Telling the Truth

connecting the dots of my life

Category: Emily Dickinson

A Day! Help! Help! | Take 2

Emily Dickinson’s short poem came to mind this morning. I first commented on it in March 2017, after the 2016 election and January 2017 inauguration of Mr. Trump as POTUS.

Tomorrow we get to vote again, though not for another president. My comments follow in the form of a letter to Mr. Trump.

A Day! Help! Help! Another Day!
Your prayers, oh Passer by!
From such a common ball as this
Might date a Victory!
From marshallings as simple
The flags of nations swang.
Steady – my soul: What issues
Upon thine arrow hang!

c. 1858

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

Dear Mr. Trump,

I am not one of your fans. I am, however, a believer in more than chance happenings.

First, a confession. For months, I’ve been captive to the anti-Trump approach to daily happenings. I didn’t think about you all the time. Nonetheless, following your election and inauguration, my days seemed governed by what you did and what I thought and felt about it. Usually it felt like going from one bad scene to an even worse scene.

Looking  back, I don’t regret thinking all that through, or writing about some of it. In fact, I rather enjoy going back to see my small trail of contributions to what’s been a national preoccupation and discussion. Trying to figure you out.

There isn’t, of course, any figuring that will balance things out nicely. Especially for those whose lives are in disarray thanks to your words and deeds. Plus the words and deeds of others you’ve enabled, if not unleashed.

And so I’ve moved on. I still believe each day contains the possibility of Victory, no matter how tomorrow’s midterm elections turn out. I also imagine Emily Dickinson’s “common ball” as our planet, which I would describe as this grand terrestrial ball. A dance, open to anyone who wants to accept the invitation. There’s only one hitch. Our Creator presides over this dance. Not any human leader, billionaire or organization.

So I’m taking dance lessons again. My neighbors and their pets are teaching me to lighten up. Women and men of color are teaching me to listen deeply to what’s happening. Children of all colors are teaching me to forget about how I look and how old I am. Friends of many years are helping me reconsider my dance partners. I’m tired of the same old rhetoric, the same old hopes for tomorrow, the same old anxiety about whether I’ll be asked to the dance.

I’m already in the dance! Stumbling along, sometimes gifted with a bit of insight, scraping together my courage, and showing up in the grand ballroom of life. You might like to try it yourself, if you dare.

From one voter among millions,
Elouise Renich Fraser

© Elouise Renich Fraser, 5 November 2018

The morns are meeker than they were

Here’s an Emily Dickinson poem for all children, including you! Plus my note to Emily below.

The morns are meeker than they were,
The nuts are getting brown;
The berry’s cheek is plumper,
The rose is out of town.

The maple wears a gayer scarf,
The field a scarlet gown.
Lest I should be old-fashioned,
I’ll put a trinket on.

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

Dear Emily,

It pains me to say this, but I never thought of you as a trinket kind of girl or woman. But then again, it shouldn’t surprise me. You have a way of seeing beauty and even the entire creation in the smallest bird or flower.

I wonder if you had a trinket box like the one above. It comes from your century, and has a mustardy yellow autumn look about it. To say nothing of those pretty leaves and that bird in the center.

It’s too bad we don’t have photos of your trinkets. I was always told they could make or break a woman’s image. Nothing too big. Nothing too gaudy. Nothing that would call attention to me. As though I were saying, ‘Look at me!’

But your little poem has a different outlook. You want to be part of nature’s annual parade of colors. Or maybe it’s a great production. Or better yet, a grand ball in the ballroom of fields and forests glowing with bright colors.

Whatever it is, it won’t do not to smile back when nature smiles at us. So I’m off to my oldest trinket box to find something to wear today to the ball. I think I’ll look for that topaz birthstone ring my mother gave me when I was a child.

With kind regards,
From grown-up Elouise and baby Marie

© Elouise Renich Fraser, 9 October 2018
Photo of 1800s Trinket Box found at pinterest.com

My Life had stood – a Loaded Gun –

Here’s an Emily Dickinson poem that’s been widely studied by scholars. I’m still not sure what to make of it. I can, however, connect it to what I’ve experienced in my life. My personal comments follow.

My Life had stood – a Loaded Gun –
In Corners – till a Day
The Owner passed – identified –
And carried Me away –

And We roam in Sovereign Woods –
And now We hunt the Doe –
And every time I speak for Him –
The Mountains straight reply –

And do I smile, such cordial light
Upon the Valley glow –
It is as a Vesuvian face
Had let its pleasure through –-

And when at Night – Our good Day done –
I guard My Master’s Head –
‘Tis better than the Eider-Duck’s
Deep Pillow – to have shared –

To foe of His – I’m deadly foe –
None stir the second time –
On whom I lay a Yellow Eye –
Or an emphatic Thumb –

Though I than He – may longer live
He longer must – than I –
For I have but the power to kill,
Without – the power to die –

c. 1863

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

This poem has kept me coming  back for well over a year. Here are a few thoughts about the poem, which reads more like a small story or long riddle than a philosophical or political point of view.

This poem is at least indirectly about Emily. It’s about her life as a prolific poet, a well-known figure in her setting, and lover of the outdoors. And the reality that she is a woman. My first comment, then, is that she’s contemplating her life as she has experienced it. A loaded gun standing there in the corner–waiting, as something she doesn’t fully own.

The action begins only after the owner appears, identifies himself and carries her away. Not as a person, but as a weapon that will benefit him. It strikes me as sad that the adventure is in the forests, valleys and mountains she loves to roam. We know this from other poems. Yet now her function isn’t to talk to the animals, the trees or the birds, but to do her owner’s bidding. Shoot to kill, on demand. Beginning with a Doe about which we know nothing more.

Emily comments on her new-found ‘half-life’ (my term, not hers). Her Master depends on her to do his bidding. Not some of the time, but spectacularly, all the time. She finds comfort in this new-found power to guard her Master’s head, as well as in the reputation and safety she now enjoys as the rifle/voice of the Master.

It’s a messy situation. We don’t know where Emily stands with all this. In the last stanza she struggles with an unresolved question about power. If her Master dies, what will happen to her? Perhaps she fears she’ll be picked up by someone else and used as his obedient, powerful speaker/killer. Surely she didn’t enjoy killing that Doe.

The poem reminds me of times when so-called Owners used me, beginning with my father. In these situations they used my voice or my words without my permission, to distort truth or amplify their own power. I often wished I could die or disappear.

©Elouise Renich Fraser, 16 August 2018
Photo found at Nature Photography, jonrista.com

late afternoon sun + Emily

late afternoon sun
catches courting butterflies
dancing in mid-air

I was out for a walk and there they were. Not the two above, but doing the same dance. Circling each other as they drifted through the air.

Almost as wonderful as seeing them was finding this butterfly poem from Emily Dickinson!

Two Butterflies went out at Noon—
And waltzed above a Farm—
Then stepped straight through the Firmament
And rested on a Beam—

And then—together bore away
Upon a shining Sea—
Though never yet, in any Port—
Their coming mentioned—be—

If spoken by the distant Bird—
If met in Ether Sea
By Frigate, or by Merchantman—
No notice—was—to me—

Emily Dickinson, Poem #533
Poem found at poets.org, now in the public domain

I’d like to be a butterfly, wouldn’t you?

©Elouise Renich Fraser, 15 August 2018
Photo found at http://www.nhm.ac.uk

About Emily and Me

As of today, 30 July 2018, I’ve made interpretive comments on 44 of Emily Dickinson’s poems. My first, If your Nerve, deny you —, was posted on 5 February 2016. It’s high time Emily had a Category of her own. Scroll down to the bottom of every post and you’ll now find an Emily Dickinson category. Click on her name, and you’ll wake up in Emily country!

My relationship with Emily’s poetry happened almost by chance. D and I were visiting his sister and her husband. We stayed overnight. In the guest room was a small bookshelf filled with tempting titles. On the top shelf, lying there by itself, small and unobtrusive, was a Shambhala Pocket Classic titled “Emily Dickinson Poems.”

I picked it up, began reading, and couldn’t put it down. David’s sister kindly told me to take it home and keep it! I was, and still am thrilled.

Emily isn’t an easy read. Dipping into a poem here and there convinced me that, like the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures, I would get to know Emily the hard way. That means reading silently and out loud, pondering and paying close attention to every word, every pause, every abrupt combination of words or structure.

No, I’m not an Emily scholar. But I am a better scholar of my life than I was before I began reading her enigmatic, sometimes off-putting poetry. It isn’t all pretty. Truth, when it follows life, isn’t all pretty.

And so Emily has become an interpreter of me. Not in place of, but not unlike the way Hebrew and Christian Scriptures interpret me. She helps me make my way from here to there without giving up hope or losing my strong voice.

I taste a liquor never brewed –
From Tankards scooped in Pearl –
Not all the Vats upon the Rhine
Yield such an Alcohol!

Inebriate of Air – am I –
And Debauchee of Dew –
Reeling – thro endless summer days –
From inns of Molten Blue –

When “Landlords” turn the drunken Bee
Out of the Foxglove’s door –
When Butterflies – renounce their “drams” —
I shall but drink the more!

Till Seraphs swing their snowy Hats –
And Saints – to windows run –
To see the little Tippler
Leaning against the – Sun –

c. 1860

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

© Elouise Renich Fraser, 30 July 2018

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

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