Tag Archives: Emily Dickinson

The Seed of Noon

Winter Solstice tonight—time for darkness and contemplation, waiting.  We pause at the turning point before embarking on the long return to summer.  Emily holds a splinter of light and asks: Where does it point?   What is the path it wants to illuminate? Not the whole path, just the beginning.  It begins with a song.

#250, c. 1861

I shall keep singing!
Birds will pass me
On their way to Yellower Climes —
Each — with a Robin’s expectation —
I — with my Redbreast —
And my Rhymes —

Late — when I take my place in summer —
But — I shall bring a fuller tune —
Vespers — are sweeter than Matins — Signor —
Morning — only the seed of Noon —

Sound brought the universe into existence and so does everything else come to life with sound.  When we speak an intention or desire, that begins it.  “I love . . . I want . . . Why don’t we?  Would you . . . Will you?” All these sounds lead to trouble and change.  The ground shifts because someone says, “I want.”

Emily does something a little out of character here when she writes: “I take my place in summer . . . ”  which pleases me.  She announces her right to occupy space.  She is a fully realized person of weight and substance.  That “I take” borders on aggression, assertion certainly.

Then at the end in the direct address to “Signor” her tone dials back from the hungry tigress to the coquette.  “Vespers are sweeter than Matins . . .”  She veils her energy in a pretty and holy metaphor.  By the time we get to the end of the poem, however, it’s too late.  No one can mistake the fierce woman behind the flirty words.  She has already tipped her hand.  She may soften her note to persuade, rather than frighten.  But this Signor faces a woman of appetite.  He should be so lucky.

What is she up to?  Emily sings in celebration of the late harvest, the fuller tune of that mature season of summer that comes after the callow, youthful spring.  Furthermore, her song lasts forever, long after the Robins have been silenced by age, death, winter.  The song that Emily sings onto the page is informed by the intelligence of a long life and all the shocks that give her voice dimension and timbre, the story beneath the song.  This song is sweeter because it is more interesting, complex, veined with an awareness of death, thus more sustaining.  Em says that time has made her the better lover.  Her song isn’t kidding around. Signor is an idiot if he doesn’t recognize the value of that.

Tonight for the solstice, I’ll make a meal—not sure what yet, but something good.  Then we will have grilled figs, our own late harvest.  We’ll light the candles on the Christmas tree, and sit in the darkness to watch the small flame flicker against its opposite.  We’ll do all that just to know what it looks like to hold a light in the dark.  We will complete these gestures, as we do every year, to see our hope external and playing shadows on the wall.


Filed under Emily Every Day

New Figs in Winter

Good morning.  Today is Emily’s 181st birthday, and there was a total lunar eclipse.  It might have been somewhat visible in our sky at about 6:00 a.m.  But I slept through it.  Chances are it would have been covered by clouds anyway.  The day is gray and cold.  Here are Emily’s prescient remarks:

#415, c. 1862

Sunset at Night — is natural —
But Sunset on the Dawn
Reverses Nature — Master —
So Midnight’s — due — at Noon.

Eclipses be — predicted —
And Science bows them in —
But do one face us suddenly —
Jehovah’s Watch — is wrong.

The poem gives us a solar eclipse, not quite consonant with today’s weather, but I’ll take it.  The “Sunset on the Dawn” is the line I like.  She points to an eclipse, which darkens the sun just at the time that we expect it to be most bright, as a reversal of Nature.  Yet it can happen and often does.  Eclipses occur all the time.  We know about these events and what causes them.  Yet the eclipse still touches some atavistic fear that the sun may be dying and the world coming to an end.  In our primitive reactive lizard brain, nature is perverted when the sun doesn’t do what we expect.

Given that we see eclipses happening all the time, albeit not often, wouldn’t that make it “natural” insofar as it does happen in nature?  Apparently not. Astronomers map out eclipses well into the future in their star charts.  They always know what is happening out there and calendar celestial movements with mathematical precision.  Even with all that comforting information, these events still arouse an old anxiety about the correct order of things.

The eclipses that change us, that reverse Nature, are the ones we didn’t predict.  Here Emily means “eclipse” more broadly as a sudden change, something gone, or something returned.  I want to ask what makes one thing a product of Nature and another a reversal of Nature?   If it happens in the physical world then that is Nature doing its work, right?  If it surprises us or “face one suddenly” that is only because we have not yet fully understood our Nature.  These unexpected “eclipses” that Emily suggests serve only to reveal the unseen parts of ourselves.

I particularly enjoy her blasphemy at the end:  “Jehovah’s Watch — is wrong.”  There are more things in Heaven and Earth, Horatio . . .  Jehovah’s Watch is Adam and all the humans that descended from him.  The human body and mind comprise the watch tower that houses Jehovah’s presence.  Emily says that Jehovah’s Watch is wrong.  Not Jehovah.  She does not presume to know the mind of God.  But she is willing to dismantle the bricks of the self-appointed watch tower—those fallible humans who have missed a few turns in the road along the way.

She is not willing to genuflect to Science, either.  There are a few things that the astronomers failed to predict or explain.  For Emily the truth is in the middle, in that tension between faith and knowledge, where the foreground and background shift past each other in a constant optical illusion.   The middle ground where poems rest.

Speaking of reversals of Nature . . . my fig tree gave me five ripe figs this morning.  Here we are on the cusp of the Winter Solstice and my silly fig tree, who apparently can’t tell time, has decided to bear new fruit.  Geoff’s fig tree (which I gave him—everyone I love should have a fig tree) has also fruited spontaneously and mysteriously in this early winter.

I was thrilled to receive these fruits, no matter how unnatural their arrival.  The pickings in Summer are usually slim because those idiot Blue Jays eat all my figs before I can get to them.  The birds can spot the ripening blush sooner than I do, which makes sense—they’re more invested.

In any case, my answer is Yes!  I will take this late harvest.  The figs are fat and sweet.  Perhaps a little tougher than what I’d get in July.  Still, this fruit will feed me just fine.


Filed under Emily Every Day

Between Spirit and Dust

As we move toward the best season of the year, Emily’s birthday on December 10th, the news is good.  Ford in his Flivver and all is right with the world.  The Saints are 9 and 3.  Last night, Patrick Robinson flew like a bat out of hell to block that field goal attempt by the Lions.  A thing of beauty.  I’m happy with where we are at the moment.  Although the Titans could give us some trouble next week.

Despite the cheery season, Emily returns to her favorite subject.

#976, c. 1864

Death is a Dialogue between
The Spirit and the Dust.
“Dissolve” says Death — The Spirit “Sir
I have another Trust” —

Death doubts it — Argues from the Ground —
The Spirit turns away
Just laying off for evidence
An Overcoat of Clay.

Here Death is the argument between the matter of the earth and the ghost in the machine.  Death gets to say something, but Death owes its existence to the tension between the physical outcome of organic degeneration and our imagination’s stubborn refusal to give in to that.  So much spirit talk is born out of sheer obstinacy.

My focus goes to the line where she characterizes Death as a dialogue, not an entity, although Death does assume form and speech in the poem.  Death is a conversational exchange.  It takes two to create Death.  An essential split in our nature is where Death emerges as a character with something to say.  Without that duality within ourselves, we don’t have anything to talk about.  Or rather we have no one to talk to . . .  No dialogue, no Death.  Only changing form.  Skin, hair, bones, teeth, dust, mud . . . fertilizer.  And then some other form.

My own conversation with Death has been lively off and on since I was fourteen years old, both as a theoretical concept and as a more brute consideration.  This past September is a good example.  If you want my advice, don’t get cancer.  It puts a damper on things.

All right, I’m being glib.  That’s how we roll in my tribe, especially when considering Death.  The way to get through life with any dignity is to act the fool.  Afraid of Death?  Grab him by the throat and crack wise.  You’ll never make a friend of Death.  But do make him your straight man.

For the record:  I’m not dying.  Not yet, at least.  But I had an interesting brush with malignant melanoma.  A bad mole on my left arm.  The good news is that we found it at an early stage, so the surgeon removed it all in one swoop, along with a large portion of my skin.  No need for further treatment, no chemo or sentinel node biopsy.  I will have to be on high-alert for other bad moles, but for now I am in the clear.

Those are the clinical facts, over and done with in the space of a month.  The waves that move out from those facts continue to roll up against my thoughts, and I expect will do so for the rest of my life, which I hope will be a long one.  My sister who is a survivor of stage III breast cancer has talked about “the gift of cancer.”  My friend Shaun who is also a melanoma survivor used the same phrase.  They were talking about cancer as a great awakener.  That it clarified how they had been neglecting some essential part of themselves.  They said cancer gave them the power to love their own lives and act accordingly.

So I have been looking for the gift of cancer in my medical adventure.  It’s here.  What great material.  I can run my engine on this for a long while.  And I’m not done yet.  Not by any means.


Filed under Emily Every Day