Cold Comfort

I am on an aeroplane, heading toward New Jersey for a visit with my family. (Ah, New Jersey! My New Jersey! Cradle of my girlhood!) The pilot apologizes for the failed air conditioning and also tells us that we are cruising at 30,000 feet. Emily wants to talk about the persistence and the inadequacy of memory.

#1259, c. 1873

A Wind that rose
Though not a Leaf
In any Forest stirred
But with itself did cold engage
Beyond the Realm of Bird —
A Wind that woke a lone Delight
Like Separation’s Swell
Restored in Arctic Confidence
To the Invisible —

What sort of wind blows without stirring a leaf? The swift flight of unbidden thoughts racing across the poet’s inner landscape. In Emily’s case, this is the forest between her ears.

The Invisible appears again here. Now it gives cold comfort. She changes her mind on a dime, this girl. Her prerogative, I guess. The power of thought sweeps her back into memory of a “lone Delight.” This ability to summon delight from the past, from an airy place where no bird can fly, is sealed in cold secret. This is the “Arctic Confidence.” No one will ever know. A girl’s mind can be a fortress. Be warned. Emily herself may not grasp it in warm living form. It remains out of sight, shut away, frozen in time.

Such delights yield no real pleasure, only the memory of pleasure. Something like pleasure, but not the real thing.

Memory gives a transient sensation, caught in the net of time, one may brush up against a passing ghost from history. It lacks the warm shock of the new. The tangible now. Memory is a chilly place of no up or down, or side to side. It is a sterile atmosphere. It engages only with itself because no one else is there. Nothing may grow because there is no rude intrusion of the other. Only the cold, clean remembrance of things past, sealed and fixed as in ice.

What I find remarkable about memory is that it is so intoxicating. A memory, whether of past delight or past pain, draws me in as if it were a drug I can’t resist. Like most addictive substances, the rush of sensation from wallowing in the memory is over, almost before it has begun. Finally, it fails to satisfy. It is engaged only with itself. There is no helpful cross-pollination. No movement of solid forms through space. Only the pale flickering images on the mind-screen.

When Emily closes by returning to the Invisible, she’s asking us to think about where these memories come from. Or go. Or what is their purpose. To think again and again, no matter how this chilly wind fails to love the soft animal, still it draws us toward that ineffable thing — the Invisible. The web of divine intelligence that animates the world may not be perceived with eyes open.

I hear a woman, gazing within her own superb mental and imaginative processes, who sees that profound strength. She sees it for what it is, while also recognizing — cold comfort there.

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