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23 December 2018

I've seen a Dying Eye

I've seen a Dying Eye
Run round and round a Room –
In search of Something – as it seemed –
Then Cloudier become –
And then – obscure with Fog –
And then – be soldered down
Without disclosing what it be
'Twere blessed to have seen –
                                                  Fr 648 (1863)  J547

The living have no way to really know what happens after death. There are the usual reports from the near dead or briefly dead: the tunnel with a light at the end, for example; or the evanescing (or perhaps effervescing) into the vast Oneness of the Cosmos. But we tend to take these tales with a grain of salt. The brain might be doing strange things as it closes down. We may be conditioned to expect certain outcomes and, thus, imagine we've seen them.
        In this poem, the speaker waits by a death bed or death beds hoping the dying person will provide some indication of what might be glimpsed as he or she passes through the veil separating life from death. But no such indication is forthcoming.
        It's a poem of frustration rather than grief. The speaker details the Eye's movements in the last moments, but it is clear it is not clinical curiosity about what an eye does before becoming "soldered down" with death, but rather curiosity about what the eye sees as the body dies. There is, however, no indication that dying Eyes see anything of note. They become cloudy, then obscured, and then, finally, closed in the finality of death. The poem ends with the speaker frustrated that nothing has been revealed, but Dickinson seems to imply that the dying are not "blessed to have seen" anything.
Fading Away, Henry Robinson: Victorian deathbed watch

In another poem's death scene frustration, a dying person "heard a Fly buzz" when she died rather than seeing "the King," undoubtedly Jesus or some other representation of God or the divine, that those gathered around her were clearly expecting. Instead she sees only a fly as her "Windows failed." The incongruous and existential disparity between savior and fly in this poem (Fr591is profound.

Dickinson refrains from the hushed respect accorded death bed watches. While the buzzing blue fly is an almost sarcastic dismissal of hopes for a divine encounter,  Sharon Leiter  says that the Dying Eye's searching in the current poem "suggests nothing so much as a demented rodent of some sort racing desperately in circles' (Critical Companion to Emily Dickinson, 2007, p. 133). I don't think that Dickinson is dismissing the mysteries of life and death but rather depicting the vagaries, indignities, and ultimately the singularly alone-ness of the passage.

Dickinson compresses two stanzas in this poem, using traditional hymn or ballad style. She further knits the poem together with word sounds. The 'ou's of  "round and round" are echoed in "Cloudier" and 'Without". The rodent quickness is impelled by the "r"s of "Run round and round a Room" followed by the sibilance of "In search of Something – as it seemed – ." "Dying Eye" not only has a core rhyme but the visual element of the "y," and most of the end words can be sorted into two slant rhyme groups: Room, seemed, become; and seemed, be, and seen (plus down with seen).
        But the heart of the poem lies in the center as the poet builds to the final anticlimax. She begins with the Dying Eye searching, followed by three listings: Then it becomes cloudy; and then obscured; and then it is soldered down. Hope diminishes with each step into the final ironic subjunctive.

04 December 2018

To fill a Gap

To fill a Gap
Insert the Thing that caused it —
Block it up
With Other — and 'twill yawn the more —
You cannot solder an Abyss •
With Air –

                                           Fr 647  (1863)  J546

• Plug a Sepulcher   (E.D. Archives)

This short poem starts out confidently as if stating a rule of thumb: if something has fallen out or been removed, fill the gap by putting that something back in. But the next statement is questionable: if you try to substitute something else the gap will only get worse? How can that be? A pearl lost from a necklace can be replaced by a similar pearl. One hearthstone may be substituted for another.  So what is Dickinson talking about?
Wiki commons
When the heart is like an open grave
When she writes that using something other than 'the Thing that caused it' will cause the gap to 'yawn' apart, she conjures the 'yawning grave' – an epithet so familiar as to be almost trite. But Dickinson isn't talking about an earthen grave. Her Gap is an inner rupture, the loss, perhaps, of love or a loved one who occupied the heart. Like a grave, it bears the name of only one occupant. When that occupant is gone, the gap remains. Trying to fill it with another only rips it further.
The loss involved, the rupture, is so deep that the poet rephrases it in the penultimate line as an 'Abyss' – then as now meaning a chasm or void. It is invokes once more the image of a grave, itself the symbol of death and loss. You cannot fill this great gap with someone else; it cannot be soldered with air or annealed by time.

Dickinson wrote 'Plug a Sepulcher' as an alternative to 'solder an Abyss'. It's less subtle and lacks the sibilance, but maybe Dickinson was of two minds about subtlety here. 'Plug' fits with the short, strong 'Gap' and 'Block'. It crudely strips away any romanticism about the death or loss and her response to it. It's harsh, but Dickinson was clearly drawn to it.
To me, though, the harshness, the stab, almost, is more than adequately delivered in the truncated last line, 'With Air –'.  Helen Vendler observes that the poem 'staggers to its close'. A life and this line have been cut too short. There is no solution, no closure.

02 December 2018

'Tis One by One — the Father counts —

'Tis One by One — the Father counts —
And then a Tract between
Set Cypherless — to teach the Eye
The Value of its Ten —

Until the peevish Student
Acquire the Quick of Skill —
Then Numerals are dowered back —
Adorning all the Rule —

'Tis mostly Slate and Pencil —
And Darkness on the School
Distracts the Children's fingers —
Still the Eternal Rule

Regards least Cypherer alike
With Leader of the Band —
And every separate Urchin's Sum —
Is fashioned for his hand —
                           F646, J545  (1863)

In this philosophical poem Emily Dickinson presents a benevolent and just deity through the metaphor of an arithmetic lesson. The teacher is 'Father', the word serving as both the metaphorical father of the student as well as the Father of Creation.

He is a wise teacher, knowing what must be told and what must be left for the students to make sense of. He begins the lesson with single-digit counting numbers, which for most children is simple as they can count along with their fingers. I picture the teacher writing on a chalkboard, pausing after the column of ones, then leaving a gap between it and a column of tens. This 'Tract between' is left as open space for imagination to enter and the students to traverse.
     The approach is frustrating and, Reader, I relate to the Peevish Student. It's no fun to face someone else's puzzle, especially when it comes to the mysteries of numbers and Eternal Rules. Yet when the students finally realize that the second column is the result of some function applied to the first, a function related to the addition of the zero, their peevishness disappears and fingers fly with the (wonderful phrase) Quick of Skill. Soon their slates overflow with calculations – the fleshing out, the adornments, of the underlying Rule governing the value and nomenclature of the tens.
Greenleaf's First Lessons in
Numbers, 1831, Boston

Dickinson never uses the word 'zero' in this poem, but it is implicit. She employs a subtle bit of word play around it as until the early 1800s, zeros were commonly referred to as  'cyphers'. Cypherless space, then, has no zero. Obvious enough. But in Dickinson's day, according to the Lexicon, readers would read 'cypherless' as not just 'lacking zero', but as 'undeterminable; without an exact meaning; unable to be expressed'. It is here that students journey between the column of ones and the zero-enhanced column of tens. It is here that we older readers discover how meaning saturates material, how abundance springs from nothing, and where we contemplate the world called forth from the void.


The third stanza returns us from this rather Kirkegaardian leap and expands the metaphor  beyond arithmetic lessons. The students, still in the realm of Slate and Pencil, struggle with their lessons when darkness falls. Just so do we struggle with faith and spiritual advancement during dark times.
      A good School Master/Father understands this and in accordance with the Eternal Rule fashions each student's lessons according to ability and need. The 'least Cypherer' is valued as highly as the most brilliant pupil, even as much as, if I read it correctly, the leader of a band of angels. 'Cypherer' here again plays on 'zero': while in Dickinson's day it would mean someone who works with numbers, its association with zero suggests a person who amounts to nothing.
      The Eternal Rule governing all this may be what Dickinson's church would have taught as the Golden Rule – doing unto others as we wish others would do to us. It might refer to the numerous parables and teachings Dickinson would have read where Jesus made it clear that to the Father, the meek, the halt and the lame; the poor, the imprisoned, and the thief on the cross are as worthy of blessings and salvation – if not more worthy – than the most learned and powerful.

This poem is among the most regular of Dickinson's work in terms of meter and rhyme. Its simple construction mirrors the simple lesson it teaches. Or so it seems. The more I delved into the first stanza the more redolent and 'undeterminable' I found that 'Tract between' and its traversal to be.