Telling the Truth

connecting the dots of my life

Category: Emily Dickinson

I have not told my garden yet

This poem from Emily Dickinson caught my eye this week. I found it in a volume of her poems for young people. Nonetheless, I heard it as an adult poem about adult pain. My comments follow the poem.

I have not told my garden yet,
Lest that should conquer me;
I have not quite the strength now
To break it to the bee.

I will not name it in the street,
For shops would stare, that I,
So shy, so very ignorant,
Should have the face to die.

The hillsides must not know it,
Where I have rambled so,
Nor tell the loving forests
The day that I shall go,

Nor lisp it at the table,
Nor heedless by the way
Hint that within the riddle
One will walk to-day!

Emily Dickinson: Poetry for Young People, edited by Frances Schoonmaker Bolin, illustrated by Chi Chung. Published by Sterling Publishing Co. (2008)

This poem is about death: Emily’s preoccupation with death, and her own death. Whether final or as daily reality. Each stanza adds depth to her poetic riddle.

Stanza 1. Emily thinks about her garden, the place that brings her happiness and peace. It seems she’s afraid she might not survive breaking the news, though we’re not yet certain what the news is. It’s clear this won’t be easy or happy news. Not for the garden, the bee, or her.

Stanza 2. Emily thinks about village shops that stare at her when she’s out and about. There she’s known as shy and perhaps ignorant. She has no intention of letting the shops know her plans. They wouldn’t believe that she, of all people, would have “the face to die.”

I take this “face to die” as setting her face toward death, which she names in the last line of the stanza. She faces death with determination, perhaps the way Jesus ‘set his face’ toward Jerusalem—the city in which he would die.

For Emily, it doesn’t matter what the shops or shoppers might think about her. She’s stronger than she’s given credit for. Indirectly, she’s saying they don’t know her at all. So why should she tell them anything at all about her “face to die.”

Stanza 3. Emily now thinks about the hillsides and the forests. She loves both settings yet determines to keep them in the dark. It seems that if she doesn’t tell the hillsides about it, they won’t tell the forests. Perhaps they’ll think she doesn’t love them anymore? Or perhaps the hillsides and forests will die of sorrow?

The verb ‘rambled’ has more than one meaning. It could mean rambling around in the woods, as well as the rambling of Emily’s voice speaking freely to the trees and hillsides. Not to ramble anymore would be a great loss for them and for her. Here she can speak out loud freely and directly. Yet she isn’t going to tell them the day she’ll “go.”

Stanza 4. Finally, Emily has no intention of talking about this at “the table,” which I take to be her family circle. Not even in what we might call baby talk that’s less than clear. She’s also determined not to suggest that “within the riddle” is a hint that “One will walk to-day!”

The last stanza seems to have two meanings: one about her family circle; the other about the poem itself. Which has me wondering whether this is ‘only’ a riddle, or a veiled clue to her unhappiness and desire, if not clear intention, to “walk to-day.” To die to her family and her beloved garden, and never return. A form of death no matter how you read the poem.

I don’t know whether Emily wrote this poem before or after she wrote I Years had been from Home. I do know these are the words of a woman in distress who chooses to tell the truth but tell it slant.

Yes, my heart goes out to her. Emily has a level of courage I haven’t often seen or heard in this life.

Thanks for visiting and reading, and leaving your own interpretive comments or questions if you’d like.

©Elouise Renich Fraser, 29 July 2018
Photo found at correntewire.com

Open Mic Night!

I woke up this morning already excited about this evening. I get to read some of my poems again! Out loud! In front of a friendly audience of children, young people, parents and friends of all ages. In the gym at the church. A fundraiser to help support our young people’s summer project in Philadelphia.

Despite my heavy-duty awesome age, I still feel like a little kid when I share bits of my life by way of my poetry.

I’ve never been one for writing or telling stories. I know a good storyteller when I hear or read one. That means I know I’m not One of Them. Though happy accidents do happen now and then.

Prose has been my main thing for most of my life. Yet I’m more than ready to let it take a back seat to poetry. In fact, when I reread some of my prose, I hear the poet in me already sneaking a poetic spirit into my prose.

I can’t help thinking about Emily Dickinson’s lovely poem, “They shut me up in Prose.” None of that flighty poetry stuff! We want to hear a story or a well-reasoned argument. Something we can take apart, piece by piece. Or at least keep under control. To keep you under control, of course.

The ability to write prose with an ear for cadence and choice of words got me where I am today. Not just as a student, educator and administrator, but as an adult woman whose childhood and youth were ruled by a relentlessly letter-of-the law father. Flights of poetic fancy were frowned upon. As were overt emotions spontaneously expressed. With the occasional exception of Christmas and birthdays.

When I read through early posts about my childhood and youth, I’m grateful for the ability to write prose. Yet even there I hear the cadences of poetry. Though it isn’t direct, it’s a persistent sign of life already aching for attention.

So tonight I get to revel in the poet I’m becoming. One step closer to the little girl and woman I am and have always been on the inside.

Am I going to give up prose? No way. I’m not locked up in anything–not in poetry and not in prose. Still, you can expect more poetry. A delightfully underground way of getting just about anywhere.

Cheers!
Elouise

©Elouise Renich Fraser, 13 July 2018
Image found at resetco.org

I like a look of Agony

It’s been a while since I’ve commented on one of Emily Dickinson’s poems. Here’s one that seems right for this season of national and international rhetoric. My comments follow, in free-verse form.

I like a look of Agony,
Because I know it’s true –
Men do not sham Convulsion,
Nor simulate, a Throe –

The Eyes glaze once – and that is Death –
Impossible to feign
The Beads upon the Forehead
By homely Anguish strung.

c. 1861

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

Emily doesn’t like false feelings or pretense. In this poem she looks to Death for an example of true feelings. Not expressed in words, but literally, on the forehead of a dying person. No one can possibly play make-believe when it comes time to die. Convulsions and the intense agonies of death, whether physical, spiritual or emotional, can’t be faked.

Nor can those telltale ‘Beads upon the Forehead’ of the dying person. Even silent Anguish cries out with tears that leak through the skin. Beads of Anguish strung upon the Brow. Thus Death gives strange birth to Truth. The truth of Agony and Anguish.

Below is my free-verse response to Emily’s poem. I’m struck by how many ‘fake’ emotions parade before our eyes and ears each day. We live in an age that celebrates Faux or at least Exaggerated Feelings. Perhaps to such an extent that we no longer discern what is Manufactured from what is Real.

With apologies to Emily:

We live in an age of Faux Feelings
Or at least an age that rewards them
Not with congratulations but with Attention
and Faux Gasps of Horror or Delight

Perhaps we forgot or never knew
How to have, much less allow air time
For True Feelings not ratcheted up
To the nth degree — especially True Agony

The kind not found by looking in a mirror
Trying to get just the right look that will
land just the right response be it Attention,
Applause, Laughter or the Disgust of the Moment

Unsocial Commandments hamstring us
Pulling chains that avert our eyes instead of
Encouraging us toward each other in life and
In death as family and next of kin, not strangers

Life and Death itself seem to propel us toward
Ever-greater depths of make-believe and denial –
Hiding behind masks that mimic or minimize feelings
We most fear to acknowledge, sit with or name

Perhaps our Deaths are the only unscripted
Roles we play with unfiltered, uncosmeticized
Feelings of True Agony, Grief, Pain and Love,
Finally crossing all sides of divides that bind us

©Elouise Renich Fraser, 14 May 2018
Photo found at blog.xuite.net

There is a pain — so utter —

Emily Dickinson suggests there’s a pain that’s better left lying, almost forgotten. Else it would destroy the victim, one painful piece at a time. My comments follow her poem.

There is a pain – so utter –
It swallows substance up –
Then covers the Abyss with Trance –
So Memory can step
Around – across – upon it –
As one within a Swoon –
Goes safely – where an open eye –
Would drop Him – Bone by Bone.

c. 1862

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

Emily suggests that in spite of extreme pain, we get by thanks to Trance. Like a bandage, Trance covers the wound and the depth of our pain so that Memory can walk safely around or over it. Our eyes are spared the full extent of our pain.

Emily likely has her own pain in mind. In fact, this poem raises again the possibility that someone victimized her when she was a young woman. If so, perhaps her poem is one way of dealing with the horror of seeing (feeling, remembering, reliving) what happened to her. Bone by Bone. One terrifying moment after another. The slow-motion dismemberment of a human spirit, a human being.

Yet this pain is also generic. Not simply something that happened to Emily, but what happens to each of us and all of us. Individually and together. In a thousand permutations.

Perhaps we’re in a Swoon, awake just enough to navigate each day without being brought down by our pain, living in Trance mode. Semi-reality. Semi-truth. Which amounts to untruth, and thus unreality.

I think of the USA and our preference for letting pain lie deep underground while we make our way across and around it. As though it never happened or weren’t that important. Slavery has caused unrecorded, unheard pain to millions. Yet here we are in African American History Month, still unable as a nation, beginning with our leaders, to face this history face-on, with eyes wide open.

We find ways to get by without acknowledging the depth and horror of this and other examples of our national pain. Yet it’s right beneath our feet. Beneath the surface history of our current state of disunion. It seems we’re living in a national epidemic of Trance. We get  by, or so we think, without acknowledging the depth and horror of our pain.

Emily seems to have personal pain in mind. Yet personal pain feeds on and adds to our collective pain. As a nation we like to think we’ve come a long way, and are now beyond the worst. Nonetheless, I see us living the sad and sorry outcomes of unexamined pain lying just beneath the surface of Trance.

© Elouise Renich Fraser, 8 February 2018
Image found at pinterest.com

the morning after first snow

snow cones perched
on back porch rail posts
reach for blue sky

yew decked out
with thick white icing
bows gracefully

oak leaves lie hidden
beneath heavy white carpet
glistening in sun

I sit behind glass
basking in wonderland
this fine Sunday morn

I took the photo with my iPad – not quite as spectacular as the real thing, but good enough. I’m enjoying an Emily Dickinson Sunday morning in Nature’s cathedral—as seen from my kitchen window, with the heat turned up.

© Elouise Renich Fraser, 11 Dec 2017
Photo taken by me from my kitchen window

A Thought went up my mind today —

Here’s indisputable evidence of Emily Dickinson’s ability to capture everyday experiences with an economy of words. My comments follow.

A Thought went up my mind today –
That I have had before –
But did not finish – some way back –
I could not fix the Year –

Nor where it went – nor why it came
The second time to me –
Nor definitely, what it was –
Have I the Art to say –

But somewhere – in my Soul – I know –
I’ve met the Thing before –
It just reminded me – ‘twas all –
And came my way no more –

c. 1863

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

I love this poem from Emily, especially the opening suggestion that her mind is a chimney. The poem itself is amazingly clear and simple, without losing its mysterious reference to the Thought.

In fact, we could spend a little time right now trying to figure out what Emily’s as yet unformed Thought was. Isn’t that what interpretation of poetry is all about? Emily’s poem is like a tongue-in-cheek joke as she sits back to see what we might discover about her deep Thought. So deep that not even she could remember or articulate it.

They say that if you’re a writer you should always carry a notebook to record all the stunningly insightful Thoughts that pass through your mind unbidden. Brilliant Thoughts! Creative Thoughts! Catch them before they fade away! You might use them someday. Right?

Well….the problem for me, and, I’m guessing, for most writers (including Emily), is that we’re an amazingly Thought-filled tribe. We don’t control the incoming tide or the evaporating mist of our precocious insights.

Just maybe, instead of carrying around scraps of paper or heavy notebooks for our genius thoughts, we should carry around butterfly nets! Then we could run around in meadows capturing those flighty bits of precocious wisdom and turns of phrase before they flit away!

Or then again, we might console ourselves with the Thought that having experiences like Emily’s is a sure sign we’re writers! Bravo! It’s our trademark! How else to explain and celebrate our brilliance?

© Elouise Renich Fraser, 24 October 2017
Smoking Chimney image found at cliparts.zone
Butterfly net image found at neh.gov
Daily Prompt: Trademark

A Bird came down the walk —

Here’s another childlike poem from Emily Dickinson that’s filled with adult insight. My comments follow.

A Bird came down the Walk –
He did not know I saw –
He bit an Angleworm in halves
And ate the fellow, raw,

And then he drank a Dew
From a convenient Grass –
And then hopped sidewise to the Wall
To let a Beetle pass –

He glanced with rapid eyes
That hurried all around –
They looked like frightened Beads, I thought –
He stirred his Velvet Head

Like one in danger, Cautious,
I offered him a Crumb
And he unrolled his feathers
And rowed him softer home –

Than Oars divide the Ocean,
Too silver for a seam –
Or Butterflies, off Banks of Noon
Leap, plashless as they swim.

c. 1862

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

Here’s how I see this poem today—informed by my own observations, and the article I mentioned earlier about possible trauma in Emily’s life. The author saw multiple signs of this, especially in poems written around 1862 and beyond. Emily was about 32 years old when she wrote this poem.

  • Despite the childlike language and scenario, Emily’s poem conveys a sense of mystery. The Bird hopping down the walk is being watched and doesn’t know it. Might it have done something else if it had known someone was looking?
  • Though the Bird does something natural, the unnoticed onlooker doesn’t simply say the Bird ate a worm. Each action gets a full line in this short poem, perhaps to emphasize the suddenness and horror of the unsuspecting Angleworm’s demise. Is it important to identify the Angleworm? Or are they just a dime a dozen or more. Dispensable.
  • Stanza 2 seems to say life goes on as normal for the Bird. Still, it isn’t clear why this Bird hopped aside to let a Beetle pass, since birds regularly eat beetles.
  • Beginning with Stanza 3, Emily seems to know this Bird. She sees a vigilant, even frightened Bird whose eyes and head can’t rest. Constantly scanning for what?
  • The opening line of Stanza 4 is ambiguous. Who is in constant danger, Cautious? Perhaps both the Bird and Emily. Emily cautiously offers the Bird a crumb. Is this all she has to offer? In other poems she describes herself as starved. Yet we already know this Bird isn’t starving. Instead of taking the crumb from her hand, it spreads its wings like oars and heads for home.
  • Stanza 5 almost painfully highlights the ease and beauty with which the Bird and Butterflies, row softly and soar brightly above this ocean world in which vigilance is a constant companion.

I think Emily wishes she were a Bird or a Butterfly—beautiful in flight as she soars silently, through and above this ocean-like world of danger. Somewhere above the Banks along the seashore, making her way to a place called home.

© Elouise Renich Fraser, 4 October 2017
Photo found at favim.com

A Bird came down the Walk —

I just found this nimble, lively, graceful, agile and elegantly athletic interpretation of Emily’s well-known poem. Emily wrote the poem in about 1862. The young woman who produced the video prepared it for one of her school classes. Don’t miss her creative credits at the end, or her short interpretive written summary.

The video is short–less than 2 minutes. I’ll have my say about the poem later this week. Here’s the written version, in case it’s difficult to catch all the words in the video:

A Bird came down the Walk –
He did not know I saw —
He bit an Angleworm in halves
And ate the fellow, raw,

And then he drank a Dew
From a convenient Grass —
And then hopped sidewise to the Wall
To let a Beetle pass —

He glanced with rapid eyes
That hurried all around —
They looked like frightened Beads, I thought —
He stirred his Velvet Head

Like one in danger, Cautious,
I offered him a Crumb
And he unrolled his feathers
And rowed him softer home —

Than Oars divide the Ocean,
Too silver for a seam —
Or Butterflies, off Banks of Noon
Leap, plashless as they swim.

Emily Dickinson, written c. 1862

Happy Monday!

Elouise

© Elouise Renich Fraser, 2 October 2017
Video found on YouTube
Daily Prompt: Athletic

A gaping void

In the beginning
there was before–
now there is after–
nothing between

A jagged rift
runs through me
marking me for life
despite all things beautiful
that whisper of something better

No path however enticing
takes me back to before
Nor can my fingers find
notes adequate
to mourn the loss
or soothe my aching soul

Yesterday’s maps
fade in dying light

I wake,
longing to shed this dusty self
and be born—
yet again

About 4:15 this morning I couldn’t get back to sleep. I wasn’t restless; I was sad about the distance that lies between my life before and after trauma.

I began this blog nearly 4 years ago. It was my first attempt to write openly about my childhood trauma. As a preacher’s daughter, oldest of four daughters, I always put on my happy face.

After beginning the blog, I discovered Emily Dickinson’s poetry. I love reading it, puzzling over it, making connections between her cryptic words and images, and life as I know it.

Yesterday I read an article sent by a friend who follows this blog. The author, a medical doctor who understands trauma, confirms and gives evidence for the strong possibility that Emily was a survivor of childhood trauma. I found her convincing. If you’d like to read the article, here’s a link.

I don’t know all the secrets hidden within Emily’s cryptic poetry. Yet I understand the need to cloak my language so that truth is told slant. Told in ways that don’t implicate others or me, yet invite us to think about ourselves and the worlds in which we live.

The author of the article suggests that writing poetry was Emily’s way of talking about the unspeakable—whatever it was. A way to stay connected to herself when there was no one around to help her, and possibly, no other way out.

The trauma done to me began before I have memories of it. I don’t remember life without it. Writing poetry has become a lifeline to creative sanity instead of depression. It helps me know and accept myself, just the way I am. Hence the poem above, jotted down in its first version at 4:30am this morning.

Thanks, as always, for reading and listening.
Elouise

© Elouise Renich Fraser, 30 September 2017
Photo found at pixabay.com

Who has not found the Heaven — below —

Wouldn’t you love to find heaven on earth? If so, Emily Dickinson’s little poem offers food for thought. My comments follow.

Who has not found the Heaven – below –
Will fail of it above –
For Angels rent the House next ours,
Wherever we remove –

Emily Dickinson, Poem #1543
Found on Wikisource.org

When I went looking for this poem, I found a second version. One of the pitfalls of having poems published is dealing with editors who think they have a better way of saying things. In general, Emily’s cryptic, almost abrupt speech and layout betrays her hand.

Just for comparison, here’s the edited version that’s out there. All cleaned up and, from my perspective, changed in its meaning.

Who has not found the heaven below
Will fail of it above.
God’s residence is next to mine,
His furniture is love.

Found in Emily Dickinson, Collected Poems, published by Courage Books 1991

Sweet, but not what Emily wrote.

In the poem at the top, Emily says the key to finding Heaven lies with us, not with God or even with Angels. Not because they don’t exist, but because it all depends on our ability to recognize them. Not high above this earth, but right beside us, no matter where we are.

Emily suggests that each of our neighbors has the capacity to point us toward Heaven. It isn’t because they have deep theological insights, or preach sermons or make statements about heaven. Nor is it because they’re perfect, glow in the dark, or have wings and shining robes.

Rather, it’s because from time to time they bring a bit of heaven into our lives. Just when we most need it. It doesn’t matter what they believe or don’t believe about angels. What matters is that they bring a bit of heaven into our lives. Just when we most need it, even though we don’t always like to admit we’re needy.

This little poem seems to put us on notice. Emily isn’t asking us to become Angels. She’s asking us to keep our eyes open for Angels. They may show up on our doorsteps when we least expect them. Not from Heaven, but from “the House next to ours.”

This life offers preparation for something beyond our current sight. Not doctrinal proof of Heaven or of Angels. Rather, a whisper, a suggestion, a hint of reality that visits us from time to time. Especially when we’re in need, whether we realize it or not.

Sometimes it isn’t easy to accept help from Angels who aren’t wearing brilliant robes or sprouting wings from their shoulders. They might look like the people next door, or just around the corner, or standing next to us in the checkout line at the grocery store. We may have decided they couldn’t possibly be angels.

Yet there they are, momentary messengers from God who let us know we’re not alone. With their words and deeds they show us a bit of what Heaven looks like on this earth. All so that we’ll recognize it “above.”

Have you been visited lately by an Angel?

© Elouise Renich Fraser, 16 September 2017
Painting: Granville Redmond (1871-1935), A Sunset Sacrament
Found at parabola-magazine-tumblr.com

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