Search This Blog

25 September 2012

How noteless Men, and Pleiads, stand

How noteless Men, and Pleiads, stand,
Until a sudden sky
Reveals the fact that One is rapt
Forever from the eye –

Members of the Invisible,
Existing, while we stare,
In Leagueless Opportunity,
O'ertakenless, as the Air–

Why didn't we detain Them?
The Heavens with a smile,
Sweep by our disappointed Heads
Without a syllable –
                                                                                          F342 (1862)  282

Stars sweeping around the night sky
         Dickinson thought often about the body and the soul, about what happens to each after death – if anything. What if a “sudden sky,” however, were to reveal the soul being “rapt” up into heaven? This poem considers such a scenario.
    It begins with both “Men” and “Pleiads” being “noteless” – or clueless about what happens after death (or clueless about the big questions in general). The Pleiads are included, perhaps, because one of the Seven Sisters, Merope, went missing. Actually, this one star is there but rarely visible to the naked eye. But perhaps “a sudden sky” would have a special clarity that allows her to be seen. It might show that she – and the missing dead –  are “rapt”: taken up into heaven and transformed.
    In such a moment of insight and clarity we suddenly realize that in some way all of our dead are “Existing, while we stare” blindly at the sky. It’s one of those camping-out thoughts except that Dickinson says so much more in this poem. The dead, now “Members of the Invisible,” are so far out of our reach that they are overtakenless, just as the air cannot be overtaken. They are no longer limited by the world and by human bodies, but in a state of “Leagueless Opportunity.”
    “Why didn’t we detain Them,” the poet asks. We could learn so much from them. We might be able to keep them around in some form or another. We might just be able to keep them in sight. But the “Heavens” won’t tell. They give a smile and just keep revolving without so much as a “syllable.” It’s a humbling and frustrating thought, but I like the idea of the heavens sweeping by with all the host of “the Invisible” in train, far far from any earthly influence.

24 September 2012

'Tis so appalling—it exhilarates—

'Tis so appalling—it exhilarates—
So over Horror, it half captivates—
The Soul stares after it, secure—
To know the worst, leaves no dread more—

To scan a Ghost, is faint—
But grappling, conquers it—
How easy, Torment, now—
Suspense kept sawing so—

The Truth, is Bald, and Cold—
But that will hold—
If any are not sure—
We show them—prayer—
But we, who know,
Stop hoping, now—

Looking at Death, is Dying—
Just let go the Breath—
And not the pillow at your cheek
So slumbereth—

Others, can wrestle—
Yours, is done—
And so of Woe, bleak dreaded—come,
It sets the Fright at liberty—
And Terror's free—
Gay, Ghastly, Holiday!
                                                                                          F341 (1862)  281

In what may well be a follow up to her previous poem, “I felt a Funeral, in my Brain,” Dickinson ascends from the “worst” where she had hurtled to the bottom of some abyss to “finish knowing,” into a position of existential strength. Nietzsche famously wrote, “What does not kill me, makes me stronger” (Twilight of the Idols, 1888), and Dickinson here makes something of that argument.
            But she does so with a rather Gothic set of paradoxes. What she experienced was “so appalling—it exhilarates,” so horrifying it was captivating. This is the Gothic attraction of the grotesque that awes as it terrifies. Having plunged to the end of awareness, the soul is more “secure.” It has faced the worst and now any Torment is easily borne.
            It is interesting to me that while “Funeral” was suffused with hearing (“Being” was reduced to being nothing but “an Ear), this poem is full of seeing. The soul “stares,” a Ghost is scanned, the wavering folks are shown prayer, and dying can mean nothing more than “Looking at Death.”
            Long gone are poems such as “’Tis Anguish grander than Delight” where the “Resurrection Pain” is a thrilling moment when creatures find their destined mates and find their way to heaven together. Long gone the saints who “Ascend in ceaseless Carol” after a life of pain and anguish (“To Learn the Transport by the Pain”). Instead, this poem asserts that any comfort or gain to be had from pain is knowledge of the “Bald, and Cold” truth. The idea of heaven and a loving Maker is for the faint of heart. “We show them,” she writes dismissively, “prayer.”
            The truth, cold and harsh as it may be, at least holds fast. Immediately after “Truth,” the poet turns to Death as if the truth of life is death. In fact, many of Dickinson’s poetry examines what it means to live life in the face of death. In “That after Horror—that ‘twas us,” she glimpses death and it is “With a metallic grin” that he “drills his welcome in.”  That is the vision she has in a near-death experience.
Logger sawing an 800-year-old red cedar (National Geographic/Getty Images)
            Any consolation the poem offers is in the fourth stanza where Dickinson claims that facing death (rather than praying or wrestling with reality) brings dying. By this I believe she means being dead to the world of hope and false optimism. Once death is faced, one can breathe again, sleep as soundly as the inanimate pillow. Then, although others will still struggle, “Yours, is done.” The last few lines take some pondering. I read them as saying that if “bleak dreaded” Woe comes around again it sets Fright and Terror loose. They go on a “Gay, Ghastly, Holiday” (those Gothic paradoxes again), but I interpret this as a big improvement over being locked inside the sufferer and causing the paralysis of “Funeral” where the aware self was helpless to prevent a complete breakdown. It reminds me of Thich Nhat Hanh’s advice about taking your anger or sorrow, setting it free and acknowledging it. “Yes, you’re bleak and dreadful,” I hear Dickinson saying. “But I’ve been through all that before and stood up to the worst that you can do. Go somewhere else and take your fun where you can find it.”
            In one of the finest lines in the poem, Dickinson notes that Torment is easy now—“Suspense kept sawing so.” The line captures the essence of miserable anxiety. The emotions seesaw as the anxiety and dread saw across the soul as if it were a tree helpless to defend itself.

22 September 2012

I felt a Funeral, in my Brain,

I felt a Funeral, in my Brain,
And Mourners to and fro
Kept treading—treading—till it seemed
That Sense was breaking through —

And when they all were seated,
A Service, like a Drum —
Kept beating—beating—till I thought
My Mind was going numb —

And then I heard them lift a Box
And creak across my Soul
With those same Boots of Lead, again,
Then Space—began to toll,

As all the Heavens were a Bell,
And Being, but an Ear,
And I, and Silence, some strange Race
Wrecked, solitary, here —

And then a Plank in Reason, broke,
And I dropped down, and down—
And hit a World, at every plunge,
And Finished knowing—then—
                                                                                          F340 (1862)  280

This is one of Dickinson’s most famous poems, typically (and soundly, I believe) interpreted as dissecting a mental breakdown.
        The poet’s physical body is treated metaphorically as funeral attendees and her aware self as the consciousness trapped helplessly within the funeral event. The consciousness feels under assault by “Boots of Lead” and a service that “like a Drum— / Kept beating—beating” until she felt her mind numbing. Interestingly, here as in “If your Nerve, deny you” Dickinson locates herself as somewhere other than her mind or her soul, for she not only feels her mind “going numb,” but hears a heavy coffin creaking “across my Soul.”
        I have never had a migraine, but those who have or who work with migraine sufferers claim the poem is a very good description of the pulsing, skull-filling pain that makes every noise painful if not excruciating. Indeed, some of the major imagery in the poem involves sound: there is the funeral service that beats and beats like a drum, the creaking of the heavy coffin carried across her soul, and the tolling of space “As [if] all the Heavens were a Bell.” In fact, the poet’s existence is reduced to being nothing but an “Ear.”
          Whether describing a migraine or a breakdown (or perhaps both), though, the poet’s aware self (that which encompasses and observes both mind and soul) is experiencing something very much like torture. The poem is one long single sentence connected with thirteen “and”s and additional implied ones as in “treading—treading” and “beating—beating.” The slow pace heightens the pain. It is very hard to read the poem in anything other than the dragging pace of a funeral.
 When Dickinson writes that the mourners kept treading through her brain in the leaden boots until “Sense was breaking through” she says two things: the actual physical sensations described have broken through into the brain itself as if it were a floor beneath the feet, and that her conscious senses were being broken—falling through the floor of the brain. This latter image sets up the last stanza when a “Plank in Reason” breaks and her aware self drops “down, and down” until ultimately it loses all knowledge and awareness.
        The fourth stanza is quite strange. The painful and pulsing noises become so overpowering that the poet finds herself in an altered state: “All the Heavens” become a “Bell” ringing with sound, while “Being” is reduced to being nothing but an ear. Her aware self, the “I,” is “Wrecked” there. It’s a frightening and utterly lonely image. There is no bedroom or bed, no loved ones, no window—nothing to grasp in any way that might help the sufferer hold on to reality.
        She does have a companion, however: “Silence.” This companion, wrecked and “solitary” with the poet’s aware self, is completely unexpected after all the merciless and excruciating pain. It makes sense as a “yoked opposite” —a term one Dickinson scholar has used to describe many of Dickinson’s images and phrases. When Being has been reduced to nothing but an ear and the heavens to a bell, the “strange Race” of Silence is necessarily a (silent) companion. It is as necessary as shadow to sun, as present as the existence of pain to the experience of joy.  **
        But the aware self cannot maintain this terrible quietus for long. In one of her strongest images, Dickinson has a “Plank in Reason” breaking. This image not only recalls the mourners treading back and forth across the floor, but suggests that there is a floor to our sanity, something that holds our sense of self and sanity together. But this has broken and so the poet’s self drops “down, and down” to unknowable places—a “World, at every plunge.” From the funereal pace of the previous four stanzas, Dickinson catapults us here to almost the speed of light. The word “plunge” not only denotes a forceful speed, but an almost willful act as that of a diver leaping from a cliff to plummet into a pool below. But in this case the self is out of control, careening downward from world to world as if there are different levels of subconscious realities that bear little resemblance to the everyday world we are familiar with.
        The final line, when “knowing” is finished, comes as an almost welcome and relief. Rest is finally achieved, both physical and mental. Dickinson is a poet who famously charts her conscious awareness far beyond the grave, and s this finishing of knowing is strikingly final.

** Addition: I was just rereading Elizabeth Barrett Browning's poem "A Vision of Poets" where a poet has been lead through trials to see a heavenly apparition of the great and long-dead poets. He is then shown an angel making a divine music that so rouses the spirits of the poet-listeners that "when it ceased, the blood which fell [from gaps where the poets' hearts once were], / Again, alone grew audible, / Tolling the silence as a bell."
        I'd like to re-write my whole commentary based on the insights from this poem, but instead will be content with saying that Dickinson's great Silence is calling on, among other things, Browning's ecstatic image of the poets' heart blood tolling like a bell.

20 September 2012

I like a look of Agony

I like a look of Agony,
Because I know it's true --
Men do not sham Convulsion,
Nor simulate, a Throe --

The eyes glaze once -- and that is Death --
Impossible to feign
The Beads upon the Forehead
By homely Anguish strung.
                                                                  F339 (1862)  241

It’s easy to read this poem and feel sort of aghast. Really, Emily? You like the agony because there is more truth in it than in the insincere smiles of the neighbors passing by on the street? And isn’t it a bit, um, harsh or at least dismissive to call the sweat of death agony “Beads upon the Forehead” that are strung by “homely Anguish”?
The dying convulsions and throes as the body gives up the battle (we’re not talking about a quiet passing in one’s sleep here) are a badge of authenticity. And then the capper—one cannot “feign” the glaze of death. Maybe you could fake a lot of other stuff, but not that.
Painter Joanna Boyce just after death, by
Rossetti, 1861
                  Yet I think back on some of Dickinson’s earlier poems about death. Yes, I got impatient with her always wanting to be there when people died so she could help their transition from one energy phase to the next, but it was evident that she truly felt that the journey after death was the greatest, grandest, most important journey ever.
                  In “A throe upon the features,” Dickinson says that after the throe there is “An ecstasy of parting.” It is as if a butterfly has fought its way out of a cocoon. It is exhausting and perhaps painful, but then the beautiful thing is free and airborn. Likewise, we all suffered in birth. The path from womb to tomb isn’t an easy one, yet it is essential.
                  And so in this poem I think that Dickinson is making the point that great pain at death can bare the soul to an honesty not easily attained in the day-to-day world. It is this level of honesty that is most needed in the rebirth from mortal to immortal life. Additionally, I think that Dickinson is saying that this honesty and mortal death is somehow uplifting and beneficial to the observer. Yes, Virginia, there is a bitter truth—perhaps a triumphant truth, but certainly the plain and unavoidable reality of death. The deaths that come complete with convulsions and agony simply make the point more clearly.
                  Still doubtful? Think about Mel Gibson’s famous and acclaimed movie about the death of Jesus, The Passion of Christ. The movie was also accused of being a sadistic wallowing in the agonies of death. Perhaps Gibson was channeling a bit of Dickinson. I imagine that Dickinson had an image of crucifixion in her mind, too, as she wrote this poem.