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29 June 2012

A word is dead when it is said

A word is dead when it is said
Some say –
I say it just begins to live
That day.
                                                F278 (1862)  1212   

There are some fascinating and profound depths to this short poem (which was penned as most of a letter to Dickinson’s cousin).  An unspoken word is alive with possibility. Meditate upon almost any word and its richness of suggestiveness, connotations and denotations will flower and multiply. There are almost endless possibilities of meaning. The word seems to  have a life of its own.  
            But “Some say” that once the word is spoken this life (in a given situation) is over: the word is “dead” and lies inert where it has been rendered, having coughed up its meaning. Like a pinned butterfly it can be observed and described or categorized but it will no longer fly. This reminds me of (what little I know of) quantum mechanics where in the collapse of the probability wave several different possibilities are reduced to one possibility as seen by an observer.
Like a Mandelbrot set fractal, sometimes a person's words
 take on a life of their own
            Dickinson, however, takes the poet’s view: a word pulled from its shadow world of limitless possibilities is only truly alive when it is birthed by articulation. It needs the light of day to breathe. What makes it breathe and live? The very ambiguity at the heart of language and communication. Playwright George Bernard Shaw once said something to the effect of “The main problem with communication is the perception that it has occurred.” Sometimes we replay and replay in our minds what someone has written or said to us. The words have a life far beyond what the speaker or writer had in mind. And how often do we try to explain ourselves to someone who interpreted what we said in a way contrary to what we meant? Or take, for example, the word “love.” As a dictionary word its meaning is fairly clear. But when someone says it to us it comes to life and resonates with real feeling and real consequence.
            There is a similar life-giving process for words in literature: stories, poems, plays and movies. The same words spoken by one actor in one director’s vision will mean something entirely different in another movie. One version might be heroic, another ironic, another manipulative.
            Dickinson herself once asked a writer and mentor if her verse were “alive.” I think she wanted this richness and diversity in interpretation. She did not want to be a poet whose words were dead on arrival: flatly literal or spouting airy generalities. The entire reason I’m going through each of her poems on this blog is because she succeeded in making not only her poems live but the phrases and even many of the very words. As an example, I just selected, with very little searching, the phrase “miles of stare.” This is what the poem says remains after Heaven, like a circus, packs up its silken tents and disappears. The “stare” lives in our startled response to this poem, enlivening both our understanding of the word and our understanding of what absence is. There is a mystery at its heart and so it continues to live.

28 June 2012

Going to Him! Happy letter!

Going to Him!  Happy letter!
Tell Him –
Tell Him the page I didn't write –
Tell Him – I only said the Syntax –
And left the Verb and the pronoun out –
Tell Him just how the fingers hurried –
Then –  how they waded – slow – slow –
And then you wished you had eyes in your pages –
So you could see what moved them so –

Tell Him – it wasn't a Practised Writer –
You guessed – from the way the sentence toiled –
You could hear the Bodice tug, behind you –
As if it held but the might of a child –
You almost pitied it – you – it worked so –
Tell Him – no – you may quibble there –
For it would split His Heart, to know it –
And then you and I, were silenter.

Tell Him – Night finished – before we finished –
And the Old Clock kept neighing "Day"!
And you – got sleepy – and begged to be ended –
What could it hinder so – to say?
Tell Him – just how she sealed you – Cautious!
But – if He ask where you are hid
Until tomorrow – Happy letter!
Gesture Coquette – and shake your Head!
                                                            F277 (1862)  J494

* Note: another version of this poem uses "Her" and other female pronouns in place of the male. Cristanne Miller in Emily Dickinson's Poems As She Preserved Them notes that in a letter sent to the Norcross cousins, the title is "Going to them, happy letter".

How clever and fun this poem is. Dickinson writes it as if the humanized letter were sitting in front of her, all attention. She begins by exclaiming how happy the letter is; she ends the poem the same way, but with the added little flirtatious twist that the writer is about to tuck the letter into her bosom until it is posted the next day. Happy letter, indeed!
            The poem is also a lovely description of the trouble and care that goes into writing a good letter – particularly a letter to a beloved. The implication throughout the poem is that the recipient is a beloved man – the poet envies the letter for “Going to Him!” However, Dickinson rather fluidly also wrote the poem to 'Her' (beloved sister-in-law Sue?), as well as more family-friendly 'Them' to her two nieces.

Dickinson is a bit coy – even sly – throughout. She “said the Syntax” but left out “the Verb and the pronoun.” “Syntax” means the order of words in a sentence; the relationship among them that helps establish meaning. So I think the poet is saying she wrote sensible-sounding sentences, but she left out a key verb and pronoun: may I suggest the verb was “love” and the pronoun “you”?  And then there’s the bit that was left out. The writer almost instructs the letter to tell the beloved something that “would split His Heart” if he knew it. She thinks better of it, though. Better if “you and I were silenter.” Best to keep those thoughts to ourselves. Just quibble a bit if the subject comes up.
            Dickinson biographer Richard Sewell says this poem, the male version, was sent to Samuel Bowles, a married man. No wonder it is coy. Dickinson wrote lots of letters to Bowles and some to his wife Mary. Many have a flirtatious air; some have a lovesick air, and some sound a bit desperate. This one is playful.
            The poor letter went through quite a bit in its composition. The poet comments that it wished it “had eyes in your pages” so it could watch the process. Sometimes the “fingers hurried” and sometimes they were slow as could be. They “waded – slow – slow” as if trying to traverse deep or treacherous water. The fingers hurried or waded slow, and the sentences “toiled” to get out. The poet was straining so hard the letter could hear the dress tugging as if a little girl were attempting something too hard and panting with exertion.
            And if all that weren’t enough, the letter writing went on all night. I love the image of the “Old Clock [that] kept neighing ‘Day’” as if it were an anxious horse. We are reminded of a cuckoo clock sounding off at 4 am, 5 am, 6 am… and the poor letter is still being written. Like a child itself, it gets sleepy and begs “to be ended.”
            Perhaps the most witty part of the poem is when the writer instructs the letter to say that she “wasn’t a Practiced Writer.” That should get a smile out of Bowles (and Sue, if she were the 'Her' recipient). Dickinson was prolific and everyone knew it. Her letters were gems and treasures. If only Dickinson had saved the letters she received as assiduously as others saved the ones she wrote!

27 June 2012

Civilization – spurns – the Leopard!

Civilization – spurns – the Leopard!
Was the Leopard – bold?
Deserts – never rebuked her Satin –
Ethiop – her Gold –
Tawny – her Customs –
She was Conscious –
Spotted – her Dun Gown –
This was the Leopard's nature – Signor –
Need – a keeper – frown?

Pity – the Pard – that left her Asia –
Memories – of Palm –
Cannot be stifled – with Narcotic –
Nor suppressed – with Balm –
                                                            276 (1862)  492

Dickinson adopts her Leopard persona again in this poem. We saw it earlier in F201, “With thee, in the Desert,” where only when alone with her beloved can the leopard truly breathe.
Leopard in captivity
            Here, the leopard, or “Pard,” seems to be in a zoo. She has a “keeper,” a “Signor” who is displeased. He frowns at the leopard who in her defense says she is only acting and appearing according to her true nature. We don’t know how the leopard has displeased her keeper, but the poet goes on offense from the beginning: “Civilization—spurns—the Leopard!” she says. Leopards—fierce, predatory, and wild—are intrinsically antithetical to society. Nonetheless, “spurn” is a strong word. To spurn the leopard is to find its qualities worthy of scorn or disgust rather than respect or even admiration.
          In the second line we see that the leopard stands for some persona of the poet. She has her untamable side. She asks with heavy sarcasm if she were too “bold”—a term that in Dickinson’s day was used to describe impudent women or children who didn’t know their place (“Bold girl!”). She contrasts her rejection by civilization with the her acceptance by the uncivilized and wild deserts of Ethiopia. In such wilderness her fur is “Satin” and “Gold.” She was “never rebuked” there for who she was.
            In civilized Massachusetts, however, her satiny, gold fur is a “Spotted … Dun Gown”; her customs, presumably like her coat, are “Tawny.” She is not the lily-white, unspotted maiden that 1862 Amherst society preferred. She is admitting her awareness that she is not completely at home in polite parlors. “Signor” should know this. Does he, she asks with more sarcasm, really need to “frown”?
Dickinson's famous white dress
            Dickinson scholars include this poem with those written to “Master” whom she refers to as her “keeper” here. In one of the letters written to Master she writes, “God made me – Master – I didn’t be – myself. I don’t know how it was done.” Although she dearly wants approval from her keeper, she cannot or will not change her spots for him. The reference here on both “Ethiop” and leopard spots comes from the Bible, Jeremiah 13:23: “Can the Ethiopian change his skin, or the leopard his spots?”

            The second stanza drops the indignant sarcasm, appealing instead to the pity or empathy we have for the wild animal in its enclosure. The Leopard has left “her Asia,” her home (never mind the Ethiop referred to earlier – that was in service to the Biblical verse). Her memories of home, of the swaying palm trees, “Cannot be stifled” even by narcotics. It cannot be “suppressed” even by some soothing “Balm.”
            We can assume by the balm and narcotics that Master has tried to induce the poet to conform or otherwise change somehow, but apparently the changes would go too deep. The strength of the phrases “Cannot be stifled … Nor suppressed” affirm that, painful as it is, she truly belongs to another world. Compared to Amherst it is an “Asia” and she longs for it.
            At about the time she was writing this poem, Dickinson was beginning her eventual complete withdrawal from society. People who knew her said that this withdrawal was not because of some trauma but was a very gradual process. One suspects the kingdom of her room and garden allowed her to dwell more often in her interior Asia without concerns about being accepted.

            In F230, “For this – accepted Breath,” Dickinson took a triumphant tone about her difference.  In that poem she was born, “accepted Breath,” to be a poet. This poetic calling is a “Certain June”; it is “No Wilderness,” “No desert Noon.” It is sad, then, to see the price of her calling here: in search of love and acceptance she must be confined leopard dependent on a frowning keeper.

25 June 2012

Should you but fail at – Sea –

Should you but fail at – Sea –
In sight of me –
Or doomed lie –
Next Sun – to die –
Or rap – at Paradise – unheard
I'd harass God
Until He let you in!
                                                            275 (1862)  226

This desert really is next to the sun.
Dickinson here begins the poem in an old-timey melodramatic way that was probably all to common in the parlors where poetry was read in her day. She sketches three woeful fates that might befall her beloved: 1) he might drown in the ocean – in sight of her!  2) He might perish in the burning desert “Next [to the] Sun”; or 3) He might die for any number of reasons but then be knocking on Heaven’s door with nobody letting him in.
            The first four lines are in rhymed couplets in keeping with their doom: Sea / me; and lie / die. I’m pretty sure we’re to pronounce “doomed” as “doom – ed” to emphasize the schmaltz. But then the poet’s playfulness becomes manifest. She uses “unheard” for the futile rapping at Paradise, but then slant rhymes it with “God”! It’s a kind of awkward, funny rhyme and it certainly undermines the sense of poetic tragedy that seemed to be building.
            And then the last two lines clinch the mood. Like a terrier wife, the poet is going to get after God, “harass” him, until he calls Uncle and opens the door. It’s a funny image and the diction is comical, too.

The poem was sent to Samuel Bowles, a man often ill and often traveling. I imagine him saying in response to Dickinson’s frequent wishes for his health and safety that he didn’t dare die because the Almighty wouldn’t take him in. I imagine this poem as a response.

Again – his voice is at the door –

Again – his voice is at the door –
I feel the old Degree
I hear him ask the servant
For such an one – as me –

I take a flower – as I go –
My face to justify
He never saw me – in this life
I might surprise his eye!

I cross the Hall with mingled steps –
I – silent – pass the door –
I look on all this world contains
Just his face – nothing more!

We talk in careless – and in toss –
A kind of plummet strain –
Each – sounding – shyly –
Just – how – deep –
The other's one – had been –

We walk – I leave my Dog – at home –
A tender – thoughtful Moon –
Goes with us – just a little way –
And – then – we are alone

Alone – if Angels are "alone" –
First time they try the sky!
Alone – if those "veiled faces" – be –
We cannot count
On High!
I'd give – to live that hour – again –
The purple – in my Vein
But He must count the drops – himself
My price for every stain!
                                                            274 (1862) 663

There is a haunting, Gothic quality to this poem. We have a mysterious stranger in the parlour asking for the narrator. He is no stranger to her, though, for she knows his voice and goes to greet him. There is quite a bit of history between them although they haven’t seen each other for a long time. The two take a walk, by themselves except for the moon, which soon disappears, leaving them alone in the dark.
            The power and attraction of her feelings for this man are so strong that she would slit her wrists to spend that hour once more. But, in true Gothic form, slitting her wrists isn’t quite enough. As her blood drops and stains the ground or her dress, the man must count every drop. It is a morbid and gruesome sort of commitment or pact that she is trying to extract. She may die, but he will have logged her death drop by drop.
            The poem begins in an air of mystery: “Again – his voice is at the door.” We feel we are entering into a story. What does the poet mean, though, by the narrator feeling “the old Degree”? I think the answer lies in poem F194, “Title divine is mine,” where she writes
Title divine,  is mine.
The Wife  without the Sign 
Acute Degree conferred on me  

This is the poem where the narrator was “Born – Bridalled – Shrouded – / In a Day” and  “Betrothed – without the swoon.” Her “Degree,” then, involves a real sense of marriage – even if not an earthly or legal union. The sadness in the “Born – Bridalled – Shrouded – / In a Day” line is touched on when the narrator says in this one that she feels “the old Degree.” That “Title divine” is no longer current. Things have changed. The old relationship is gone. And yet, just the sound of his voice awakens it all again.
            The story continues. The narrator puts a flower in her hair as evidence she is who she is. Her life now is different – and he might not recognize her. This reminds me of how Dickinson began to wear only white dresses and to spend her days only on her family’s property. This new white-clad and retiring woman “might surprise his eye!”
            We go with the narrator as she walks to the parlour, unsteady on her feet. She silently enters the room and then in an expression of great love says that when she sees her beloved she sees “all this world contains – Just his face…”
Antique plummet (plumb bob)
The next line is pure Dickinson: “We talk in careless – and in toss.” The truncated phrases are perfectly clear and delightfully suggestive. The man and woman speak superficially, as if carelessly discussing health and weather and the local news. They toss out words and phrases. And yet in all this conversation they are searching each other. Dickinson says there is “A kind of plummet strain.” A plummet, or plumb bob, is a device for measuring the depth of water or for establishing the center of a structure during construction, or for determining the degree of straightness. In their careless talk, both parties are sounding each other out, shyly trying to find out how much depth was in the other’s seemingly casual remarks. The image is of two plummets (plumb bobs, if you must, but the name is so silly sounding) each observing and taking the measure of each other as they strain downward.
            Then the two go for a moonlight stroll. The narrator wants no distractions and she feels perfectly safe, for she leaves her dog at home. Dickinson’s dog, Carlo, was a big Newfoundland who was her usual walking companion. But, again the Gothic detail, the moonlight doesn’t last long. Soon the couple is in the dark without their moon chaperone. But there is no sense of alone-ness. The poet uses ecstatic, heavenly imagery to convey the sense that the couple is not alone because their love is a palpable and supporting presence. An angel, her first example, is not really alone the first time he ventures to fly for he is part of the divine emanation and would not fall. Neither are the dead saints alone for they have joined together “on High.” And so love will bear them up; love joins them with the many lovers eternalized in fable, poetry, and story: Dante and Beatrice, Romeo and Juliet, Tristan and Isolde, or Eloise and Abelard.
            It must have been a very bittersweet time, this moonlit and dark reunion between two who loved each other extraordinarily. The poet would give “The purple – in my Vein” to relive it. And yet… there is a price. In “Title divine” the poet calls herself “Empress of Calvary” – implying that she has suffered a great deal for the title. In this one she is willing to suffer again, even die; but this time she is not willing to suffer by herself. The beloved must be there with her, counting every drop of her pain.
            Grim price!

24 June 2012

Perhaps you think Me stooping

Perhaps you think Me stooping
I'm not ashamed of that
Christ -- stooped until He touched the Grave --
Do those at Sacrament

Commemorative Dishonor
Or love annealed of love
Until it bend as low as Death
Redignified, above?
                                                            F273 (1862)  833

The ecstasy of communion, honoring the physical body of Jesus
Sculptor: René de Saint-Marceaux
A slightly different version of this poem was sent to Samuel Bowles. That one has only one stanza – which makes more sense, I think; and in stead of “Redignified,” Christ is “Re-royalized” in heaven. “Redignified,” while not a word that trips off one’s tongue, goes down a bit more smoothly than “Re-royalized.” It is probably better theologically as well, as Jesus was probably not in danger of losing his status as part of the Holy Trinity.
            Both versions, however, maintain a slightly sarcastic tone. The narrator suggests she has been accused of abasing herself, or being overly humble – or “stooping.” She doesn’t deny it, but she turns that bug into a feature. Jesus himself stooped. He abased himself with decidedly imperfect and lowly humans, even stooping so low as dying and being buried.
            But is Jesus scorned for that, she asks? Far from it. At the sacrament of Communion, worshippers kneel and commemorate the “Dishonor.” “Love annealed of love”: this sacrificial love strengthens and purifies our own ability to feel love, even to death. This is what may seem like stooping in this life but will be rewarded in heaven.
            I’m not overly fond of this poem as I find little that is fresh in it and little of the poetic. It reads to me like a poet’s argument in her own defense. Nothing to take home from it.

23 June 2012

Would you like summer? Taste of ours –

Would you like summer?  Taste of ours –
Spices?  Buy – here!
Ill!  We have berries, for the parching!
Weary!  Furloughs of Down!
Perplexed!  Estates of Violet – Trouble ne'er looked on!
Captive!  We bring Reprieve of Roses!
Fainting!  Flasks of Air!
Even for Death – a Fairy medicine.
But, which is it – sir?
                                                            F272 (1862)  691

Dickinson adopts many voices in her poems, some playful, some childlike, some mystic, some tragic. Here she is a merchant hawking her wares. She has something for most of humanity’s ills and unlike our chemical, biosynthetic, surgical, and mechanical treatments today, hers involve spices, berries, down comforters, violets, roses, and fresh air. Sound good?
Furloughs of Down, Summer, and plenty of Fresh air. Wouldn't you feel better?
            The poem was included in a letter to her dear (beloved) Samuel Bowles who was sick. In the letter, quoted from David Preest’s compendium of Dickinson verse, Emily tells Bowles that she, Sue and Vinnie are always talking about his health and wishing him well. She then includes this poem. One can imagine the sick man receiving such a letter and such a poem and envisioning three women hustling him with home-brew summer and a bowl of berries for when he is parched. Is he a captive in his room? Why, Reprieve of Roses is called for. Feeling a bit faint? How about a flask of air?
            It’s all a good bit of fun – wholesome and a bit flirtatious, too, with those sexy gals (Dickinson who loved him, Sue who was very attracted to him, and as for Vinnie – who knows?) wanting him to taste their summer or rest in their “Furloughs of Down.”
            Dickinson also has a bit of fun at the expense of clergymen. Even if the patient should die, they have some “Fairy medicine” that should restore the life in him. This is somewhat blasphemous, as the Puritan God, the Catholic God, and indeed most American Christian Gods of that day intended that you stay dead if you die. Further, that the “medicine” should be a nice confession followed by a blessing.
            The poet finally asks the patient one pertinent question at the end: Just what is the problem, Sir?  – as if his response would allow them to come up with the perfect concoction.

22 June 2012

Over the fence –

Over the fence –
Strawberries – grow –
Over the fence –
I could climb – if I tried, I know –
Berries are nice!

But – if I stained my Apron –
God would certainly scold!
Oh, dear, – I guess if He were a Boy –
He'd – climb – if He could!
                                                            F271 (1861)  251

Strawberries here are clearly forbidden fruit. And of course they’re over the fence. The temptation lies in how easily the fence might be climbed.
            The poem’s diction is that of an eager young lad. “Berries are nice!” Some readers of this poem feel that the persona of a boy plus the yummy forbidden strawberries make this a love poem about Dickinson’s friend and sister-in-law, Sue. If so, this wouldn’t be the first of Dickinson’s poems that hint at the strong feelings she had for Sue: love, frustration, hurt, desire, bitterness – to name a few. But this poem is about forbidden desire. As a “Boy” Dickinson’s desire for Sue would be more acceptable. As it is, Sue’s “Strawberries” must be off limits.
Who wouldn't want these delicious berries??
Virginia Granberry, 1831-1921

            Be that as it may, we can enjoy this poem on its own merits without worrying about the biographical context, if any. Berries are nice.
            God doesn’t come out altogether well in the poem. First, he would scold the berry picker about a stained apron. That’s like saying, Hey, I don’t care about your stealing those strawberries, but no way are you going to get away with getting berry stains! “Oh, dear,” the poet smirks: he’d go after the strawberries himself if he were younger and not, um, God.
            The poem begins by emphasizing the fence. Something desirable is on the other side of it. Boys would be daring enough to take it, but our narrator, not a boy, is perhaps a bit too timid. Although she could climb the fence we don’t get the feeling that she will. Strawberries may be nice, but they leave a stain. 

20 June 2012

I shall keep singing!

I shall keep singing!
Birds will pass me
On their way to Yellower Climes –
Each – with a Robin's expectation –
I – with my Redbreast –
And my Rhymes –

Late – when I take my place in summer –
But – I shall bring a fuller tune –
Vespers – are sweeter than Matins – Signor –
Morning – only the seed of Noon –
                                                            F270 (1861)  250

The poet claims her poems will make a “fuller tune” compared to other poet “Birds” who pass her on their way to sunnier locations with their chapbooks of verse and their  “Robin’s expectation” of spring. Their poems may be heard first and gain some attention. But the poet is also a robin – she has a “Redbreast” too! And she has her “Rhymes.” (And sure enough, “Rhymes” rhymes perfectly with “Climes.”)  The poet probably won’t arrive in Poetville until summer, rather than spring, but that is okay for her poems are deeper and more complex than the frothy stuff other poets were dishing up at that time – and she knows it.
            Dickinson then moves into images of morning, noon, and evening. Vespers and Matins are prayer services of Catholic and some Protestant churches that typically feature psalms and other religious poems set to music. Vespers is the evening service and Dickinson finds them “sweeter” than the morning Matins service. There is fullness at the end of the day, a sense of mature completion, and Dickinson believes her poetry will be the Vespers to the less mature Matins of others. Mornings, she continues, are "only"  the "seed" – the hope and potentiality – of noon.
            There is a second sense to the second stanza. She seems to be implying that even her own poetry is getting better as her "day" progresses. Her “Noon”– always a symbol to her of fullness – is the ripening and unfolding of her morning – the fruition of her poetic promise.
Sample of Dickinson's poetry as
it appeared in her fascicles
            The poem is address to a “Signor” – a rather droll way of saying “Sir” – as if this person had wondered when Dickinson was ever going to publish or to bloom as a poet. Not now, she is saying. What you’ve seen of my poetry so far is just “morning”: it is just the seed of what is to come.

The comment raises an interesting question. Dickinson submitted some poems for publication, was not strongly encouraged, and then seemed to disparage the idea of publication, calling it “the auction of the mind.” Yet she kept page after page of poems, even scraps of paper with poems scribbled on them. Many of these poems, about 800!, she fastened together in little booklets that scholars sometimes refer to as ‘fascicles.’ These fascicles were surely meant to be read. Dickinson was writing for the future. I suspect this allowed her to develop that “fuller tune.” Could she be more honest, bare her soul more deeply than had she been writing for publication at the time? I think so, and I’m glad she had the self confidence and patience to keep writing and to save her work.