Emily Dickinson, “Did We abolish Frost” (1014); Kay Ryan, “Crown”

Hass, in the translation below, lets Issa’s anger show. You can’t really say that a stoic or calm attitude is demonstrated here. Even if haiku may be considered part of religious practice—verse trying to see the world, striving to accept suffering and impermanence—Issa is at the least dismissive. If not outright angry:

       Writing shit about new snow 
 for the rich
       is not art.

At 20, I’d have looked at this and said “Huh. Sometimes an artist has to make a statement.” Then I’d promptly move on.

Now I find it remarkable that Issa’s statement strikes with the same sentiment as street art. There’s no art in romantic, glossy images of nature which the privileged immediately call their own. If art, religion, and culture are linked (they most certainly are, note the contempt from fundamentalists for “secular culture”), it becomes intuitive how it’s easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven.

The problem is deeper than having lots of stuff or being worldly. It has to do with how the world flatters you merely for having more. How that flattery is built into the very way you see everything.

How that flattery is built into the very way I see everything.

*

I’m happy right now. Lots of people are thrilled with finding love or success. But my current mood comes from trying to speak to myself for my birthday. Crafting a proposition which made a bit of sense, one which might prove useful.

It’s incredibly privileged. I had quiet and time to think. Money and resources I need to live. There were responsibilities but they were not overwhelming. 

These lines of Dickinson don’t exactly speak my mood. They’re about “us,” about something akin to the exclusivity of romantic love. How it creates a climate that can’t be broken by outside factors such as the cold, or time:

Did We abolish Frost (1014)
Emily Dickinson

Did We abolish Frost
The Summer would not cease —
If Seasons perish or prevail
Is optional with Us —

“Did We abolish Frost / The Summer would not cease”—for a moment, Dickinson is in love with love. She’s like those who must have crushes, must have honeymoon phases. 

I don’t want to put having crushes down. The honeymoon phase of a relationship is always fun. But a lot of people in love with love see their mood collapse if they’re not texting all the time or going out or arranging dinner dates at the apartment. Again, I don’t want to be harsh here. I’m in love with love my own way, too.

However, Dickinson highlights how absurd this is. “Did We abolish Frost / The Summer would not cease:” whether we abolish frost or not, whether we choose to deal with the cold or not, it doesn’t matter. Summer will not cease, no matter what.

It’s a choice to have no choices, to not feel the weight of consequence. The cute person who won’t finish school and will never read a book is the same as the Olympian marathon runner or the psychotherapist. Perpetual, unchanging summer.

Nothing about this is real. “If Seasons perish or prevail / Is optional with Us” shows the lie. The seasons will happen, there will be rising and falling. Things do change. “Is optional with Us” implies we, together, can be in denial. Putting “optional” near “Us” is suggestive in another way. Why can’t “Us” also be “optional?”

I said my mood wasn’t built on anything similar to having love or success. However, it seems eerily similar to what I see in Dickinson’s poem. If I’m insisting that I’ve found an authentic basis for happiness, something small that will always work, have I indulged the summer which will not cease? I might as well have a crush, no?

*

Of import is why.

This is hard for me to accept. I’ll look at someone 10 years younger with more success, a loving family, lots of accomplishments. For a moment, I’ll be jealous.

I’ll forget that can’t be my life, shouldn’t be my life.

That if my experience means anything, I have to prize its uniqueness. Accept the mistakes not to romanticize them, but because they’re mine. Know my own successes, not the ones others say I’ve earned.

Use my experience to break the hold my privilege has on me. Learn to see through what I’ve been.

Kay Ryan in “Crown” illustrates this. I feel like she’s speaking about how knowledge crowns, how it’s earned even if it doesn’t seem deserved:

Crown (from Poetry)
Kay Ryan
 
Too much rain
loosens trees.
In the hills giant oaks
fall upon their knees.
You can touch parts
you have no right to—
places only birds
should fly to.

“Too much rain / loosens trees.” I feel flooded. What I’ve helped grow falls apart because of too much, all at once.

I’m happier now, but I remember how I was a moment ago. How I might be a few moments from now. Too much all at once isn’t always me. The world I know is built to make people feel worse about themselves.

The trees fall. More than my assumptions are loosened. There are things that served as knowledge and in normal circumstances would be knowledge, the governing principles. “In the hills giant oaks / fall upon their knees.”

Giant oaks stand like all the ideas that helped us understand a place. A person. But they’re gone now.

The giant oaks fall. What’s left is devastation. A crumpled, vulnerable self. “You can touch parts / you have no right to— / places only birds / should fly to.” “You have no right” to these parts of yourself. A sane, happy, just world doesn’t force you to discover how you think all the time.

But Ryan doesn’t see this as completely bad. The tops and crowns of trees have fallen. You can search the roots and find which ones were strong before the trees were ripped away. There’s value in knowing what you understood which should, itself, have stood. There’s also value in knowing what you made where other things could nest and blossom.

The value of value can be said to be growth, and growth depends on what we place highest. It’s there, right in front of us, fallen. The tragedy frames the good. A good of actual import—delicate and hard to cherish, not built of blind permanence. A good that calls for rebirth.

1 Comment

  1. Noble Oaks, in Irish mythology were symbolic of ‘kingship’.
    Symbolically they ‘sheltered thousands of men’.

    In ‘Crown’ something has brought the ‘giant oaks’ down.

    They are on their knees now in the high hills, down to earth from a lofty height.

    This is one way, now, for others to reach the ‘crown’ ordinarily unattainably very high above them – perhaps the only way for many or all of them to touch ‘greatness’ at all.

    What has caused this ‘fall’, this ‘sin’?

    Interestingly, an ancient Irish chieftain or king ruled with the land (not over the land) in the interests of the tribe. Here this relationship has been undermined. The literal ‘loosening’ of ‘roots’ in the earth – the literal bond – also suggests a symbolic rupture.
    What loosens a bond?

    My feeling – for what it is worth – is that when a bond is not a shared and expressive ‘equal’ thing, it may fail. Not that this is a thing of ready cogency – what is a living bond between a human and the rest of nature? Having said this, it seems not untrue to suggest that even kings should offer respect and humility and perhaps a kind of equality in the field of creation.

    Too much rain is too much reign.

    Having said all this, is there another way to explain catastrophe?

    It simply doesn’t have to be a form of hubris. It might be something “external and political” and not “internal and spiritual” at all.

    Enough ‘fake news’ could do it; colonial invasion could do it; an act of conspiratorial betrayal of some kind could do it; or a Pandemic – any one of a million things – or a combination of them – could do it.

    Some kind of ‘tree disease’ could do it. A tree Covid.

    So, not sure how serious my afterthought is, I will have to leave things open!

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