Tag Archives: soul

A Gnat’s Horizon

Happy Birthday to me and we are up to our eyeballs in blueberries. Geoff and I went blueberry picking last weekend and brought home three gallons. We gave away a lot but that still leaves us with enough blueberries to last us pretty much for the rest of the summer. I made blueberry waffles this morning. There will be crepes tomorrow morning with ricotta and . . . berries that are blue. I imagine a cobbler off in the distance. Muffins too. Good thing I like blueberries.

Emily sends a peculiar birthday greeting for me.

#372, ca. 1862

I know lives, I could miss
Without a Misery —
Others — whose instant’s wanting —
Would be Eternity —

The last — a scanty Number —
‘Twould scarcely fill a Two —
The first — a Gnat’s Horizon
Could easily outgrow —

Whew! Cold-hearted Emily. She begins and ends the poem with a reference to the expendable people. The center few lines describe the people (all two of them) whose lives matter to her. So the poem’s main concern is to let us know that there are lots of people around who could drop dead and Emily wouldn’t mind too terribly. Was she just in a bad mood when she wrote this? Or just a brutally honest mood? I suspect the latter.

Only in the privacy of her poem could her cold knife of a mind do its work. That means telling the unvarnished truth. Emily can’t be bothered with most people because most of them are, let’s be honest, dreadful. Dogs are better.

Her tone is not nasty or defensive. I do not get a sense of the wounded idealist huddling behind a show of toughness. No, Emily really truly can do without most people. And she did exactly that. You have to admire her consistency and conviction. The poem also makes me wonder what did a person have to do or be in order to enjoy the privilege of Emily’s care. I suspect there was no clear set of credentials. I imagine Em would just look you over, divine the content of your Soul, and then most likely put you out on the doorsill when it became clear (to her) that said Soul lacked sufficient substance. Or if your Soul emanated enough of what the poet wanted in her presence, perhaps she’d offer you a glass of sherry and gingerbread. The standard for entrance into the poet’s select society was whether she could use you. If your Soul offered the light and material grace for her to feel inspired by your presence, then you were allowed to stay.

Make no mistake: Emily stands at the doorway. She doesn’t have to explain or justify who gets in and who stays out. There is no point in cajoling or flirting with her either. She sees right through you. In fact, that is the worst thing you could do. In order to get across this threshold, you have to do the hardest things in the world. Be genuine and brave and risk everything. Good luck.

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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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