Tag Archives: Twelfth Night

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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Twelfth Night

Today is the Feast of the Epiphany when the light of the Christ child formally appears to the world. This illumination lies just below conscious apprehension, in the peace of a sleeping baby. Just twelve days after his quiet arrival in the dark. Hence it is also known as Twelfth Night. And yes! The inauguration of the Carnival Season. (I boomerang into the Pagan Rites so fast, it’ll give you head rush.) Time to start working on my costume . . . which will be some variation on the fairy theme. My usual. This time with a sort of 15th century Tumbler/Magician feel to it. If you can imagine that. I can imagine it. I have a picture of it in my head. Only six weeks to make this a reality. I can do it!

Back in the day when I lived in New England, I used to sink into depression during winter. It’s the natural emotional response to the cold, dark season. Living in New Orleans has cured me of that trend. Here winter is the beginning of a spectacular celebration. And a great excuse to dress up in silly costumes. The Carnival infects everyone. It’s impossible to avoid and therefore impossible to be depressed in winter in New Orleans. (August is another matter.)

Emily sends a timely note from beyond the beyond. (Amazing how she does this, but I’m done trying to figure it out.)

#445, c. 1862

‘Twas just this time, last year, I died —
I know I heard the Corn,
When I was carried by the Farms —
It had the Tassels on —

I thought how yellow it would look —
When Richard went to mill —
And then, I wanted to get out,
But something held my will.

I thought just how Red — Apples wedged
The Stubble’s joints between —
And the Carts stooping round the fields
To take the Pumpkins in —

I wondered which would miss me, least,
And when Thanksgiving, came,
If Father’d multiply the plates —
To make an even Sum —

And would it blur the Christmas glee
My Stocking hang too high
For any Santa Claus to reach
The Altitude of me —

But this sort, grieved myself,
And so, I thought the other way,
How just this time, some perfect year —
Themself, should come to me —

Only cool customer Emily could report on her own death with such sang-froid. (I love that word: “cold blood”.) I don’t think Emily has ice water flowing in her veins per se. I do think her curiosity floats above the tumult of her heart. That’s her gift. To exist in a cool space of contemplation where everything is worthy of her intelligent scrutiny.

How like her to continue walking around and observing the world after she has died. Wouldn’t we all like to do that? To see if or how we are missed? In a peculiar sense she is both honest and resilient to say she died. That is the truth of her heart. What is also true, however, is that she has the mental clarity to review the impact of that loss. And to see how the world would fold in and fill the empty space. Not that her “death” doesn’t matter, but that the sun will continue to rise. Crops will come to harvest. Christmas will make merry. People will sit down to dinner.

Emily’s “Altitude” is too high for any of these mortal pleasures. Furthermore she has the power to imagine the resurrection. That “Themself” may come to her. That’s all it takes, the simple return. Not hope for retrieving the past. She knows she’s dead. She also knows that cycles are real. Although dead, Emily still guides her own thoughts. She determines the quality imposed on this scene, this loss, this end. Only She. The Creator and Destroyer.

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