure house, of truth stored up in the poems for future generations, it stands to reason that, “To earn a Mine – (anyone worthy of it, willingly) would run/That Interdicted Way,”.  I think part of the difficulty in this poem is that there slips back and forth self-talk by the speaker, and, imaginary instructions transmitted to another. The first two lines of the second stanza appear as a personal reflection, while the other two are addressed to one who is charged with following through. If a poem is a storehouse for truth, regardless of how much “That Interdicted Way,” that opaque language, seems to resist meaning, then the hero of this mission impossible will be the reader intent on breaching poetic perimeters.  I find it comical then to read, “.. Charge Thee speak it plain – ”, speak it plain (!?), that which is embodied in the poetry itself.

Just like the movie, this “mission impossible” is not impossible at all if the poet’s representative is up to the challenge. Much of the implied dare is in the question about whether, “.. – Truth is True?”

As in the famous thriller, instinct and skill must guide when truth is not forthcoming.

The speaker seems to say that if you cannot find the truth, then look at the source of the message, “And answer What I do -”.  Almost as if we are told to, “consider the source.”

Perhaps this third stanza’s apparent reversal of night and day refers to enlightened self-interest which results from a period of emotional darkness, “Since Midnight – happened – ”. If so, it would fit in with this idea of poetry-for-the-ages being dependent on a single “ragged child” and “Another Lad – (to) help thee -”.

The fifth stanza reiterates “orders” in language fitting promises to a soldier of fortune for hire, “Thy Pay – in Diamonds – be – /And His – in solid Gold – /Say Rubies – if He hesitate – ”.  The speaker then seems to be whispering only to herself, “My Message – must be told – ”.

The final two stanzas are a decorative conclusion as we might see in a Hollywood film. The brave speaker walks out of the picture into the sunset.  The dominant, starring role is now forever placed into the hands of the reader (ragged child? other lad?), “Say – last I said – was This – /That when the Hills – come down… And Deity conclude – / Then – look for me… Least Figure – on the Road – ”.

Ponder A Poem A Day – Accept What Comes Your Way

A gift for all the people in a group, committee, club or family is a non-starter if I expect to be loved or remembered for the gesture. If you like the idea that a gift to a friend will become a cherished keepsake, a small trinket that costs little or nothing is the best bet. Emily Dickinson, in “’Tis Customary as we part”, gets at the emotion of successful gift-giving.

‘Tis customary as we part
A trinket – to confer –
It helps to stimulate the faith
When Lovers be afar —

‘Tis various – as the various taste –
Clematis – journeying far –
Presents me with a single Curl
Of her Electric Hair –

This little poem, (unlike hundreds of Dickinson poems that describe, analyze and push the limits of language to dramatize loss), focuses on a practical implement that assumes significance only because the people we love are not always close to hand. Nothing amplifies feelings like parting, which the poem uses to universalize itself. I notice the contrast between the immeasurable quality of “we part” and the diminutive connotation of “A trinket – to confer -”. The point being that a token of affection may be infinitely more important than relics of memory alone as a way to keep affections alive.  A reminder in my pocket, drawer or frame has the potential to turn a frown caused by time and distance into a smile, “When Lovers be afar – ”. No token too small. A contrivance! Be that as it may, any little item can become a memorial if it is associated with a priceless memory.

Only the very rich can give automobiles, Tiffany jewelry or, say, a Rembrandt painting. Even these gifts are likely to be held in limited regard if they don’t symbolize palpable, shared love. If a gift will be one that “.. helps to stimulate the faith” it must strike at the heart of the bond between family or other loved ones.

The important element for any gift, if it is to hold its significance, is attentiveness to variety, the kind that fits the variety in tastes among individuals. “’Tis various – as the various taste – ”.

Clematis, or “travelers joy,” is in knowing, or relying on, the quality of loyalty of a loved one.  Joy is symbolically carried with me because I have certain trinkets, like trophies, as reminders to me of the emotional tie between us. Holiday gifts that we give for Christmas, Hanukkah and memorializations of other religions, along with birthdays, serve to “stimulate the faith” as we travel the calendar or “… journeying far”.

There are all kinds of presents. There are all kinds of relationships. The one thing that is constant is the stirring quality, perhaps even explosive element of  “.. a single Curl / Of her Electric Hair -”.

Ponder A Poem A Day – Accept What Comes Your Way

Like many children, when little I was entertained by garrulous motormouths. At some point in late adolescence I started to appreciate those who could concentrate on a topic so as to enjoy a lengthy conversation.  Not long after, I learned self-confidence when I discovered a knack for leading group discussions and that I enjoyed public speaking and performing. Emily Dickinson sets up conversational references in “I fear a Man of frugal speech -” perhaps to comment on the developmental effect of our interaction with others.

I fear a Man of frugal speech –
I fear a Silent Man –
Haranguer – I can overtake –
Or Babbler – entertain –

But He who weigheth – While the Rest –
Expend their furthest pound –
Of this Man – I am wary –
I fear that He is Grand –

My tendency is to rattle on to fill the gaps of silence in the conversation, as described in line one, between me and someone who uses speech very sparingly, frugally.   In the second example, since there’s no conversation possible with “… a Silent Man – ”, I think of a party or group meeting. There’s the inevitable one who sits listening. The only conversation in this instance is the one I have with myself, so I feel compelled to try to “make ’em talk!” Or, heaven forbid there drop a moment of quiet in an otherwise lively exchange of ideas. Then, I’ve more than once jumped at the chance to have my say.

I read the third example as outright funny. “Haranguer – I can overtake -”. What a spectacle it is when I take the bait and get into a contest of insights, opinions and interpretations with someone who confuses their entitlement to beliefs with their right to exist. Fourth, it is probably a sign of a dampened conscience that my mind goes into to cruise control when I’m around naturally loquacious individuals who epitomize the gift of gab: “Or Babbler – entertain – ”.

In stark contrast to circumstances where another’s silence or “frugal speech” prompts thoughtless chatter on my part, in the fifth line, “But He who weigheth – While the Rest – ”, the poem indicates a progression. Perhaps “the rest” is about those of us who talk or say little because reflective or philosophical thinking is forgotten in the anticipations and apprehensions of discussion.

The word fear is used three times in the poem; twice in the first stanza and once in the second. Fear of what I will say when reacting to someone’s silence by blurting the first words that occur to me. Fear of how much smarter they might be than me. Akin to the fear of the unknown, these conversational lapses remind me that nothing is foreordained. Surely fear in the sense of respect, too, for one who keeps his own counsel when others, “Expend their furthest pound -”, put all they can into convincing others, or showcasing their own cleverness.

In young children it is endearing when bravado and bragging enter into their language and behavior. As Erikson’s “stages of psychosocial development” describe it, 2 to 3-year-olds will either enjoy autonomy or feel shame and doubt; ages 4 to 6 will exhibit self-motivation or guilt; diligence or inferiority will typify childhood from 7 to 11. Autonomy, self-motivation and diligence in these ages is easy to recognize in little babblers and haranguers.

Whether I interpret wary and fear in the final, “Of this Man – I am wary -/ I fear that He is Grand -”, as dread or esteem depends on whether I have found any grandeur in my own life and being – my motivations and responsibilities. And, whether I have the power to experience sympathetic understanding in all kinds of conversations.

Ponder A Poem A Day – Accept What Comes Your Way

When Emily Dickinson created “I heard a Fly buzz – when I died – ” she gave readers a conundrum – how to reconcile somber death with an exuberant fly. Dilemmas and riddles abound in Dickinson’s work so that part is no surprise. Humor is the wonderful and crucial element.

I heard a Fly buzz – when I died –
The Stillness in the Room
Was like the Stillness in the Air –
Between the Heaves of Storm –

The Eyes around – had wrung them dry –
And Breaths were gathering firm
For that last Onset – when the King
Be witnessed – in the Room –

I willed my Keepsakes – Signed away
What portion of me be
Assignable – and then it was
There interposed a Fly –

With Blue – uncertain stumbling Buzz –
Between the light – and me –
And then the Windows failed – and then
I could not see to see –

With the beginning stanza, I have a picture. Not calmness, but “like the Stillness in the Air -/ Between the Heaves of Storm – ”, a foreboding quiet. Everything in my life is suspended: conversation; loved ones, even thoughts of them; shopping; striving for excellence.  I am waiting; having said goodbye to all.

Suddenly, in starkest contrast, a buzzing fly, the uncontrollable and unpredictable third party, insinuates itself to mediate between me and immortality.

To reiterate the control that the vast unknown has on me and others, “Breaths were gathering firm”, the second stanza goes a step further than bleak resignation, to provide a villain. That other interloper, “King” Death, the one I can foresee, predict. Custom says death is the perfect and unpredictable, if inevitable, foil to life.

In this poem it is life’s unpredictability and exuberance, dramatized by the fly, that appears to do the impeding, or obstructing.  Hindering death’s progress.

Dickinson employs the very heart of humor here. For in the telling, the poem has it over King Death, if only for a moment. The poem dares to turn the tables on inevitability. A smile works its way onto my face.  For as I read I, too, momentarily play death at its own game.

Having attempted, as we do, to amass a modicum of sway, “I willed my Keepsakes – Signed away/ What portion of me be / Assignable”, it is sweet control, that I relish, through my paraphernalia, my stuff.  Here, again, “and then it was / There interposed a Fly – ”.  This time, the poem makes me laugh at myself. Control? ForgetAboutIt!

The final stanza’s “fly” is a fading image, now blending “With Blue – ..” while the crisp words of the first line are replaced with an echo of ebbing consciousness: “..uncertain stumbling Buzz – ”. Light, me, failing windows and the fly seem to move toward one another. But, “I could not see to see – ”.

Ponder A Poem A Day – Accept What Comes Your Way

I recently read a book on feng shui by Denise Linn. It’s a great tutorial for increasing awareness of personal symbols. Emily Dickinson’s “You taught me Waiting with Myself – ” may go a bit further by uncovering why such a process matters.

You taught me Waiting with Myself –
Appointment strictly kept –
You taught Me fortitude of Fate –
This – also – I have learnt –

An Altitude of Death, that could
No bitterer debar
Than Life – had done – before it –
Yet – there is a Science more –

The Heaven you know – to understand
That you be not ashamed
of Me- in Christ’s bright Audience
Opon the further Hand

I don’t pretend to grasp all the syntax, including all the second or first person pronouns and their references. Nevertheless, I am fascinated with the idea of being taught how to accomplish a “Waiting with Myself -“.

Without having divulged personal motivations, the poem’s serious intent is hinted in the high priority of an “Appointment strictly kept -”.  What, we might ask, is the alternative to such dedicated effort? For me, if the driving motivation is to go deeper into the what-ifs of personal barriers and hangups there’s a risk of intellectualization and “beating the dead horse” of old experiences and situations. When what I really need is feeling or solicitude.

While I wait with myself, as in meditation, I am ideally only aware of the present. (In some feng shui meditative exercises, I was amazed at present meanings I give to objects that have their origins in my past.) The poem follows meditative waiting with myself with acknowledgment of being compelled by the future. “You taught Me fortitude of Fate -”.

The wonderfully transitional “This – also – I have learnt -” reiterates fate’s impervious fortitude, or mettle; and, levels my attention on “An Altitude of Death,…”. I believe this line, and the next two, refer to what I have already said about the risks involved in too much intellectualization of private quandries and concerns.  On and on it can go until paralysis sets in, more like death – or, at least one of its classifications – so that the effect is as bad as the cause. “(T)hat could/No bitterer debar/Than Life – had done – before it -” gives to death all its customary bitterness.

But, wait! Science to the rescue!

Is “Yet – there is a Science more -” a false clue about how to be liberated from this self-imposed brainiac solution?

For now the poem speaks the language of the soul; the supportive sounds of “The Heaven you know – to understand/That you be not ashamed”.  The Heaven.  You know.  To understand.

Instead of a level in hell, an altitude of death, the upper regions of consciousness, “Me- in Christ’s bright Audience” are foretold.  I read now of feeling. Sympathy and compassion lead away from self-inflicted isolation to a place where the brightest audience awaits. There is real satisfaction when “That you be not ashamed” takes hold with compassionate understanding.  Successful acceptance of psychological realities leads to personal freedom. The things audiences do best, applause, or “give a hand,” are echoed when “Opon the further Hand” I place my trust. Both here-and-now, as well as further and unseen. That may be the applause of eternity – an inner condition with myself.

Ponder A Poem A Day – Accept What Comes Your Way

Adam and Eve couldn’t blame complex structures of economic systems or multiplex ties of work and relationships when they ran into problems with the moment at hand. Which tells me want and regret may comprise a problem which pre-dates every other hiccup, spiritual and otherwise, on the road to happiness. One of Emily Dickinson’s poems that gives me a big dose of “now” is “The difference between Despair”.

The difference between Despair
And Fear – is like the One
Between the instant of a Wreck –
And when the Wreck has been –

The Mind is smooth – no Motion –
Contented as the eye
Upon the Forehead of a Bust –
That knows – it cannot see –

Is there a “…difference between Despair” over BP Oil’s cataclysm in the Gulf of Mexico, “And Fear” that drives our revulsion about, and anticipation of, environmental problems? While the disaster has everyone focused on causes and solutions, it doesn’t have the instantaneous delivery aspect “of a Wreck – /And when the Wreck has been -”.  To dramatize the focus when our body is paralyzed and consciousness is as a light beam on the here and now of being caught in a smashup in traffic, the poem at once lifts us out of danger and shows us one of calamity’s values. Finding benefits of commonly held abhorence for pain, loss, death and other human suffering is not unusual in a poem of Dickinson’s.

Everyone wants to enjoy prime focus; ability to concentrate on the work in front of us. One of the benefits of meditation, of which I am a regular practitioner though for less time each day than is recommended, is increased awareness. This is another way of saying meditation can improve our ability to resist stress and worry. What is the difference between the attention given to the moment when we are caught in a disaster like “..the instant of a Wreck – ” and an instance of peace such as meditation? Both focus attention on the here-and-now to a heightened degree. Dickinson’s example, though, says that living in the present is far more intense than just having improved thoughts and an ability to prioritize. Or, another of meditation’s advantages, a better circulatory system and cardiovascular health. I think what’s going on here is a challenge to realize life itself is intense, dramatic and potentially overwhelming – if we’re paying attention.

The second stanza actually sounds like meditation. “The Mind is smooth – no Motion – / Contented as the eye”. Instead of the bitter, harsh experience of a car crash, now the poem’s emphasis is on a pleasant, mild and agreeable stillness. Instead of imagining the stare of frightful eyes from a head-on driver plunged, like me, toward mutual doom, I have the honeyed stare of one admiring “.. the Forehead of a Bust -”.

Perhaps, like our ancestors, we will never be able to avoid the impulse to look for what the future will bring. For goodness sake, I don’t even understand most of what my past brought. I also wonder whether the cagey use of “it” in “That knows – it cannot see – ” avoids precision about whether “I” have potential for freedom from worry.

Or, if it’s the lifeless, stone head that is alone in its freedom from either despair or fear.

Ponder A Poem A Day – Accept What Comes Your Way

Does anyone stare at the moon anymore? Wondering.  Occasionally, accompanied with a feeling you need to know where so-and-so has gone? Don’t you simply check Facebook? You want to know how an old acquaintance looks nowadays? Try their Twitter Bio, blog or other online resource. When Emily Dickinson writes “You know the Portrait in the Moon”, she recalls a moon who oversees all, networking the mysteries in love, loss and adventure.

You know that Portrait in the Moon –
So tell me Who ’tis like –
The very Brow – the stooping eyes –
A fog for – Say – Whose Sake?

The very Pattern of the Cheek –
It varies – in the Chin –
But – Ishmael – since we met – ’tis long –
And fashions – intervene –

When Moon’s at full – ‘Tis Thou – I say –
My lips just hold the name –
When crescent – Thou art worn – I note –
But – there – the Golden Same –

And when – Some Night – Bold – slashing Clouds
Cut Thee away from Me –
That’s easier – than the other film
That glazes Holiday –

I find in this poem a curious mixture of sensations of warmth and affection, together with adventurous yearnings, which paradoxically lead to looking inward, “A fog for – Say – Whose Sake?”

In an imaginary moon-study-conversation, “So tell me Who ’tis like – / The very Brow – the stooping eyes – ” a restlessness that is hard to pin down sets the mood. We are “asked” to share in gazing at the moon, looking outward the way reading a book is looking outside one’s own thoughts and assumptions.

An adventure is anything that is different from that which seems temporarily a limited world. Gazing at the moon isn’t only searching for escape, but remaining secure in existing comforts. “But – Ishmael – since we met – ’tis long -/And fashions – intervene -” is a reminder of this dual rootedness in memory and present-day conditions. Whether “Ishmael” is a reference to the long-suffering Herman Melville character in Moby Dick, or Abraham’s intriguing son, they both embody love and adventure?

I think both are possibilities as docents in my private adventure, “When Moon’s at full – ”.  Perhaps “ ‘Tis Thou – I say -/ My lips just hold the name – ”, is like that brief stage of fullness in the moon – unfortunate that this feeling of oneness and belonging is so brief. The exact memory of those not in our daily lives fades like the moon, “When crescent – Thou art worn – I note -”.

In the final stanza there’s no longer a conversation, as two kinds of imaginary or lost loves emerge. “And when – Some Night – Bold – slashing Clouds / Cut Thee away from Me -”, swashbuckling daring invades the night in the form of clouds whose romantic, gallant flamboyance cut into reality.  Of course, there’s always “… the other film / That glazes Holiday – ”. Holidays that are supposed to be a break from routine may be dimmed by thoughts of “The very Pattern of the Cheek – ” who is easier to see in a full moon. (Facebook eat your heart out.)

Ponder A Poem A Day – Accept What Comes Your Way

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