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09 February 2012

In Ebon Box, when years have flown


In Ebon Box, when years have flown
To reverently peer –
Wiping away the velvet dust
Summers have sprinkled there!

To hold a letter to the light –
Grown Tawny now, with time –
To con the faded syllables
That quickened us like Wine!

Perhaps a Flower's shrivelled cheek
Among its stores to find –
Plucked far away, some morning –
By gallant – mouldering hand!

A curl, perhaps, from foreheads
Our constancy forgot –
Perhaps, an antique trinket –
In vanished fashions set!

And then to lay them quiet back –
And go about its care –
As if the little Ebon Box
Were none of our affair!
                                                - F180 (1860)  169

In this quiet meditation on memory and time, the poet opens a dusty ebony box and lovingly handles the mementos inside: old love letters, a flower from a potential lover, a curl cut from the locks of an old friend, and a bit of old costume jewelry from another friend or a relative. Many of us have such boxes (although mine is cardboard). I wouldn’t be surprised if the contents of women’s memory boxes don’t share some of the treasures of the poet’s. In fact, Dickinson writes as if of an iconic box with the sort of keepsakes that anyone might keep (although I can’t speak for men…). Consequently there is just an unspecified flower, a nameless letter and curl, and a generic trinket. Modern poetry tends to prefer listing specifics.
Keepsake Box
            But Dickinson goes for the pivot and the twist rather than the lingering over tangible objects that come alive through description. Here it is when the momentos are being replaced in the box and life goes on, seemingly unchanged. Yet the memories sparked as the poet “reverently” gazed at her “stores” are an opportunity to think back over life and all the stories that we tell ourselves. The letter that once “quickened us like Wine” may now seem young and naïve. We think about how we have lost naiveté but perhaps gained perspective. We wonder what might have happened had the dead lover lived – and contrast that to how our lives have gone in his absence. And so although the memory box may seem to be no longer “our affair” it in fact represents the sum of our life’s affairs.
            Time permeates the poem. The first line notes the years that “have flown.” Enough dust has settled on the box that it must be wiped away. Old letters are “Tawny” with age, their letters “faded.” There’s a nice contrast there to the ephemeral and quickening “Wine” that does not bear age well.
            The flower is “shriveled” and, alas, the “gallant” hand that picked it is dead and “mouldering” in the grave. The old friend whose curl has been saved is part of the past, as are the “vanished fashions” represented by the trinket. And ebony, of course, is among the hardest and most durably of woods. This little box will outlast the owner. Some future hand will linger over its contents and wonder about the stories behind each object.
            

1 comment:

  1. Here is the poem, as it appears in the one and only holograph (that we know about) from 1860:

    In Ebon Box, when years have flown
    To reverently peer -
    Wiping away the velvet dust
    Summers have sprinkled there!

    To hold a letter to the light -
    Grown Tawny - now - with time -
    To Con the faded syllables
    That quickened us like Wine!

    Perhaps a Flower's shrivelled Cheek
    Among it's stores to find -
    Plucked far away, some morning -
    By gallant - mouldering hand!

    A Curl, perhaps, from foreheads
    Our Constancy forgot -
    Perhaps, an Antique trinket -
    In vanished fashions set!

    And then to lay them quiet back -
    And go about it's Care -
    As if the little Ebon Box
    Were none of our affair!

    *
    I have "corrected" Franklin's transcription of the poem with the six initially-capitalized words that he did not capture in his Variorum Edition of 1998: Con, Cheek, Curl, Constancy, Antique, and Care. This is the sixth poem in Dickinson's so-called eighth "fascicle."

    *
    A side note on the word "fascicle." I think Dickinson would have found this term amusing, given its clinical antiqueness even by 19th century standards. I imagine her scoffing at how this word is being applied to the pages that she sewed together with twine. Simultaneously, I think she would have enjoyed the collective botanical and anatomical oddities that the word traffics in (bundles, sewing, sutures, muscles, tendons, vesicles etc.).

    *
    While everything said in the above commentary about this poem seems plausible and reasonable, my reading of it is quite different. I think readers do Dickinson a disservice by too easily nominating her (the writer herself) as the speaker or character in a story told by the poem -- in this case, the opening and closing of a memory box. First, Dickinson goes entirely out of her way to avoid denominating her verbs, using infinitives throughout except in three places: "quickened us," "our constancy," and "our affair." In the first usage, "quickened us," she includes herself among the word entities --and certainly the people those syllables associated with -- who are long gone; "our constancy forgot" operates in both past and present, and "our affair" transgresses temporal associations. The word "now" (delimited by dashes) is also telling, since it implies a quickened movement from the past. Altogether, I feel like the poem invites us to consider that we are all the living and all of the dead opening and closing dark boxes that have included others and will include us.

    *
    What I find myself most drawn to in this poem are what it suggests about Dickinson's own idiosyncratic relationship with language. Look at lines 7 and 8: "To Con the faded syllables / That quickened us like Wine." Here I feel like Dickinson is revealing the very special relationships that she has with words as living entities [italics], as offspring who do her bidding, in her time, as creatures who owe their existence to her -- their loyalties, substances, and meanings. For outsiders to inject themselves into this intimacy is "a con," a travesty of slipping a lie to words that momentarily flail about like tricked puppets, only to learn that their master and the world she lived in have perished. Dickinson here is the Magus, the Maestra of events that will not survive in any memory box.

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