Tag Archives: identity poems

My First Knowing

Drenching rain this morning and too cold to sit on the porch. My practice, as originally conceived, has been derailed by a number of factors not all of them atmospheric. Let’s first review today’s submission from Emily.

#1218, c. 1878

Let my first Knowing be of thee
With morning’s warming Light —
And my first Fearing, lest Unknowns
Engulf thee in the night —

The daily fabric shifts when you expand your home (either literal or psychic) to include one more. So much that is new comes into the house with another person. Not only that simple fact of physical presence, but waves of change all through the rooms. It is as if the house itself and the apparently invisible air inside it were made of some warp and weft that has to open or move aside to make room for a new person. To shift from one woman (plus a brown dog) to one woman, a brown dog, and a man is like cracking open an egg. Something is lost, and something is gained. The two conditions cannot exist simultaneously, and the house breathes differently as a result.

It would be nice to keep the egg whole and perfect in its bottom-heavy wobble. The potential inside could remain there for good and maintain its integrity as potential. (I love that “potent” root of “potential”.) However perfect, the unbroken egg does not offer its nourishment. It doesn’t go anywhere or do anything. It does not explore the scope of its destiny and never fulfills its potential.

I suppose I could remain on my porch forever . . . or at least a long time. I could find those perfect boundaries of my constructed world. Then after I’d had enough, I could let it crack open and see what sort of potential flows out of that into realization. It’s messy, sure. Nothing more disturbing than another consciousness in space. Also nothing more stimulating. I allowed this shift. I invited the change. As I adapt to it and find my new posture in shared space, I can’t help but notice what was lost and what is gained.

In her poem, Emily looks at the arrival of consciousness. Once she allows another into hers, she loses that peace and purity of strict selfhood—the night empty of others. It’s inevitable. You never sleep entirely well again once you choose to love. You have been cracked open. You gave away your peace in exchange for the shock of knowing yourself in love. The gain? To be fed again and again, nourished body and soul.

No one lives without destroying something.

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Newest Grace

I can’t think about anything but the Super Bowl right now. Sure, we just elected a new mayor (at last!), and I have to make a sweet potato/turnip casserole for the party. And then there are the sundry Sunday chores to do around the house. Yet, I cannot hold a sensible thought beyond the game this afternoon. What has happened to me? I used to have my head straight. Now I’m a Saints fan.

Emily doesn’t care about the Saints or football, for that matter. Not really. She pretends to go along with the tide of enthusiasm, but I know she’d rather dither in the garden with a Bee.

# 896, c. 1864

Of Silken Speech and Specious Shoe
A Traitor is the Bee
His service to the newest Grace
Present continually

His Suit a chance
His Troth a Term
Protracted as the Breeze
Continual Ban propoundeth He
Continual Divorce

Maybe when she wrote “Breeze” she meant to write “Brees”? Maybe not.

How like a Bee is a man. Or how like a Bee is the masculinized Emily. What is it, Em? Are you the flower? One of many visited by the inconstant bee, who “marries” and “divorces” lightly and often. Or are you, Emily, the one whose shifty heart refuses to remain fixed on one love? The poem does not tell us where she stands in the scene. Nor does the poem tell us what we are supposed to think of a bee whose affections are so unreliable.

The bee is a “traitor”, guilty of pretty flattery (“silken speech”) and offering false footing in relationship (“specious shoe”). Yet he is present to grace continually. That appearance of the word “grace” holds my attention. It is the only wholesome word in the poem. The only inspiration to rise out of the wretched mass of deceit and betrayal and divorce.

Grace. The bee is the agent of grace at every moment. I am still struggling with grace. How to explain it? The best I can do is to describe the space or movement around grace. Grace exists in a spontaneous burst, unsolicited and unanticipated. Grace descends from Heaven, touches us and is gone. We can’t ask for it and can’t hold it. It is the only real gift from God.

Emily says that grace, this ephemeral treasure beyond measure, may come to us by specious means. Do not judge the agent of grace. He may appear as a corrupted form. Untrustworthy trickster, unfaithful, unreliable. No one you’d introduce to your friends. Yet he may bestow the only gift worth having. We may not understand the container that God chooses to deliver grace. That is not ours to evaluate. Nor can we refuse grace if it comes to us by way of a character we do not admire. It would be hubris for us to decide what is the proper form grace should take. Our role in relationship to grace is to receive it. Allow our soul to be pollinated by the visitation, and let it go.

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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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