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.

Tuesday, November 01, 2016

Dickinson #90--Nicodemus and Miss Emily

In the old church we often attend, the hymnal is a museum of selections that passed their prime a century or two ago. Many have been painstakingly copied into the hymnals people carry around in their hearts on a shelf where they never get old, even when they're undeniably weird or so sappy you hold your nose. "And just the time I need him, he's always near," says one old favorite. Really? Isn't that convenient.

When we sing through those oldies, I tell myself to just shut up and sing.

And so it is with the list of images Emily Dickinson lists in "An altered look." Sing through the first twelve lines yourself, flip through the catalog of images she offers, all kinds of snapshots of a comely world outside her window. Here's what she sees. If you don't have a clue about "Tyrian light," just sing your way past it. If you stop on that weird little "flippant fly," don't stop for the flyswatter--just sing.

An altered look about the hills—

A Tyrian light the village fills—
A wider sunrise in the morn—
A deeper twilight on the lawn—
A print of a vermillion foot—
A purple finger on the slope—
A flippant fly upon the pane—
A spider at his trade again—
An added strut in Chanticleer—
A flower expected everywhere—
An axe shrill singing in the woods—
Fern odors on untravelled roads—

The tenth line establishes some order to what seems chaos. Originally, Dickinson's editors gave this poem the title "April," but as Helen Vendler says, knowing the title before walking into the garden undercuts the riddles Miss Emily leaves behind down the path to discovery. Once we get to those flowers and their being "expected everywhere," we know for sure that she's talking about spring.

And that info might well be enough, but Miss Emily, who embraced doubt as fully as if it were faith, can't simply shut down the poem with the slide show she's already left in the scrapbook. She can't help arguing with God, so this is the way she frames all those paintings in the first dozen lines:

All this and more I cannot tell -
A furtive look you know as well -
And Nicodemus' Mystery
Receives its annual reply!

Now she may well have done what I try to do occasionally; she may well have tried to shut up and sing, but she couldn't do it, couldn't leave all that nature alone because she is, quite clearly, God-haunted. She can't help herself. Amid April's reverie, she becomes Nicodemus.

It was Nicodemus who asked Jesus what he had to do to be saved. The Savior's answer has spread through Christendom for all time: "ye must be born again."

But Nicodemus, like Ms. Emily, was an inescapable literalist. "And how can I go back into the womb?" he asked. Christ answered--smilingly, I'm sure--"only by way of water and the Spirit. . ."

That Nicodemus and his question "receives its annual reply" every spring, or so Dickinson would have us believe. But note the special reference to the word annual, because renewal, she observes, isn't only supernatural. It's annual. And it's physical. And it's right there in front of your eyes, in the way that spider goes "at his trade again," come spring, this or next. Count on it. Life itself is born again.

So if you can stop singing for a minute, answer me this: does what happens every spring--that annoying rooster's "added strut"--does that and a thousand other April transformations deny the miracle of salvation? Is new life amid April showers only physical and not spiritual?

Talk amongst yourselves.

Me? I'll just sing.

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