Emily Dickinson, “Away from Home are some and I” (821)

It has taken me some time to realize there are different sorts of profundities. I suspect I am not the only one who has fallen into the trap of holding wisdom comes in only one variety. Because a particular style of speaking strikes me as profound, I unconsciously believe all the things that sound that style “wise.” However, style does not exist independent of substance, and thus it becomes easy to miss blunt, harsh truths necessary for wisdom because they lack a specific aesthetic.

In the poem below, Dickinson speaks of migration. Given the enormous amount of white nationalism in which Twitter and Facebook are soaked, I don’t doubt there are those who will actually read this poem and think that emigration is only difficult for the cryptic reasons she specifies. I’ve met people who want to believe that asylum-seekers are liars who simply want to commit crimes. I’ve met some of them in Great Books-type circles. It is not for nothing Rep. Steve King, known for explicit endorsements of neo-Nazis, continually speaks about the threat to “Western Civilization.” His sentiments are not entirely alien from what a disturbing number who claim to be educated actually believe.

It is not unwise to wonder about the tribulations or horrors faced by those who emigrate and hold that to be a separate topic from the loneliness and alienation encountered by someone who fancies herself a free thinker. Dickinson’s first stanza seems somewhat playful, though the second has a much darker tone:

Away from Home are some and I (821)
Emily Dickinson

Away from Home are some and I —
An Emigrant to be
In a Metropolis of Homes
Is easy, possibly —

The Habit of a Foreign Sky
We — difficult — acquire
As Children, who remain in Face
The more their Feet retire.

Away from Home are some and I, she declares. Some are away from home, she’s away from home, she’s not with them or home. Her tone does not sound harsh or embittered. She does sound lost, and definitely worried: An Emigrant to be / In a Metropolis of Homes / Is easy, possibly. Maybe one can be a successful emigrant, as there are homes everywhere, homes with mothers (metropolis: in Greek, “mother city”). It isn’t simple to find your true family, those you feel a kinship on the deepest level with. But since she has not really tried this before, she cannot immediately discount the possibility that it might happen sooner rather than later, that a certain felicity might be experienced.

She’s begun to consciously search for where she belongs. She’s always been in “a metropolis of homes,” she’s always been “an emigrant to be.” The problem of this poem is how to reconcile this search with who she was before. If I realize I have been where I have not belonged, do I throw away my old self entirely? Maybe with regard to morality, where the immoral must be rejected and repented for, but this poem feels like it concerns the problem of intellectual maturity. The Habit of a Foreign Sky / We — difficult — acquire / As Children—who we were before depends not just on our ignorance, but our learning. As children, we learned a difficult habit, i.e. how to not be ourselves. How to deal with a foreign sky. It’s not an entirely useless habit; in fact, if one wants to understand oneself on a deeper level, one doesn’t immediately look for kin or allies, but looks at how one reacts and learns.

Emigration of a sort has brought her back home even as she has declared herself away from home. She remains at home in Face, but her object is not to submit to the conventions of her world, but understand them so they cannot constrain her. Self-knowledge means becoming a migrant, putting on a mask for those who don’t have questions, who are hostile to questions, who only understand obedience: As Children, who remain in Face / The more their Feet retire. When we were children, there were many times we didn’t understand why we were being barked at, but we understood to keep quiet and ask the questions we needed to ask later. We understood how to understand, once. I suspect there is more of a link to contemporary events in this poem than I allowed in my initial remarks, but I would not approach any such conclusion lightly, as if being a migrant were easy.

Emily Dickinson, “Exultation is the going” (76)

From Jane Hirshfield’s “Pyracantha and Plum” I do receive a certain confidence. One can acknowledge the past, think through it, and find something worth saying to another. Perhaps, on that last point, many of us have become cynical. I know a few people who will simply assert what happened to them as if they’re telling the truth (they’re not) and as if the moral lesson is clear and usable by everyone (it isn’t). In the face of this false confidence, it can be hard to see how to build genuine self-esteem. Nervously trying to get the truth, we might start thinking too much, isolating ourselves, not taking the risk of engaging others without appropriate shame.

What if we’re just tired of dealing with anxiety, responding to it continually with care? What if we wanted to declare ourselves joyful no matter what? Dickinson, in the poem below, seems to want to prove herself no less than exultant. Exultation—a leaping above, a joy so powerful it characterizes a blessed afterlife—is the going of an inland soul to sea:

Exultation is the going (76)
Emily Dickinson

Exultation is the going
Of an inland soul to sea,
Past the houses — past the headlands —
Into deep Eternity —

Bred as we, among the mountains,
Can the sailor understand
The divine intoxication
Of the first league out from land?

On the one hand, this poem gives a distinct impression on a cursory reading. There’s a joy beyond all joys few can have; only a select, poet and audience among them, can understand this. On the other hand, Dickinson builds a context for that notion and then wholly undermines it. To be sure, “exultation” does not come from naiveté or willful ignorance. It is something we, bred… among the mountains want. We see past the houses — past the headlands — into deep Eternity from a distance; we do glimpse the sea. Our desire is for our vision, our words, to meet confirmation each step of the way. Our desire is for experience.

Still, one can’t help but be a bit suspicious about the experience wanted. The equivalence of “deep Eternity” with the everyday, earthly sea; the isolated heights implied by mountains; the “we” that wants exultation, a “we” crafted by sharing in poetic expectations—this is a quiet critique of faith. I don’t know if Dickinson knows it, but Machiavelli spoke of fortresses atop mountains as bad political strategy. Machiavelli implies that rule from above, at a time when the Church held massive political power, is hopelessly removed, impersonal. While it is striking that “exultation” in this poem is a descent, that does not necessarily change the audience Dickinson engages. We’re here, reading together, quietly wanting control over our own lives through these words. We know how we want to feel compared to others: Can the sailor understand the divine intoxication of the first league out from land? The sailor is not us, as he experiences the sea every single day. He does not feel “divine intoxication”—he has a job to do and does it.

Does this mean we shouldn’t “exult?” The poem is a sly comment about poetry itself being a siren song. It almost feels, for a second, like everyone reading the poem was entirely serious about going past the houses, past the headlands, reaching the sea. Like one atop a mountain wasn’t having a reverie. The question which remains is about what sort of experience and knowledge reading, imagining, and trying to understand constitute. There are no easy answers to this. Some of the most destructive I know, those tearing the world apart, are fantastic readers with a deep appreciation for authors and their intent. Yet I suspect there is something to the life of the mind that can help one escape one’s worst tendencies if utilized correctly. I will be the first to admit that this is a matter of belief.

Jane Hirshfield, “Pyracantha and Plum”

Out the window, I would spy a mulberry tree and a pair of birches which were set against a coniferous treeline separating our yard from the neighbor’s. When the window was open, the air had a certain freshness, even on the days I was plagued by allergies. I always felt trees have some share of majesty, however small—they are going to grow, their roots will expand, they will inherit the earth. The driveway next to the mulberry tree deteriorated, a basketball hoop had better days, and a tool shed devolved to its material cause, becoming crumpled metal.

What does it mean to see our lives in the places that age with us, in the natural world we think we know? This almost sounds a ludicrous question, as I’m sitting in front of the computer right now eating cake donuts from 7/11. But a moment’s reflection leads me back to the time I was eager to take long walks, trying to find the most beautiful scene I could possibly imagine and make it part of my memories.

So I wonder what exactly I want at such times. Hirshfield places herself between two seasons, each with symbolic weight. Last autumn’s chastened berries still on one tree, spring blossoms seeming tender, hopeful, on another. It feels like her winter is ending, and part of moving from being “chastened” to becoming “hopeful” involves searching for and accepting moments of inspiration:

Pyracantha and Plum (from The Atlantic)
Jane Hirshfield

Last autumn's chastened berries still on one tree,
spring blossoms seeming tender,
hopeful, on another.
The view from this window
much as it was ten years ago, fifteen.
Yet it seems this morning
a self-portrait both clearer and darker,
as if while I slept some Rembrandt or Brueghel
had walked through the garden, looking hard.

As of the first sentence, the world and her feelings are in a precarious position. The berries are out of season, the blossoms are new and delicate. Things seem “tender, hopeful.” I remember plenty of times I thought I was making progress, I thought I had something good, and in truth all I had was more expectation than skill, more hope than result. Recall of those times does not make me feel listless or numb, but it does make me anxious and unsure. It is not clear Hirshfield is ready to find or accept inspiration, should it come.

Hirshfield identifies feelings like anxiety or insecurity with the whole of life. We don’t really outgrow growing up, struggling with possibility and change—the view from this window much as it was ten years ago, fifteen. But all her considerations so far are background of a sort, as she has begun to establish how she is reflected in the landscape. Yet it seems this morning a self-portrait both clearer and darker—we didn’t need her to tell us she saw herself through the window. However, she has realized something. Outside is less a portrait, more a “self-portrait.” She sees what she wants to see, her seeing an instinctive crafting. The self-portrait she paints is “both clearer and darker,” and is strangely enough related to the work of genius: as if while I slept some Rembrandt or Brueghel had walked through the garden, looking hard.

This could initially seem too large, too out-of-place. Is she overindulging a melancholy reflection, proclaiming herself triumphant no matter what? The funny thing is that as adolescents, we indulge a similar type of ego defense often, e.g. “it’s my brilliance that caused me to miss every note at the piano recital.” I don’t think that’s occurring here, as the speaker has demonstrated a quiet, building maturity. “Some Rembrandt or Brueghel,” operating while she slept, gave her not only a new day but the possibility of seeing that much more in this new day. A genius could look at the garden and see her life written upon it. That’s not untrue, and it gives rise to a specific hope. Her time spent reflecting on her feelings, on her all-too-natural reactions, need not be pointless indulgence but the beginning of communication. If it is possible someone else could see her portrait as meaningful, it is certainly possible she can keep painting, working to depict the mystery at hand.

“Sometimes I go about pitying myself. And all the while I am being carried on great winds across the sky.”

Anne Lamott recorded these lines read by a friend to her, lines she claims were written by a Lakota Sioux: “Sometimes I go about pitying myself. And all the while I am being carried on great winds across the sky.” According to Lamott, they helped her deal with vicious feelings of jealousy, ones which made her life miserable.

They’re exquisite lines. Often I worry about using language that’s too abstract. “Great winds across the sky” is at once both natural and mystical. It calls to mind the air at the tops of mountains, air which breathes through natural wonders. All the same, despite our ability to imagine the winds, the sensations, the sky, the imagery feels like it presents more form than substance. Winds are invisible; the sky is more a field for seeing than a thing itself seen. I can’t help but think of the firmaments from Genesis, the divisions which allow order to proceed from chaos, the divisions silently witnessed daily.

The great winds across the sky speak beings beyond jealousy. Can those beings be joined? Lamott’s honest enough: this is a world where we’re told to compete, told if we don’t work and strive that we deserve to starve. It’s near impossible not to be jealous in such a climate. Moreover, I know from experience that it can be great insensitivity which breeds jealousy. I had no choice but to be jealous when I felt shut out of everything—no friends, no attention, no accolades, no opportunity. For Lamott, the friend inspiring the most jealousy didn’t care about a precarious financial situation affecting her and her son. There might be a righteous anger underlying some jealousy.

Still, I’m thinking about these things because I’m wondering about my own motivation. Is it possible, in some small way, to be the “great winds across the sky” for another? I don’t know about that. I do know that dedication to one’s craft has to involve appreciation of those who also practice it as well as a healthy respect for your own talents. You can’t afford to feel a failure when you know enough to be jealous.

References

Lamott, Anne. Bird by Bird. New York: Anchor, 1994. 127-130.

Emily Dickinson, “So has a Daisy vanished” (28)

Reading could result in greater awareness of the world, but there are at least two potential pitfalls in that assertion. First, there have been many times I read a ton, thought myself the expert, and promptly embarrassed myself with a combination of nervous rambling AND a lack of understanding. The written word entails responsibility, but that responsibility is not simply preaching it. The second is a practiced oversensitivity. Read poetry, for example, and you start seeing things that weren’t there before. Trees aren’t just things you might accidentally hit with a car. Some of them call to mind ones climbed in childhood, or those near grandma’s house. Maybe they connect to places for making-out or breaking-up, or those long, shadowy creatures wading between life and non-life in a van Gogh painting. Too much association, it seems, also overwhelms. I wonder about Dickinson purposefully indulging that oversensitivity below—what, exactly, is her intent?

So has a Daisy vanished (28)
Emily Dickinson

So has a Daisy vanished
From the fields today —
So tiptoed many a slipper
To Paradise away —

Oozed so in crimson bubbles
Day's departing tide —
Blooming — tripping — flowing
Are ye then with God?

So has a Daisy vanished / From the fields today — / So tiptoed many a slipper / To Paradise away — there is a perfectly conventional reading of these lines. Just as many quietly die and pass unnoticed, so daisies vanish from the field. However—or better yet, duh—Dickinson doesn’t want us to go this route. She started with daisies vanishing, as if she went to the fields every day, kept a list accounting for every single daisy, and is now wrestling with what the loss of one flower means.

Dickinson’s narrator, emotionally overwhelmed, makes a grand and incontestable statement. The quiet loss of one is an every day occurrence. She lets this comprise the entire first stanza. There’s not much more to be said because there are too many emotions involved. Is this grief over the loss of a loved one? Worry that she herself won’t be remembered? A panic that she’s wasting the best of her life? If the dead are lost peacefully, perceived in bloom, are they in Paradise? “Tiptoed” and “slipper,” implying death is sleep, hint that what’s specifically on her mind is passing too quietly.

She becomes more emphatic, questioning the association of bliss and peace with quiet. What exactly is entailed in “Paradise?” Maybe it’s the end of a time, if not time. Oozed so in crimson bubbles / Day’s departing tide — time reveals itself an ocean, rich in purples and reds as it runs away. She looks at what most would render the loveliest of skies and only sees loss and pain. Pain, though, ends this dark vision. She has to leave it be, let it stay a morbid question. Blooming — tripping — flowing: the daisies and the darkening sky correspond to “blooming” and “flowing,” respectively. “Tripping” is almost comic, but one can imagine a person with tearful eyes not being able to walk steadily. What pulls us away from dwelling on life as essentially tragic is our everyday pain and inconvenience. In order to have grand thoughts about the whole, comic or tragic, we usually need a certain security. Dickinson’s speaker doesn’t completely have this and is exposed. Experiencing the truth, she can articulate a question that rings true: Are ye then with God? Is our individual pain, rendered universal and cosmic, unity with the divine?

That last question needs clarification, as the second stanza seems to clash with the first. Tiptoeing quietly into an afterlife hints at painlessness, not just silence. The second stanza’s “tripping,” though, does not just articulate the speaker’s voice but the truth of death. Only very few accepted death quietly, and we can assume that there were internal voices much louder than anything we witnessed. It’s safe to say everyone experiences pain, and that Dickinson doesn’t think quietism or stoicism is worthy to explicitly debunk. She sets her aim higher: if time is only comprised of our bruises and cuts and pains, if growth only exists to be torn down, what of divinity? It cannot be divine to have a superhuman reticence, to merely accept this state of affairs. The premises need to be rethought. “So has a Daisy vanished” brings us back to daisies, what we valued in bloom. Something is divine, earthly, and painful to let go. Something can speak itself in messy, human terms, and is appreciated on those terms alone.