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31 October 2012

As far from pity, as complaint—

As far from pity, as complaint—
As cool to speech—as stone—
As numb to Revelation
As if my Trade were Bone—

As far from time—as History—
As near yourself—Today—
As Children, to the Rainbow's scarf—
Or Sunset's Yellow play

To eyelids in the Sepulchre—
How dumb the Dancer lies—
While Color's Revelations break—
And blaze—the Butterflies!
                                                F364 (1862)  496

Photo: Edward Byrne, 2012
While this poem reminds me of “Safe in their alabaster chambers,” I think it lacks that poem’s stately mystery. The dead sleep away the centuries under their rafters of satin and roofs of stone, waiting for the Resurrection, while outside “Worlds scoop their Arcs-- / And firmaments—row.” One wonders if the resurrection will happen at all.
In this poem, Dickinson simply contrasts the dead with the living. The dead are far from pity or complaint. They just lie there. They speak no more than a stone does, have no more interest in Revelation—the New Testament book that discusses the Resurrection—than a simple jumble of bones. They have no awareness of time or history, and are as likely to touch you as children are the sunset or a rainbow.
Perhaps the most poignant image is in the last stanza where the dancer in the grave is blind and dumb while all about in the living world “Color’s Revelations break” and butterflies “blaze.” Like Alabaster Chambers, the dead in this poem seem to be dead for good. And also like Alabaster, being alive seems much, much better than being dead.

30 October 2012

I know a place where Summer strives

I know a place where Summer strives
With such a practised Frost—
She—each year—leads her Daisies back—
Recording briefly—"Lost"—

But when the South Wind stirs the Pools
And struggles in the lanes—
Her Heart misgives Her, for Her Vow—
And she pours soft Refrains

Into the lap of Adamant—
And spices—and the Dew—
That stiffens quietly to Quartz—
Upon her Amber Shoe—
                                                                                              F363 (1862)  337

This graceful tribute to summer reminds me of “These are the days when Birds come back” where Indian summer, “A blue and gold mistake,” fools a few birds into thinking that summer has come back. ”
Gorgeous New England fall
            In this poem summer is like a queen who battles every year with the “practiced Frost” of autumn. Every year she loses and leads her daisies in retreat, recording them as “lost.”  But then a warm southern wind comes back and she has second thoughts. She "pours" her song into the "lap" of hard, frosty earth. This may be her favorite troubador, the robin, accompanied by the frogs and bees and breezes. She sets the fragrant flowers growing and helps them grow with morning dew.
         Alas, in a few months the dew will once again freeze, stiffening "quietly to Quartz" upon the now yellowing "Amber Shoe" of summer.

29 October 2012

It's thoughts—and just One Heart—

It's thoughts—and just One Heart—
And Old Sunshine—about—
Make frugal—Ones—Content—
And two or three—for Company—
Upon a Holiday—
Crowded—as Sacrament—

Books—when the Unit—
Spare the Tenant—long eno'—
A Picture—if it Care—
Itself—a Gallery too rare—
For needing more—

Flowers—to keep the Eyes—from going awkward—
When it snows—
A Bird—if they—prefer—
Though winter fire—sing clear as Plover—
To our—ear—

A Landscape—not so great
To suffocate the eye—
A Hill—perhaps—
Perhaps—the profile of a Mill
Turned by the Wind—
Tho' such—are luxuries—

It's thoughts—and just two Heart—
And Heaven—about—
At least—a Counterfeit—
We would not have Correct—
And Immortality—can be almost—
Not quite—Content—
                                                            F362 (1862)  495

It doesn’t take much to make a solitary woman—or at least the solitary speaker of the poem [and one reads the poet herself into this]—“Content.” She, if “frugal,” can get by quite well with just a few simple things:
-        first, her thoughts, for she must be a thinking sort of woman
-        “Old Sunshine” which is the real blessed light of day, not the name of some whiskey (such as Old Forester, Old Crow, Old Grand-Dad, Old Heaven Hill, Old Dublin, etc.)
-        a couple of friends for the holidays
-        books! For whenever the home can spare the homemaker
-        a picture of someone—which more than substitutes for an art gallery
-        flowers, to give the eye something to look at in case it’s covered with snow outside
-        a singing bird or crackling fire to please the ear
The poet's austere bedroom. Her tiny writing desk
with chair is near the window
-        a landscape painting—as long as it isn’t too grand.
However, only the thoughts and sunshine are really necessary for the “One Heart” to be content. All the rest are “luxuries.”
            The last stanza has a surprise ending. It begins predictably enough: while a single heart can be “content” with just thoughts and sunshine, two hearts—lovers—need only themselves and their thoughts to experience heaven—or “At least—a Counterfeit.” It wouldn’t really be heaven. Quite properly, neither she nor her lover would want the “Correct” heaven reserved for God, angels, and saints. We get to the penultimate line and expect to find that Immortality with ones lover can be almost … perfect? Wonderful? But no. The poem ends by saying that they would be “Not quite—Content.”
            It’s a teasing ending. The reader has to jump in here to supply reasons why contentment would be lacking. I would say that there will always be some tension, some imbalance between two people; others might say that just as the heaven of love is counterfeit, so happiness would be counterfeit as well. The two hearts would always be in a state of almost heaven, almost contentment. And perhaps Dickinson is saying that that is the very best place to be. After all, contentment is a static condition. Who would want it forever? Much better to have that almost contentment where the hearts are engaged, even struggling at times; and where the energies and feelings flow and mingle in a never-ending river.

28 October 2012

Like Flowers, that heard the news of Dews,

Like Flowers, that heard the news of Dews,
But never deemed the dripping prize
Awaited their—low Brows—
Or Bees—that thought the Summer's name
Some rumor of Delirium,
No Summer—could—for Them—

Or Arctic Creatures, dimly stirred—
By Tropic Hint—some Travelled Bird
Imported to the Wood—

Or Wind's bright signal to the Ear—
Making that homely, and severe,
Contented, known, before—

The Heaven—unexpected come,
To Lives that thought the Worshipping
A too presumptuous Psalm –
                                                                                          F361 (1862)  513

Some folks just don’t believe they are worthy of honors, love, or even heaven. They are like those flowers that have heard, but dismissed as not for them, talk of dew—the delicious water that wonderfully condenses overnight, dripping down to the soil as the sun heats the morning. They are like the bees that never believe in summer. That “delirium” of nectar and warm sun and welcoming flowers? Not for them. Must be for some other bees.
       Those seemingly unworthy folks are also like creatures way up in the Arctic who are “dimly stirred” by what they heard from some travelling bird about the rich and beautiful forests of the temperate latitudes. Such a paradise is not for me, they sigh. I belong in the frigid and wind-swept northern climes.
       What would these humble folks do, should Heaven “unexpected come” to them? That’s the “Wind’s bright signal to the Ear”: Heaven is coming—to you! What a powerful joy—perhaps overwhelming. The person to whom the wind might signal the approach of heaven had been so modest and humble that even the idea of worship seemed too presumptuous, a psalm that might be rejected.
       The poem is a tribute to those unexpected moments of grace that come unbidden and unexpected to even the least of us (or perhaps particularly to the least of us). Dickinson, who didn’t stand up in church or community to claim her Christian salvation, who refrained from church going—did she harbor the idea that worship was presumptuous? It seems consistent with other poems she had written to date. At times she looks at heaven as a teasing and elusive bee, the apple just out of reach, or the circus tent that packs up and leaves overnight. In poems such as “As Watchers hang upon the East,” she thinks of heaven as that desired place where beggars can “revel at a feast.” In “I can’t tell you—but you feel it,” she senses heaven but feels it best to be “Modest,” and suggests that she and the reader “walk among it / With our faces veiled / As they say polite Archangels / Do in meeting God!”
                  Such modesty is the subject of this poem. Know hope!