Tag Archives: soul

Proximity to Chaos

A few weeks ago I went to the AWP Conference in Chicago.  One of the panel discussions I attended concerned Emily Dickinson’s poems.  The panelists focused on certain themes.  One scholar discussed bird imagery.  Another examined how Emily treats the marking of time, hours, seasons, on the calendar.  David Baker said that Emily is “the most terrifying poet in the English language for sheer proximity to chaos.”

The scholars read from prepared remarks, eloquent and formal.  Then one of the readers looked up from his pages and interrupted his own erudite exegesis to blurt out: “She’s so weird.”  The words seemed to jump from his mouth of their own will.  His tone was part admiring and part exasperated.  I appreciated his honest emotional and subjective eruption.  Time and again, after all the academic wrestling with Emily’s poems, she leads us back to the beginning . . . where she is just so weird.

I notice this the most when I read a poem that I had already wrestled with sufficiently.  I thought I had gotten my arms around it and understood it, or at least some small part of it.  Then after some time passes, I read the same poem again and it appears as an entirely new animal to me.  My second reading is nothing like the first.  Somehow that “understanding” slipped through my grasp.  Hers are less like poems than smoke.

Emily the shape-shifter, she is her poems, stripped bare of any of the easy handles.  Yet in that nakedness she remains utterly cloaked.  We just have to start over again, new to the poem each time.

Here is one that I have not wrestled with yet.  At least I don’t I think I have.  Or not lately.


The Body grows without —
The more convenient way —
That if the Spirit — like to hide
Its Temple stands, alway,

Ajar — secure — inviting —
It never did betray
The Soul that asked its shelter
In solemn honesty

The Soul and the Spirit are not interchangeable terms.  These are identified separately, although both reside in the same holy place, the Body.  The Spirit may hide, while the Soul asks for shelter.

My first reaction here is to recall the Mother Superior character in The Sound of Music when she counsels the troubled Maria that the convent is not a place to hide from the world.  Women choose the cloistered life to pursue something within themselves that they can only find in solitude and isolation from the world.  A woman who is afraid of the world or needs a hiding place would do better to face the thing that frightens her.  The contemplative life is not for cowards.  Although one could be tempted to treat it as a refuge from a cracked and chaotic world.

If Mother Superior could have this conversation with Emily, the poet would have responded that her Temple, her body, is both ajar and secure.  The Body invites.  But who gets this invitation?  It’s very exclusive.  Other people?  I doubt it.  The Body invites the Soul inside to join the Spirit (present at birth, maybe) residing or hiding depending on how you look at it.  Soul comes to the Body from the rich, complicated world out there.  Soul is some non-embodied source that may join that indwelling Spirit.  The Body protects this union, offers a safe place for this marriage to take place.

I am not sure who would win the rhetorical contest between Emily and Mother Superior.  It would be an interesting debate.  I don’t think the answer to Emily’s prayers lies “out there.”  Something else in Emily’s Temple keeps her “in here.”  She isn’t saying . . .   Weirdo.


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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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Emily and Jeanne

Today is the Feast of the Epiphany and the 599th birthday of our patron Saint Jeanne d’Arc.  Epiphany babies often have an aura of destiny about them.  As a birth placement, this day can be almost literally brilliant.  According to the Christ myth, today the light of the world appears to those who have been seeking it.  Those who might believe in it.  I’m going to celebrate this evening with the Krewe de Jeanne d’Arc which will parade through the Vieux Carre and end at the golden statue of the Maid of Orleans near the Market.  I’ll give you a full report tomorrow.  Maybe.  If I’m not carried away by some errant tide of joy.  That could happen.  You never know.

In honor of her soul sister Jeanne, Emily sent this note from the dark.

#1323, ca. 1874

I never hear that one is dead
Without the chance of Life
Afresh annihilating me
That mightiest Belief,

Too mighty for the Daily mind
That tilling its abyss,
Had Madness, had it once or twice
The yawning Consciousness,

Beliefs are Bandaged, like the Tongue
When Terror were it told
In any Tone commensurate
Would strike us instant Dead

I do not know the man so bold
He dare in lonely Place
That awful stranger Consciousness
Deliberately face —

There is so much in this poem that I can’t hold it all at once. I’ll try to swim a straight line through it. My first response is to observe the similarities between Jeanne d’Arc and Emily Dickinson. They were both precocious, neurasthenic young girls with talents far exceeding their society’s ability to appreciate. Both were caught in a time that could not comprehend a woman of any age who possessed the power that each wielded in her own way.

Both, I’d argue here, were “afflicted” with consciousness. By that I mean that these two were both missing a layer or two of the usual protection (that “bandage”) that most of us carry around with us. The layers that shield us from a too intimate knowledge of ourselves or our consciousness. These two could not escape or ignore the experience of awareness. Most mortals can’t survive without ignoring their own consciousness. Em alludes to this protection in the line: “Too mighty for the Daily Mind”. A lesser sort born with Emily’s raw openness to the eternity within would fall into that “Madness.” No one sinks into the darkness behind her own eyes with any real willingness. It’s usually a forced step. Emily is the one with the curiosity and the courage to go there as a regular practice. And then write about it. Maybe that writing spared her from the madness. She was angling slant-wise toward this when she wrote “The Truth must dazzle gradually/ Or every man be blind —” The fact of conscious existence, our ability to be aware of our awareness, is too excruciating to dwell on in any direct or lengthy manner. For Emily, the most excruciating part, is her ability to hold awareness of life beyond death.

I’ll warrant that Jeanne wondered if she was going mad, as well. Both of these extraordinary girls were shocked, dazzled, and then finally drunk like madwomen on their own talent. Their power to “see”. Both had the sight or visions, which of course, according to the contractual terms of magical power, comes with a big responsibility. The difference between them is that Jeanne left the safe anonymity of her family and went out into the world to become a warrior of enormous political influence. While our little brown sparrow, Emily stayed home and drove herself deeper inward. Her vision bored infinitely into that mustard seed, her kingdom of Heaven.

Emily’s power exploded onto the page in private. “My Life had stood — a Loaded Gun —” She knew what she was sitting on—an atomic bomb of awareness, her own consciousness. Maybe it was out of compassion for her society that she withheld herself from public view. If she had unleashed her vision, she might have brought a nation to its knees (like Jeanne), and she might have been torn to pieces for her crime of greatness (like Jeanne). So a little of both. Pity for the ignorant society she was given at birth. And a healthy dose of self-preservation.

Who can say what was the better path?  Jeanne changed the tide of history and died in agony before her 20th birthday.  No one got to see Emily’s iconoclastic poems in her life time, but she was granted a long career, made good use of her time, and died as quietly as she lived.  I guess we need both of them.

The gift I receive from Emily is a trapdoor and an invitation. She lifts the cover from the opening and points into the darkness. Readers like me may descend, floating on a dark wave, comfortable, room temperature. There limits melt and open toward the infinite unfolding that lies just outside our peripheral vision. Emily shows us how to turn and see deeply behind our own eyes. That loss of solid space/time boundaries might scare us back toward front and center. But no. It’s okay to follow Emily’s directive. She’s gone there first. We don’t have to be afraid.


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