Emily Dickinson, “A Man may make a Remark” (952)

“A Man may make a Remark” (952)
Emily Dickinson

A Man may make a Remark –
In itself – a quiet thing
That may furnish the Fuse unto a Spark
In dormant nature – lain –

Let us deport – with skill –
Let us discourse – with care –
Powder exists in Charcoal –
Before it exists in Fire.


The Remark initially seems closer to the Fuse, not the Spark. For most of us, that is unexpected: don’t remarks set us off frequently? But a closer look might bring us back to the conventional understanding. The Remark is made, and that making is the furnishing of a “Fuse unto a Spark.” It’s as if Fuse and Spark are themselves too close to distinguish. Still, a first look at those lines ties Remark to Fuse almost obviously. The Spark lies “in dormant nature,” and the Remark is “in itself – a quiet thing.” Again, we don’t put “Spark” and “Remark” together right away because of the order: the “quiet thing” of the Remark seems to go with Fuse, which is itself a quiet thing and, more importantly, presented before “Spark.”

So why all these twists and turns to say people get mad when others talk? I suspect the first stanza has less to do with people watching what they say, and more to do with people learning not to react. How do we know the “Remark” wasn’t the truth, said well and at the appropriate time? Something is very strange about saying a “Spark” is “In dormant nature.” I don’t usually think of the places where sparks reside – fires and friction, to be sure – as particularly dormant.

Keeping in mind that people are awfully picky, we must “deport” “with skill.” “Deport” means “to behave,” “to carry oneself” – the Latin deportare means literally “to carry away.” Note that this is the opposite of “furnishing.” We are not to lay down matter for an explosion, but carry ourselves away, or carry something else away “with skill.” “Discourse,” despite its connotations of rationality and serious conversation, is a “running about.” We are to run about with care: stop thinking about the cleverest thing that could be said, and focus on the terrain one is on.

We are Powder, and thus are Charcoal, Fire and the product(ion) of Fire. “Exists” hearkens back to the idea that the truth, what is, can be said simply. But “exists” is linking different objects in various states of vigor and decay. “Exists” is subordinate to a change of state.


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