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12 June 2024

I could bring You Jewels—had I a mind to—

I could bring You Jewels—had I a mind to—
But You have enough—of those—
I could bring You Odors from St. Domingo—
Colors—from Vera Cruz—

Berries of the Bahamas—have I—
But this little Blaze
Flickering to itself—in the Meadow—
Suits Me—more than those—

Never a Fellow matched this Topaz—
And his Emerald Swing—
Dower itself—for Bobadilo—
Better—Could I bring?


   -F726, J696, Fascicle 35, 1863


The riddle of this poem goes, “What is a blaze flickering to itself in a meadow, or a topaz on an emerald swing?” David Preest helpfully provides us with the answer: “This poem was probably sent to Emily's sister-in-law Sue and was accompanied by a meadow flower known as a ‘jewelweed.”


compare this jewelweed with a topaz



I’d love to see a book published with all of the poems that Emily Dickinson sent to her friends that were accompanied by flowers. There are many of them. This one, like the flower it describes, is a gem.

The poem’s diction is flowery and full of exotic words; Domingo, Vera Cruz, Bahamas, Topaz and Bobadilo. 

The Dickinson Lexicon tells me Bobadilo is “Francisco de Bobadilla (d. 1502); Spanish governor of Santo Domingo who ordered the arrest of Christopher Columbus and sent him back to Spain in chains; [fig.] autocrat; wealthy man; powerful leader.” 

The phrase that stands out to me in this poem is "this little Blaze/ Flickering to itself." This could be a description of Sue, by all accounts a strong-minded woman, who drew Emily to her like a moth to a flame. 

    Susan Huntington Gilbert Dickinson

The poet tells the recipient she could give her expensive exotic gifts, if she had a “mind” to. (How? Well, Dickinson has a great mind, she’d figure it out!) But none of these rare things would match what she has in her own back yard of Amherst. Here I think of one of my favorite Dickinson poems, F597, which begins "'Tis little I — could care for Pearls —/ Who own the Ample sea —" Dickinson found her wealth in the natural world, and moreover, she loved to share the wealth with friends and loved ones, of which we can now include ourselves. 

11 June 2024

Their Height in Heaven comforts not—


Their Height in Heaven comforts not—
Their Glory—nought to me—
’Twas best imperfect—as it was—
I’m finite—I can’t see—

The House of Supposition—
The Glimmering Frontier that skirts the Acres of Perhaps—
To Me—shows insecure—

The Wealth I had—contented me—
If ’twas a meaner size—
Then I had counted it until
It pleased my narrow Eyes—

Better than larger values—
That show however true—
This timid life of Evidence
Keeps pleading—”I don’t know.”


     -F725, J696, Fascicle 35, 1863


When trying to make sense of Dickinson’s poems it is helpful to read them in order as she preserved them. This poem is handwritten in the fascicle directly after one in which these lines appear, “How high — Unto the Saints' slow diligence  — The Sky —”

This poem seems to be continuing this thought. The “Their” and “They” in the first stanza appear to be referring to these saints. In the previous poem it appears, at first, that Dickinson is encouraging perseverance toward "The Sky,” toward the "Goal." But in this one she makes it clear that she was happier with her “meaner” lot on earth. In other words the previous poem is informed and changed by reading this one, and vice versa.

Dickinson is not comforted by the saints on high. Their glory is nothing to her. Why? Because she’s finite. She can’t see the infinite “Eternity.”

Often when reading Dickinson’s poems I am reminded of William Blake. When I read “I’m finite,” I think of Blake’s lines, “If the doors of perception were cleansed every thing would appear to man as it is, Infinite. For man has closed himself up, till he sees all things thro' narrow chinks of his cavern.” But whereas Blake is pointing toward the necessity of cleansing the doors of perception, Dickinson, the realist, is admitting she is finite. (For a terrific comparison of Dickinson and Blake’s work see Alan Blackstock’s article, “Dickinson, Blake and the Hymnbooks of Hell.”)

The “House of Supposition” in the second stanza also strikes me as Blakean. (I think of Blake’s “The road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom.”) This stanza is a gem:

The House of Supposition—
The Glimmering Frontier that skirts the Acres of Perhaps—
To Me—shows insecure—


(You expect a line break after "Frontier," but there isn't one in the original MS.) Here you have the house made up of suppositions. Around this house you have acres of perhaps. And beyond all this guessing you have the "glimmering frontier" of Heaven. All of the talk of the Glory of Heaven is just supposition. We can’t say for sure with our finite eyes what lies beyond.

The word “frontier” is interesting here. It has a distinctly American flavor, and conflates the Western frontier  with the idea of heaven, putting one in mind of the problematic "manifest destiny."

Also interesting is the word “insecure.” Though it is the house of supposition that is insecure, I think the way Dickinson words this implies that the supposed glory of heaven is a product of insecurity. It "shows insecure." If you are insecure about what you have here and now, you may delude yourself with thoughts of the hereafter. This sets up the next stanza:

The Wealth I had—contented me—
If ’twas a meaner size—
Then I had counted it until
It pleased my narrow Eyes—


The speaker is contended by the meaner wealth she "had." The past tense of the verb "have" is worth noting here. The speaker no longer has the thing that contented her. This may be a clue that Dickinson is speaking of lost love. This poem fits in with the many previous poems pointing to the loss of a lover to the lover's faith, which some suspect to be the Reverend Charles Wadsworth. (See for example F706 where this is made explicit, “For You – served Heaven – You know, Or sought to –/ I could not –/ Because You saturated Sight –/And I had no more Eyes/ For sordid excellence/ As Paradise”) So Wadsworth may well be the “They” referred to in the beginning of this poem. (Sue Dickinson is another possibility.) One way to read this poem is: "I lost you to heaven, but I have no comfort of ever seeing you there, since I don't know if it exists. Meanwhile I have lost you, the smaller wealth that pleased my “narrow eyes."

Better than larger values—
That show however true—
This timid life of Evidence
Keeps pleading—”I don’t know.”


In the final stanza of the poem we are told that the larger values (heaven, Eternity, etc) may be true, but we can’t know for sure. The timid evidence we have pleads “I don’t know.” This implies that, conversely, the smaller, meaner value is something that, though it may now be gone, at least there was evidence for. It was, at least, known.

Which all goes to say, "Gather ye rosebuds while ye may."

   -/)dam Wade l)eGraff




While looking for images for "glimmering frontier" I found this one, 
from a video game called Shimmering Frontier.
Look at those lovely Acres of Perhaps! 

08 June 2024

Each Life converges to some Centre—



Each Life converges to some Centre—
Expressed — or still —
Exists in every Human Nature
A Goal —

Embodied (Admitted) scarcely to itself — it may be —
Too fair
For Credibility's presumption (temerity)
To mar (dare)—

Adored (Beheld) with caution — as a Brittle Heaven —
To reach
Were hopeless, as the Rainbow's Raiment
To touch —

Yet persevered toward — surer (stricter) — for the Distance —
How high —
Unto the Saints' slow diligence (industry) — The Sky —

Ungained — it may be — in a Life's low Venture —
But then —
Eternity enable the endeavoring
Again.

- F724, J680, Fascicle 35, 1863

*Alternate words for this poem I have added in parentheses.


When your goal is to get through 1800 Emily Dickinson poems, you don't want to spend too much time on just one. And yet almost all of Dickinson’s poems deserve lingering over. Poems such as this one need time to germinate and take root.

It’s a similar problem I had when I was reading Proust. There are a few thousand very dense pages of Proust's masterpiece "Remembrance of Things Past," and because of its length, we have tendency to want to push forward to try to get to the end. But this approach is antithetical to Proust. His sentences force you to slow down if you want to really understand them. Sometimes I read a Proustian sentence 5 or 6 times and I still haven’t come close to reaching the bottom of it. But each time I re-read it I go leagues deeper than the last time. In fact that’s WHY I read Proust, and it's part of the reason why I read Dickinson too. (Clarice Lispector comes to mind as well.) They demand slow reading. They are, in this sense, the best teachers for how to live life, which, when done well, demands slowing down considerably. It seems to me that most people are speed reading through life and yet the slower you go, the more the world comes to fruition, and the more "still" it is.

The task of getting a cogent reading of this poem across does seem as impossible as touching the raiment of a rainbow. This poem does, in that sense, mirror its own message. The rainbow of this poem glimmers, but when you try to touch it, the brittle heaven within breaks into a thousand pieces.

First of all, I'm not even sure whether this is meant to be a poem encouraging patience and diligence to reach the sky, or one exposing the futility of such a thing. If you read the 723 poems preceding this one you might come down on team Futility. Dickinson often seems to be pointing toward the idea of some future heaven as sham. Is the “sky” in this poem, and the Eternity we are given to reach it, real or illusion?

Regardless of which team you side with, I find this poem inspiring in the same way that I find Don Quixote inspiring. Quixote’s quest is, perhaps, idiotic. Why would you fight with windmills? But the romance, the hope, the chivalry, the imagination, and all that accompanies Quixote’s quest is the stuff that makes life so beautiful. So who's the idiot, the mocker or the mocked?

Each life converges to one center. Dickinson is tricky. Off the bat we have a statement that subverts itself. First of all, where is this center? Is it inside of us? Is it in front of us? If the center is the goal of life, as the 4th line of the first stanza leads us to believe, then is it a target we are aiming for? You might say this first line, itself, has more than one center.

The center already exists, inside of us, a kind of a primal core, but it is also something toward which we are converging. We are converging toward the center of ourselves, toward the center of life, is one way you might read this. This can either be Expressed (as it is in this poem) or Still. We can will the expression of this center, via some action, or we can just be "still," and be. The center is both there in stillness, and it is there as the end result of action. It's a rich paradox.

I once had a dream when I was a boy in which I saw a headless statue. At the base of the statue were the words “Thou wilt be what thou wilt be.” In the dream I knew these words were meant to be words to live by, but upon waking I wondered: do these words mean that I will be what I will myself to be? Or do they mean that I will be what I will be, no matter what? The words seemed to be saying the same paradoxical thing as the first line of this poem. They are both speaking of where we've come from and where we're going as the same place, one which may be either expressed or still.

I don’t want to miss any of the irony in Dickinson's poem about the impossibility of touching the rainbow’s raiment, but her poem is ultimately inspiring to me. It speaks of a great difficulty, an impossible goal, but it inspires me to persevere, like the saints, with a strict and slow industry and diligence. Dickinson may have been highly suspicious of Heaven, but she did seem to admire and emulate the saints. (See F665)

On the other side of the coin, there is that powerful word “still” (which Dickinson has used previously and to great effect in Fascicle 35). "Still" is a contranym which can mean, simultaneously, both stopping and continuing. If you couple this with the idea of the Eternity we find at the end of the poem, then we are given respite from that strict imperative in eternal stillness.

The poem encourages you to be strict and sure in your pursuit of your goal, to give it all you’ve got, but it also tells you not to worry. The goal may be impossible, but the last stanza of the poem seems to say, don’t stress about it too much. If you don’t achieve it in this life time, you still have all of eternity.

This poem encourages you to try as hard as possible to reach the center, and, conversely, it tells you to relax. The combination of these two opposites is what I think of as poise. It's what all athletes are trying to achieve. It is mastery. 

This poem makes me want to step up my efforts, but also takes away my anxiety about it at the same time. 

Okay, let's go through the poem and try to parse the wily syntax.

Dickinson's poems, and most especially her philosophical ones, can be quite difficult to understand on a purely logical level. They are easier to read if you sort of cross your eyes. It's like looking at one of those stereogram images. If you look at it just right, a 3D image starts to pop out from the two dimensional page. 

Each Life converges to some Centre—
Expressed — or still —
Exists in every Human Nature
A Goal —


The first line could stand alone: "Each Life converges to some Centre"  This center isn’t just the innermost place, but is also “expressed” as a goal. It might be expressed, or it might be still, but regardless, “every Human Nature” has one. This is worth remarking on, because after the last few fascicles, which seemed hyper-focused on a loss of an epic love unique to Dickinson's life, this fascicle is much more geared toward the reader, toward us. Our lives, all of our lives, converge in some center. Whether or not it has expressed itself in us, there is, naturally, from our very center, a goal. 

Embodied (Admitted) scarcely to itself — it may be —
Too fair
For Credibility's presumption (temerity)
To mar — (dare)


We scarcely admit it, let alone embody it. It may be too beautiful for our belief (or, conversely, our doubt) to mar. Our own belief, in God, or anything really, can only presume. This center, this goal, is too beautiful for any of our presumptions to actually mar, or hurt, it. What a thought that is. This Center goes deeper and is more beautiful than our mental conception, than our belief about it.

Here Dickinson seems to be both discrediting credibility, and transcending it at the same time.

This Centre is too fair (beautiful) for credibility (belief).

The alternative words here, “temerity to dare,” are also worth some contemplation. This center goal is also beyond the boldness of our presumed beliefs to dare. 

Adored (Beheld) with caution — as a Brittle Heaven —
To reach
Were hopeless, as the Rainbow's Raiment
To touch —


This center/goal/heaven we adore and behold cautiously because it is brittle. It breaks easily. But, alas, we can no more reach it than we could touch a rainbow.

Yet persevered toward — surer (stricter) — for the Distance —
How high —
Unto the Saints' slow diligence (industry) — The Sky —


That “Yet” is heavy here. The rainbow’s raiment is impossible to touch, but when we persevere, how high the sky! The sky is actually higher because of our perseverance. Because the sky is higher, the rainbow is even harder to touch. But hey, the sky is still higher. (Emily's rhetoric makes my head spin.) That “Yet” says we must persevere and keep going, even more strictly, and with even more assurance, because of how great the distance is. (Here’s where I start finding myself feeling inspired to attempt the impossible.)

Ungained — it may be — in a Life's low Venture —
But then —
Eternity enable the endeavoring
Again.


Life’s low Venture (risks) may not lead to any gain. Note that “may” there. Dickinson has told us this Centre is impossible to touch, but the jury is out whether or not it is impossible to gain. No problem says the final lines, there will be infinite chances to try again. That's reassuring.

    -/)dam Wade l)eGraff








01 June 2024

Have any like Myself


Have any like Myself
Investigating March,
New Houses on the Hill descried—
And possibly a Church—

That were not, We are sure—
As lately as the Snow—
And are Today—if We exist—
Though how may this be so?

Have any like Myself
Conjectured Who may be
The Occupants of the Adobes—
So easy to the Sky—

'Twould seem that God should be
The nearest Neighbor to—
And Heaven—a convenient Grace
For Show, or Company—

Have any like Myself
Preserved the Charm secure
By shunning carefully the Place
All Seasons of the Year,

Excepting March—'Tis then
My Villages be seen—
And possibly a Steeple—
Not afterward—by Men—

   -F723, J736, Fascicle 35, 1863



This poem is a riddle. 

This poem seems to be, on the surface, about the month of March. David Preest gives us some helpful information in his analysis of the poem: “This is the first of five poems about Emily’s favorite month of March. The others are J1213, 1320, 1404 and 1669. March was important to Emily as it was the month of rebirth and new beginnings in nature, symbolising our rebirth into eternal life. Poem J1404 begins, ‘March is the Month of Expectation,’ and in a letter (L976) of March d1885 to her friend, Helen Hunt Jackson, she asks, ‘Who could be ill in March, that Month of proclamation?’”

The first thing I noticed about the poem is that it repeats the line "Have any like myself" three times. The triple repetition of this line points strongly toward the relationship between the poet and the reader. Is Dickinson just talking to herself here? "Have any like myself..." No, I don’t think so. A poem reaches out toward the reader. “Have any like Myself” functions as a kind of invitation to the reader.

    Have any like Myself
    Investigating March,
    New Houses on the Hill descried—
    And possibly a Church—


The first invitation to the reader asks, “Have you investigated March?” It’s odd, but very Dickinsonian, to investigate a month. What happens in March is well worth investigating. It’s a kind of magic trick. It’s that time of year when winter finally lets up and spring starts to peek its head out. That’s what’s being investigated, new growth, and by extension, birth itself. 

And what does Dickinson discover as she investigates the month when this new birth of the natural world takes place? She discovers "New Houses and possibly a Church." Houses are lived in and connote life. And she also finds, “possibly,” a church. I love that “possibly” there. There’s so much to it. Dickinson, who famously stayed out of churches most of her life, seems to allow for the possibility of God, but just during this one month of the year. It’s like she is 1/12th of a believer, and even then, just “possibly.”

    That were not, We are sure—
    As lately as the Snow—
    And are Today—if We exist—
    Though how may this be so?


In Winter, the winter of the heart we might say, there is only despair. Dickinson faces the chill of the void bravely in poem after poem. See the poem just before this one for a good example of this. But “Today,” in March, the beginning of the beginning of spring, we see new life, and we ARE that life, that existence. I love that qualifier, “if We exist.” If we exist, then the houses and church, born seemingly from nothing, exist too. And how is it we exist? How can this be so? How is there life from nothing? This question also may be asked on an emotional level. How can you go from feeling despair, or worse, being frozen numb, to feeling joyful like spring?

    Have any like Myself
    Conjectured Who may be
    The Occupants of the Adobes—
    So easy to the Sky—


Have you conjectured who the occupants are in these new houses? A conjecture is a guess. The poem is asking, has anyone guessed the riddle? In this stanza we get some clues. New houses in spring, especially ones with entrances “easy to the sky” made me think of nests. The word “adobe” had me looking up what kinds of birds build their nests in mud in march. It turns out that ovenbirds, which are native to the region where Dickinson lived, build dome-shaped nests that look like mud ovens. They construct their nests in two stages, first building an oversized adobe cup and then adding mud pellets in a pattern to create a sphere with a circular opening.

It also turns out that ovenbirds do indeed begin to build their nests as early as March. 


a village of ovenbirds

If the houses in this poem that weren’t there “as lately as the snow” are meant to be ovenbird nests, then I wonder what Dickinson might have meant by a possible church and steeple? Is it purely metaphoric, or is there something in nature analogous to steeples? Perhaps to the poet the occasional stick sticking out of the mud nest of an ovenbird looks like a steeple?

    Twould seem that God should be
    The nearest Neighbor to—
    And Heaven—a convenient Grace
    For Show, or Company—


In March the ovenbirds (and, by extension, we) have easier access to the skies, to our nearest neighbor, God. That’s the spring feeling. Grace becomes convenient in March. If you are an ovenbird, you can watch the show of the sky right from the front door of your mud nest. Heaven is right there, keeping you company. Charming!

And speaking of charming...

    Have any like Myself
    Preserved the Charm secure
    By shunning carefully the Place
    All Seasons of the Year,

    Excepting March…


Dickinson “shuns” the area in the forest where she normally finds ovenbirds and by so doing she gets to rediscover the charm every year. (Alternate words Dickinson provides for “Charm secure” are “vision sure”). In a metaphorical sense I think this is the most profound part of the poem. During the rest of the year Dickinson shuns this “Place,”  shuns the grace of heaven, and thus preserves its charm. It is only in spring, at the time of greatest transformation, that she allows it. There is deep wisdom in this. Dickinson creates a ritual of going to see the ovenbirds. In this way you might say that she is practicing moderation in order to enhance appreciation. “Have any like Myself” done likewise?

    Excepting March—'Tis then
    My Villages be seen—
    And possibly a Steeple—
    Not afterward—by Men—


I love that Dickinson claims these Villages of ovenbirds (and the awakening nature of spring in general) as her own. “My Villages,” she writes. And then we get that terrific qualifier, “possibly,” again. "possibly a Steeple." Maybe God is here, she admits, maybe. Spring makes her, for a moment, a believer. Possibly.

There is something so wonderfully exclusive about those final lines. My villages, and possibly a steeple, may be seen only March. Certainly “not afterward—by Men—” 


  -/)dam Wade l)eGraff


P.S. I looked at the original MS for this poem and it looks to me like it says “Abodes" not "Adobes." I want the word to be “Adobes” here, because the ovenbird idea makes so much sense in this poem. But I'm not so sure. Decide for yourself. 


P.P.S. In the comments Larry B points out that in the newest edition of the poems (Christanne Miller's) the word "Adobe" has been changed to "Abode." This puts to the rest the ovenbird theory. Larry also points out in the comments that American ovenbirds don't make their nests out of mud which, in my opinion, closes the case. Thanks for the legwork, Larry. 


30 May 2024

Upon Concluded Lives


Upon Concluded Lives
There's nothing cooler falls—
Than Life's sweet Calculations—
The mixing Bells and Palls—

Make Lacerating Tune—
To Ears the Dying Side—
'Tis Coronal—and Funeral—
Saluting—in the Road—


    -F722, J735, Fascicle 35, 1863

This is a poem with intense feelings about life and death inextricably mixed together. Let's start with the first three lines:

    Upon Concluded Lives/ There's nothing cooler falls—/Than Life's sweet Calculations—”

You can read these first three lines a few different ways. At first I thought these lines might mean that the sweet calculations you’ve taken in your life, the risks you've taken, the path you've chosen and all the love on that path, are refreshing you and keeping you cool in the heated struggle of dying. But then I looked at the alternative word Dickinson supplied for "sweet," which is "new." The calculations aren't ones you've taken in the past. They are the ones you are adding up now that you are dying. 

    The mixing Bells and Palls—

The sweet calculations are the addition of bells and palls. Why would this be sweet? Maybe because the contrast is so achingly beautiful. This duality between life and death runs through the rest of the poem. Bells here are surely funeral bells, but I think they are also meant to invoke wedding bells and music in general. “The mixing Bells and Palls” expands on the idea of "sweet calculations" falling cool on concluding lives. Sweet calculations might well be symbolized by bells, which is “mixing” with "palls" or funeral shrouds. 

From the Dickinson Lexicon:

pall

A. Burial cloth; covering placed over the body of the deceased at a funeral; [word play] pale color of a corpse; bloodless appearance of the body after death.

B. Royal robe; coronation vestment; ceremonial cloak of rich purple cloth; majestic mantle signifying high honor or status.


A pall can mean both the pale color of death and coronation robe. Nice one, Emily. They both fit beautifully here, as does the ringing rhyme of “palls” with “bells” and “falls”

Love gained at the cusp of Love lost, that is the crossroads upon which this poem is situated.

    Make Lacerating Tune—

The sense of impending loss may be "sweet", but it is also violent in its intensity. It is a “lacerating tune.” Lacerating is a sharp word. It sounds like a snapping whip. Those sweet sounding bells paradoxically make a song that wounds deep.

    To Ears the Dying Side—

If the mix of bells and palls makes a lacerating tune to ears on the dying side, this beg a question. What lies on the OTHER side of dying?  No music at all? Which begs another question. Which is worse, heartbreaking music, or none at all?

    Tis Coronal—and Funeral—


The sense of pleasure mixing with pain continues. Now we are mixing "coronal," connoting a royally lived life, with "funeral," connoting death. "Coronal" and "funeral" rhyme, suggesting that the more royal the life, the greater the loss at death. Conversely, the greater the loss at death, the more royal the life.

    Saluting—in the Road—


The two, royal life and death, salute each other on the road of life, one coming as the other is going. Brrr.

      -/)dam Wade l)eGraff




P.S. Poems like this one that clearly function as a song prefer to be sung. Try singing this one out loud. Each poem suggests its own melody. This one for instance works best melodically as two tercets followed by a couplet. 

29 May 2024

“Nature” is what We see—


“Nature” is what We see—
The Hill—the Afternoon—
Squirrel—Eclipse—the Bumble bee—
Nay—Nature is Heaven—

“Nature” is what We hear—
The Bobolink—the Sea—
Thunder—the Cricket—
Nay—Nature is Harmony—

“Nature” is what We know—
But have no art to say—
So impotent Our Wisdom is
To Her Sincerity—


    -F721, J668, Fascicle 35, 1863


Here is a poem that contends with what we think “nature” is. It begins with “Nature” in quotes and lists some examples of things we “see.” But then the last line of the stanza negates this idea, “Nay,” and tells us it is something else altogether. We may think nature is what we see, but the reality of it is beyond what we see. It’s actually Heaven.

A list of what it is we "see" in this poem is given: Hill, Afternoon, Squirrel, Eclipse, Bumble Bee. “Eclipse” inserted among this list makes us question everything else on it. During an eclipse we think we are seeing the sun disappear, but it is only a trick on the eyes. The poem suggests that if the sun is actually there beyond our seeing, then what else is it that we are we missing when we look?

If the eclipse is hiding the sun, then what is the hill, afternoon, squirrel and Bumblebee hiding? The final line, where Nature comes out from behind its quotation marks, tells us what we are missing with our eyes: Heaven.

It’s probably worth getting into the symbolism of the other things listed here. Dickinson’s oeuvre is deep enough that one could make a whole study of any of these symbols. She used the word Eclipse in nine poems for instance. Each usage furthers our understanding of what Dickinson meant by this word. Or take the bumble bee for another example. The bumble bee, in one of Dickinson’s earliest extant poems, F21, is a substitute for God the Father. In other poems, it appears to be a lover. The Bee was very important to Dickinson. The same could be said for the rest of the nouns in this poem. They all mean more than what we at first take them for, and not just symbolically. They, which is to say We, have divinity within, just as the Eclipse has the Sun behind it.

The second stanza carries a similar idea, but this time we focus on the sense of hearing. Another poem in this same fascicle, F718, explored the sense of hearing, and here we take the ideas therein even further. This list of things we hear is interesting because we get sounds large and loud like the sea and thunder, juxtaposed with small and quieter sounds like the bobolink and the cricket. That’s what we hear in “nature,” in quotation marks. But Nature, beyond quotation marks, is beyond the singular sound; it is the way everything blends together, from small and soft to loud and grand. This harmony can only be experienced in the moment, and it goes deeper than mere hearing.

This sets us up for the third stanza. “Nature” is what we know. But again, that nature is in quotes. So what do we know? It is beyond even the great poet’s art to say. She may come closer than most at holding a mirror up to nature, but in the end she admits that she can’t match the “sincerity” of nature.

It’s worth taking a look at the term Sincere in the Dickinson Lexicon.

sincere (-er), adj. [Latin 'clean, pure, sound'.]

A. Honest; straightforward; undeceiving; serious; in earnest; speaking plainly; telling the truth.

B. Clear; pure; true; real; genuine.

There is another version of this poem which is nearly identical except it ends with the word “Simplicity” instead of “Sincerity.” Both words work well. Simplicity points toward the unified quality of nature. Any “art” merely complicates it. But I like "Sincere" best. I’ve never thought of nature as sincere before. By the way, this second version of the poem, the one with "Simplicity," was given to Sue Dickinson, and it is signed “Emily” in such a way that it appears as if the name echoes the last word in the poem, rhyming with Simplicity.

A note about the phrase “Nay, Nature.” We first see this formulation in F703, the negative “Nay” pausing and then elongating into ineffable “Nature.” In this slightly later poem we see it used twice. The sound play of it must have stuck with the poet. Here she uses it beautifully, and perhaps even crafts the poem around it. 

Nature is far more than what we think it is. 

   -/)dam Wade l)eGraff





28 May 2024

As if the Sea should part


As if the Sea should part
And show a further Sea —
And that — a further — and the Three
But a presumption be —

Of Periods of Seas —
Unvisited of Shores —
Themselves the Verge of Seas to be —
Eternity — is Those —


      -F720, J695, Fascicle 35, 1863


This poem is trippy, with its image of seas parting to reveal more seas parting to reveal more seas, on and on. It's an exhaustion of revelations, each showing the same thing as the last. The idea in the first line is already funny. The poem begins with the conjunction "as if," but the analogy presented is suspect, isn't it? Seas don’t part. Not unless you are an old testament God. We are already in the area of the impossible. So when we get to the sea being revealed beneath the parted sea, it is like the surreal nonsense of Lewis Carroll. Below everything is more of everything. To me this is like the child contemplating eternity, realizing there can never not be a beginning before the beginning, nor an end to the end, getting a headache from thinking about it and then it abandoning it altogether for some milk and cookies.

In the first stanza you get one Sea leading to two and then three (each increasingly ludicrous, an expansion of expansiveness) until you arrive at what you presume to be a whole period of Seas. "But a presumption be —/ Of Periods of Seas —" A "presumption” is not the same as knowledge, since you can never really know how far those Periods of seas go. 

Period has a nice doubleness here. It’s a contranym, a word that means two opposite things. It means “stop,” as in a sentence ending, or it can also be an ongoing period of time, one that will end, perhaps, but is indefinite and ongoing for the foreseeable future. (Dickinson was fond of contranyms. See a further discussion of Dickinson’s use of contranyms here). 

We can’t ever see the seas beneath the seas beneath the seas though, because we are here on shore. Eternity is likened here to the verge of the seas we will never see. "Period" in this poem is a key word. It signals stop, it intimates staying on shore. The Eternal may be seductive, but why would we move off of the shore and into empty endlessness? But to what end? Sometimes Eternity is a positive word in Dickinson, but sometimes it is not. Sometimes it is as far removed from the present as can be. 

It is quite possible that I am adding a negative dimension to this vision of Eternity that the poem doesn't support. But I can't see anything on the other side of those parting seas luring me in, just more parting


  -/)dam Wade l)eGraff



P.S.

The Sonnets To Orpheus: Book 2: Xiii

Be ahead of all parting, as though it already were 
behind you, like the winter that has just gone by. 
For among these winters there is one so endlessly winter 
that only by wintering through it all will your heart survive. 

Be forever dead in Eurydice-more gladly arise 
into the seamless life proclaimed in your song. 
Here, in the realm of decline, among momentary days, 
be the crystal cup that shattered even as it rang. 

 Be-and yet know the great void where all things begin, 
the infinite source of your own most intense vibration, 
so that, this once, you may give it your perfect assent. 

To all that is used-up, and to all the muffled and dumb 
creatures in the world's full reserve, the unsayable sums,
 joyfully add yourself, and cancel the count. 

    -Rainer Maria Rilke, translated by Stephen Mitchell



27 May 2024

Eternity

In the commentary for F713, I took a close look at the handwritten word "Eternity" from the original MS.




In the commentary I noted the majesty of that E, the way the top of the t flows down the ages of the word to cross that second smaller t; the y at the end of the word bolstering it from behind and giving it that subtle underline and that strange break in the middle of the word between the r and the n where Dickinson seems to have picked up her pen there for a moment, as if to break eternity in two. I also pointed out how if you looked really close it looked like she dotted the i thrice, each dot making a visceral point.

This was a flight of fancy on my part. One couldn't know how purposeful any of these elements were in the original penning of the word by Dickinson. Imagine my surprise when I came to poem F719, where the word "Eternity" was written by Dickinson in a nearly identical way:




There it is, that same majestic E, that same downward slope of the top of the t to cross that second t, the same emphatic triple dotted i, the same underlining y, and most curiously, that same break in the word between the "r" and the "n". There really does appear to be a conscious design element to it. These are not just haphazard elements. It is a word which was clearly important to her and many of her poems center around the idea of it.

Seeing Dickinson's rendition of the word repeated again reminds me of the early graffiti artist, Arthur Stace. Stace was an illiterate criminal who converted to Catholicism. He was "called by God" to write "Eternity" in chalk on the streets of Sydney Australia, which he did every day, over a half million times, between the 1930s and 1960s.




The first stanza of the poem “Arthur Stace,” by Douglas Stewart, first published in 1969, runs thus:

    That shy mysterious poet Arthur Stace
    Whose work was just one single mighty word
    Walked in the utmost depths of time and space
    And there his word was spoken and he heard
    Eternity, Eternity, it banged him like a bell
    Dulcet from heaven sounding, sombre from hell.

Years later the graffiti artist Banksy would pay homage to this OG graffiti artist with a piece he put up in Queens NY in 2014:





"What we do in life echoes in Eternity" is a quote from the movie Gladiator, but it originates with Marcus Aurelius. Both Stace and Dickinson had their own singularly graceful renditions of the word. Both of them are still echoing.

On a personal note, the morning this Banksy piece went up in Queens I pushed my daughters in their stroller to see it. I was able to take a shot of the mural with them just minutes before the it was tagged and defaced by local graffiti artists. I've always loved this picture as a reminder of the echo of eternity.




This is all to say that when I saw Dickinson's artistic rendition of the word there was an aura to it that seemed to jump off the page. When I saw it again a few poems later written so beautifully, and remembered the like versions from Stace and Banksy, I heard the ringing reverberations deep in my conscious ear.