Here's what I'm thinking. If Emily Dickinson had written just this poem and only this poem, it would be lost, as would she. This morning's Writer's Almanac features #827, a number placed there by her loving relatives despite that fact that it--and the hundreds of others so enumerated--makes them sound like convicts.
The Only News I know
Is Bulletins all Day
The Only Shows I see—
Tomorrow and Today—
The Only One I meet
Is God-The Only Street—
If Other News there be—
Or Admirabler Show—
I'll tell it You—
Seems almost shamelessly simple for Ms. Dickinson; at the same time it feels remarkably more "religious" or "mystical" or "spiritual" than she usually sounds. The Belle of Amherst isn't above shaking fingers or raising fists at the heavens or even occasionally denying the existence of God altogether, all of which makes her a highly religious poet because she could neither accept God on the terms offered her by the religious establishment she was uncomfortably a part of, nor could she walk away, slam the door, and shake the dust off her feet.
Here, she seems almost saintly, as if, like some New England Puritan postulant, she'd determined to seal herself from the world to do little else than commune with the Lord. That's unlike her, to say the least: to listen to no news but God news or to see nothing at all through her shining eyes than divinity, and maybe, just maybe, "perchance eternity."
Perchance feels like relief almost, as if she's reminding us she's not left this world entirely--at least something of her is still here. By stanza three she admits that the only street she lives on is "Existence," which, if I'm reading this cryptic stuff correctly, she just as soon not "traverse" if there's even a chance of yet another blessed meeting with God.
Emily Dickinson was not above creating narrative voices. Is she mocking hyper-spiritualists (and they were legion in her neck of the woods back then, the Second Great Awakening)? On the other hand, we know #827 went to the man she thought of as her editor, Rev. Higgenson, at a time in her life when physically she was mostly bed-ridden. Is she telling him that her sad existence right then, in a single bedroom, left little room for life? Is the poem really quite sad?
Talk amongst yourselves.
I think there's likely room for faith and doubt here in these lines, but I say that only because I know there is room for faith and doubt in the entire Dickinson canon, which makes #827 rather typically Dickinson.
Poetry, particularly the Psalms, N. T. Wright says in his wonderful little book, The Case for the Psalms, forces us to know we live in two time zones: in the here and now, and in the forever, in time and eternity, one foot down on both sides of the line. It offers us roses that aren't merely roses.
Having to live in two worlds can be occasionally uncomfortable and more than a little precarious, as anyone my age knows. Losing balance isn't hard at all.
But straddling comes with the territory, I guess, and no one gets by without some tottering, even those--sworn atheists and holy fools--who believe, with great certainty, that they do.
I don't claim to know this poem's secrets, but I know enough about it and about Ms. Emily to believe that she, like all of us, could be sometimes tipsy.