Tag Archives: love 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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Subtle Cargo

Another tropical depression, this one called Bonnie, is heading toward us. Jeez, they’re coming in like jetliners at an airport. This Bonnie is losing steam, it sounds like. Maybe she’ll ramp up to a tropical storm. Maybe she’ll settle down and not give us too much trouble. We’ll see.

Emily remains unmoved by storms. She is still dithering on about love.

#580, c. 1862

I gave myself to Him —
And took Himself, for pay,
The solemn contract of a Life
Was ratified, this way —

The Wealth might disappoint —
Myself a poorer prove
Than this great Purchaser suspect,
The Daily Own — of Love

Depreciate the Vision —
But till the Merchant buy —
Still Fable — in the Isle of Spice —
The subtle Cargoes — lie —

At least — ’tis Mutual — Risk —
Some — found it — Mutual Gain —
Sweet Debt of Love — Each Night to owe —
Insolvent — every Noon —

All this mercenary language in a love poem can really put a girl off at first. Gives me a chill. It’s embarrassing to see a love relationship as a transaction, even though it’s true, when I give myself time to think about it. Even under the best of circumstances with people who have the best of intentions, a love relationship inevitably requires some contractual exchange. A quid pro quo so that all parties are satisfied—each got what each wanted. We seek something in another person. Otherwise why go looking, right? In order to get what we seek, we understand without explicit direction that we’ll have to give in order to get.

It’s vulgar but true. No one gives anything away for free.

I’d like to say that the relationship between mother and child is characterized by unconditional giving, but that’s not true. Even the best mother requires some quid pro quo for the life she gave. Children may not realize they’re paying for all that breast milk, but they are at some level. Mother always exacts her price. She may do so in ways that are perhaps more subtle than the robust exchange between adults, but there is a price all the same.

Emily says: No one can go into or out of any meaningful and intimate relationship with another person without some commerce. If your goal is to remain pure of these conditional exchanges—where you do this for me, and I do that for you—then you have to remain utterly solitary. Once you open the door to other people (or dogs for that matter) you stoop to commerce. There may or may not be literal money changing hands, but there is some form of legal tender making this relationship happen.

The line that keeps playing on my thoughts is “Subtle Cargoes” buried in the center of the poem. It seems to me that she points to an important shift here. That subtle cargo has no real inherent value. Its value is determined by who wants it and how badly they want it. The price of a house is set by the competitive vicissitudes of the marketplace. (Girls, girls, girls: Haven’t you noticed that as soon as one boy asks you to dance, all of a sudden, all the other boys who had previously been ignoring you, all of a sudden, as if out of nowhere, these boys practically break their own legs in the rush to dance with you? Writers: Haven’t you noticed that as soon as you get one story published in a pretty good journal, all of a sudden, all the other editors who had been studiously treating you like a nonentity, all of a sudden these editors are practically breaking their pencils to get you to write for them?) Emily suggests the same here. The value of the cargo she holds is subtle, not fixed or obvious. It is elusive, ephemeral. Without an interested buyer, she loses value. As a woman, as a poet, as an object. It’s a cold view, I’ll warrant.

Yet, the subtlety of her cargo stays with me. As something so fluid and unfixed it may rise as easily as it falls. This cargo may find another port if there are no interested buyers at the first stop. She’s thinking about the ups and downs of the marketplace. Wealthy at midnight. Broke at noon. We have to believe that wealth may return again. One is just as meaningless or meaningful as the other. So where does she locate her real value? In that subtlety, which may be another way of saying “agility”. The value of her cargo lies in its very mutability, it’s ability to shift, to rise to the next bidder as the market demands.

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Happy Letter

So there is good news in no particular order. The broken oil well in the Gulf has been plugged finally. The temperatures have dropped to around 90 degrees after cooking us in the hundreds for a while. Before During After, a book of Katrina photos and essays (some of which I edited) has been published and looks beautiful. Geoff and I are reading Emerson with the Lyceum group. We read On Self-Reliance a few weeks ago, and this week we’ll read The Over-Soul. I skipped my report on our reading of Beyond Good and Evil because my brain goes into lock-down when faced with Nietzsche. Emerson is such a breezy tonic by comparison.

Emily writes today with peculiar urgency.

#494, Version II, c. 1862

Going — to — Her!
Happy — Letter! Tell Her —
Tell Her — the page I never wrote!
Tell Her, I only said — the Syntax —
And left the Verb and the Pronoun — out!
Tell Her just how the fingers — hurried —
Then — how they — stammered — slow — slow —
And then — you wished you had eyes — in your pages —
So you could see — what moved — them — so —

Tell Her — it wasn’t a practised writer —
You guessed —
From the way the sentence — toiled —
You could hear the Bodice — tug — behind you —
As if it held but the might of a child!
You almost pitied — it — you — it worked so —
Tell Her — No — you may quibble — there —
For it would split Her Heart — to know it —
And then — you and I — were silenter!

Tell Her — Day — finished — before we — finished —
And the old Clock kept neighing — “Day”!
And you — got sleepy — and begged to be ended —
What could — it hinder so — to say?
Tell Her — just how she sealed — you — Cautious!
But — if she ask “where you are hid” — until the evening —
Ah! Be bashful!
Gesture Coquette —
And shake your Head!

My hand landed on the above poem, which is called Version II. The one that comes just before it is Version I. The two are almost identical except that this version uses the third person singular pronoun “Her” and Version I uses the “Him”.

The poem’s voice speaks directly to the writer’s own letter, asking it to “speak” to the letter’s recipient. This is a familiar literary conceit, to direct the poet’s message to the written paper as if it were a living entity, directed by the poet’s hand to convey some part of the writer to the reader. Also quaint is the faux modesty, pretending that the letter is a poor representation, spoiling the page, a waste of good paper, etc. (Shakespeare’s sonnets follow this tradition.) These faulty words written by this wretch of a poet, possessing a mind dulled by the sickly taint of overwhelming love, can never rise to the task of expressing to the beloved the full breadth of the poet’s true feelings. These are too vast and words alone too small . . . yadda, yadda, yadda. Emily, you are sooooo romantic.

The only problem here is that Emily can’t decide who should be the recipient of her letter, whether a “Him” or a “Her”. It looks like someone at some point made an arbitrary decision to call the Him version the first and the Her version the second. It’s difficult enough to assign dates to Emily’s work, so I imagine it’s fairly impossible to say for sure which of these she wrote originally and which was the amended version. Mainly scholars have settled on the dates of certain poems by the type of handwriting. They assumed that her handwriting style changed with age, so the poems appearing to match the style or slant found in Emily’s handwriting in dated letters, were given that same date. This process, although inexact, more or less helped to pinpoint when the poems would have been written.

So many, hundreds, were written in the 1862 handwriting that it appears she either had an astoundingly prolific year in 1862. (Possible.) Or that she revised and re-copied a large portion of her already existing collection of poems into a “fair hand”, perhaps in preparation for publication. Possible, although not likely given her dour view of publication. Or it may have been that she wanted to assemble a final or “fair” copy of her best work for her own records. She was sewing many of these into booklets, fashioning her own “publishing” house by hand.

Most likely this was so, but now we have these two highly stylized romantic love poems, almost exactly alike, written apparently at the same time in the same “fair hand”. One speaks to man and one speaks to a woman. What was she up to?

Did Emily seek to obscure her lesbian love affair by disguising the recipient of the poem’s letter as a man in one version? Then later did she decide to “come out”, at least to herself, by re-writing the poem to a woman? Maybe. Although I find it hard to imagine that Emily would be ashamed by any part of herself or hide from herself. She was too self-directed to start with. Plus it seems to me that a woman so sheltered from the world would be naive about sexuality and the social mores around sexuality, that it seems unlikely she would hold this conventional condemnation against herself. In addition, it was commonplace and accepted for women in this Victorian period to use passionate, overblown language to express affection for each other in their letters. Not hard to imagine that this afforded plenty of social latitude and a vocabulary for women to locate their sexual longing for each other as well, if they felt so moved.

Another possibility is that she was experimenting with voice and persona, both in her life and in her work. Emily would write the same poem twice and change the channel for each just to see what it would be like. That sounds more like her. Curiosity would push her to stand on both sides of the looking-glass, for no reason other than she’d like to know what it’s like over there. The lover’s perspective is by definition warped and one-sided. I can imagine Emily looking at that and wondering how it would sound to express the same sentiments to either one sex or the other. Emily the gymnast can take the stance of either.

The result is intriguing and varies depending on the disposition of the reader. Version I sounds like something out of a Bronte novel, a wild woman in the throes of passion beyond her control. Version II sounds like a Victorian girl, reaching for a literary model to channel her feelings toward a safe subject. The whole thing hangs on the letter being a failure due to its grammar. It is only syntax, says the poem, which is to say only the empty frame is there. The speaker/writer left out the verb and the pronoun, which is to say there is no action and no human presence. No life, no movement. How can love flourish in this place?

The poet with any sense of responsibility to her own curiosity wants to push her poem this way and that, just to see what it might do. Also to see how just a couple of letters changed here, makes all the difference in the world.

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