Telling the Truth

connecting the dots of my life

Tag: Interpreting Poetry

It’s all I have to bring today —

Here’s a poem from Emily Dickinson in celebration of our hearts, the fields, the meadows and the bees. Appropriate for Valentine’s Day and every other day of the year.

It’s all I have to bring today —
This, and my heart beside —
This, and my heart, and all the fields —
And all the meadows wide —
Be sure you count, should I forget —
Some one the sum could tell —
This, and my heart, and all the Bees
Which in the Clover dwell.

Emily Dickinson, in Poetry for Young People: Emily Dickinson
© 1994 by Magnolia Editions Limited, Sterling Publishing Co., Inc.

The sum of love is beyond comprehension, beyond the capacity of a heart to understand. Wider and deeper than meadows or the sky. Elusive as bees hiding in clover and pollen drifting through the air.

Is there a way to capture it? I think Emily’s answer is No. Perhaps because we don’t own it, and thus can’t hoard it? The only option left, it seems, is to give it away. One heart at a time, expanding out beyond itself. As large and as small as nature’s unnumbered wonders ‘hiding’ right outside our doors.

Happy Valentine’s Day!

Elouise

©Elouise Renich Fraser, 14 February 2019
Photo found at sureastheworld.com

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

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

It doesn’t have to be the blue iris

It’s the end of a busy week, and we’re hoping to visit Longwood Gardens tomorrow (yay!). One thing that helped me stay focused this week was Mary Oliver’s poem below. My comments follow.

Praying

It doesn’t have to be
the blue iris, it could be
weeds in a vacant lot, or a few
small stones; just
pay attention, then patch

a few words together and don’t try
to make them elaborate, this isn’t
a contest but the doorway

into thanks, and a silence in which
another voice may speak.

Mary Oliver, Thirst, Beacon Press 2006

Mary Oliver invites me to attend to small things right before my eyes, often at my feet. Pay attention. So much attention that I can’t stop thinking about it/them.

One small thing caught my attention this past week. At first I didn’t see any connections. Or hear any voices speaking into my silence. Yet I couldn’t stop thinking about it.

‘It’ is a small, striped-tail chipmunk (ground squirrel) that regularly sits on a cement block wall just along the edge of our backyard driveway. He or she? I don’t know. I do know it’s often sitting or lying on that wall in just the same spot. And has been since the wall was completed several years ago.

Sometimes it runs down the wall and jumps into our pile of yard trimmings, looking for food. When the weather is chilly, it stretches out on top of its favorite cement block and soaks in the sun. Other times it sits there alert, watching for possible intruders.

I think it has a nest inside one of the cement blocks—on the unfinished back side of the wall. Sometimes when I walk by on the way to the garage it quickly races into one of the cement blocks.

Several kinds of hawks frequent our area. I’ve watched them swoop down into our back yard to surprise a large gray squirrel, a slow sparrow or a dove. I’ve also heard our small chipmunk squawking out the alarm, joined by other small backyard creatures. Sometimes the hawks have their way.

We live in unsettled times. It takes determination to focus on simple things that inhabit our lives. Especially when there are hawks out there with their beady eyes scanning the ground for juicy tidbits.

Mary Oliver’s poem invites me to pay attention to the chipmunk. To hear our Creator’s voice speaking through the simple things of life. Not giving up, but staying alert, living each day simply and fully. Which can be a way of saying thank you. Without fancy gestures or heavy words laden with heavy thoughts. This isn’t a contest.

© Elouise Renich Fraser, 27 October 2017
Photo found at Pinterest

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

Caught in a near nightmare

This morning I woke up feeling strangely empty. And weeping. Partly because of a near-nightmare and partly because we’re living, it seems, in a near-nightmare.

In the dream, I’m alone in a small room, just getting ready to exit. I’ve decided this small room isn’t going to work for me. Suddenly a man I don’t know and have never seen before walks into the room. He isn’t impressive in stature or looks, yet I know in my gut that he’s potentially bad news. He immediately flops down on the single bed near the door.

As I walk toward the door to exit, he reaches out and grabs my hand. His face clouds over with contempt and a sneer. I know I’m done for if I don’t take charge. I feel small and defenseless. Caught in a nightmare not of my making. I feel his grip tightening on my hand.

I wake up not knowing what to say or do next.

The man’s eyes, the sneer on his face, and the totally invasive nature of his presence and behavior communicated his firm belief that I was totally irrelevant. In his eyes my life mattered not a whit.

It’s sometimes difficult these days, especially since I’m on the older end of the age spectrum, to maintain a sense of relevance. But this was bigger than that. It was about the invader’s power and willingness to exercise it no matter who I might have been. Though I’ll admit it didn’t help to be female.

This tired old world is in a season of growing visible and present chaos. The kind this world has seen before, though not with so many growing warehouses of nuclear arms and an over-supply of trigger-happy leaders ready to prove their supposed virility. Ordinary people seem to have become irrelevant. Except as props on a political stage.

I don’t fixate on this every day. Nonetheless, it’s always in the air begging for my addictive attention. If I remain fixated, I’m a goner, dead or alive.

Instead of playing along with the ‘dream’ man’s agenda for me, I relax, ignore his eyes and disgusting speech, and pray out loud and in a strong voice these challenging words from Mary Oliver’s poem, “Six Recognitions of the Lord.”

Oh feed me this day, Holy Spirit, with
The fragrance of the fields and the
Freshness of the oceans which you have
Made, and help me to hear and to hold
In all dearness those exacting and wonderful
Words of our Lord Christ Jesus, saying:
Follow me.

Mary Oliver, Thirst, stanza 5 from “Six Recognitions of the Lord”
Beacon Press 2006

Which is my prayer for all of you as well. No matter what comes next.

© Elouise Renich Fraser, 23 September 2017
Image found at givaudan.com

Daily Prompt: Irrelevant

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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