Woke up at 5:00 this morning. As my grandmother used to say, “Something in my head goes boom! And I’m awake!” The women in my family just don’t sleep after a certain age. I couldn’t sleep either, so I took Lance out for our morning circle of the bayou. At 5:00 in the morning it’s actually borderline pleasant out there. A breeze, almost cool, dries the sweat for a moment or two. Then by 6:30, the air feels like a wet paper towel again. I’m on the porch, coffee and Emily at hand.
#708, c. 1863
I sometimes drop it, for a Quick —
The Thought to be alive —
Anonymous Delight to know —
And Madder — to conceive —
Consoles a Woe so monstrous
That did it tear all Day,
Without an instant’s Respite —
‘Twould look too far — to Die —
Delirium — diverts the Wretch
For whom the scaffold neighs —
The Hammock’s Motion lulls the Heads —
So close on Paradise —
A Reef — crawled easy from the Sea
Eats off the Brittle Line —
The Sailor doesn’t know the Stroke —
Until He’s past the Pain —
I like it when she shows up in her own poem to make an announcement of her own peculiar habits. That assertive “I” tells us what Emily does from time to time, rather than hanging out behind an abstract theme. Bring it down to the particular, Em. The whole universe is there in your thought.
Today she wants to talk about how we obscure our awareness of our own destiny. We divert ourselves. We go to sleep in order to forget what we know. We know what we know, but we’d rather not know.
Emily notices herself doing this, choosing to forget, to look away. To prefer the delightful diversion over contemplating the end. Yet, she acknowledges that these deliriums, the Hammock’s motion, are the only things that get us, even Emily, through. Were it not for the foolish diverting delights, the rude underpinning of existence would be so unbearable that we’d prefer Death to come sooner rather than later. She asserts at once the deceptive nature of life’s pleasures and the absolute necessity of these deceptions.
We get lost in the diversions to make the walk on earth acceptable, more than merely bearable. We’re lying to ourselves about the destination of our walk, but we need those lies. In fact it is our ability to lie convincingly to ourselves about the essential death-ward directed path of our lives that makes any kind of life possible.
I remember a conversation I had with my mother a long time ago. We were talking about someone who was in the end-stage of life. My mother said, “Well, we’re all dying, aren’t we? After the age of 21, that’s when we all begin to die, right?” I don’t know why she chose the age of 21 as the demarcation line when we all begin to die. I think she meant that that’s when the body stops growing, when it has reached the peak of flowering, new cells, etc., and shifts into a decaying process. Or at the very least clings to a losing effort at maintenance. If any of us held onto this thought—that we were dying from the age of 21 onward—we’d probably not bother with the rest of it. That’s why we’ll only “drop it for a quick”, here and gone that thought. For me, the thought returns. I have not been able to forget this conversation.
Fortunately for most of us, it’s a slow death. The point for Emily , because she can’t stand not to think her thoughts, is to notice the machinery of the mind as it tries to direct this heap of frail flesh, this body that definitely won’t last, through the effort it must make to live out the years alloted.
I am caught like a struggling fish in the net of her last lines: “The Sailor doesn’t know the Stroke —/ Until He’s past the Pain —” I hold these lines and wait for them to show themselves. An understanding of the nature of our existence is unknown to us. It lies beyond our grasp while we struggle to exist.
Although at times it is hard to read Emily, oftener it is more difficult to be Emily.