Emily Dickinson, “I’ve nothing else — to bring, You know —” (224)

I’ve nothing else — to bring, You know — (224)
Emily Dickinson

I’ve nothing else — to bring, You know —
So I keep bringing These —
Just as the Night keeps fetching Stars
To our familiar eyes —

Maybe, we shouldn’t mind them —
Unless they didn’t come —
Then — maybe, it would puzzle us
To find our way Home —

Comment:

This “love” thing in which humans engage never ceases to amaze. “Hard to get” seems to be the major game regarding love, as it causes desire, but “hard to get” in some ways is less about love and more about status, rarity, opportunity. But if you explain love through status, rarity, opportunity, it looks like you’re too reductive. Some people do simply love, after all.

So here’s Dickinson, playing coy before a beloved: “I’ve nothing else.” I have nothing else here besides me. The sexual tension rises sharply, and she deflects. “I’ve nothing else — to bring, You know.” Truth is, she’s been deflecting for a while, that these encounters with the beloved have been constant, and yet in some way, she has not been accepted:

I’ve nothing else — to bring, You know —
So I keep bringing These —
Just as the Night keeps fetching Stars
To our familiar eyes —

Maybe, we shouldn’t mind them —
Unless they didn’t come —

She’s been “bringing These” to their encounters, just as the night keeps bringing stars for their eyes. There have been many nights of star-gazing, many nights of effort. She feels wronged, musing if the stars are given adequate attention. Their eyes are too familiar, perhaps. Perhaps they would be noticed if they didn’t come.

You could say Dickinson is playing hard to get, but she’s clearly frustrated with the situation. She’s been bringing these – let’s just say gifts of tenderness – night after night. I should say I don’t know how sexual “bringing These” ultimately is. It is sexual, sure, but it definitely refers to her giving as much as she can, giving what is in some sense beyond her. “I’ve nothing else” is in a sense the opposite claim: I want to be accepted for who I am, I want to be loved for who I am.

You could say that the beloved knows damn well who she is, as “I’ve nothing else — to bring, You know.” That only deepens the puzzle of being loved simply, though. She is known, her efforts are known, and she isn’t loved. Now, to be loved for who she is, she needs darkness to lead him back to them, not just her:

Then — maybe, it would puzzle us
To find our way Home —

Again, the sexuality of these lines is striking, and heightens the problem of “I’ve nothing else” and “bringing These.” A lot of tenderness and love has been shown, and she promises to show still more, being lost in the dark together. Or maybe “unless they didn’t come” means she’ll do nothing. We know, at this point, that he’s a rather dense beloved. What of her? I suspect there’s more than sexual pleasure at stake, as the poem has been so forthright about it already. She does think the beloved can appreciate her for who she truly is. The funny thing is how complicated a proposition that is. Being known in some way, she had to put forth efforts that were not fully appreciated. Now she has to pull away those efforts or intensify them in order to create more togetherness. With that togetherness, they “find our way Home.” Is she herself found? “I’ve nothing else.” I say get a new boyfriend. “Hard to get” might be a stupid game, but whether it works or not, it isn’t this much hassle.

Batsirai Chigama, “Democracy”

Democracy (via Prairie Schooner, with thanks to Omar Sakr)
Batsirai Chigama

I see you like to wave him about
Like a magic wand
to make all evil disappear instantly

Remember son
He is a senile, ancient one
Who uses human bones
For a walking stick

Comment:

Unfortunately, some prophetic warnings have been uttered in less poetic forms. The lack of artistry begat forgetfulness: the divine voice mute, a civilization razed.

Ms. Chigama does not suffer fools. She is a slam poet from Zimbabwe who knows evil when she sees it, speaking wisely and infallibly against. Her first sentence/stanza sharply accuses: “I see you like to wave him about like a magic wand to make all evil disappear instantly.” I do not think I need to detail how the invocation of democracy is used to excuse or justify great evils. Even the worst U.S. History student remembers the words “popular sovereignty.” More attentive ones can explain how absurd it was for a state to vote twice or more on the legality of slavery, until, of course, the South got the Senators it needed to preserve their peculiar institution.

You might quibble with the notion that democracy can advance evil. A properly functioning one has rules which confer rights and privileges impartially. It can allow everyone to be heard and given dignity. So if we speak of bad democracies, are we speaking of democracy at all? Certainly we are! Democracy in general acts as a “magic wand,” as it allows the casting of a spell, the rewriting of morality itself. “The people have spoken,” we say, and they make law, enshrine their accomplishments, set themselves as the ancestors of proud generations. Those generations will look back and revere their ancestors for what they did. “We the people” bind the future to pay homage to us. If we, say, effect a crude nationalist revolt based on years of conspiracy-mongering, we do so thinking those most deserving of honor – in some cases, the police, pastors, the military – will look to us in gratefulness. They and their children understand the hard choices we made against so-called “progress” or “change.”

Democracy can be misused because it allows “the people” to set themselves the arbiter of everything. Chigama understands this intimately and depicts Democracy as a demon come to life. A pact with the Devil makes the Devil incarnate. Use that magic wand, you seal your fate:

Remember son
He is a senile, ancient one
Who uses human bones
For a walking stick

The most striking word in this stanza is “senile.” That democracy can create great evils, evils which tear apart the social fabric, loose the blood-dimmed tide, we know. But so far I have spoken of agents within a democracy purposefully pushing those evils. Here, Chigama echoes an ancient wisdom, one which I must revisit. Socrates speaks early on in the Crito about the ultimate powerlessness of the many; Machiavelli says a mob without a head is useless. A demon is senile, as he may know how to corrupt and take over someone, but then he acts as someone thousands of years old would. Right now, it does feel like senility reigns supreme in the United States. Chigama, I think, understands something more. What exactly that is, I’m not sure. The prophet demands interpretation, and only time will truly tell.

Kobayashi Issa, “The snow is melting”

The snow is melting (from Modern American Poetry)
Kobayashi Issa (tr. Robert Hass)

The snow is melting
and the village is flooded
with children.

Comment:

Wryly, Issa takes in what is around him. “The snow is melting:” he feels the release of the cold, sees his village liberated. You would think this an occasion for joy. I recall writing not so long ago about another poem of Issa’s, where “New Year’s morning” meant the transformation from winter to spring.

Rebirth is strongly implicit despite Issa’s cynicism, but if there’s joy, it’s buried underneath snark and sarcasm. “The snow is melting and the village is flooded with children.” On the one hand, this can be seen as the ranting of a bitter old man. On the other, it concerns what is naturally good. It’s a good thing that snow melts, watering the ground and restoring rivers. It’s good that the village has children who emerge as if to flood it. But what is naturally good can be annoying to us, to say the least. It need not concern our short-term good, our perceived good. Maybe in the long-term, those children will remember a man wanting silence so as to write poems, and with that model, embrace a bit of discipline. That we ourselves live such a short time, though, can make us wonder if short-term goods are the only goods there are.

Blog in Review: “Careful thinking as a form of self-respect,” 2/12/17

Not only do I hope all of you find a space to reflect, but also that you get to see your reflections compiled, see what they’re building or heading toward. I know, that sounds like a whole other level of cornball, the kind of advice you get in newsletters with titles like “10 steps to becoming a more effective manager.” In my defense, note two things:

  1. I’m trying to do a favor by being this cheesy and trite, so it must mean something.
  2. Losing track of your own thought means you might as well have not thought anything at all.

It’s strange to talk of careful thinking as a form of self-respect. After all, that one does any thinking in the first place can be considered a minor miracle. But our preoccupation with being right is really the manifestation of the laziest form of thinking. Being right is about closing an inquiry, silencing another voice. Granted, thoughts have to start somewhere, questions have to come to an end. Still, that we want our ideas above all to be successful, to carry the day completely, to dominate others whom such ideas might not help – I mean, politics is not a contest of ideas in certain circumstances as much as a contest which uses ideas to advance dominance. A lot of petty, bruised egos hide behind grand, revolutionary claims or the assertion of so-called timeless principles. What matters to anyone with any seriousness is not just the coherence of one’s ideas, but their impact. What matters to anyone serious is that they act wisely and justly, doing no harm.

Of course, none of this is easy. It’s not easy to keep track of one’s thought, keep track of all the false pathways and convictions which revealed themselves more hype than heartfelt. Arrival has been on my mind for some time now: the higher thoughts about language and an afterlife are not simply brought to light by contrast with a warlike world. I do not want to speak glibly about irreducible necessities, because they allow some of the worst people to declare what is necessary in emergencies is necessary at this moment. Still, something about the awfulness of political life cannot be dismissed.

Amiri Baraka in “Like Rousseau,” on the other hand, explores the absurdity of eros with his peculiar tenderness. He builds what I think is a sly statement about the will to do politics. In “Snake Eyes,” he looks at guilt and loss and creativity. So many have given so much, but in trying to use them as a foundation, we may accidentally trample them.

Langston Hughes’ “The Negro Speaks of Rivers” also prompts the question of justice. Why must rivers be spoken of? Because one who would trample your very dignity would do so by saying you have no civilization. You could not even build by the river, claims the bigot, and his ignorance is rightly and powerfully challenged.

James Baldwin’s “Untitled” is my lame attempt to introduce those of you who have not read him to his thought.  Baldwin enters a short dialogue with God in his poem, where he wonders if there is such a thing as too much love.

Questions of politics, justice, and love propelled me to write, but so did the idea of housecleaning, in this case rethinking older posts, rewriting them entirely. Emily Dickinson’s “The Soul should always stand ajar” and Hopkins’ “Heaven-Haven” attempt to see the limits of openness and the power of living by a principle, respectively. I know they’re better written than what I had before, but I still cringe at how messy and convoluted a writer I can be.

Finally, Issa’s haiku “New Year’s morning” left me with a thought about things cosmic, and I don’t really want to say too much about Bettelheim’s short book “Freud and Man’s Soul” here. You should read my post about it if you haven’t already. For those of you who are longtime readers, you’ll notice probably more than I have that things have changed, and not for trivial reasons. Keeping track of one’s own thought should be an important task, and I hope I will treat it as one.

Kobayashi Issa, “New Year’s morning”

New Year’s morning (from Modern American Poetry)
Kobayashi Issa (tr. Robert Hass)

New Year’s morning–
everything is in blossom!
I feel about average.

Comment:

I guess you could rejoice that “everything is in blossom” on “New Year’s morning,” that spring itself celebrates the emergence of light from darkness. For us nowadays, even in the midst of winter, the calendar year switches and resolutions are made, as the perception of time is shaped to fit a conception of self. We want to feel like we’re growing, like life is our journey, and so we have set dates as festivals and milestones. I guess if you set the new year in spring, or some point where things were absolutely in bloom, you’d reinforce this logic to an extreme degree. It would be like the universe itself, the natural world, was reaching its peak at a certain moment, and we were wise enough to mark that as our new year. If everything else is in bloom, we should be too: a natural law, no?

Well, Issa’s like “meh.” “I feel about average.” Maybe he’s an unnatural being, or naturally a grouch. Or this is just another day, another day where he feels average while everything blooms. It’s funny how he points to his freedom in merely approaching the situation the way he does. His attitude points to his perception of time, and that in turn points to the fact that our perception of time doesn’t really follow any natural order we truly understand. Maybe we’re entirely determined, but we don’t know enough to really know that. Normalcy, averageness, is a strange condition in a universe that seems on edge, teetering between chaos and magnificence.