Baffled at Her Shrine

You won’t believe this, but another giant alligator has appeared in my bayou. This time someone got a photo of him (or her) in the act of capturing a large white duck in his jaws, and posted it on the neighborhood bulletin board. A froth of dead white feathers pushing along the surface of the water with a lumpy snout and set of eyes following behind.

So that settles that. No swimming in the bayou this summer for Lance. Tough luck. And I’ll have to put in another call to Gary-the-Trapper. Bayou safety maintenance is a thankless and endless task.

Here is todays’ poem, one year to the day since I began this practice and one century before the year of my birth.

#506, c. 1862

He touched me, so I live to know
That such a day, permitted so,
I groped upon his breast —
It was a boundless place to me
And silenced, as the awful sea
Puts minor streams to rest.

And now, I’m different from before,
As if I breathed superior air —
Or brushed a Royal Gown —
My feet, too, that had wandered so —
My Gypsy face — transfigured now —
To tenderer Renown —

Into this Port, if I might come,
Rebecca, to Jerusalem,
Would not so ravished turn —
Nor Persian, baffled at her shrine
Lift such a Crucifixial sign
To her imperial Sun.

Emily the shape-changer takes on many forms here, as she takes us on a tour of her love life. Among other things she is at sea in her own emotions. Her response to this man’s touch is so overwhelming, so oceanic, that all her previous flirtations (those minor streams) are obliterated. Her second stanza tells us that love changes her, makes her more beautiful than before. (Blecchh . . it’s true.) This idea strikes me as a girlish view of womanhood that she is somehow initiated into a finer state when her physical life is destabilized by the arrival of a man. She simultaneously ascends to a higher status where she breathes “superior air” and wears a “Royal Gown”, and also comes down to earth. She loses those wandering gypsy ways of hers, when she was only Herself, Alone, Unique. The change that comes over Emily is that she turns toward some notion of herself as Wife, a notion that anchors her in this turbulent sea of feeling. This would be the Port for her, safety and shelter against the rock-and-roll of love without containment.

Yep, that is the inevitable destination for a woman in love, it seems, hence Emily’s comparison of herself to Rebecca, a famous Wife. I confess that I had to look up the story of “Rebecca at the Well.” I am not so conversant in the Old Testament as I should be. Here is a thumbnail version: Rebecca was chosen by Abraham’s emissary to be the wife of Isaac. She received this great honor because she displayed generosity at the well where the emissary rested and waited for a sign. Rebecca came to draw water and when asked by the emissary, she gave him some to drink. Then without prompting, Rebecca also gave water to the camels. This was the magic moment. Rebecca’s humble compassion for the animals was the quality that struck the emissary as the proper requirement to be Isaac’s wife.

It’s important to note here that the office Rebecca was running for was Wife. Not Lover, not Temptress. Not Queen, not Mother. Not Whore, not Mistress, not Schoolmarm, not Afternoon Dalliance. None of these other fascinating roles for women. No, Wife was the role that Rebecca—and by extension Emily—was up for. Unlike these other relatively simplistic roles, Wife carries a vast complex of social, sexual and political identifications that stick to a woman like flypaper, and she doesn’t have a lot of choice about what she’d like to accept and what not. It’s all there, packed into Wife.

The office of Wife contains the sexual aura of lover/temptress/whore, plus all the animalistic, nurturing, soul-defining stasis of Mother, plus the executive power of Queen, plus the requirement to provide wise restriction as Schoolmarm. Wife is a large bundle of duty, glamour, power and privilege all wrapped up in being the other half of a unit called “marriage” that a woman might easily side-step if she wishes by avoiding men. All these duties, etc. will not be hers to bother with if she just leaves well enough alone and doesn’t mess in the business of love. If she doesn’t concern herself with the oceanic feelings aroused in her by men, then she may remain simply Herself. She doesn’t have to run for office or take on the sticky flypaper of identifications that come to her from the outside. She may divine Herself from the inside, tend her garden, write poems, and be perfectly content for all of her days.

Our Rebecca, bless her heart, was elected to this office that radically disrupted her life and determined the future course of history because she displayed simple kindness to dumb animals. No good deed goes unpunished.

There is more to the story. Rebecca was a great choice for a couple of reasons. She was ready to change her life, and she wanted the job. The marriage was arranged by Abraham for Isaac, but the wedding could not happen without Rebecca’s consent. Isaac did not have the power to determine his own choice of wife, but Rebecca could say “no” if she wanted. She said “yes”. God only knows why. There is a certain line of text in this story that scholars have focused on because it stands out as unusual information. When Rebecca and Isaac met the first time, the text tells us, “And Isaac loved her.” We don’t get to hear Rebecca’s feelings for her future husband, but we do get the sense that Isaac fell hard. Rebecca remained opaque. She had a job to do, business to attend to. She spends the rest of her story running her husband’s life, providing him with two sons, securing water rights for her tribe and maneuvering to put her second son Jacob in line for Isaac’s throne, bumping the first-born (and rightful heir) Esau out of the job because he was incompetent. This is not a pretty view of Mother, favoring one child and scheming against the other. But politics is not pretty. Rebecca did what was best for the nation. It wasn’t personal.

Emily is no Rebecca and never will be. In her closing stanza, she also aligns herself with a “Persian, baffled at her shrine”, which is how a Muslim would regard the symbol of Christianity. When Emily regards marriage she says, “This is not my religion. This is not my story.” What begins as a spontaneous, oceanic feeling leads to a consequence, according to the pressures of a Society that Emily inherited and didn’t ask for. (You know, that dreaded Society that so vexed Emily.) Her Society wants to stuff love into a container of Marriage, which places a lot of social, legal and political constructs around what had been a boundless sensation. She rejects her inheritance. The rejection is complicated. She wants to be a Pilgrim of Love, but hasn’t found the story that fits her love. Given the options, Emily prefers to remain in the purity of Herself, Alone, Unique, where the consequences don’t stick to her—and she can know herself as herself.

Emily’s phrase, “Into this Port, if I might come” suggests that she is considering it, this safe harbor. What choice does she have? She has to look at it. Being Emily, she stands on the line and won’t go there without first looking hard at what she loses and what she gains. And does this really serve Emily as she is—Herself, Alone, Unique? We know the answer. She remained aloof because no one had written her story yet. Emily was left to craft that on her own.

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2 Comments

Filed under Emily Every Day

2 responses to “Baffled at Her Shrine

  1. Dorothy

    WOW. This was a great GREAT blog . Loved it… and of course Love you too, Conk.
    ps. another alligator???

  2. Barbara

    Yikes! An alligator!! Hope everyone is being VERY careful!

    I enjoyed this thought-provoking discussion – you make me slow down and consider Emily’s words more closely. I’ve often wondered why she didn’t marry and I loved the “the sticky flypaper of identifications that come to her from the outside” metaphor. Marriage can be an awfully sticky business!

    Thank you for sharing your insights!

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