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28 June 2024

Out of sight? What of that?


Out of sight? What of that?
See the Bird—reach it!
Curve by Curve—Sweep by Sweep—
Round the Steep Air—
Danger! What is that to Her?
Better 'tis to fail—there—
Than debate—here—

Blue is Blue—the World through—
Amber—Amber—Dew—Dew—
Seek—Friend—and see—
Heaven is shy of Earth—that's all—
Bashful Heaven—thy Lovers small—
Hide—too—from thee—


  -F733, J703, Fascicle 35, 1863


Here is a poem to inspire, a masterpiece of rhythmic force and feel. You can feel it soar in its very sound.

Dickinson most often wrote in common meter, also called Hymn meter. But within the constraint of this structure, she invents constantly, molding the rhythms of the language to underscore the meaning of the poems. It is a joy to watch her do this, poem after poem. This one is a good example. It is, essentially, in common hymn meter, but look what she does with it.

First there is that rat-a-tat of the first line, “Out of sight? What of that?” A fancy word for this kind of three syllable loud/soft/loud metric unit is a cretic foot. This rhythmic move continues in the second line with “See the Bird.” These three cretic feet in a row sets up an emphatic spondee (two accented syllables) with the phrase “Reach It!” The effect is that you really feel the oomph behind the directive to reach. Rat-a-tat Rat-a-tat Rat-a-tat BUM BUM. 

The dash in the second line is odd because it breaks up the sentence. The sentence goes, “See the bird reach it!” But that dash not only adds to the rhythmic emphasis, it also subtly adds the idea that what you are reaching is not just sky, it’s the bird: “See the bird - Reach it!”

The cretic feet continue in the following line, “Curve by Curve - Sweep by Sweep.” From there on this poem plays with this rhythm and repetition to underscore emphasis and meaning. The Greek terminology of poetic meter is just a way to describe what it is that Dickinson is doing musically in the poem, how it is she is achieving her effects. It’s fun. You could say we are tracing the poem itself, curve by curve and sweep by sweep.

The cretic rhythm set up in the first three lines is abruptly interrupted in the fourth line. It starts with a cretic foot, “Round the steep,” but then leaves the line hanging after “air," which is appropriate because the line is left hanging in mid air. Rhythmically, following Common Meter, “Danger!” should be at the end of the fourth line: “Round the steep air - Danger!” But Dickinson achieves a subtle effect by leaving that fourth line suspended and then surprising us with "Danger!" at the start of the fifth line. It's a tiny little jump-scare.

Dickinson poems are marvels of composition. I also like the way Dickinson echoes “air” in the rhyme of the next three lines too.

Danger! What is that to Her?
Better 'tis to fail—there—
Than debate—here—


The idea that it’s better to fail in the attempt, than sit around and debate it, makes danger a mute point. It is perhaps MORE dangerous not to try, because you will regret it. If you go for it, at least you can say you tried.

This poem begins to philosophically deepen in the second stanza.

Blue is Blue—the World through—
Amber—Amber—Dew—Dew—


This is so much fun to say, you almost miss what is being said. Wait, what is being said? On one hand it seems as if the same blue, amber and dew that is in Heaven is also here on earth. It is the same blue in the sky as in the water. So that begs the question, why reach at all, if it’s all right here? I suppose the reason to reach is for the joy of flying.

If there is a common theme in Fascicle 35 so far, it might be that of “Reaching." These poems seem to both encourage it, and also keep you grounded in reality, at once. 

Seek—Friend—and see—
Heaven is shy of Earth—that's all—
Bashful Heaven—thy Lovers small—
Hide—too—from thee—


Why would Heaven be shy of earth? And, an equally difficult question, if we love Heaven, why would we hide from it?

Perhaps there is a clue in the previous poem in fascicle 35, in which Lot exhibits faith by sheltering strangers. God doesn't trust men (is shy of them) and so he sends his angels looking for good ones. And men don’t trust strangers either. It is only faith that leads Lot to shelter these strangers, who, being angels, save him from destruction in return. 

This is a poem to revel in. It is so confident and knowing in its tone, that it feels as if it were a divine leak. But what to make of it? "Blue is Blue—the World through—/ Amber—Amber—Dew—Dew—" It's a good mantra to remember. It's unforgettable after you say it out loud a few times. It's all here, the poem says, but since it is the same there, why not fly?

    -/)dam Wade l)eGraff



The bar-tailed godwit flies 8,500 miles, from Alaska to Tasmania, non-stop.






27 June 2024

A first Mute Coming—

A first Mute Coming—
In the Stranger's House—
A first fair Going—
When the Bells rejoice—

A first Exchange—of
What hath mingled—been—
For Lot—exhibited to
Faith—alone—

    -F732, J702, Fascicle 35, 1863


If we took just the first stanza of this poem, we would have the outline of a romantic comedy. Shy (mute) strangers meet, but presto, before you know it there are wedding bells.

Or you could take this first stanza as a synopsis of a life: a child is a born, a “first Mute coming,” and then dies, “a fair going,” funeral bells celebrating her life and signaling the transition to heaven.

But the second stanza brings Lot into the poem and complicates it. Let’s look at the story of Lot. Here’s a synopsis of Genesis 19: 1-29. God promises Abraham that he will spare Sodom if just 10 righteous men can be found. He sends two angels to Sodom to see if they can find a few good men. They find one. The angels come across Lot, Abraham's brother, who bows down to them. Because he is a good man, he offers these strangers his home and makes a meal for them. The angels say thanks, but they will stay in the square. Lot insists, so they come with him. Meanwhile, Genesis 19:4 says, “All the men from every part of the city of Sodom—both young and old—surrounded the house. They called to Lot, ‘Where are the men who came to you tonight? Bring them out to us so that we can have sex with them.’” Lot offers his virgin daughters to the men of the city instead, in order to protect the strangers. The men don’t want the daughters though, they want the attractive angels, and they tell Lot to get out of their way. The angels blind the men surrounding the house and tell Lot to leave the city with his daughters and wife. Since ALL the men in the city are trying to have sex with these angels, that means there are less than 10 good men, and therefore the city must be destroyed. Lot and his family are told not to look back. Lot’s wife looks back anyway and is turned into a pillar of salt. 

There’s much more to this wild story, but the part Dickinson is focusing on here is merely the idea of treating strangers hospitably and the happy result of doing so. “A first Mute Coming—/ In the Stranger's House—” most likely refers to the angels staying with Lot. The angels are “mute” about their identity. I think Dickinson is getting at the idea here that all strangers are angels, if we could but truly “hear” and understand this.

“A first fair Going—/ When the Bells rejoice—” would then, following the story of Lot, be leaving Sodom before it is destroyed. I’m not sure why the bells would be rejoicing here if the city is being destroyed, but, for Lot, not to mention his many descendents, survival is cause for celebration.

A first Exchange—of
What hath mingled—been—
For Lot—exhibited to
Faith—alone—


So the first exchange, when Lot first met and mingled with the strangers, was the key moment. Lot, being a man of faith, takes in the strangers and that makes the difference.

If you read the syntax of this stanza at a certain angle, the exchange has been mingled for Lot. The word “mingled” seems to be doing triple duty here. Lot has A. mingled feelings about B. mingling with strangers because people can be C. a mingle of good and bad. But despite the mixed feelings, he has faith in their goodness anyway.

The moral of the poem appears to be that if you have faith in the goodness of strangers, then it will lead you to rejoicing bells. See the divine in people, and you will be led by people to the divine.

   -/)dam Wade l)eGraff


"Lot entertaining the two angels" by Manetti

P.S. The story of Lot was fascinating to dive into and left me with more questions than the poem. One of the many questions was why Lot's wife was turned into a pillar of salt for looking back? The consensus seems to be because salt preserves food. The idea of a pillar of salt here then is meant to symbolize preserving the lesson of not looking back. Now I know. 

P.P.S. One wonders what Dickinson made of the homophobia of this passage, not to mention Lot's willingness to sacrifice his virgin daughters for the sake of strangers. 




25 June 2024

A Thought went up my mind today –

A Thought went up my mind today –
That I have had before –
But did not finish – some way back –
I could not fix the Year –

Nor where it went – nor why it came
The second time to me –
Nor definitely, what it was –
Have I the Art to say –

But somewhere – in my Soul – I know –
I’ve met the Thing before –
It just reminded me – ‘twas all –
And came my way no more –


   -Fr731, J701, Fascicle 35, 1863


When you come across a Dickinson poem that seems simple, you are naturally suspicious. It is almost always the case that there is more than meets the eye, often waaaay more. But does there have to be?

In an article for the LA Weekly, Alexandra Socrarides writes, “I eventually returned to the poem, because deep down I knew that Dickinson couldn’t just be saying that. It wasn’t her way to write anything so clear cut.” Socrarides was writing about the poem, “I’m nobody – Who are you?,” but she could just as easily have been talking about this poem.

This poem is, on the surface, funny. It reminds me of a Shel Silverstein poem. And why not? Dickinson was writing these poems nearly every day for years, so there is bound to be all sorts of poems in the mix. Not to mention, there is a lot more to Shel Silverstein poems than meets the eye sometimes too. (Afterall, where does the sidewalk end?)

I’ve read analyses of this poem that want to make something deeper out that “Thing” the poet “met before.” Indeed “Thing” does sound a little sinister. One commentary surmised it was suicide Dickinson was talking about, another, embarrassment, and yet another, addiction. It’s possible, but I think all of this is reaching after straws.

Maybe the Thought was of marriage? But the fact that she “could not fix the year,” probably rules that out. In fact it would rule out any major life event the Thought might be affixed to.

There are a lot of intriguing things to ponder here though. The idea of a thought going “up” the mind, as if the mind were a chimney, is provocative. Up from where?

The fact that the poet, who possesses the most subtle Art of all, says she doesn’t have the “Art” to say definitely what the Thought is certainly has me curious. What kind of Thought would be beyond THIS poet’s Art?

The idea that she says she knows in her SOUL that she has met the Thought before gives it extra weight. This must not be an ordinary Thought.

“It just reminded me – ‘twas all –” she says.  Reminded her of what? 

Then there is the ending in which we find out that the Thought “came my way no more.” Why didn’t it? What happened to it?

So many questions.

Was the thought the thought of a lost thought? David Preest writes, “The ‘Thought’ may have been the idea for a poem. If so the whole mental experience becomes another poem!”

Maybe it's not that complicated. Maybe this is simply a poem about how thoughts come and go? Who knows? The depth of this poem seems to lie, ultimately, in absence.

Whatever it is, the questions this poem raises leaves me in suspense. I'm very curious what you think. What's your best guess?

    -/)dam Wade l)eGraff










24 June 2024

You've seen Balloons set — Haven't You?

You've seen Balloons set — Haven't You?
So stately they ascend —
It is as Swans — discarded You,
For Duties Diamond —

Their Liquid Feet go softly out
Upon a Sea of Blonde —
They spurn the Air, as t'were too mean
For Creatures so renowned —

Their Ribbons just beyond the eye —
They struggle — some — for Breath —
And yet the Crowd applaud, below —
They would not encore — Death —

The Gilded Creature strains — and spins —
Trips frantic in a Tree —
Tears open her imperial Veins —
And tumbles in the Sea —

The Crowd — retire with an Oath —
The Dust in Streets — go down —
And Clerks in Counting Rooms
Observe — "'Twas only a Balloon" —


  -F730, J700, Fascicle 35, 1863


Ah, what a ride this poem takes you on, albeit one with a crash landing. Dickinson’s metaphors can be wonderfully, and maddingly, complex. Here we have a balloon that turns into a swan, which are both a metaphor for…something. Somehow Dickinson manages to keep both of these metaphors afloat at once. As to what this metaphor signifies, it's left up to the reader, but we will get a new twist and possibility in nearly every line.

Let’s take it stanza by stanza.

You've seen Balloons set — Haven't You?
So stately they ascend —
It is as Swans — discarded You,
For Duties Diamond —


Usually “set” means to set down. It’s possible that’s what Dickinson means here, but since this ends with the balloon being torn by a tree and tumbling into the sea, I think “set” here means to set off. You’ve seen balloons set off haven’t you? If you have, you know how stately they ascend. Stately, like all of Dickinson’s adverbs, is rich. It can mean at once dignified, unhurried, majestic and elegant, but there is also something a little grandiose about it. 

The second level of metaphor comes into play in the third line. The balloon is like a swan, and it is as if this swan discarded you for duties diamond. Discarded is good verb choice too. It implies that you have been rejected and are no longer useful or desired. So while we admire this stately balloon there is also something snobbish about it. You’ve been snubbed. And for what? For “Duties Diamond.” Dickinson has such a way with a phrase. "Duties Diamond" has such a ring, especially as it half rhymes with ascend, blonde and renowned. 

In this fascicle thus far we’ve had a fair amount of meditation on what it means to try to achieve impossible goals. In F724 Dickinson speaks of the impossibility of touching the rainbow’s raiment. "Yet persevered toward — surer  — for the Distance —How high —Unto the Saints' slow diligence — The Sky —" And in the poem before this one she speaks of “the perfected life.” These poems seem to waver between admiration for such a pursuit and distrust.

Their Liquid Feet go softly out
Upon a Sea of Blonde —
They spurn the Air, as t'were too mean
For Creatures so renowned —


The feet of swans are “liquid.” “Liquid Feet” is another great phrase. You can imagine the water dripping off the feet of the swan as they lift off from the sea. 

"Feet" is almost always a code word for poetry in Dickinson, a shorthand for metrical feet. So this one word takes us into the realm of the metapoetic. Indeed, the feet of this poem are quite liquid in their lifting off from the ground of prose. "Their Liquid Feet go softly out/ Upon a Sea of Blonde" just rolls off the tongue. You can read this poem as being about the pursuit of poetry, something far afield from common air of the counting houses.

Liquid is also juxtaposed with “air” in this stanza. The element of the elements in this poem is intriguing. The balloon/swan is rising as if to “spurn the air.” Again, this creature appears to be too good for our atmosphere, which is too “mean,” meaning small, or lesser. 

The Sea of Blonde I take to be sunlight. "Sea of blonde" is yet another great phrase. In researching this poem I came across an interesting exploration of the word “blonde” in Dickinson’s oeuvre. While I can’t say I agree with the overall point of it, I did very much enjoy the essay’s in-depth explication of this poem.

Their Ribbons just beyond the eye —
They struggle — some — for Breath —
And yet the Crowd applaud, below —
They would not encore — Death —


That first line shows how adeptly Dickinson mixes her metaphors here. Swans appear to have ribbons just behind the eye, but so do hot air balloons!





And in the next line too, the struggling for breath, you can imagine both the blast valve of a hot air balloon breathing into its belly to help it ascend, and you can also imagine a swan breathing hard as it flies up. 

The struggle for breath recalls the spurning of the air in the previous stanza. This isn’t an easy atmosphere for such liquid creatures.

But breathe they must, because the crowd is not going to give an encore unless the Diamond Duty is fulfilled. Here we get the idea of a performance added into the metaphorical mix. The liquid creature appears to be self-conscious of the crowd. It is as if a ballerina had suddenly taken the stage. A blonde ballerina no doubt. There is also a kind of joke in the idea of there being no encore for death. Death is it. There is no coming back out on stage.

The Gilded Creature strains — and spins —
Trips frantic in a Tree —
Tears open her imperial Veins —
And tumbles in the Sea —


To gild something is to cover it with a thin layer of gold leaf. The gold color here reflects back on blonde, but also to the idea of something being stately. The creature is straining to breathe and fly. 

Why does it spin? Well, the poem takes a spin here, for one. And again I think of a performing ballerina spinning in the air. I think that in the logic of the poem though the spinning happens when the balloon gets entangled in the branches of a tree. 

It’s ironic that it is a tree, a thing rooted in the earth, a creator of the very oxygen this creature has been spurning, that has tripped it up.

“Tears open her imperial Veins” is a violent image. It’s painful what happens to this stately, gilded graceful creature. While its ascension was slow and beautiful, the denouement is quick and terrible.

The tumbling in the sea recalls the myth of Icarus, who flew too close to the sun. But here Dickinson gives us a more homely version of this myth, in which it is the entanglement with the earth that brings the creature down, not the sun.

The Crowd — retire with an Oath —
The Dust in Streets — go down —
And Clerks in Counting Rooms
Observe — "'Twas only a Balloon" —


The crowd is disappointed and leaves with an “oath.” Oath has a double meaning here. It can mean both a curse, and a prayer. “Jesus!” is an example of this. In Flannery O’Connor’s “A Good Man Is Hard To Find” as well as George Saunder’s “The End of Firpo In The World,” you have a similar idea, a character exclaiming “Jesus!” as both a swear word and a sincere plea at once. Of course "oath" can mean a promise too. It's as if the audience is promising never to try something like this crazy balloon-swan stunt at home. 

"The dust in streets go down" is a powerful image. The crowd has dispersed, the dust has settled. The earth has come back to itself, just like the imperial creature that has been grounded.

The final couplet brings a new level of meaning to the poem. On one hand this poem looks askance at the creatures who spurn and discard us. On the other hand what would life be without them? We’d be no better than the money-men who reduce the ethereal swan of the imagination back to a mere a balloon as they count the proceeds.

Dickinson is masterly at seeing both sides of the coin. On one side of the coin we badly want the creature to succeed in its diamond duties, but on the other side, we are suspicious of its ambitions. There is a part of us that wants to bring it back down to earth, back down to we who have been discarded. Still, we hate those coin-counters in the end, don’t we?


    -/)dam Wade l)deGraff


22 June 2024

The Props assist the House –

The Props assist the House –
Until the House is Built –
And then the Props withdraw –
And adequate – Erect –

The House support itself –
And cease to recollect
The scaffold, and the Carpenter –
Just such a Retrospect
Hath the Perfected Life –
A Past of Plank – and Nail –
And slowness – then the Stagings drop –
Affirming it – A Soul –


    -F729, J1142, Fascicle 35, 1863


This is fairly straightforward for an Emily Dickinson poem. But even in a straightforward Dickinson poem there are oddities to ponder. The basic gist here is that a soul is like a house. It must be propped up by a scaffolding as it is being built, and then, when you pull the scaffolding away, it stands erect. Once the house is up it no longer remembers the scaffolding, nor the tools and the carpenter. 

The person no longer “recollects” the support system that helped perfect it. That could be a dig at the way people tend to forget all the help they had along the way. Perhaps this is a poem that wishes to recognize the process, yet it also points forward to when it is time to let the support system go. 

It is an encouraging reminder that we will eventually reach equilibrium in life if we have support, which also reminds us of the importance of being that support for others. Poetry itself is something we use to prop ourselves up. 

This poem may also be read as a declaration of independence, like the one made in the poem, “I'm ceded—I've stopped being Theirs—” Dickinson is moving toward a kind of absolute independence in her life. 

I’m drawn to the word “slowness." The process of a “perfected life” takes time. It takes patience. I also admire the idea of a “perfected life.” What does that mean for a poet like Dickinson? Is there such a thing as a perfected life? There is something powerful about the idea that the thing we are working toward is becoming a soul. Normally we think of a soul as something we inherently have, but in Dickinson’s view, in this poem, it appears to be something we are working toward. A soul is something to be achieved. 

  -/)dam Wade l)eGraff



P.S. An alternative word for "scaffold" in the 8th line that Dickinson provides is "Augur." This is also the word Dickinson used in an alternate version of the poem she later gave to Susan Dickinson. The use of the word Augur here is intriguing. The Dickinson Lexicon tells us

augur, n. [Word play: pun on “auger” the tool and “augur” the omen.]

[ED's var. spelling of “auger”; OE nafu, nave of a wheel + gar, piercer, borer, spear.] Carpentry tool; drill bit; long metal shank; [fig.] beak; hard bird mouth.

[L. av-is, bird + -gar, talk; or L. aug─ôre, increase, promote.] Prophet; diviner; soothsayer; Roman religious official who carried a staff; one who predicts future events in accordance with omens from the behavior of birds.

So, in this one line of this poem, as it appears in the alternate version, “The augur, and the Carpenter,” we have a pun that encompasses the old testament (the prophets) and the new (since Jesus was a carpenter). Part of the perfected life, it implies, is following the example of Christ. But I think Dickinson is also hinting here that eventually even that is a prop that falls away. 

P.P.S. A few days after writing this I came across an Elizabeth Bishop poem called "The Imaginary Iceberg" in which I read these lines, "Icebergs behoove the soul/ (both being self-made from elements least visible)/ to see them so: fleshed, fair, erected indivisible." Here is another great poet talking about the soul being created, rather than inherent. 


19 June 2024

The Judge is like the Owl—

The Judge is like the Owl—
I've heard my Father tell—
And Owls do build in Oaks—
So here's an Amber Sill—

That slanted in my Path—
When going to the Barn—
And if it serve You for a House—
Itself is not in vain—

About the price—'tis small—
I only ask a Tune
At Midnight—Let the Owl select
His favorite Refrain.


      -F728, J699, Fascicle 35, 1863


A judge is like an owl; perceptive, authoritative, solemn, august, and somewhat mysterious. The poet’s father tells her this, so we can add didactic and patriarchal to this list. We might also think of Judgment from on high and God the Father here. 

“And owls do build in oaks.” Oaks are strong and rooted, and if you are a judge, you want to be rooted in strength. Wise owls, like judges, build in strong oaks.

In the the last line of the first stanza you get the pivot that this poem spins on. Wise owls build in oaks? Okay you judges, “So here’s an Amber sill.” We’ve gone from the mighty oak, to an amber sill, which is Dickinson’s branch off this oak. Poetry has entered the picture. And it’s entered the picture at a slant. You can’t hear the word “slant” in a Dickinson poem without hearing the echo of her lines, “Tell the truth, but tell it slant,” (F1263) or, “There's a certain slant of light” (F320). You might also think of Dickinson’s famous use of “slant” rhyme, which she uses in this poem itself to great effect.

In this poem the reader encounters Dickinson's slanted Amber Sill, the one in her "Path,” i.e. in the Path of the poet. Amber is another rich word. Things are preserved in Amber, not unlike how poetic form preserves words. The color Amber lights up majestically in the sun. And “Sill” is the thing at the edge of a window, the ledge upon which rests vision and possibility. This is what is to serve the owl, in this poem, as a house. The slanted Amber Sill might just be the poem itself.

We have made quite the turn in this poem from the Father’s world of judgment to the poet’s world of midnight tunes on amber sills. We’ve gone from patriarchy to poetry, from judgment to music, from criticism to nurturing.

I love the generosity in the lines “And if it serve You for a House—/ Itself is not in vain—” The poet’s slanted "Amber Sill” is not in vain if it can give the reader, the one who is judging this poem afterall, a home. That’s kind. The judge isn’t giving anything to the poet here. Rather the poet is allowing the judge a perch on her modest, but gorgeous, Amber Sill. And all she asks is a song in return. She's not going to judge the judge though. The judge may present her with whatever song it desires.

Who?

-/)dam Wade l)eGraff





P.S. In Christanne Miller's anthology of Dickinson's poems she offers this note, "The Judge is: may refer flirtatiously to Otis Lord, at this point a close friend of her father's ad a judge on the Massachusetts Superiour court; the northeastern long-eared owl is named Asio Otus." Ha. Later, in the 1870s, Dickinson would, purportedly, nearly marry Judge Otis, so in a way this poem may be prescient. If she offered a “home” to Judge Otis, perhaps it would be her Amber Sill.

P.P.S. There is a fantastic blog called "Dickinson's Birds" in which you can see the original MS of Dickinson poems followed by sound bites of bird songs they refer to. Here's the post for this poem.

18 June 2024

Life—is what we make of it—


Life—is what we make of it—
Death—we do not know—
Christ's acquaintance with Him
Justify Him—though—

He—would trust no stranger—
Other—could betray—
Just His own endorsement—
That—sufficeth Me—

All the other Distance
He hath traversed first—
No New Mile remaineth—
Far as Paradise—

His sure foot preceding—
Tender Pioneer—
Base must be the Coward
Dare not venture—now—


   -F727, J698, Fascicle 35, 1863


Trying to follow the ins and outs of Dickinson’s thoughts on the Christian faith from poem to poem is a trip. In the poem two back from this one (in the order Dickinson wrote them down in a little sewn together booklet now categorized as Fascicle 35) we have the line, “Their Height in Heaven comforts not. Their Glory nought to me.” There are many lines which seem to reject Heaven in Dickinson’s work. And yet Christ is almost always a positive example.

Here Christ is a guide to the other side. “His own endorsement/ That sufficeth me.” Christ is endorsing Death, and that’s enough for the poet. Christ chose to die on the Cross. He was a “tender Pioneer.”* He ventured to die so that others may live.

As this is a Dickinson poem, we have some sticky points. First is the first line, “Life is what we make it.” That line counterbalances against the idea of Death that fills the other 15 lines of this poem. Death leads to paradise? Maybe? We don’t know. Christ says so and there were supposedly witnesses, but who really knows? So at the end of the poem we turn back to the beginning again: “Life is what we make it.” We have agency, here and now, to make of it what we will. In a much later poem Dickinson will write, “In this short Life that only lasts an hour/ How much - how little - is within our power.” (F1292)

Another wrinkle in this poem may be seen in the phrase, “Far as Paradise.” That Paradise seems all but unattainable. But this poem points to the idea that if we followed Christ’s example, then perhaps we would, indeed, be living in Paradise. This makes sense. If everybody had enough love for humanity that they were willing to lay down their lives for it, wouldn’t the world be much closer to a kind of paradise? But that “Far” is, as is pointed out in F724, impossibly high. There is a wry eye looking askance here: “All the other distance he hath traversed first. No new mile remaineth as FAR AS PARADISE.” But on the other side of death, who knows? The paradise we may reach is the better world we leave behind us. But that’s cold comfort.

Christ was exceedingly brave. He, or she, who does not venture to die for love, like Christ did, is a coward. And not just a coward. A base coward.

That’s heavy. Though Dickinson has previously sworn off Heaven, and glory, or any kind of reward, here she a coward anyone who will not follow Christ into a meaningful death. This is a challenge that goes beyond the pale.

One terrific thing about this poem is the line “His sure foot preceding.”

This poem has trochaic feet. If you don’t know the terms of poetic metrics, a foot is a beat that generally contains two syllables. A trochaic foot is one that starts on the heavy beat, like this, "TA da." Most of Dickinson’s poems, and the English language itself, tends toward the iambic foot, which starts on the soft beat and goes "ta DA." For a poet to invert the order of iambic rhythm to trochaic rhythm, there must be a good reason. Shakespeare, in one famous instance, uses trochaic meter whenever the witches speak in Macbeth, in order to “weird” the language of the Weird sisters. It also adds the sing-song quality of spells to their speech. In the case of this poem, Dickinson is using trochees to start each line off with a sure foot. Christ’s foot is sure. He steps to his death with purpose. So does this poem. TA da!


   -/)dam Wade l)eGraff


P.S. The “Him” in the first stanza of this poem, and throughout, is confusing. Death is personified in this poem, so Him refers to death. It is perhaps meant to be confusing. Him seems to belong to both Christ and Death in this poem, almost as if they were one in the same. And indeed, what makes Christ Christ is simply his sacrifice, which is brought about through Death. In a sense the two are inextricable. "Christ's acquaintance with Him/ Justify Him—though—" I think the ambiguity of that second Him is on purpose. They justify each other.

P.P.S David Preest writes of this poem, “Emily often expressed doubts about God, but in this poem she shows the same unwavering trust in Jesus that she had shown in poems J225 and J241.” Preest also makes a helpful parallel between this poem and 1433, "God sent his son to test the Plank [= the bridge between this life and the next] /and he pronounced it firm.’

*He was the tender pioneer. In the poem two before this one Dickinson writes of the glimmering frontier beyond the acres of Perhaps. If we connect the two poems we can see Jesus as the Tender Pioneer heading out into that glimmering frontier.


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. 

   -/)dam Wade l)eGraff

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.