Today we have no dashes but a trenchant offering on life brushing up against everlasting Life.
# 1205, c. 1872
Immortal is an ample word
When what we need is by
But when it leaves us for a time
‘Tis a necessity.
Of Heaven above the firmest proof
We fundamental know
Except for its marauding Hand
It had been Heaven below.
In her own gentle way Emily sounds almost angry, certainly piqued. As though she believes she’s been cheated. Here’s what I mean: Faith is easy and theoretical in the beginning of life and this poem, when we have everything we need. We feel no lack, therefore, “immortal” is not only “ample” but also a “word”. Not an experience. It is something written or talked about. Not felt like the “Hand” that comes in the second stanza. Easy enough to stay in the head with this concept.
I am fascinated that the poem takes a sense of the divine from words to flesh. Em feels this “marauding Hand” in her experience, taking away the things that she needs. People she loves perhaps, or her own health and strength. I suspect the latter since these things are taken “for a time”. She might get it back, but while it’s gone, the absence of what she needs forces her to consider the “immortal”, her own passage into death.
This poem strikes me as more grim than bitter. I do not hear her as self-pitying or bemoaning her loss. Rather I hear Emily giving a brutal assessment of the role of faith in the common life of the body. The life we live here on earth, where our feet touch the ground and we expect to get up and move without pain. And we hold that one we want. To summon Mary Oliver, “to let the soft animal of your body love what it loves.”
This is Heaven for Emily, to feel with her own “Hand” that solid, palpable, warm experience of need fulfilled. Not an idea or a word but a lived sense of completion. And she sounds a little pissed off at Heaven for removing this and making pain the lever that causes her to look into Heaven.
Bless her soul. A woman of nearly infinite words deploys her greatest gift toward wrestling this paradox onto the page. I admire Emily’s delicacy in this struggle, and her acceptance of the frustration. She finds her poem at the center of that knot: We are asked to believe in certain things, such as the existence of an immortal soul. But don’t even begin to understand this idea until we are devastated by some loss. Even then we only stand at the edge of understanding because the next step into knowing goes far beyond the grasp of words. There we remain in confusion and frustration until, well . . . I don’t know. Until the next shock pushes us over the line.
I want to close with a story. I walked Lance this morning without the benefit of this giant plastic walking boot that the doctor has made me wear while my broken ankle heals. It is still technically fractured, but it has gotten strong enough that he wants me to start walking unassisted to regain what I’ve lost over the past month of being more or less immobilized.
I also want to report that I have a darling orthopedist. I call him Dr. Charming. The first time I saw him he gave me strict orders not to drive my car (since my right ankle is the broken one). He also gave me a list of other things I’m not allowed to do. Then he closed by saying, “Your ankle will heal . . . if you cooperate.”
When I saw him again four weeks later, he asked, “Have you been cheating?” I confessed that I had taught myself to drive a car with my left foot. I had grown tired of being cooped up in the house and tired of waiting for people to come get me.
Dr. Charming put his fingers in his ears and hummed. “I didn’t hear that,” he said. Then he removed his fingers from his ears. “Have you finished telling me about the illegal and dangerous things you have done?”
How did I get the adorable orthopedist? There aren’t many of these.
The good news is I’m walking again, slowly with a limp and still some pain if I step one hair out of line. But I’m doing it, by God and I’ll keep doing it because I’m on the verge of exploding with frustration if I don’t get my mobility back soon.
This makes me think about an expression I learned at the first magazine I wrote for years ago. When a story really comes together, when you know you’ve got it—a story with life, juice, muscle, heft. When you’ve done the work, and your story has achieved sufficient meaning that people would get something from reading it. That’s when the editor looks at it and says, “Yeah, that story has legs.” It’s ready to run.
My setback is nothing compared to what some people, including my darling Emily, have gone through. Yet, it has forced me to sit still and experience my body as not capable of serving me in all the ways I have come to enjoy and expect. I am spoiled. Filled with rude health, liberty and strength that I take for granted.
This hairline fracture, although a minor health challenge, has caused pain and frustration. More important, it’s the reason I’m sitting here on the porch with Emily, where I get to discuss things with her that normally I would not give my time to considering. So I have my right ankle, slightly damaged, to thank for deepening my relationship to Emily and her poems and my own experiences.
As well, now I know this much is true: They’re going to have to cut the legs out from under me before this is over. I’m ready to run.