If your Nerve, deny you —

by Elouise

Emily Dickinson quote-if-your-nerve-deny-you-go-above-your-nerve-emily-dickinson-105-90-94

During the last three months I’ve become hooked on Emily Dickinson’s enigmatic poetry. Today I’m trying my hand at personal reflections on one of my favorites. It’s from a collection of just over 100 of her poems. The editor has restored the author’s own vocabulary and punctuation, using original, sometimes difficult to decipher manuscripts as her guide.

Fortunately, the editor’s pointers for reading the poems included reading them often and reading them out loud. Since then I’ve read and re-read at least one poem each day. Some were familiar. Most were not. Some speak to me directly. Others don’t. At least not yet.

Here’s one that speaks to me, followed by my dialogue with the poem.

If your Nerve, deny you –
Go above your Nerve –
He can lean against the Grave,
If he fear to swerve –

That’s a steady posture –
Never any bend
Held of those brass arms –
Best Giant made –

If your Soul seesaw –
Lift the Flesh door –
The Poltroon wants oxygen –
Nothing more –

(c. 1861)

Emily Dickinson Poems, Edited by Brenda Hillman
Shambhala Pocket Classics, Shambhala 1995

The opening stanza made me laugh out loud.

When I was about 5 years old I lived in a large house with several other families. Most of the young children were boys.

One afternoon we were playing in the back yard. The boys showed off their daring by jumping from the limb of a rather high tree. One of them, the oldest of the lot, dared me to do the same. He said all girls were sissies.

I was determined to prove him wrong. I climbed the tree and teetered in agony before I finally took the leap. My will was firm; my Nerve wasn’t so sure I should do this. It seemed to hold my feet in bondage.

Dickinson has her own solution. Send fearful Nerve packing. Off to the graveyard! Go lean against a sturdy Grave! No chance of swerving or falling to the ground.

I hear a delicious or perhaps troubling irony in this. The thing Nerve might fear most, Imminent Death, is the place where he’ll find full support.

The second stanza reminds me of taunt songs. Maybe Nerve is simply leaning against a grave, supported by it. On the other hand, this stanza might be comparing fearful Nerve to a corpse. Stiff, cold as brass. Towering above like a monument to a dead hero. The Best Giant ever made, held in place by brass arms (Death?) that guarantee no swerving ever.

Then there’s that unsteady Soul seesawing in the third stanza. It doesn’t help that fearful Flesh has decided to hide out, even though Flesh is at least related to Soul. That is, part of Soul is willing, while soft Flesh is weak. What to do about this? Flesh won’t be ignored. There it is, begging for special attention.

Now isn’t the time for a long conversation with Flesh. Maybe Flesh thinks it’s about to die. So have a heart. Crack the Flesh door open a bit and give it a little oxygen. A little attention. No harm done. Who wants the terrified Coward (Poltroon) to faint right now?


Note: I am NOT a Dickinson scholar. But that’s what I hear today as I look down at the ground (or up at the mountain top?) and get ready to take a Great Leap.

And one more thing: It seems Nerve is Male. I’m not certain about Soul or Flesh. I am, however, certain that the author of this poem is Female.

© Elouise Renich Fraser, 4 February 2016
Image from azquotes.com