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23 October 2012

I felt my life with both my hands

I felt my life with both my hands
To see if it was there—
I held my spirit to the Glass,
To prove it possibler—

I turned my Being round and round
And paused at every pound
To ask the Owner's name—
For doubt, that I should know the sound—

I judged my features—jarred my hair—
I pushed my dimples by, and waited—
If they—twinkled back—
Conviction might, of me—

I told myself, "Take Courage, Friend—
That—was a former time—
But we might learn to like the Heaven,
As well as our Old Home!"
                                                            F357 (1862)  351

Times of change are times of opportunity, a boss once told me as he laid me off, and vice versa. The speaker of this poem has experienced a major change—she may have died and is exploring what existence is like in heaven, or perhaps she has had a major life change: moved, lost a loved one, or recovered from a fearful accident or illness. Whatever the impetus for the poem, it is a playful examination of what it feels like to be a new person.
            We’ve seen recent poems range from agony, mental breakdown (“I felt a Funeral, in my Brain”) and deep despair (“It was not Death, for I stood up”) to their rosy and confident opposites. This poem seems to take the disorientation and displacement that was present in the despair poems  and leaven them with some of the confidence of “I’m ceded—I’ve stopped being Theirs.”
            It’s a very visual poem. The poet describes all the things she did to find out just who she was—and if she bore any resemblance to the person she was before her travails. First she feels her life “with both my hands” to make sure it was still there. Maybe, as in “It was not Death,” she was in some unknown state. She then holds her spirit, or soul, up to the mirror to see if it could possibly still exist. She then twirls her “Being” around, stopping regularly to ask what name the body once went by—because she wasn’t quite sure she’d recognize it if she heard it mentioned casually. 
Who is the speaker of the poem? I think we’re back to what I’ve called in earlier poems the Deciding Mind—that aspect of the poet able to observe and assess what goes on in body and spirit no matter how dire—and sometimes even past death.
            The Deciding Mind then primps a bit in front of the mirror: fluffs up the hair, smiles into the dimples to see if they “twinkled back” at her. Maybe then she’d get some “Conviction” about her identity. Perhaps all is not lost after all! We don’t learn whether or not the dimples twinkled or whether or not her Being provided the asker with a name, but the speaker (in whatever guise) felt chipper enough to try to buck up the poor old discouraged body and soul. “Take Courage, Friend,” she exhorts. What’s done is done, it’s water under the bridge, “a former time.” What’s ahead of us might not turn out to be so bad after all.
            The irony of the last lines is that the speaker is speculating that “Heaven” might turn out as well as her “Old Home.”  I’m reminded of the song from the musical South Pacific: “I’m going to wash that man right out of my hair.” The plucky heroine refuses to mope and cry in her room. She intends to pick herself up and get on with it. The speaker in this poem is doing the same thing. It might not be a man that’s causing the deep sense of dislocation (although some critics speculate that a man is at the heart of it—and the man is Samuel Bowles), for it might be an existential crisis. But whatever the cause (and Dickinson is the better poet for retaining an essential ambiguity at the heart of her poetry), life moves on and we are advised to move with it.


  1. Well done in your talk on this poem. You say this is a very visual poem, also tactile, both hands feelin my life, turning my Being, jarred, pushed. The voice, disembodied, larger than the contours of the physical, feels timeless, able to see beyond time so able to orient the body to itself even after the mind has transcended it.

    In Dzochen the non dual practice in Tibetan Bhuddism, they say when a practitioner encounters this grand emptiness, shimmering with intelligence, the remaining practice is to "get used to it, " for abiding in non identity when we are so used to the Old Home, takes a lot of time.

  2. After enduring the self-seriousness of previous poems, this is the funniest, most self-effacing masterpiece of introspection imaginable. Mark Twain would have bellowed laughter had he read this spoof.

    Speaking of Mark Twain and the title, 'I felt my life with both my hands', I've really tried to resist providing the URL of one of Twain's funniest imaginable spoofs of an academic literary lecture, but, alas, to no avail. Serious students should hit the delete key now.

    Some Thoughts on the Science of Onanism, 1879

    Please don't banish me Susan.

  3. Something has happened in ED’s brain. A poem ago she was consigning herself to centuries of waiting for a man, and suddenly she’s looking at her dimples in a mirror. Are they still there? “YES!”

    “My dimples return even after I manipulate them with both hands! I pushed them by and presto, they reappeared! Life on Earth did not cease when that man absconded with my heart! Maybe life on Earth ain’t so bad after all.”

    Nellie Forbush, that hick from Little Rock, A-R-K, could actually survive and be happy here on Earth and in Heaven without wealthy, sophisticated Emile De Becque.

    "I told myself, "Take Courage, Friend—
    That—was a former time—
    But we might learn to like the Heaven,
    As well as our Old Home!"

    Something has happened in ED’s brain and she can laugh about it!

    As Woody would say, her heart was a tough muscle.