Bees, Basho, Blossom, Brogdale.

As interlude to the Emily Dickinson discussion, a nicely crafted project of artist/poet Alec Finlay’s. Alec asked a variety of poets to translate Basho’s famous haiku about a bee reluctantly leaving a peony flower, and then hung his gathered translations in blossoming trees in Kent. There are some great responses to the mission, and I felt I’d had a whizz-bang masterclass in the possibilities and strategies of translation after I’d read the resulting collection through.

Here’s Luke Allan’s photo of my humble (bumble?) contribution.

Iain Morrison's Basho translation for Alec Finlay

And lastly, Emily Dickinson does still get a look in! Ken Cockburn has fashioned one of his translations in fine tribute to her.

Advertisements

Subject Index Day 4: Putting the brakes on Emily Dickinson

I’m going to write up Day 4 of Subject Index in parts.

This final day wound round the houses a little in my ordering of the poems as, knowing I wasn’t going to be able to read all of the remaining poems, I tried to navigate a suitable closing path for the 4-day process of Subject Index. The first part of the day saw me reading for 5 hours, on my own or with Mirja present filming and listening. This took me from Johnson edition number 751 to 972 – slow-goingly, satisfyingly, slightly despairing of not having made it further than the year 1864 of Dickinson’s life.

I stopped for a quick breather and a sandwich across the road at my flat and came back for an evening session which 10 visitors turned up to at various times (I love you energy-giving audients!), and I attempted to execute a reading of the last dated poems in Johnson’s edition. I picked up at poem 1509, having leapt forward sixteen years of Emily’s life to 1881. This was frustrating, as I could sense a big change in the form of what I was reading, and I’d hoped to chart the changes incrementally all the way through her writing life. It was not to be, however, and not just because of the chunk I skipped over in the book, but also because at this end of her writing career, the poems simply aren’t coming as thick and fast, so you don’t get the same illusion of poems appearing at the rate of living. You can’t settle into them either, they’re mostly very short, and because I was mapping them too, I was up and down every thirty seconds to record a number on the board. I read in this way from 1509 through to number 1648, dated 1886, the year of her death.

Then! I realised I still had another half an hour left. I’d misjudged the timings because there were so many short poems in this section. I was frankly unsure what to do with my last half an hour in Emily’s clothes. Well, like in some of her celebrated poetry, the consciousness continued past death and I tentatively read on through 1649, 1650 and 1651 in the ‘undated poems’ section. This was enough to convince me, given what felt like a sudden thickening intensity of the poems’ thought-weave, to go back to where I had left off, at 973, where I remembered that same satisfying feeling, and to read from there onwards until closing time came at Argyle House.

I hoped that it would be enjoyable for those still listening to hear some longer, more wrung poems at the end of the vigil. A relief for me too to be in the middle of her writing life again, strategic decisions past and the course set in that last half hour.  I got as far as poem 1017.

In the next posts I’ll talk a bit more about the poems I read on the last day and what I found. For now, here’s an image of the map I made in its finished (for now) state. I think it looks pleasingly geographical! I had a conversation with Stevie from ForestCentre+ in the pub after about how the map might be given a digital afterlife, allowing people to click through to poems from their position on the map, so I’ll keep you posted if I pull that off at any point.

Emily Dickinson world map of her poems

Subject Index: Day 3 (and a bit of overspill!)

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’.

Just Wow.

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 —