Panther In the Glove

Begin where you are.

Trust Emily to put a Panther in a Glove. How did the Panther get into the Glove? Trouble put it there. Only the sort of trouble that a sensitive girl poet could find.

#244, c. 1861

It is easy to work when the soul is at play —
But when the soul is in pain —
The hearing him put his play things up
Makes work difficult — then —

It is simple, to ache in the Bone, or the Rind —
But Gimlets — among the nerve —
Mangle daintier — terribler —
Like a Panther in the Glove

Even when she doesn’t feel like work (terribler! and curiouser, too) Emily is working. She can’t help it. The factory between her ears never shuts down. Well, maybe after she’s dead. Although knowing her, she’ll find a way to continue producing a poem a day even after that change in management.

Yet even when her soul feels like a panther tearing at the inside of the glove, her skin, she writes her daily missive from the darkness behind her eyes. She does this by bringing her attention to what is, instead of dwelling on what she’d rather be. Imagine the force of will it takes to come to the task and craft a sensible work of beauty, when you feel as though the underside of your entire body’s worth of skin is opening to shreds beneath the claws of a wild animal. We have each felt that way at one time or another, although we might not have pulled that precise image from the darkness: a panther inside a glove. Most of us would not be able to make coffee in such a state, let alone write a poem.

Emily sits down to work and makes work out of the thing that wants to stop her work. Even the most ugly, most threatening, all these are fit for her pen because she is writing herself always.

It’s a good thing she is so complex, otherwise this self-interest could become sterile. Sometimes I think Emily withdrew from society because she knew her inner life was so rich, too rich really, that it would require all her attention to investigate. The world must have shrunk into trivial chaff by comparison.

She is sometimes criticized for being self-absorbed and not writing about the worldly events of her time. For example, she lived through the Civil War, but does not take this as material for her poems. My sense is she was after a form of purity by compulsion. A mind seeking an unadorned sense of itself. Anything that did not contribute to that investigation undermined the work.

Not merely a miniaturist, Emily telescoped into the war within herself. When you can conceive of your own soul as a panther, you are locked in a psychic civil war. Not the quivering mouse, her soul is the wild hunter (characterized here with the masculine “him”) driven by pain to ferocious attacks on its own container. The image of the panther does not make concrete the “pain” of the poem, not the cause of the distress. The panther is the soul transformed by pain.

That such a slip of a girl could envision her own soul as something so enormous, destructive, savage, intractable, muscled, fur-covered, ravenous, crazed with pain . . . (Here again is that spiritual hunger for the communion table but now enlivened, shocked, made violent and huge.) All this strikes me, not as self-absorbed or self-indulgent, but astonishingly self-aware. Subtle difference. What an intimidating revelation of Self to Self. Daunting because she knows that once she names it and claims it, she has to hold that panther, live with it, feed it. She has to find a place at the communion table for this ravenous animal.

It must be exhausting to be Emily all day.

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