I’m not normally someone who has time for the easy contention that Emily Dickinson was obsessed by death, but I have to say I was feeling a little swamped by all the death/dead/dying poems in this particular stretch. There was a real sense of the walls closing in.
I read from 561 to 750, and perhaps the strongest sense I had was of ED trying to make sense of her (to what extent self-chosen?) isolation.
Poem 640 felt very key. It was long for her, 12 stanzas. In a series of skewed reasonings, she outlines what is almost a manifesto for living alone, without a loved one. It’s reminiscent of Donne’s metaphyisical conceits, it recalls courtly love sonnets too in its cool restraint. The ending points up a self-cannibalising attitude which frightened me in its resolve to subsist on: ‘that white sustenance – Despair –’.
Hard on its heels in the Johnson edition, poem 642 extends the theme by imagining a way of isolating herself from emotionally unsustainable interactions even further by divorcing oneself from oneself – an idea which crops up in several of the poems in this period, often to striking repetitious effect. This poem has one of those striking first lines that can send you back and forth from the index of first lines in frenzies of glutting: ‘Me from Myself – to banish – ‘.
So Day 3 was an intense day. Also there were lots of bodily images of arteries, sinew and blood, like in the poem on Autumn, 656. Things got pretty dark.
Sometimes Emily’s voice surprises you in its directness. In 614 I found myself meeting her unexpected full stare in the lines, ‘Many Things – are fruitless – / ‘Tis a Baffling Earth –’
The day’s readings were also heightened by the literally chill wind blowing through the Forest Centre Plus space, with its door propped open in the hope of visitors. It was the first time I had read to a completely empty foyer at times: a very different experience of aloneness. The plastic sheets veiling my interview booth were flapping around in a veritable gale, so the visitors on the other side would have been seeing a series of new angles on my physical presence as the sheets flapped up to reveal them.
I may have looked white and ghostly but fighting the persistent death in this stretch were poems presenting a relentless resurfacing of life. There was a gaspingly visceral one about nearly drowning three times, 598. And in 646, she very strikingly seems nearly to talk herself out of solitude, in what feels like a keenly felt struggle between the temptation to allow herself ‘bliss’ and the opposing sense that it’s ‘beyond her limit to conceive’. I love the last wistful lines, floating with their sense of unrealised social or romantic possibility ‘ What Plenty – it would be – / Had all my Life but been Mistake / Just rectified – in Thee’.
There are some interesting poems concerning events contemporary to her life. We remember in 596 that she is living through the American Civil War. The poet as chronicler is not an aspect of Emily Dickinson that’s very present in the popular imagination.
I have a tranche of new words learned too: thill, thew, attar and dimities. Thank you Emily Dickinson Lexicon. I got more confident too in words that she uses in a certain way which had confused me before: ‘pod’ I gather means ‘bud’, but weirdly, in a secondary definition, also means ‘grave’ or ‘sepulcher’ which might explain a fondness ED has for using it.
And dotted about this section there were some stellar Emily Dickinson famous favourites which gave succour to me when I got to them. The ones you know well appear like footholds in a reading of this sort, helping you out just when your head’s starting to swim with the vertigo of the experience. Poem 569, ‘I reckon – when I count at all – / First – Poets –Then the Sun –’ and poem 585 about the steam train, had this effect. I had a new awareness now in the context of reading through all the poems that this steam train one resonates with others showing her keen interest in science. Poem 630 is one of these, expounding on electricity. The poem compares electricity’s presence in thunder storms and it’s tamed use in telegraph wires. So Emily can present surprises in the breadth and erudition of her reference.
I’m going to end this post by sharing the poem I stopped at, Johnson number 750 because it seemed to offer a shaft of hope out of the death fog. It feels much more balanced, calmer, than the self-denying conviction in the likes of the un-nerving 640 I mentioned earlier in the post. If you trust Johnson’s chronology, 750 was written the year after 640, so I’m hoping that things might be a bit less beclouded in the next stage of readings. Enjoy it’s assured linking of the natural processes observed in the growth of plants to an imputed unconscious development of the human.
Growth of Man — like Growth of Nature —
Gravitates within —
Atmosphere, and Sun endorse it —
But it stir — alone —
Each — its difficult Ideal
Must achieve — Itself —
Through the solitary prowess
Of a Silent Life —
Effort — is the sole condition —
Patience of Itself —
Patience of opposing forces —
And intact Belief —
Looking on — is the Department
Of its Audience —
But Transaction — is assisted
By no Countenance —