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

The event that Americans commonly call the first Thanksgiving was celebrated to give thanks to God for helping the Pilgrims of Plymouth Colony survive their first brutal winter in New England, according to Wikipedia.  Writing from her 19th Century Western Massachusetts home, Emily Dickinson recognizes personal archives playing in memory and emotions in “One Day is there of the Series”.  This completely different kind of Thanksgiving history is as familiar to me as the annual feast.

One Day is there of the Series
Termed “Thanksgiving Day”
Celebrated part at Table
Part in Memory –
Neither Ancestor nor Urchin
I review the Play –
Seems it to my Hooded thinking
Reflex Holiday –
Had There been no sharp subtraction
From the early Sum –
Not an Acre or a Caption
Where was once a Room –
Not a Mention, whose small Pebble
Wrinkled any Sea,
Unto such, were such Assembly
‘Twere “Thanksgiving Day” –

The poem’s first three lines recognizes a community’s shared experience, “One Day….Termed “Thanksgiving Day”, but hooks us on an emotional level with that little word, “part.” It is buried, like a private thought, in a phrase that is otherwise familar: “Celebrated part at Table”.

Isn’t it lovely to pay tribute to those private thoughts of past Thanksgivings as being as dominate in our minds as the spread on the table and the people with whom we share it? The poem intends to place that “Part in Memory -” right up there with the rest.  Individual thoughts of past Thanksgivings include “Neither Ancestor..” of the first Thanksgiving, nor the pets, children or “…Urchin” of today.

When I sit down with loved ones this year, “I review the Play -” of the very first time I baked a turkey in my own home; my children’s first Thanksgivings; my mother’s deft banquet-making; my deceased daughter’s last Thanksgiving when she was 16.

Thoughts and emotions about past Thanksgivings have their own law, leaving me to decide what to say out loud. “Seems it to my Hooded thinking/Reflex Holiday -”. Or, my hidden thinking has an involuntary and untaught way of observing private history. When feelings for someone absent help to define this Thanksgiving they are as real as ever. “Had There been no sharp subtraction/From the early Sum -”, had there not been a huge portion of cherished people razored off; and, though they own no local property and you won’t see their photo published here, “Not an Acre or a Caption”, they are part of the holiday, nonetheless.

Just as thoughts jam and mesh between then and now, the poem’s lines combine thoughts, “Where was once a Room – / Not a Mention,”. It once required a room of her own to give reasonable care and acknowledgment, but now the house is a reflection of schedules and plans where she is not mentioned. Where once so many friends and family admitted, “whose small Pebble/Wrinkled any Sea,” because every life was a “sea” and she was a “small pebble,” who left such a pleasant wavelet.

These thoughts and others, “Unto such, were such Assembly / ‘Twere “Thanksgiving Day” -”.

Ponder A Poem A Day – Accept What Comes Your Way

Demands and temptations of the outside world can cause me to lose track of what I really want in life – my goals and objectives.  Emily Dickinson’s, “I cautious, scanned my little life”, takes stock, while considering unintentional, misappropriated and fateful influences on inner feelings and personal desires.

I cautious, scanned my little life –
I winnowed what would fade
From what w’d last till Heads like mine
Should be a-dreaming laid.

I put the latter in a Barn –
The former, blew away.
I went one winter morning
And lo, my priceless Hay

Was not upon the “Scaffold” –
Was not upon the “Beam” –
And from a thriving Farmer –
A Cynic, I became.

Whether a Thief did it –
Whether it was the wind –
Whether Deity’s guiltless –
My business is, to find!

So I begin to ransack!
How is it Hearts, with Thee?
Art thou within the little Barn
Love provided Thee?

I may want to do an Emily Dickinson and withdraw from the outside world to cut through the ideas that govern my life and separate what I want from someone else’s expectations: “I winnowed what would fade”.

The idea of a time-honored practice of self examination shows up in the first and last stanzas’ use of old English punctuation like “w’d,” and “a’dreaming,” and the personal pronouns “thou,” and “thee.”

But, a very present-day word like “cautious” connotes being on the lookout for dangerous or opportunistic effects to “my little life -”, one that may be tender, vulnerable. I’m tempted also to read “clueless” into this diminutive term for the self. If we’re vigilant/cautious we are watchful for a purpose. So the self in this poem takes on two personas: the one who needs looking after and the one who is circumspect. The cautious one is alert to the dangers and errors that can cause treachery or trickery to the “little life.”

I find it helpful for grasping meaning in “I put the latter in a Barn -” to draw from the final stanza.

“Art thou within the little Barn/Love provided Thee?” Am I synchronized — are my goals/objectives in tune with my inner feelings and personal desires? When “I put the latter (what w’d last) in a Barn -” my brain/barn may not remain in tune with my feelings and personal desires if I mistake society’s or an authoritative-powerful other’s judgment for my own.

For, “…my priceless Hay”, the very trajectory of my life, may lose its bearings, causing me to discover it “Was not upon the “Scaffold” -/Was not upon the “Beam” -”. When I go full speed ahead with a project that I judge to be meaningful in some way only to realize in the course of events that by continuing to give it time and energy I am robbing myself of accomplishment in ventures that express the very essence of me, I must develop a healthy skepticism. “And from a thriving Farmer -/A Cynic, I became.”

All sorts of scenarios play out when I think of “farming my brain” for new words and ways to use them. But, you may ask, are these ways consistent with the brain “Love provided Thee?”

Ponder A Poem A Day — Accept What Comes Your Way

Postscript: I am indebted to participants in the lively conversation yesterday of the Emily Dickinson International Society Poetry Conversation, which took place at our local library. The comments made and the shared ideas about this poem showed me more than I’d suspected through my solitary reading and sent me on a search for more.

Emily Dickinson’s multiple images for the times that are a-changing, and the thoughts that accompany them, in, “The murmuring of Bees, has ceased”, challenges me to stop and notice language and the transformations they attempt to express. And, what role my thoughts play in my changing definition of myself.

The reading I do, the poems I scrutinize, even positive quotes I need or want to hear on any given day depend on many things: Whether I’m happy about the responsibilities I face. Or, if someone near and deare is happy. Perhaps I’m having money problems. On the other hand, if I just got a new job the words that will feed my soul will be quite different. A new baby in the family? Some other extraordinary happening? Or, maybe change happens gradually, like the seasons, my age, even my idea of God.

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 was June.
Appropriate Creatures to her change
The Typic Mother sends
As Accent fades to interval
With separating Friends
Till what we speculate, has been
And thoughts we will not show
More intimate with us become
Than Persons, that we know.

As I write this, the summer of 2010 is complete. “The murmuring of the Bees, has ceased”. Yet, other indicators of the truth of my physical existence remain. In fact, they never conclude: “But murmuring of some/Posterior, prophetic,/Has simultaneous come.”

Perhaps, in part, the poem suggests examining my thoughts and words for which ones are like the murmur of this year’s bees. And which ones valued as more enduring. Memorizing a poem to offer it back to myself as a positive quote does not mean parroting happy talk. Quite the contrary. Like a friend willing to simply listen to a rant, the poem reflects me back to myself; or, encourages me to be myself.

Isn’t it fascinating that “The lower metres of the Year”, assumes my understanding (conscious or unconscious thought) that all year there are other signs, other whispers, re-emerging, or constant – voices spoken with an undertone similar to summer’s with its unobtrusiveness, as when “.. Nature’s laugh is done”.

The poem almost belabors the conditions that describe summer, imitating my reluctance to put summer in the past tense in a “book/year.” Again, there is a metaphor for “Genesis-summer,” but this time it’s a soft introduction of summer’s inevitable, though perhaps unwanted disclosure, even betrayal, “The Revelations of the Book/Whose Genesis was June.” The revelation is autumn. With fall, “As Accent (that) fades to interval”, the word play introduces a notion of dreary things to come; and, intimates whispered gossip’s power, “With separating Friends”.

Finally, the lines, “Till what we speculate, has been/And thoughts we will not show” provide me with a treatise, of sorts, for my idea that certain poems transcend and embrace myself.

I’ve been alerted recently by reading Jed Deppman’s Trying To Think With Emily Dickinson, that the poet took thought/thinking as a subject in itself. Perhaps that is one reason my own thoughts, “More intimate with us become/Than Persons, that we know” must be my most definitive aspect.

Ponder A Poem A Day – Accept What Comes Your Way

Nobody left a pile of money on my doorstep today. No long lost love has called. I am simply in a mood to see my everyday conditions and circumstances, comings and goings, as more gleeful than usual. Emily Dickinson’s “In many and reportless places” reflects on this mysterious happiness that occurs like a visitation from some kind of benevolent angel.

In many and reportless places
We feel a Joy –
Reportless, also, but sincere as Nature
Or Deity –

It comes, without a consternation –
Dissolves – the same –
But leaves a sumptuous Destitution –
Without a Name –

Profane it by a search – we cannot –
It has no home –
Nor we who having once inhaled it –
Thereafter roam.

Coincidentally, perhaps, I am looking forward to a get together this evening with friends and neighbors to have fun, dance, and simply socialize and talk.  However, I think I would feel this way whether or not there were activities going on.

Today I woke aware of being among the, “We (who) feel a Joy – / Reportless, also, but sincere as Nature / Or Deity –. It is indeed “Nature” that has acted on me, without plan, without motive, without even consciousness. The delicious privacy of this kind of inner transaction provides for a sense of connectedness.

Unlike those “bad moods” that act to create an unexplainable wedge sometimes.  Yesterday was, by contrast, more like an infestation! For no apparent reason, I looked for an argument. I found myself trying to upstage someone in a conversation from which I had absolutely nothing to benefit. Today has a different feel altogether. I don’t particularly feel like discussing serious matters, I am enjoying a state of mind, “It comes, without a consternation -”.

Experience, like that of the speaker’s in the poem, tells me it will sooner or later, “Dissolve – the same -” as it arrived – inexplicably. The present tense used in the poem fascinates me in the poignancy it lends to the wistful, rueful nostalgia that takes over when it, “But leaves a sumptuous Destitution – / Without a Name -”.

It is in this tenor of life that I realize there is a considerable amount of love in everyday affairs. The poem adds another layer of experience by reminding me of the impossibility of guaranteeing myself the best attitude for every situation: “Profane it by a search – we cannot – / It has no home -”. If I wish to accept the lesson it offers, I notice that the poem deems it “profane,” the opposite of “Nature,” the antithesis of “Deity,” to try to pin down, or make happen, this graceful spirit.

On my own I would not see the comparison the poem seems to establish between not having to search-for-affection and “home.” The little irony of there being no origin, “no home” for this provisional mood, and its effect of making me feel “at home” in my own skin and surroundings is one of the charms of the poem.

I wonder how many people go through life without appreciating the love that pops up in unpredictable ways all the time. To become aware of the connectedness I feel in simple ways, as well as the important ones, is to have a richness of experience that cannot be bought. “Nor we who having once inhaled it – /Thereafter roam.”

Ponder A Poem A Day – Accept What Comes Your Way

How often I’ve demanded of myself to come to my senses and get down to a favored course of action.  Then, to dispense with daydreams, spending foolishly or some such stumbling block; if successful, then apply myself to my declared goals. Emily Dickinson’s “A Doubt if it be Us” scrutinizes these disparities between intention and action.

A Doubt if it be Us
Assists the staggering Mind
In an extremer Anguish
Until it footing find –

An Unreality is lent,
A merciful Mirage
That makes the living possible
While it suspends the lives.

To dramatize the phenom, the poem uses the circumstance of severe trauma, extreme anguish. In this case, then, I am willing to accept instinctive uncertainty if to “(Assist) the staggering Mind”, doubt provides a cushion “Until it footing find -”.

I can’t help focusing on both the poem’s implied advantages of doubt, and its description – as though it were like a knee jerk to doctor’s tap. Customarily, doubt is seen as a chosen lack of conviction or uncertainty toward something others do or believe. Is it not? Or, like suspicion, an attitude that is aimed at others. Rarely, is doubt aimed inward seen as sensible. The poem looks at doubt’s instinctive characteristics. And, that this instinct is one of self preservation.

Sometimes I am good at handling the relationships, finances and commitments in my life. At other times, my perceptions challenge what formerly seemed to come natural. Shock after great pain is when “An Unreality is lent, / A merciful Mirage” keeps me from comprehending for a time how much my reality has changed.

In smaller shocks to my system, outcomes are also unpredictable. For example, my tastes are more lavish than I can afford. If a financial opportunity comes up, will my susceptibility to beautiful clothes, jewelry, books and art sabotage my ability to handle relationships involved to turn transactions to my benefit.  Clearly, two distinct truths clamor for “That (which) makes the living possible”.

The outcome turns entirely on the Doubt Instinct. To personalize Dickinson’s “Us” of the first line into “me,” one or the other alternative (spending unwisely or organizing wisely) will hold sway. If my doubt instinct operates for my long-term benefit my tendency toward extravagance will be held at bay. Will it be strong and instinctive? Enough that I am careful not to invest money needed for everyday living? Doubt, “While it suspends the lives” , may last for seconds or days.

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