A Birthday Is the Thing With Feathers

Today is Emily Dickinson’s birthday.  She is 182 years old.  Here is the poem that came to hand this morning.

#1228

So much of Heaven has gone from Earth
That there must be a Heaven
If only to enclose the Saints
To Affidavit given.

The Missionary to the Mole
Must prove there is a Sky
Location doubtless he would plead
But what excuse have I?

Too much of Proof affronts Belief
The Turtle will not try
Unless you leave him — then return
And he has hauled away

A birthday is the thing with feathers. So much to say now. I’ll try to encompass it all, as we move deeper into the winter dark.  First an update:  The weather is springy warm and humid.  The Saints lost yesterday.  The end of the world is nigh.  Not necessarily because the Giants killed the pants off the Saints, 52 to 27.  Yet, surely these facts must have some meaningful resonance with each other.  I couldn’t help myself.  I was depressed and declared that the dwindling days of the Mayan calendar and the Saints’ abysmal performance are energetically linked . . . somehow.  Then it was time for dinner.  Pizza and beer helped my mood.  I also had to ask Geoff, “What spiritual lesson do we take from this game?”  He hates spiritual lessons and would not answer.   He was even more depressed than I was.  After dinner, several hours after I asked the question, he did finally answer it.  I’m paraphrasing here:  The lesson is that however bad it feels when the Saints lose, it’s never so terrible that you cannot recover and look forward with some optimism, a little joy.  Of course, by “forward” we mean next season, not the next game.  This season is cooked.  And that “look” will have to draw on the deepest stores of renewal and fundamental faith in the simple ideas:  Onward, practice, figure it out, and try again.  Try again.  And then try again.

Now for the poem.  Honest, I did choose this one at random.  The Saints line jumped out on its own.  The stanza at the end holds me.  “Too much of Proof affronts Belief.”  The literalness of the physical world diminishes our capacity to strive toward the fuller development of our Self.  We won’t do it without that ever receding thing we call faith.  (Faith in what, you ask?  Oh, I don’t know—honor, dignity, fairness, goodness, that seamless connection on the long pass out of the shotgun, the poetry of beauty that works.)  If the things we want to believe in announce themselves in the world as if produced and directed by Steven Spielberg, we’d scoff at these as too literal.  Paradoxically something seems less spiritually True if we can see it as literally true.

So those things we believe in or have faith in—whatever it is, doesn’t have to be God—such ephemera make us get up in the morning and try to accomplish tasks greater than merely maintaining bodily existence.  In order to draw this effort from us, these ephemera must remain slightly unknown, just beyond the limit of the mind’s capacity to comprehend.  If these ephemera that ask for our faith appeared in concrete totality, so we could see all the sides, top and bottom, then we would not accept them as worthy of our faith.  And the engine loses its drive to exist.

Emily plays with the mind’s ability to set its own impossible tasks.  Human survival requires that we try for something that will never be realized.  That’s the job that keeps our blood circulating.  So this is not idle poetic meandering to formulate such ephemera as honor, dignity, fairness, goodness . . . the hope for that perfect long pass.  These are deliberately elusive.  Suggested without complete realization.  (It takes imagination to love the Saints; you have to be able to see things that may never exist.  Imagination feeds the human life force as much as pizza and beer.)  The power of the unproven outcome to simulate our life force is counter-intuitive, but it works.  Now, you’d want to build a house on a solid four-square foundation, such that you can see all the physical aspects and know it has structural integrity, in order to trust that foundation to hold up your house.  Conversely to build a life, you’d start with a foundation made from a concept (honor goodness dignity) that never fully reveals itself.  You must place your faith here without compete proof that it exists.  Human existence rests on the continuing puzzle of unverifiable existence.

Thank you Emily and happy birthday.  I am so happy that you exist.

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Proximity to Chaos

A few weeks ago I went to the AWP Conference in Chicago.  One of the panel discussions I attended concerned Emily Dickinson’s poems.  The panelists focused on certain themes.  One scholar discussed bird imagery.  Another examined how Emily treats the marking of time, hours, seasons, on the calendar.  David Baker said that Emily is “the most terrifying poet in the English language for sheer proximity to chaos.”

The scholars read from prepared remarks, eloquent and formal.  Then one of the readers looked up from his pages and interrupted his own erudite exegesis to blurt out: “She’s so weird.”  The words seemed to jump from his mouth of their own will.  His tone was part admiring and part exasperated.  I appreciated his honest emotional and subjective eruption.  Time and again, after all the academic wrestling with Emily’s poems, she leads us back to the beginning . . . where she is just so weird.

I notice this the most when I read a poem that I had already wrestled with sufficiently.  I thought I had gotten my arms around it and understood it, or at least some small part of it.  Then after some time passes, I read the same poem again and it appears as an entirely new animal to me.  My second reading is nothing like the first.  Somehow that “understanding” slipped through my grasp.  Hers are less like poems than smoke.

Emily the shape-shifter, she is her poems, stripped bare of any of the easy handles.  Yet in that nakedness she remains utterly cloaked.  We just have to start over again, new to the poem each time.

Here is one that I have not wrestled with yet.  At least I don’t I think I have.  Or not lately.

#578

The Body grows without —
The more convenient way —
That if the Spirit — like to hide
Its Temple stands, alway,

Ajar — secure — inviting —
It never did betray
The Soul that asked its shelter
In solemn honesty

The Soul and the Spirit are not interchangeable terms.  These are identified separately, although both reside in the same holy place, the Body.  The Spirit may hide, while the Soul asks for shelter.

My first reaction here is to recall the Mother Superior character in The Sound of Music when she counsels the troubled Maria that the convent is not a place to hide from the world.  Women choose the cloistered life to pursue something within themselves that they can only find in solitude and isolation from the world.  A woman who is afraid of the world or needs a hiding place would do better to face the thing that frightens her.  The contemplative life is not for cowards.  Although one could be tempted to treat it as a refuge from a cracked and chaotic world.

If Mother Superior could have this conversation with Emily, the poet would have responded that her Temple, her body, is both ajar and secure.  The Body invites.  But who gets this invitation?  It’s very exclusive.  Other people?  I doubt it.  The Body invites the Soul inside to join the Spirit (present at birth, maybe) residing or hiding depending on how you look at it.  Soul comes to the Body from the rich, complicated world out there.  Soul is some non-embodied source that may join that indwelling Spirit.  The Body protects this union, offers a safe place for this marriage to take place.

I am not sure who would win the rhetorical contest between Emily and Mother Superior.  It would be an interesting debate.  I don’t think the answer to Emily’s prayers lies “out there.”  Something else in Emily’s Temple keeps her “in here.”  She isn’t saying . . .   Weirdo.

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February’s Foot

Ground Hog’s Day seems a good time to make this announcement.  My book, My Bayou: New Orleans through the Eyes of  a Lover (Michigan State University Press) has been published and should arrive in bookstores any day now.  There is more information on my new website.

Ground Hog’s Day or February 2nd is also Imbolc, sacred to Brigid with her great belly-shaped cauldron.  It is also the Feast of the Purification of the Virgin, when the Blessed Mother leaves her postpartum seclusion and goes to the temple, where she is bathed and prepared to re-enter society.  Forty days after his birth, her baby has grown safely past that delicate, infection-prone stage of early life, and she may present him to the world without fear that he’ll catch his death of cold.

The day marks the faint stirring of new life.  It shows here in this mild, rainy humid place.  The Japanese magnolia in my yard is sprouting all over with small green leaves.  There is a lot of dead brown junk, but I see the beginnings stirring underneath.  This weather would be considered spring by most other standards.  Emily looks onto a New England winter that is nothing like mine.

#1133, ca. 1868

The Snow that never drifts —
The transient, fragrant snow
That comes a single time a Year
Is softly driving now —

So thorough in the Tree
At night beneath the star
That it was February’s Foot
Experience would swear —

Like Winter as a Face
We stern and former knew
Repaired of all but Loneliness
By Nature’s Alibi —

Were every storm so spice
The Value could not be —
We buy with contrast — Pang is good
As near as memory —

The only thing Emily and I have in common right now is February’s Foot. We’re both under it. The difference between this condition in Amherst, Massachusetts and New Orleans is that here February’s Foot wears a jeweled strappy sandal with a soft sole and a kitten heel. In Emily’s case, the foot on her neck wears an ice-crusted boot, thick, solid, unforgiving.

The winter freeze in her poem has a cleansing quality, setting out a pure white space. The cold kills off everything but loneliness. The color of white is really the absence of color. We can even call white the color of death exactly—it does not point to loss or decay, but removal.  A vacancy, where life and color used to be.

This a an abrupt contrast to my February where winter is a riot of color. Purple, gold and green! Carnival is about to explode into our daily lives. We grow fat on cake and misbehavior. One of the first changes I noticed in myself when I made New Orleans my home was that my customary seasonal affective disorder disappeared. All my life I had experienced a deep depression in winter. My emotional state went into steep decline in January and a didn’t come up to a level approaching normal until April, after the ice had thawed. Once I’d had a few winters in New Orleans, I noticed this depression never had a chance to take hold of me again. Just as winter sadness began to creep into me, Carnival would snap its fingers, and I had to get busy, making my costume. It’s impossible to be depressed under the gauzy banner of Mardi Gras. Plus the weather doesn’t lock you indoors where depression incubates. Who knew?! All those years I didn’t need anti-depressants, just the Pagan Rites of Carnival.

This is genius, whoever thought of it. What a smart antidote to the inevitable emotional flattening that our environment slams us with each season. Of course, New Orleans is not the only place to celebrate Carnival. The practice exists in France, Germany, Italy, South America . . . wherever you find deep and old enclaves of Roman Catholics, you find this wise, psycho-cultural anti-depressant. Just not in New England. Those Protestants wear their depression with pride. Important to note this is not the grand, sparkling, spiking pain of Roman Catholic suffering—also called “passion”—how operatic. No, the Protestants have cornered the market on that low-grade, chronic, dulling down, long drawn-out suffering—the pain of endurance.

I’m over-simplifying, but I’ve got my reasons.

Emily strives to make the point, “pang is good.” She insists we need these blanketing snow-bound February storms where all the eye can see disappears as if into the great void for a time, which on the poet’s clock is forever. Emily claims that without the contrast, we do not gain the emotional value of the return to life. While under the frost of February’s foot, the depressed person cannot remember anything else but nothingness and loneliness. It stretches infinitely in all directions at once. The depressed mind knows no limits, sees no shape or cycle to her emotional life. Each minute of winter is eternal.

Emily wants us to consider the value first of being muffled into vacancy and then given a reprieve. The shift from nothing to something, the first green shoot that sends life and juice into all our cells, and we return to ourselves. Em says we can’t fill ourselves up without first becoming empty.

I’m not sure . . . after enduring plenty of those vacant winters myself, I want to invite Emily to live in south Louisiana for a few seasons and then ask if she is still so attached to that seasonal affective disorder. I’m glad she has made poems about it. What else is there to do in western Massachusetts in February? Still I’d like to see what Emily would do with Carnival. Wouldn’t you?

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