Tag Archives: Death

The Seed of Noon

Winter Solstice tonight—time for darkness and contemplation, waiting.  We pause at the turning point before embarking on the long return to summer.  Emily holds a splinter of light and asks: Where does it point?   What is the path it wants to illuminate? Not the whole path, just the beginning.  It begins with a song.

#250, c. 1861

I shall keep singing!
Birds will pass me
On their way to Yellower Climes —
Each — with a Robin’s expectation —
I — with my Redbreast —
And my Rhymes —

Late — when I take my place in summer —
But — I shall bring a fuller tune —
Vespers — are sweeter than Matins — Signor —
Morning — only the seed of Noon —

Sound brought the universe into existence and so does everything else come to life with sound.  When we speak an intention or desire, that begins it.  “I love . . . I want . . . Why don’t we?  Would you . . . Will you?” All these sounds lead to trouble and change.  The ground shifts because someone says, “I want.”

Emily does something a little out of character here when she writes: “I take my place in summer . . . ”  which pleases me.  She announces her right to occupy space.  She is a fully realized person of weight and substance.  That “I take” borders on aggression, assertion certainly.

Then at the end in the direct address to “Signor” her tone dials back from the hungry tigress to the coquette.  “Vespers are sweeter than Matins . . .”  She veils her energy in a pretty and holy metaphor.  By the time we get to the end of the poem, however, it’s too late.  No one can mistake the fierce woman behind the flirty words.  She has already tipped her hand.  She may soften her note to persuade, rather than frighten.  But this Signor faces a woman of appetite.  He should be so lucky.

What is she up to?  Emily sings in celebration of the late harvest, the fuller tune of that mature season of summer that comes after the callow, youthful spring.  Furthermore, her song lasts forever, long after the Robins have been silenced by age, death, winter.  The song that Emily sings onto the page is informed by the intelligence of a long life and all the shocks that give her voice dimension and timbre, the story beneath the song.  This song is sweeter because it is more interesting, complex, veined with an awareness of death, thus more sustaining.  Em says that time has made her the better lover.  Her song isn’t kidding around. Signor is an idiot if he doesn’t recognize the value of that.

Tonight for the solstice, I’ll make a meal—not sure what yet, but something good.  Then we will have grilled figs, our own late harvest.  We’ll light the candles on the Christmas tree, and sit in the darkness to watch the small flame flicker against its opposite.  We’ll do all that just to know what it looks like to hold a light in the dark.  We will complete these gestures, as we do every year, to see our hope external and playing shadows on the wall.


Filed under Emily Every Day

Between Spirit and Dust

As we move toward the best season of the year, Emily’s birthday on December 10th, the news is good.  Ford in his Flivver and all is right with the world.  The Saints are 9 and 3.  Last night, Patrick Robinson flew like a bat out of hell to block that field goal attempt by the Lions.  A thing of beauty.  I’m happy with where we are at the moment.  Although the Titans could give us some trouble next week.

Despite the cheery season, Emily returns to her favorite subject.

#976, c. 1864

Death is a Dialogue between
The Spirit and the Dust.
“Dissolve” says Death — The Spirit “Sir
I have another Trust” —

Death doubts it — Argues from the Ground —
The Spirit turns away
Just laying off for evidence
An Overcoat of Clay.

Here Death is the argument between the matter of the earth and the ghost in the machine.  Death gets to say something, but Death owes its existence to the tension between the physical outcome of organic degeneration and our imagination’s stubborn refusal to give in to that.  So much spirit talk is born out of sheer obstinacy.

My focus goes to the line where she characterizes Death as a dialogue, not an entity, although Death does assume form and speech in the poem.  Death is a conversational exchange.  It takes two to create Death.  An essential split in our nature is where Death emerges as a character with something to say.  Without that duality within ourselves, we don’t have anything to talk about.  Or rather we have no one to talk to . . .  No dialogue, no Death.  Only changing form.  Skin, hair, bones, teeth, dust, mud . . . fertilizer.  And then some other form.

My own conversation with Death has been lively off and on since I was fourteen years old, both as a theoretical concept and as a more brute consideration.  This past September is a good example.  If you want my advice, don’t get cancer.  It puts a damper on things.

All right, I’m being glib.  That’s how we roll in my tribe, especially when considering Death.  The way to get through life with any dignity is to act the fool.  Afraid of Death?  Grab him by the throat and crack wise.  You’ll never make a friend of Death.  But do make him your straight man.

For the record:  I’m not dying.  Not yet, at least.  But I had an interesting brush with malignant melanoma.  A bad mole on my left arm.  The good news is that we found it at an early stage, so the surgeon removed it all in one swoop, along with a large portion of my skin.  No need for further treatment, no chemo or sentinel node biopsy.  I will have to be on high-alert for other bad moles, but for now I am in the clear.

Those are the clinical facts, over and done with in the space of a month.  The waves that move out from those facts continue to roll up against my thoughts, and I expect will do so for the rest of my life, which I hope will be a long one.  My sister who is a survivor of stage III breast cancer has talked about “the gift of cancer.”  My friend Shaun who is also a melanoma survivor used the same phrase.  They were talking about cancer as a great awakener.  That it clarified how they had been neglecting some essential part of themselves.  They said cancer gave them the power to love their own lives and act accordingly.

So I have been looking for the gift of cancer in my medical adventure.  It’s here.  What great material.  I can run my engine on this for a long while.  And I’m not done yet.  Not by any means.


Filed under Emily Every Day

Emily and Jeanne

Today is the Feast of the Epiphany and the 599th birthday of our patron Saint Jeanne d’Arc.  Epiphany babies often have an aura of destiny about them.  As a birth placement, this day can be almost literally brilliant.  According to the Christ myth, today the light of the world appears to those who have been seeking it.  Those who might believe in it.  I’m going to celebrate this evening with the Krewe de Jeanne d’Arc which will parade through the Vieux Carre and end at the golden statue of the Maid of Orleans near the Market.  I’ll give you a full report tomorrow.  Maybe.  If I’m not carried away by some errant tide of joy.  That could happen.  You never know.

In honor of her soul sister Jeanne, Emily sent this note from the dark.

#1323, ca. 1874

I never hear that one is dead
Without the chance of Life
Afresh annihilating me
That mightiest Belief,

Too mighty for the Daily mind
That tilling its abyss,
Had Madness, had it once or twice
The yawning Consciousness,

Beliefs are Bandaged, like the Tongue
When Terror were it told
In any Tone commensurate
Would strike us instant Dead

I do not know the man so bold
He dare in lonely Place
That awful stranger Consciousness
Deliberately face —

There is so much in this poem that I can’t hold it all at once. I’ll try to swim a straight line through it. My first response is to observe the similarities between Jeanne d’Arc and Emily Dickinson. They were both precocious, neurasthenic young girls with talents far exceeding their society’s ability to appreciate. Both were caught in a time that could not comprehend a woman of any age who possessed the power that each wielded in her own way.

Both, I’d argue here, were “afflicted” with consciousness. By that I mean that these two were both missing a layer or two of the usual protection (that “bandage”) that most of us carry around with us. The layers that shield us from a too intimate knowledge of ourselves or our consciousness. These two could not escape or ignore the experience of awareness. Most mortals can’t survive without ignoring their own consciousness. Em alludes to this protection in the line: “Too mighty for the Daily Mind”. A lesser sort born with Emily’s raw openness to the eternity within would fall into that “Madness.” No one sinks into the darkness behind her own eyes with any real willingness. It’s usually a forced step. Emily is the one with the curiosity and the courage to go there as a regular practice. And then write about it. Maybe that writing spared her from the madness. She was angling slant-wise toward this when she wrote “The Truth must dazzle gradually/ Or every man be blind —” The fact of conscious existence, our ability to be aware of our awareness, is too excruciating to dwell on in any direct or lengthy manner. For Emily, the most excruciating part, is her ability to hold awareness of life beyond death.

I’ll warrant that Jeanne wondered if she was going mad, as well. Both of these extraordinary girls were shocked, dazzled, and then finally drunk like madwomen on their own talent. Their power to “see”. Both had the sight or visions, which of course, according to the contractual terms of magical power, comes with a big responsibility. The difference between them is that Jeanne left the safe anonymity of her family and went out into the world to become a warrior of enormous political influence. While our little brown sparrow, Emily stayed home and drove herself deeper inward. Her vision bored infinitely into that mustard seed, her kingdom of Heaven.

Emily’s power exploded onto the page in private. “My Life had stood — a Loaded Gun —” She knew what she was sitting on—an atomic bomb of awareness, her own consciousness. Maybe it was out of compassion for her society that she withheld herself from public view. If she had unleashed her vision, she might have brought a nation to its knees (like Jeanne), and she might have been torn to pieces for her crime of greatness (like Jeanne). So a little of both. Pity for the ignorant society she was given at birth. And a healthy dose of self-preservation.

Who can say what was the better path?  Jeanne changed the tide of history and died in agony before her 20th birthday.  No one got to see Emily’s iconoclastic poems in her life time, but she was granted a long career, made good use of her time, and died as quietly as she lived.  I guess we need both of them.

The gift I receive from Emily is a trapdoor and an invitation. She lifts the cover from the opening and points into the darkness. Readers like me may descend, floating on a dark wave, comfortable, room temperature. There limits melt and open toward the infinite unfolding that lies just outside our peripheral vision. Emily shows us how to turn and see deeply behind our own eyes. That loss of solid space/time boundaries might scare us back toward front and center. But no. It’s okay to follow Emily’s directive. She’s gone there first. We don’t have to be afraid.


Filed under Emily Every Day