“Banish Air from Air” and “Divide Light if you dare” superficially sound like scientific experiments. A moment’s pause and you realize how ridiculous at least one of the goals might be—wait, banish air from air? We can’t definitively say that Dickinson is not speaking about the methods and purposes of science. White light can be broken into its constituent colors, after all. Dickinson would have known this as it was no less than Newton who demonstrated it 200 years prior.
But I have another suggestion for reading this poem. There are those who, in the name of religion, develop purity tests. They must “banish air from air” and “divide light” for the sake of their standards. If I’m right, Dickinson is being very sneaky. She’s using language that would normally associate the practice of science with hubris to advance a critique of religious behavior.
An essay on this poem I found very useful, which goes a different direction than this commentary: Mary Hurst’s “Pellets of Shape: Emily Dickinson’s Laboratory of Words.” Hurst sees Dickinson as justifying her use of language over against the structures of the age in which she lived. That age would have her speak a certain way. Her independence demands, in effect, she “Banish Air from Air”—redefine words, redefine the world. I don’t necessarily disagree with Hurst and I think it’s worth looking at her commentary. Below is the poem and my “take,” if you will.
Banish Air from Air… (854) Emily Dickinson Banish Air from Air – Divide Light if you dare – They’ll meet While Cubes in a Drop Or Pellets of Shape Fit Films cannot annul Odors return whole Force Flame And with a Blonde push Over your impotence Flits Steam.
If you try to “banish air from air” or “divide light,” “they’ll meet.” It almost sounds like Dickinson believes that nature cannot be significantly altered by mankind’s tinkering. Air will find its way to air, as light to light.
I cannot help but hear in this echoes of some of the crazier arguments I’ve encountered over the years. Things like “we can’t change the climate, only God can” when, of course, we’ve had enough nuclear weapons to wipe out nearly all life on earth for some time. Some feel that the power of God is manifest on this plane of existence. They try to find examples of hubris, of people reaching too far, in order to witness an ironic collapse. In the first three lines, Dickinson sounds like she shares this instinct.
But then this is reversed. It turns out that banishing air from air and dividing light has nothing to do with science, in this case, and everything to do with purity. Our first indication lies in how air and light will “meet / While Cubes in a Drop / Or Pellets of Shape / Fit.” I understand this as an embrace of contradiction, of the impure. Cubes shouldn’t fit in a drop; pellets can be bullets, which destroy shape, or bits of things with no definite shape. If banishing air from air is about creating purer air, it finds a challenge when cubes “fit” into a drop.
One might ask what eagerly awaiting punishment for disrespecting God has to do with purity. These two things are linked in contemporary American evangelical culture, but if that linkage does not suffice, Dickinson offers an insight. There is a real hatred of anything that could potentially be different being together. Cubes should not be anywhere near drops; pellets should only be bullets (for more on pellets and bullets, please consult Hurst).
If anything is different, the house of cards one has set up as their own faith will collapse. A lot of people believe in Creationism and all sorts of other things far more than they believe in God. “God” in that case is the reduction of the world to their assumptions, which can never be challenged.
The second indication we have that Dickinson advances a religious critique is “Force Flame,” as if a flame could make the world pure, one understandable thing. “Films cannot annul / Odors return whole,” Dickinson tells us, as if banishing air from air was about trying to rid the world of strange textures (films) or strong smells (odors). In the face of this, one might try to “Force Flame.”
If one tries that, if one tries to be an avenging Holy Ghost, there’s a funny consequence. “Force Flame / And with a Blonde push / Over your impotence / Flits Steam.” Try to destroy water and its Protean nature, and it will simply become steam.
We live 160 years apart from Dickinson and if there’s an understanding of religious overreach here, it feels apt. The opening of the poem, playing with ideas of hubristic, heretical science. The ironic twist, that some who are religious are conducting a perpetual experiment on the body politic, only to find that the world is more real than most ideas of it.