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03 August 2012

I breathed enough to take the Trick—

I breathed enough to take the Trick—
And now, removed from Air—
I simulate the Breath, so well—
That One, to be quite sure—

The Lungs are stirless—must descend
Among the Cunning Cells—
And touch the Pantomime—Himself,
How numb, the Bellows feels!
                                                           F 308 (1862)  272

Dickinson is writing here as one who is only going through the motions of living. Having taken breath all her life, she learned the “Trick” of looking like she’s breathing even if she’s “removed from Air.” Her lungs are “stirless,” not moving at all. “One” would have to get down at her cellular level to discover this “Pantomime” and find out how “numb” the bellows of her lungs really are.  
To Dickinson, the soul is forged within the body.
            It is interesting to me, 308 poems into Dickinson’s opus, how often she has referred to her or another’s body as a smithy or forge, or even a volcano—a place built around containing fire. In this poem her lungs are “the Bellows.”  In “By a flower – By a letter,” her desire for love is manically welding rivets and working at an anvil with “sooty faces tugging at the Forge.” In “How many times these low feet staggered,” a dead housewife’s mouth is soldered, her heart is a rivet, and her ribcage “hasps of steel.” The blacksmith’s forge of this woman’s life is no longer working.
            Later in 1862, Dickinson will write “Dare you see a Soul at the White Heat?” In this amazing and widely anthologized poem Dickinson presents the blacksmith’s shop as a metaphor for processes within the soul. Its
                                    Anvil's even ring
Stands symbol for the finer Forge
That soundless tugs -- within --
Refining these impatient Ores
With Hammer, and with Blaze

The current poem is rather frightening poem in that its language is like that of someone in deep depression: she is numb, just going through the motions, and no one understands. Yet it is this repressed life symbolized by the blacksmith’s forge that from time to time erupts in the heat that makes so many of Dickinson’s poems so very memorable.  


  1. While I agree that this poem resonates with other frightening poems in her canon ("funeral in my brain" comes to mind &there are quite a few others, it is important not to overlook the speaker's agency in the first line, the reference to taking a trick. This seems to be not about some slight of hand but about winning a hand of cards. The poem this most reminds me of, oddly, is "The Soul selects," that similar opening line in which the speaker is an agent, making a choice, winning. In that poem too, as here, she then closes "the Valve of her attention/ Like Stone." But she is choosing this stance. Like "Split the Lark," say, she knows what is concealed within, for whoever might either "descend" or be let in. I do not mean to minimize the depression and numbness; rather I lift up the conscious agency.

    1. The notion of "trick" as in a hand of cards hadn't occurred to me -- but really helps my understanding of this poem. Your point about agency is well taken. She is playing and succeeding – and noticing and reporting. Re-reading this poem I am once again impressed by it. Thanks for the comment.

  2. Did ED ever suffer writers bloc? Temporary distance from the force of her Muse? She might have been lamenting her feeling of abandonment of her inspiration/muse, being removed from air, and that her work had become automatic/simulation of true inspired work. She might have won (taken the trick) momentarily, but only at a game - a mere simulation of life/inspiration/her truest work. She must have doubted her work at times, wondering if it were not a pantomime of those “white heat” moments when inspiration took over her like a trance.

    1. Maybe, but 1862-1863 are ED's most productive years. But that doesn't mean that she didn't have stretches of doubting her work.

      The numbness reminds me of "After a great pain a formal feeling comes" so I read the poem as a response to a blow or pain of some kind.

  3. F301: “If to be “Elder”—mean most pain— / I’m old enough, today, I’m certain”.

    F302: “It's like the Morning— / Best—when it's done— / And the Everlasting Clocks— / Chime—Noon!”

    F303: “Alone, I cannot be — / For Hosts [Hordes]— do visit me —"

    F304: “The nearest Dream recedes—unrealized— / The Heaven we chase, / Like the June Bee—”

    F305: “What if I say I shall not wait! / What if I burst the fleshly Gate— / And pass Escaped—to thee!”

    F306: “A shady friend—for Torrid days— / Is easier to find— / Than one of higher temperature / For Frigid—hour of Mind—“

    F307: “And I sneered—softly—"small"!”

    F308: “I breathed enough to take the Trick— / And now, removed from Air— / I simulate the Breath"

    ED has been telling us poem after poem that she is drowning in depression, to the point of suicide. She surfaced long enough for one quick breath, long enough to spew the venom of one destructive, sneered sarcasm, then, sacrificing that one breath in painful bubbles, she sank beneath the surface, back into hateful despair of lost love:

    F309: “Stab the Bird—that built in your bosom— / Oh, could you catch her last Refrain— / Bubble! "forgive"—"Some better"—Bubble! / "Carol for Him—when I am gone"!

    ED sewed these poems together, in Fascicle 14.