Morning Thanks

Garrison Keillor once said we'd all be better off if we all started the day by giving thanks for just one thing. I'll try.

Wednesday, May 08, 2013

Dickinson-is-us II

Here’s a completely different mood from yesterday's morning glories, a poem that begins with an outlandish comparison. She says, almost comically, that on what little she had as a child, a gnat would starve. You’ll notice that she defines what it is she lacked as Food (upper case), even though it’s almost impossible to believe she means that literally. The speaker in the poem was starved as a child, barely getting by:

It would have starved a Gnat—
To live so small as I— 
And yet I was a living Child— 
With Food's necessity 

Upon me—like a Claw— 
I could no more remove 
Than I could coax a Leech away— 
Or make a Dragon—move— 

The food she didn’t have is a claw burying itself into her, sheer pain she’s incapable of escaping. Strangely enough, she chooses to describe her persecutors by two gigantically contrasting and despicable creatures—a slimy leech (often used back then medicinally, but attached, of course, inside her being) and a fire-breathing dragon. Against both she would have been as powerless, she says, as she was to her grinding poverty. 

And then, as if for emphasis and maybe a mocking kind of black humor, she returns to that gnat with which she began, a gnat that would have been more blessed than she was since she lacked the ability simply to fly away, to escape this immense hunger, and “seek a Dinner” for himself, when she could not. And thus the lament grows almost absurdly: 

How mightier He—than I—” Not like the Gnat—had I— 
The privilege to fly 
And seek a Dinner for myself— 

And then, somehow, this almost goofy little poem gets both deadly serious in its goofy play. For the third time she returns enviously to a barely visible gnat, who has the ability to unintentionally kill himself by flying recklessly, time after time, into a window, his blind instinct telling him freedom lies just outside. 

But Ms. Emily adds one word, one little possessive adjective, a word that turns her into this foil. For she could not even kill herself against the window like he could, even if she, by will, wanted to.

Is she really talking about suicide? I don’t know. But what’s important is to see the heft of the burden she claims somehow to carry, because she says she could not, finally, end it all as the gnat can and does. Instead, she says, she’s somehow sentenced, as a human being, to begin again and again and again:

Nor like Himself—the Art
Upon the Window Pane 
To gad my little Being out— 
And not begin—again— 

End of poem.  Not typos--end of poem.

What are we to make of this almost silly comparison drawn horrifically into a testimony of despair? When we reach the last line, it seems that nothing at all in this poem was ever a joke—she was, in fact, deadly serious, the poem only seeming overstatement. She never tells us what “food” really was missing from her life, just that the being witout it created a horrific hunger. Dickenson was reared in one of Amherst’s most prominent family; she cannot be talking about lack of food; the hunger she says she knows is something other than physical.

Go back to yesterday's poem—sheer exuberance in nature; and now this—deep despair. In the era in which she lived, despair was one of just two unforgivable sins because despair meant, of course, the absence of hope, which is to say the absence of faith. Today, we might toy with the word despair, but Dickinson would not have.

In this poem, strangely and powerfully, Ms. Emily offers us a portrait of sheer hopelessness.

And now a confession—I’ve lived close enough to depression in my life to know that there are those among us, even believers, who understand something of that level of despair. She may not be writing for all of us here, but she is writing something accurate to the human story.

There's so much of us in these few lines, so much of her in so little of her.  If poetry is all about economy, there's so much here in so very little.


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